Members of the military are a sought-after population for distance education programs. These adult students have a built-in aid budget for taking courses, and they might be quite motivated to complete their studies. Reaching them through advertising, however, remains a challenge.

Karen Pedersen is associate vice president of the Extended Campuses of Northern Arizona University. Along with Lindajean Heller Western of Western Governors University and Melanie Andrich of Eduventures, she has researched outreach to the military at many different institutions. The findings of this research have implications for how colleges and universities communicate with and market themselves to this population.

Understanding the population

Service members may look like other students when they are not in uniform, but the way they decide on attending an institution or program is a bit different. Military service members are typically adult students, with some of the needs of the non-traditional population. And they are decisive. The Eduventures research found that service members make decisions more quickly about attendance than non-military students, Pedersen says.

This is in spite of the fact that they consider more educational options, with military students looking at an average of nearly four institutions, while non-military students considered just three. This may indicate that military students spend less time poring over marketing materials, which makes making a good impression more difficult.

Military students are also usually able to afford their education. Through tuition benefits, each member of the military has $4,500 to spend on his or her education, which will go a long way toward starting or completing a degree at many institutions.

Service members also have fewer limits than ever on what institutions they can attend. Pedersen explains that, in previous decades, service members typically attended only institutions near their postings. With the advent of online education, however, these students are now opting to take advantage of its flexibility, with about 75 percent electing to study online.

 Making your institution stand out

A basic marketing technique is to create messaging that not only details a product’s or service’s features but also conveys the benefits to the consumer. However, much of the marketing Pedersen and her colleagues studied stops only at identifying the program’s features.

In addition, the advertising highlighted features that are common to many continuing education and adult education programs, such as scheduling flexibility and ease of credit transfer.

Although the design of many of the advertisements featured a person, usually a man, in uniform and included color schemes taken from camouflage or the American flag, there was little otherwise tailoring the marketing to service members.

Although some institutions’ advertising included messages about using tuition benefits and “understanding” the military learner, few mentioned special support services for service members or included examples of or statistics about successful service members’ outcomes.

Pedersen encourages institutions marketing to a military audience to “elevate the conversation” by reflecting the experiences and opinions of the military student. This may be a challenge for many institutions that don’t have a long history of serving this population through distance learning. However, the inherent “anywhere, anytime” nature of distance learning makes it a natural match for the military audience, making any institution with distance learning options a potential option for these students.

“It changes who can play,” says Pedersen.


The study identifies examples of marketing that speaks effectively to the military student population.  The study authors make the following recommendations based on these examples:

  • Include claims about the services an institution provides and why they will be of value to the student. One institution links directly to more information about these services through a bar that says, “Dedicated military services for an enhanced educational experience.”
  • Highlight excellence and rigor. Institutions might include information on accreditation, rankings, and honors received by faculty. The researchers found that active-duty members tended to gravitate to words and phrases such as “demanding,” “academic excellence,” and “national reputation.”
  • Emphasize military-specific programming. If the institution has degrees, programs, or courses that are of special interest to a military student, the advertising should emphasize it.
  • Emphasize history and mission. Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University has a special landing page lauded by the researchers for “highlighting their historical ties and mission alignment to the military.”
  • Provide easily accessible information about support for military students. The researchers point to Park University, which has a website with an easy link to five online courses taught by veteran faculty members that focus on transitioning to civilian life. They also point to Norwich University’s website, which links to career tools that help military and veteran students, such as advice on how to translate military experiences into a civilian context on a résumé.
  • Use the first-person voice. Marketing that includes commentary from military students and graduates is particularly effective.
  • Differentiate your institution from competitors. Brandman University includes information on its website about the value of attending a non-profit university and gives graduation information for the active-duty military population.
  • Run marketing and advertising past your current military students. Pedersen offers a cautionary tale about one institution that used a stock photo of a service member, only to have a current student tell them that the uniform indicated that the person shown was not in the U.S. military.

Reaching out to learners who are serving or who have served in the military takes the same understanding of the target audience as is required of any marketing effort. Once you understand the wants and needs of your military students, you can craft the messages that will resonate with them.

Jennifer Patterson Lorenzetti is the managing editor of Academic Leader and the chair of the Leadership in Higher Education Conference. She is the owner of Hilltop Communications (

Reprinted from “Creating Military-Friendly Marketing for Online Programs,” Recruitment & Retention, 27,9 (2013): 7,8. © Magna Publications. All rights reserved.