We’ve talked with hundreds of founders and operators of learning empires over the last few years. Building a micro-school, bootcamp, academy or any online learning business comes with a particular set of challenges, many of which are related to marketing and growing a learning empire.
Despite how different each of these learning empires are and how unique each of these founders’ experiences have been, they share a lot of the same learnings in getting their businesses off the ground, including:
How to conduct prospective customer research and what to do with those findings
Where to find potential members and how to reach them
When to have the intimidating but hugely important pricing discussion
When to start hiring employees to help scale your course
What channels you should leverage for communicating with prospective, current, and former members
How to cultivate a community and allow it to thrive
How and when to best leverage your alumni base
Through these discussions with the best and brightest in virtual learning, we’ve identified five insights around marketing, business development, and community management for bootcamps, academies, and modern schools.
Five Insights About Creating, Marketing, and Scaling Your Online Learning Business
Find Your Niche and do ample customer research
Dan Martell of SaaS Academy says “riches are in the niches”, and that couldn’t be more true for operators of learning communities. Determining your niche and ensuring there’s a market for that niche is step one in building your business.
So how have these founders accomplished that? By conducting a ton of customer research. They’ll hold webinars, run tests, host surveys and interviews — anything that can give them a bit of insight into what people need to learn and why they need to learn it.
In addition to understanding what your prospective members need to learn or gain, this customer research will also help you understand how they’ll best learn and in what ways they intend to use their new skills or insights learned from within the community.
For Sarah Lacy at CharimanMe, extensive customer research helped her pivot her niche from a forum for working mothers to one of the largest professional networking communities for women across industries. The need for a more functionally supportive community, led by women, arose from the pandemic and the racial justice protests that marked 2020:
“One of our members, Anamika Arthur, who's a brilliant epidemiologist and has worked at CNBC, reached out to me and she pointed out a flaw in my thinking of ChairmanMom. The problem was that women didn't have skin in the game and she was like ‘you gotta do more to get real commitment to one another.”
Another example of addressing the needs of a niche comes from Simon Engelke and Amandine Bressand of BatteryMBA. One might think the battery industry is niche, but the need is so great that this team has a goal of upskilling nearly 800,000 new employees for Europe’s growing battery sector.
They, too, shared initial concerns about targeting too small of a niche. They were worried about meeting growth and revenue goals in targeting such a specific group of individuals. After conducting more research, they shifted from their initial line of thinking:
"When we started, we had an even smaller niche in mind like PhDs, similar to myself, in the battery sector. Now, we have people from investment firms and different sectors in the program and sometimes, you realize your niche was much bigger than you thought it might even be," says Simon.
Interviewing potential members and people in your target audience can be time intensive, but the insights you’ll uncover are worth their weight in gold. Luckily, there are resources aplenty for conducting the best research possible, like this comprehensive user interview playbook.
Show that members will gain real world experience, not just learn theory
What makes virtual learning courses, bootcamps, and micro-academies so great and often so successful is that they cut the fluff. Members in your community are seeking out real, on-the-ground experience in their particular niche. Unlike traditional education that teaches basic theory from a book and tests you on it, these founders have created advanced learning communities that allow members to gain and eventually leverage real experience.
The stuff taught in the bootcamps, micro schools, and academies we’ve learned about over the last few years can’t be learned in a textbook. It’s shared knowledge, stemming from the experience of those within the community. This method of collaborative, personalized learning is the future of education, according to major publications and scholars.
Christian Peverelli, founder of WeAreNoCode, has successfully helped over 400 founders create budding tech businesses by teaching them to take action over theory. “When learning is optimized to learn by action, by doing, and by experience rather than by reading text or listening to a lecture, it can become a habit,” says Christian, “It becomes second nature. That’s when learning becomes active rather than passive.” You can read more about his teaching philosophy here.
Seth Akimbo of altMBA shares a similar approach to education, which you can read more about here:
“Education is compliance and conforming, learning happens by doing, by experiencing, trying, failing, and trying again. Education requires enrollment. Learning requires an emotional commitment. That’s what will get learners through the inevitable hard parts of doing something new or making a transition.”
This hands-on, goal-oriented type of learning rarely happens in the traditional classroom, so when your learners know they’re going to be building lifelong skill and discipline rather than fleeting bouts of information, you’re setting them up for success.
Plus, the distinction between this type of personalized actionable learning versus traditional theory-based learning makes for great messaging in your top of funnel marketing strategy. People need to innately understand what you’re teaching, how you’re teaching it, and what they can do once they’ve learned it.
Create for Community above all else
No one trait connects the founders we’ve interviewed in our Live Learning Empire Series quite like building for community. Bringing members together to learn, experience, and grow around a particular subject or skill is at the heart of every virtual learning experience.
Community-powered learning is a great sentiment (and, for what it’s worth, bodes really well in marketing and messaging), but it also pays off: the online learning industry nearly doubled between 2019 and 2021, and it’s because online community and connection have evolved to be equally as important as those in person, largely in part because of the pandemic.
So community rules all, not only in most of our personal lives but now in our learning pathways, as well. With that in mind, building, cultivating, and sustaining communities requires a great amount of effort and can be approached many different ways, as our founders have shown us.
