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4 Lessons Higher Education Can Learn from Ecommerce

  • 4 Min Read

With the right ecommerce strategy, institutions can take their courses to new knowledge-seeking markets.


We live in a world increasingly driven by ecommerce—it’s present in almost all walks of life, from booking train tickets to ordering dinner—but while campus commerce has been around for some time, higher education has been slow to adopt ecommerce for selling courses. That’s starting to change.

The knowledge economy is becoming big business online. Large courseware systems and massive open online courses (MOOCs) are becoming increasingly popular. People all over the world are spending money to acquire new knowledge in digital piecemeal, often to earn microcredentials and digital badges, develop specialized skills, or even just for the novel experience of participating in celebrity-taught masterclasses.

Inspired by the move to MOOCs, there’s a growing desire in the higher education community to bolster campus commerce capabilities by investing in ecommerce-enabled course offerings. Institutions are starting to see ecommerce as a means of broadening normal course offerings beyond their traditional undergraduate student base by offering courses to a wider geographically dispersed audience of adult learners.

The market for new learning is global, the demand is there, and the evolution of both elearning and ecommerce technologies in recent years have made it much easier for established institutions to bring their credibility to bear in tapping a planet-sized wellspring of opportunity.

“For the higher education sector as a whole, ecommerce is undoubtedly a positive,” says Richard Standen, Managing Director of Course Merchant, a professional ecommerce application and D2L partner. “Learning materials and courses lend themselves perfectly to online delivery and being sold online. The higher education sector is going to find a whole host of new markets for their courses and services.”

Here are four important ecommerce lessons higher education institutions should take to heart if they’re to successfully tap into the global online knowledge economy:

Create an ecommerce strategy

To succeed in ecommerce higher education institutions should develop the skills and expertise needed to build and market effective online sales channels. They should write business plans, roll out focused digital commerce strategies, and build internal teams that can identify opportunities and leverage the range of technologies necessary to make an ecommerce initiative successful. You can’t just put a new course online and expect to make loads of money. Looking at what successful courseware sites have done well can provide strategic inspiration.

Build an online brand

Institutions will need to learn how to be 21st century ‘retailers.’ This means embracing Google Ads, search engine optimization (SEO), pay-per-click (PPC) and many other digital marketing strategies. As markets widen geographically, learners’ knowledge about and regard for higher education institutions will become more focused on what they glean from the web—and what other students write in course and instructor reviews—so it will become even more important for institutions to adopt a good practice for building their brand online. To that, they’re going to have to develop internal digital marketing expertise.

Create an engaging user experience

An engaging, seamless, and easy-to-use user experience is a critically important part of a successful ecommerce initiative. For institutions to successfully sell courses online, their application process needs to be reasonably slick, efficient, and as simple as possible or they’ll run the risk of losing students at the virtual checkout counter.

Offering timely advice at the point of sale is another key component of an engaging user experience. By sharing critical course information and advice with potential students, even enabling two-way conversation with an online assistant at point of checkout, universities can keep students engaged in the purchase process.

Go global

With elearning, there are no real geographical boundaries. Unlike shoes or pizza, elearning is a ‘digitally native’ product and that means elearning courses can literally be delivered anywhere and at any time. Elearning is expected to become a multi-billion-dollar business, projected to grow at a compounded annual rate of 7.2% to hit $325 billion by 2025.

Like any industrial sector, there will be aggressive new start-ups, disruptive technologies and emerging new super powers. If institutions play their ecommerce cards right, they can help the higher education sector of the coming years to more closely resemble Silicon Valley than the dreaming spires.

Written by:

Jon Paul

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Table of Contents

  1. Create an ecommerce strategy
  2. Build an online brand
  3. Create an engaging user experience
  4. Go global