In this article, you’ll learn:
- The difference between online course communities and what makes some far more successful and lucrative than others
- Six strategies for marketing your online course, including:
- How to create your ideal learner persona and conduct competitor research to generate deep brand awareness
- The right channel mix to use for online course student acquisition
- Pricing strategies to activate new customers and move them further down the sales funnel
- Ways to align your marketing efforts with your community-building efforts so you’re creating a business that is true to you
- How to generate additional revenue outside of your initial online course offerings
- Ways to leverage former students as brand champions who seed referrals for the next generation of learners of your online course
Anyone can become a course creator and sell courses online as the global e learning market sees its biggest cash infusion ever.
The online course marketplace is saturated with solutions, software, and community tools to help solopreneurs, large organizations, and everyone in between develop course content, distribute it to their target audience, and monetize their offerings.
However, there’s a striking difference between your a new online course and an established, successful online course: and it's knowing how to market an online course.
An efficient, engaging course marketing strategy can mean the difference between making some money and generating a lot of revenue.
From building awareness to harnessing powerful acquisition strategies, to activating your learners and generating revenue, and finally to building retention and a referral engine to boot, there’s a formula you can follow to ensure you know how to market an online course as a transformative experience worth spending money on.
We’ve learned from the best and brightest in learning, firsthand, all the marketing strategies for getting your online course into the hands of people who will benefit from it. These are the top six best marketing strategies you can use to seed your value proposition and launch your course business.
6 strategies to market your online course
Below, we’ll cover six strategies you can leverage to build, sell, and scale your online course content.
When you're trying to attract students — be it just a few or tens of thousands — to your online classes, it's important that you marketing strategies are authentic to your brand at every step in this marketing process in order to establish and maintain trust with your audience.
Create sticky brand awareness to seed course value
As consumers, we’ve all been “brand aware” at some point. We can spot distinct logos and jingles at the drop of a hat. We know when something feels authentic to brands we love and even more when something feels inauthentic.
Creating brand awareness is so much more than just initial, instant recognition of assets, however. It’s about putting your values, beliefs, and goals on full display, especially if this is your first course.
There should never be any question about what your online course teaches and why it’s important material to learn.
These are two expert-backed tactics for creating seriously sticky brand awareness that will bring your audience into the fold and actually engage them:
Determine what sets your course apart from others by finding your “niche”
The online course community is growing at a rapid rate. What may be a niche course topic now could have dozens of courses dedicated to it in the future.
It’s important to determine not only your niche in terms of the course topic or subject you plan to teach, but also what will set your course apart from others in the space. Be it course design, cost, or any other factors that separate you from the competition, you can carve your own space in the industry.
In order to do this, you have to do your own research.
Conducting customer research is essential to understanding exactly what your prospective learners might want out of your new course, including what they want to learn, how they want to learn it, and what style of learning (cohort-based or self-paced) is best suited for their needs
Simon Engelke and Amandine Bressand of BatteryMBA conducted heavy customer research to better inform how they would reach their goal of upskilling nearly 800,000 new employees for Europe’s growing battery sector. The findings helped them expand their target audience and find new, eligible learners:
"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.
Ultimately, you’re designing for the end user, so customer research is critical to conduct.
Competitor research can help you sell online courses and help you create a better, more targeted learning experience from the start.
It’s likely that your particular area of expertise already has a number of online courses and learning communities dedicated to its study.
In order to determine what will set your online course apart from others in the space, it’s important to do competitor research. Take notes on what they’re doing differently: Is there course free? Paid? What’s the cost? Does the value match the cost? What other experiences do they offer in addition to their course? Is the community active?
Seeing how other courses are doing things differently can help you market yours in a unique way.
Once you’ve done a deep dive into the industry around you, you can start to really nail down who your ideal learner is.
Build an ideal learner persona and find where your audience lives
In the same way you’d create a thorough caricature of a storybook character, create your ideal learner persona.
- Where do they live?
- What age range are they in?
