Why Successful Marketing Has the Customer at its Core

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Penn Foster’s Chief Marketing and Product Officer, Dara Warn, tells us how she put the customer at the center of their marketing plan.

Who doesn’t love conquering a quest you once struggled with? What if you could foster that success for not just one other person but for thousands? At Penn Foster, a career-focused distance and hybrid learning education institution, there are over 150,000 active students between their College, Career School, and High School. Headquartered in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Penn Foster operates across the United States and internationally through Penn Foster International and their Canadian division, ICS Canada.  With a course offering ranging from an online high school diploma to Associate degrees in fields like veterinary technology and business, and career diplomas in allied health and trades, the students are even more diverse in their cultural backgrounds, ages, locations, and learning patterns. With such a broad and evolving population, planning a marketing campaign to touch not only those students but to attract future registrants takes a marketing specialist with years of experience yet the ability to take advantage of the current age of emerging technologies.


New Life

Dara Warn joined Penn Foster as CMO in January of 2012.  The mother of three brought with her close to 15 years of marketing experience to the education organization. At the time, the company’s ability to engage new enrollers was leveling off. Their marketing strategy needed to be revived. Not ignoring Penn Foster’s past success Dara made sure to incorporate strategies that already existed which had some proven success.

“The vision was to take the best of what we know and figure out how to modernize it. Look at the core of what we stand for. How does Penn Foster represent ourselves in the market space? But we needed to make it about the customer. Put the customer at the center.”

Dara saw that Penn Foster as a business had to evolve its marketing strategy to meet the changing dynamics of the marketplace.  There were some key shifts required for Mrs. Warn’s newly acquired team of marketers. Network systems would have to be updated and the marketing department as a whole would have to be reshaped. In a time where reshaping meant downsizing for many corporations, Dara intended to expand. There was an opportunity to flesh out a full marketing offering, including adding lifecycle marketing and building out a social media strategy team.

“Our students are located in 47 different countries. They have no set schedule. We needed a way to tap into their experiences. They weren’t walking by us everyday. We weren’t able to see them. We wanted to help our students share their stories. Of course not everyone wants to be vocal. They don’t have to. They can listen in on the conversations too. How do we give them the tips and tools that they need?”


How May I Help You?

Many of Penn Foster’s students are attending as a means of their second chance in education. A growing percentage are adult learners whom didn’t finish their education goals when first attempted or just didn’t believe they could do it in years past. From Dara’s experiences with her own children, she’s sensitive to how students must feel when they first enroll at Penn Foster. When designing a marketing campaign she’s sure to encourage her team to keep in mind what it was like on the first day of school. There’s acknowledgment of the difficulty many people experience when making the decision to return to school.

As part of that sensitivity, Penn Foster now has Student Ambassadors, which are students who assist newer students with getting acclimated with their new academic surroundings. A sense of community is imperative to making students feel supported. For Dara’s team, when the student experiences an accomplishment, it’s a win for the team and they are a team that loves to win.


The Reach

To keep her team connected, the CMO has several guidelines she follows. As a manager of a team of over 30 professionals, Dara uses email, conference and video calls to keep her employees updated on changes and progression. She sees it as important to conduct regular scheduled meetings to communicate what’s going on in the greater context as well as communicates with the group of Senior Managers on her team on a regular basis. But Dara knows that the work is really what needs the managing.

Over 13 million have at one point or another enrolled at Penn Foster. To design and execute a game plan to grow that customer base, which is becoming more technologically advanced by what seems like the hour, there’s a lot of work that needs to be done. It can become very overwhelming to focus on the big picture at all times. So Dara shares what she calls the roadmap. The information is broken down into smaller parts. Then the goals are divided into quarters. As for the individual, Dara is a promoter of getting her team members to work on projects they are excited and passionate about. Even when the win is personal and seems small, the team celebrates along the way to the bigger targets.


It Works

Enrollment has increased at Penn Foster. Students are engaged and the marketing team is in a place where they look forward to hearing the stories of accomplishments from the student population. There’s a social platform that allows those stories to reach those who need to be encouraged as well as those looking to provide support. With a full marketing team and a CMO with clear vision, Penn Foster is positioned to continue to provide opportunities for success for their students and claim that success as their own. ♦


How Leaders Connect

Dara Warn’s keys to getting teams connected to an organization’s mission

Put things into context

Show what’s going on in the greater context. It’s easier for people to accept change when they understand the context of that change. It’s a way to get them connected. When people are emotionally connected to work it opens their minds.

Give people some room

I try to identify projects my team members are excited and passionate about and let them work on those projects. They celebrate even the small wins along the way and the rest of us celebrate with them.

Lead by example

There’s a lot of background work to be done. I keep close leader communications with email updates on our progress, next steps and how it all relates to the bigger picture.


Dara's Key Partners:
 Conductor Searchlight (SEO management) | Oracle/Responsys (Email/Database Marketing) | ClearVoice (Content marketing) | The Frank Agency (Paid Search & SEO efforts) | Hawthorne (TV buying & Creative agency)

Phoenix Ash

Phoenix Ash is a freelance writer, residing in New Castle, Delaware

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