For Alen Faljic at d.MBA, curating his community and finding the perfect members for his designer bootcamp starts by creating a lengthy application process so it weeds out anyone who isn’t dedicated to the mission:
“We want to have motivated designers. So if you're not a designer, you don't fit in. Secondly, if you're not motivated, you also won't fit in. So when you're applying, there are a lot of questions in there, but we just pay attention to two mostly, which are: How are you going to make time for the course? And why do you want to join? There's also a third one, which is: Which of the modules from the course are you most motivated to learn? This tells us if they read the course page or not.”
Philosophies differ greatly on what admittance to a learning community or a community-based learning experience looks like, but it’s important to have guardrails in place so only those who believe in moving the mission forward have access to everything you have to offer.
For Dominic Blank at Hyrise, this means creating even smaller subgroups within an already tight-knit community so collaboration and networking is top of mind for all members. This not only allows for a better flow of information and ideas during their academy lessons, but creates networking opportunities members can benefit from long after the course is over:
“I think the bond is strongest between the people that you are going through the program with, but that's also where you learn the most: the peer to peer feedback. You get to listen in on their call to see how they approach email or how they go about lead discovery with their prospects. That's where a lot of the learning comes from during the program. Afterwards, you can connect on a peer-to-peer basis.”
Regardless of what your community looks like, where they live, and how they interact, supporting their needs and giving them the tools to empower their learning experience should always be top of mind for creators in the space. This includes not only who you admit, but how, where, and when you allow admitted members by creating the perfect stack of technology, solutions, and offerings members can leverage to be successful.
Disco brings every tool you might need to get your virtual school, bootcamp, or learning community off the ground and scaled for success. Book a free demo now.
Experiment with different payment models (And Do your competitive research)
So you’ve ticked the boxes above and you’re ready to generate revenue from paying members. Determining pricing will always be the biggest pain point for any founder or operator of a virtual academy, bootcamp or modern school — we’ve seen it a dozen times over — but it’s the one thing that can make or break your success. Price your course too high, and you alienate potential learners that could really benefit from your teachings. Too low, and you cheapen the experience you plan to offer.
There are a number of factors to consider to determine pricing, too:
Flat rate or tiered pricing structure?
Membership fees for lifetime access, like at On Deck?
Do you offer free courses or a teaser lesson?
Will you have scholarships, discounts, or alternative payment methods like Bloom Institute of Technology’s income share agreement or instalment payment plans?
The best way to determine the right pricing structure is by doing competitive research and weighing the value, length, and depth of your course against others teaching the same type of material or against courses that follow a similar structure to yours. Depending on how you’ve structured your learning business, It’s also important to consider the lifetime value of your customer—are they opting into one premium cohort-based course with you? Are you offering a membership experience? Imagine and map out your member’s journey as you’re determining your learning business and pricing strategy.
Also note: it’s okay to experiment with pricing throughout the lifetime of your learning business.
For example, the Revzin brothers, who founded School16, played around with their pricing quite a bit in those initial few cohorts. Luckily (and another insight you can pull from this success story), flexibility is baked into their business model, so testing different tiers of pricing and understanding why every dollar was intentional is innate to School16.
Those early pricing tests were quite telling. They knew their program needed to cost somewhere in between the multi-thousand dollar coding bootcamps and the inexpensive, inefficient certification courses:
“We thought, ‘Okay, most of these folks that we were interviewing through our customer discovery process or who are coming to our events don't necessarily have the finances to be able to do something this expensive. That's why they're coming to us in the first place. So how do we make sure that we're still getting compensated and are able to compensate our instructors and everyone that's involved? How can we also provide that individualized support and accessibility for our students?” Vadim asked.
These considerations helped them land on their current pricing as well as their part-time cohort schedule.You can read more about their approach to pricing and creating flexibility within your learning business here.
Empower alumni beyond the learning experience
If you’ve delivered a successful learning experience, you’ll have an alumni base that’s willing to sing your praises. Leveraging that alumni base will be a huge asset in your marketing strategy.
Here are a few of our favourite approaches for activating alumni in a generous, strategic, and mutually beneficial way from some of the founders and operators of learning empires we’ve spoken with:
The team at BatteryMBA invites alumni back to participate in their podcast and Clubhouse gatherings, both of which provide valuable content for prospective members.
Tiago Forte at Building a Second Brain creates specific engagement opportunities for former members after they’ve completed the course — so much so, it’s created a system for organic referrals that has created a base of over 5,000 learners.
Dribbble leverages a three-pronged approach: 1) incentivise alumni by going beyond monetary rewards and offering discounts on upcoming courses and one-on-one sessions with mentors, 2) convert mentors into course advocates by offering monetary incentives for referrals, and 3) provide scholarships to folks who opt into becoming brand ambassadors.
Without successful, grateful alumni, it can be time consuming and costly to attract new generations of members. Giving your former members a chance to participate and give back creates a lifecycle for your business that ensures both revenue goals and member goals are met.
To market your cohort-based bootcamp, academy, or virtual school, learn from the best in the business
There’s no one-size-fits-all solution for marketing a learning community, but there’s a lot of insight to gain from the brightest minds in learning. From laying down the foundation, marketing to prospective members, and curating a community for learning and support, the best advice you can seek out is from those who have already made it happen. Join us every week for our Live Learning Empire series and find past articles from founders and creators on Disco’s blog.