11 Planning

Knowing your audience

The first point of consideration when creating a marketing strategy is understanding the audiences for any given message. For open and affordable course markings, this means understanding the general climate and institutional context around course materials affordability and open educational resources (OER). For example, any existing outreach should be reviewed as an important component of launching a new marketing promotion. If no general outreach on open and affordable course materials is in place, a plan to raise awareness throughout the institution is paramount.

Initiative coordinators should gather data about awareness of low-cost resources among faculty and students at the campus level and use it to inform the creation of introductory messaging. If awareness is already high, then messaging can focus on the specifics of the open and affordable course markings initiative. If awareness is middling to low, as is likely, messaging will need to incorporate explanatory and persuasive content about the importance of such alternative resources as OER, the benefits open and affordable resources can bring to both students and instructors, and how low-cost materials fit into broader issues of student success and retention (Fischer et al. 2015, Hilton et al. 2016b, and Colvard, Watson, and Park 2018). Overall, communication and branding campaigns should take baseline awareness into account, raise awareness broadly, and highlight the open and affordable course marking initiative in particular.


A variety of resources are available as alternatives to high-cost college textbooks, including openly licensed materials, but many instructors are not yet knowledgeable about non-traditional resources. In the 2018 Babson College Survey, 54% of faculty reported being unaware of OER, while just 13% of faculty reported being very aware of OER (Seaman and Seaman 2018). In addition to general awareness problems, surveys have shown that instructors sometimes conflate free resources with OER. For example, instructors often assume that all library resources are OER because they are free for patrons to use. Similarly, instructors often identify free online videos, such as TED Talks, as OER, even though many such videos are under a license that does not allow for remixing. Institutions should decide how important it is for their stakeholders to understand the differences between library resources, OER, and low-cost resources, and the definitions they apply to each.

Students are also often unaware of OER and what OER can mean for their educational experience. For example, a 2018 report for the Oregon Higher Education Coordinating Commission found that only 12.5% of community college and 7.3% of public university student respondents were aware of what the acronym OER meant (Freed et al. 2018). When students are unaware of what the “OER” refers to, it can be difficult for them to understand why it matters that these resources are being marked in the first place. Furthermore, when students are aware that OER are free but unaware of their benefits beyond cost, they may wonder why all free materials are not marked “OER” in the course schedule. Because of these considerations, if a college or university chooses to use an OER designation, the marketing and communication campaign to students must include a definition of OER, differentiating it from other alternative resources, and a clear description of OER benefits.

perceptions of quality

Studies like the 2018 Babson Survey Research Group survey (Seaman and Seaman 2018) have shown skepticism among instructors of OER because of a perceived lack of quality among “free” materials. A meta-analysis by John Hilton III (2016) has found that a small percentage of students have also raised concerns about the quality of OER; however, students have largely reported that they find open course materials equal to or better than traditional course materials. These findings are corroborated by a more recent study from Jaggars, Folk, and Mullins (2018), whose sample of 611 students rated the quality of their courses’ OER (e.g., text, visuals, clarity) as 3.85 on a scale of 1 (much worse) to 5 (much better) when compared to traditional textbooks.

sWOT Analysis

One helpful tool initiative coordinators should borrow from marketing professionals is a SWOT analysis. A SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) is used to understand the market surrounding a product and the factors that might affect user perceptions of it. Some considerations to keep in mind when performing a SWOT analysis around an open and affordable course markings initiative are outlined below.


  • Does the campus have an existing committee or working group dedicated to open education or affordable course content?
  • Are there instructors on campus who have reported using open and affordable resources with satisfactory results?
  • Does the administration, campus bookstore, and other offices on campus support the open and affordable course markings initiative?


  • Have instructors on campus used open and affordable resources in their courses and reported bad results with the experience?
  • Has there been difficulty breaching the topic of open and affordable resources on campus in the past?
  • Do instructors on campus have a negative perception of open access or digital textbooks?


