Digital marketing – virtually all you need to know

Ilkley-based Virtual College was founded in 1995 and has since become an industry leader in e-learning – 24/7, cost-effective, bespoke, online distance learning.

More than 300 courses, two million learners, 1000 registrations each day…the college is clearly doing something right, and has ambitious growth plans for the future.

Here, VC’s Chief Executive Rod Knox answers our questions on how marketing techniques were an essential tool in achieving that success.


Voted e-learning development company of the year, Virtual College now has over 2 million online learners.

For the last twenty years, Virtual College has been at the forefront of developing collaborative, customer-focused e-learning. It supplies over 5000 organisations across the UK – from huge corporations such as the NHS to the smallest sandwich shop. Virtual College has been recognised by the London Stock Exchange as one of ‘1,000 companies to inspire Britain’.


There are more than 300 e-learning courses in Virtual College’s catalogue, covering everything from health and safety to housing disputes.


It has created some of the UK’s most successful online training programmes, including Food Safety & Hygiene and Awareness of Child Abuse and Neglect.


As CEO of Virtual College, Rod Knox is responsible for continually driving the business to grow, be more efficient and exceeding customer expectations. A company is only as good as its people and Rod believes strongly in staff development – as you might expect from a training based company! Rod is driven by a passion to use technology to engage, extend, and enhance learning.


You won ‘Business Personality of the Year 2016’ at the T&A Business Awards in June. What did this mean for you?

It is hugely rewarding to receive independent recognition but the award was not just for me. It was recognition for my team and a tremendous accolade for Virtual College.

We are now in our twentieth year and have seen growth in the use of our online learning solutions explode over the last few years.


Your vision is to reach 20 million learners by 2020. Can you tell us briefly what your marketing strategy will be?

There are three elements to our strategy:

We want to create a learner for life by establishing and developing an effective approach for engaging learners throughout their lifetimes.

Our ambition is to become the UK’s number one provider of online learning in our chosen vocational areas, developing and maintaining a competitive advantage whilst building a strong brand.

Finally, we want to identify, attract and support opportunities for overseas strategic partnerships to develop an effective overseas business.


What marketing techniques have worked best for your business and what didn’t work?

We concentrate on digital marketing techniques including email, social media, and web advertising to drive traffic to our websites. Once there, we have targeted, quality content to engage potential customers.

Customer engagement is key and to achieve this we put a great deal of thought into what is of interest and potential value to our customers.  This can vary enormously depending on the sector and type of potential customer we are trying to communicate with. We don’t rely solely on our digital marketing to grow our business. We have a strong, experienced sales force to engage with customers and explain how our products can help potential customers. The ‘hard sell’ definitely does not work for us and is particularly inappropriate in sectors such as education, safeguarding and healthcare.

We are a technology company so naturally most of our communications are digital but we do still use some ‘traditional’ marketing tactics such as direct mail and exhibitions which can be very successful if employed correctly.


What advice would you give to a business with a small marketing budget looking for new customers?

With small budgets it is even more important to spend wisely. Understanding who your target customers are and ensuring your product or service matches their needs and wants is essential.

The good news is that digital marketing techniques can create a level playing field making successful customer marketing accessible to all. My advice would be to connect with potential new customers and generate engagement by using social media to deliver content which is of relevance, interest and value to your customers.

This article was published by West & North Yorkshire Chamber.