6 Essential Tips for Marketing Online Courses

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At Thought Industries we are fortunate to work with a lot of successful organizations in the for-profit learning industry.  Some are in the consumer learning business, selling online courses and programs in health, fitness, crafts and hobbies, and others are in the professional training and development business, providing industry certifications and career advancement to people all over the globe.  Check out another article on key monetization strategies for online learning businesses.

For both of these groups, they have one very important thing in common - the job of marketing and selling online learning.  As anyone with this responsibility will tell you, selling and marketing online learning is a very different proposition than the marketing and monetization of any other digital or physical product.  There’s no build it and they will come, there’s not even a build it, drive traffic and they will convert.  There only exists a dedicated multi-phased, multi-channel, nurture-based marketing effort that takes dedication, effort, and optimization.

For those of you new to this or those already in this business I wanted to outline six key tips we have seen to be consistent across the board for online learning marketers.

Experience & Outcomes

It is important to get it clear from he beginning, you are not selling online courses, you are selling experiences and outcomes. Ask a sample of ten people to tell you what they think an online class is and you will get ten different answers.  Some will expect it to be a live webinar, some expect to download a PDF and answer questions, others will expect a live chat and the need to be online at a specific time, in a specific time zone.   All of these assumptions are also buying objections so it is critical to explain what the learning experience will be like, how they will learn, and whether they will be expected to be online at a certain time or not.  Just like any event, selling the experience is as important as what the audience will walk away with.  So make it engaging, interactive, social and productive.  Most of the time learners want high-quality content, feedback from respected professionals, interaction with like-minded individuals and some tangible takeaways such as business plans, designs, project work or a healthier body or mind.

Prepare for a Multi-Phased Marketing Effort

Roll up your sleeves marketers, this is going to take some persistent convincing.  Online courses are NOT impulse purchases. Persistent multi-channel marketing is non-negotiable.  Online learning buyers need to ponder, they have busy lives, limited schedules, and are considering online learning because they don’t have time to pursue training or learning in-person.  Because of this, you’ll need to drip feed core decision points through email and other communication channels you can control and curate. 

How much time will I need to commit, how have other people benefited from this course, what outcomes can I expect (how will my life or career be improved or transformed), or can I do this right now? These questions are rarely answered in the first visit to your site and in most cases the prospect needs to take this info away and weigh it against work and family commitments, budget, and a host of other key buying decision criteria.  For this you will always need an email address.  It is the primary responsibility of the marketer to not let that prospect leave the site without sharing an email address.

Segment, Segment, Segment

If you are selling soccer balls you will hardly be emailing the hockey player segment of your list.  Online learning is no different. Learners have very specific interests and are in some cases focused on a niche pursuit in a niche category. We see time and time again, that highly targeted course specific marketing performs significantly higher than a blast to your total database (this is fine once a month).  You will need to be constantly segmenting the list to target specific interest areas, past buyers, past non-buyers, those that have opened and those that have not.  It’s an ongoing process and a critical one.  Hitting the same list with the same generic study online (pick for yourself) approach will get you a few buyers but it is a low reward strategy.

Packaging & Bundling is Critical

We established above that being explicit with the buyer about the what the learning experience will be is critical. Long before the course has even made its way to market, the learning team would have defined the product experience. Decisions such as whether the course would be instructor-led or self-directed (or both), whether the course would be time-based or on-demand (or both) and a host of other key product decisions to deliver the best possible learning outcomes. Not only is the initial product experience definition important but the ability to add value to that standalone product going forward will be valuable for the long-term profitability of the online course. As a marketer you are always looking for new dimensions to promote and present the product, leveraging the ability to discount, bundling with other courses and products and time-sensitive offerings provide compelling marketing events, enabling you to mix-up packaging and offers frequently. 

Marketing Automation is a Must

Get their email!  It sounds like an obvious suggestion but we see so many missed opportunities.  As it will be a multi-phased conversion process, email will serve as a vital communication channel for you and the prospect. Marketing automation has become big business over the last five years and most organizations are leveraging Hubspot, Marketo, Pardot or other platforms in this category.  Even basic email providers are offering automation tools at this point. (Check out MailChimp's new automation features that even have a learning product recipe).When a prospect visits the course sales page they should be asked for an email in exchange for a preview or course snippet.  You can also add a prominent email field to learn more.  Once you have this email it’s all systems go.  This email should initiate a cascade campaign to this user starting with an immediate email thanking them for checking out the course and more info about what they may have missed.  After this if the user does not convert, send another email day 3, day 7, day 14 and day 30.  These can offer a variation of content designed to address the prospect’s objections.  Your email system can be configured to manage all these rules. 

Focus on High-Performing Channels

After 10 years the top two channels that continue to deliver consistently for the sale of online learning are email and domain-based cross promotion.  Channels in 3rd and 4th are paid media and social, but these are mostly offering long-tail conversions and contribute less impact than your site and your email machine.  With email, don’t be afraid to be persistent and configure automation so your marketing is working as you are in bed at night.   For domain cross-promotion, add online courses to site the navigation (super navigations are a great way to showcase a sample of course offerings), contextual linking (add links to courses from content on your site), and last but not least, banners, and search result cross-promotion.  We do from time-to-time see other channels feature or move up the ranks but it’s not the norm.

We have met some genius online learning marketers and I am constantly impressed by their ability to convert a learner in a complex sales process.  The one thing they all have in common is a dedication to iteration, constant testing, and persistent outreach. We also see those that scratching their heads on low conversion rates when they are sending only one email a month to their list and expecting it to work constantly. For these programs to work you need, marketing automation, clear segmentation, and great offers. 

Barry Kelly
Barry Kelly is CEO and Co-founder of Thought Industries. He is a consumer learning champion, marketer and digital learning innovator. His career has been focused on helping brands and content organizations leverage the power of e-learning to promote and grow their businesses.

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