Referral Marketing in Online Higher Education: a Holistic Snapshot of Strategic Initiatives, Effectiveness and Opportunities in a leading International Organization
Referral Marketing (RM) has only recently sparked the interest of marketers in the online higher education (OE) sector, with distinct gaps identified in the literature. This concept is closely linked with consumer brand engagement, relationship marketing and student loyalty. The researchers selected a for-profit multinational OE organisation, which offers tertiary UK programmes and implements an incentivised RM strategy. Given that loyalty behaviour is linked with consumer experience, integrated marketing communications throughout the consumer journey are also believed to impact RM. The aim of this case study was to broaden knowledge and understanding of RM in this unique sector by identifying sectoral trends and investigating constructs of consumer brand engagement, employee engagement (EE) and integrated marketing communications through the lens of the OE sector. Through a mixed-methods design, combining elements of grounded theory and a constructivist paradigm, two discovery-oriented studies were conducted – namely qualitative interviews with 22 OE executives, and quantitative surveys with 100 OE students. Template analysis and quantitative statistics were implemented with an interpretive approach and methodological triangulation to ensure validity and reliability. Findings suggested a student-centred, bottom-up approach to IMC could be most successful, with employee ‘Belief in Strategy’ as a unique element of EE impacting on RM success.
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