  • If a course materials affordability or OER committee is present, is there a program coordinator or department chair on the OER committee?
  • Can the initiative leverage instructor champions who are already using open and affordable resources to help spread positive marketing?
  • Does the course schedule already have custom markings for courses that are comparable to these new designations?


  • Are instructors on campus regularly late when turning in course material choices for the next semester?
  • Is it common for departments to change section instructors shortly before the start of the next semester?
  • Is the OER initiative being overshadowed by more traditional affordability initiatives such as Inclusive Access or rental programs?

Understanding the opportunities and threats to a communication campaign on campus can help coordinators target specific messages to specific audiences. For example, if research has shown that students on campus are largely unaware of open and affordable resource use, a coordinator can prepare materials to explain the open and affordable course markings and their purpose to students. Perceptions of OER and other alternative course materials on campus are not the only things to keep in mind when developing marketing materials. Other concerns include student hunger and homelessness, average course material costs on campus, and equity issues that might be exacerbated by rising course material costs (Romo 2018).

Communications Plan

A communications plan for the open and affordable course markings initiative should be prepared well before launch. A communications plan is a timeline of messaging strategies for targeting specific audiences with measurable goals. An institution may have broader, overarching communications plans, and these can be helpful documents and should be consulted to ensure consistency with broader goals. A specific communications plan for the open and affordable course markings initiative should be created, however, with emphasis on messaging prior to the launch, the launch itself, and keeping momentum up after the launch.

Consider collaborating with communications professionals across the campus, such as the library, instructional design office, and the campus bookstore (see Part II [Stakeholders]), as they will have direct experience with communication planning and relevant strategies and details. Planning should also include resources (e.g., funding, staffing, and materials costs). Initiative coordinators should approach their administration with requests as early as possible and incorporate the resources needed into their communications plan. Coordinators should also consider how they will assess the effectiveness of their plan—overall and in terms of its component parts. Assessment should be used to inform future communications plans. Measure how well the deliverables were delivered and to what extent goals were met. Audiences, stakeholders, messages, and goals should evolve over time in response to assessments.

Key Audiences

  • Who are the target audience(s)?
  • What messages will appeal to each audience?
  • Examples include instructors, students, and staff. More granular audiences can be identified as well (e.g., current OER adopters, student government, faculty senate).

Major Stakeholders

  • Who should be consulted before, during, and after the launch of the campaign?
  • Who might contribute funding or support for the campaign?
  • Consider support offices on campus such as the learning or teaching centers or administrative offices.


  • When should marketing materials be created, printed, or shared?
  • In what medium should specific content be shared?
  • Consider creating one master timeline and a separate mini-timeline for individual audiences.

Overarching Goals

  • What percentage of instructors should be aware of the campaign after a certain point?
  • How many offices should be sharing information about the campaign by the time the initiative launches?
  • Have concrete, measurable goals, which can make the plan easier to scale if the initiative does not proceed as originally planned.

Measurable Deliverables

  • How will coordinators know they have met their goals? Potential deliverables include:
    • Presenting about the open and affordable course markings initiative at department meetings for at least 60% of academic units on campus.
    • Creating a video explaining how students can search for open and affordable course markings in the course schedule.
    • Working with student-facing offices on campus to distribute fliers and share the video on their social media accounts.
  • Assess the deliverables to determine how well the communication plan met its goals.

The following resources may be helpful when writing a communications plan:

  • A high-level presentation from Oxford University’s Public Affairs Directorate (Pearson and Culver 2016)
  • An in-depth web guide from the National Council for Voluntary  Organisations (2019)
  • A basic overview of communications plans from the American Library Association (2012)


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Marking Open and Affordable Courses: Best Practices and Case Studies Copyright © 2020 by Breeman Ainsworth; Nicole Allen; Jessica Dai; Abbey Elder; Nicole Finkbeiner; Amie Freeman; Sarah Hare; Kris Helge; Nicole Helregel; Jeanne Hoover; Jessica Kirschner; Joy Perrin; Jacquelyn Ray; Jennifer Raye; Michelle Reed; John Schoppert; and Liz Thompson is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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