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When it comes to marketing any business, there are three steps that we see as foundational for getting ahead.
- Know your product and your customer.
- Be open to experimenting with pricing and payment models.
- Create passionate advocates who will spread the word about your business.
In this chapter, we’ll explore what each step looks like and how the right marketing at the right time can help grow your learning business.
Step 1: Find your niche and do ample customer research
In addition to understanding what your prospective members need to learn or gain, 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 created multiple courses with the 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 through keyword research are worth their weight in gold. Luckily, there are resources aplenty for conducting the best research possible, like this comprehensive user interview playbook.
Step 2: Experiment with Payment and Pricing Models
So you're ready to generate revenue from paying members. Determining pricing will always be the biggest pain point for any founder putting together their first course, but it can make or break your success. Price your online 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, or leave potential revenue on the table.
There are a number of factors to consider to determine pricing. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you interested in a flat rate or a tiered pricing structure?
- Will you collect membership fees for lifetime access to your courses?
- Do you offer free courses or a complementary lesson?
- Will you have scholarships, discounts, or alternative payment methods such as an income share agreement or installment payment plans?
The best way to determine the right pricing structure for online course creators is by doing competitive research and weighing the value, length, and depth of your new course either 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 customers—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.
Additionally, you can gain insight into pricing through customer interviews to find out what they’re willing to pay.
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.
Step 3: Word of Mouth Marketing is Invaluable
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, that 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 to affiliate programs. Giving new students and your former members a chance to participate in course business and give back creates a lifecycle for your business that ensures both revenue goals and member goals are met.