- What do they do professionally?
- What are their hobbies? Interests? Passions?
- Do they have any other qualifications such as gender, sexual orientation, or religious affiliation?
It’s important to get as specific as possible while also recognizing that not everyone that applies to these courses will fit an exact mold. Rather, this ideal persona should help inform messaging and distribution channels.
For example: If your ideal learner is an urban-dwelling Gen Z-er, your overall marketing messaging might be a little more unbuttoned and conversational. Marketing a course on leadership training at Fortune 500 companies will look and sound completely different.
Determining where to market is equally as important to how you market your online course. Much like in the real world, your learners hang out in (digital) spaces that best meet their needs and interests.
If your learners enjoy cocktail lounges (say, LinkedIn), it’s probably best to avoid dive bars (like TikTok).
It’s important to both know where your learners are and actively engage within those communities. Here’s a master list of some spaces you might consider:
- Facebook Groups
- Facebook Posts
- Instagram hashtags
- Twitter Lists
- Twitter hashtags
- LinkedIn Groups
- LinkedIn hashtags
- YouTube comments
- YouTube hashtags
- Reddit subs
- Hacker News
- Amazon book reviews
- Public Slack rooms
- Discord communities
- Trade association and niche blogs
- News website comments
- Conferences and conference hashtags
Understanding activity within these communities will be critical to developing a multi-channel strategy you can employ to reach your intended audience exactly where they live.
Pro tip: We’ve got more articles on marketing to sink your teeth into, no matter what your online learning business looks like. Check out our other top five marketing tips here.
Employ an omnichannel strategy to acquire learners across the digital landscape
As consumers, we occupy so many spaces of the Internet. As a founder of an online course that wants to reach consumers, it’s important that you do the same.
Employing an omnichannel digital marketing strategy is the best way to market online courses and ensure your message is reaching prospective audiences from multiple angles.
We’ll go channel by channel and determine effective ways to use each as you move from growing brand awareness to really acquiring customers:
Email and SMS
Email is one of the oldest forms of digital marketing in the books. SMS? A bit newer. Together, as owned media channels, you can hit your audience with direct messaging that will educate, inspire, and convert.
98% of SMS text marketing is opened by the user, compared to email’s 20%. For more urgent matters, like flash sales, limited-time offers, and other timely messaging, you can use SMS.
Email marketing, on the other hand, has far fewer limitations than SMS. You can include multimedia images, videos, GIFs, and longer text to create campaigns around what your online course teaches, why it’s effective, and how former learners have benefitted from your teachings.
The strategies for growing subscriber lists look very similar, which is why these strategies should be used in tandem rather than in silos. You can share data between the two and adjust your strategy based on what type of message you intend to send.
Plus, some customers may have a preference for one communication method over the other. By cleaning your lists regularly and updating preference, you’ll ensure your messages aren’t falling on deaf ears or, worse, annoying people to the point of unsubscription.
Social media marketing is social. It’s community-based. It’s rooted in connection. When you remember what the core function of social media is — to bring people together, digitally — you won’t get so intimidated by all of the noise.
Each social media platform presents a different opportunity to market your online course and a different target audience to hit. Your professional audience is on LinkedIn, where your niche topic followers are on Twitter. TikTok and a Youtube channel can be leveraged to create content in video form.
Tightening up your social media strategy, if you don’t have one already, will require a lot of experimentation. What types of posts work best for selling online courses? What times of day is your audience most engaging? What channels are effective and not effective? Without risking too much time, money, or resources, giving different channels an earnest try might unlock some surprising finds.
For example: coding bootcamp App Academy increased overall web traffic and applications to their online courses by more than 25% by creating organic, palatable TikTok content.
It’s also important to leverage the type of content that each channel favors to increase visibility — for example, LinkedIn loves text posts geared towards a professional audience, while Instagram loves when you create video content.
Some online courses like Ship30for30 are born on social media. Long before they had created their course, founders Dickie Bush and Nick Cole had a presence on Twitter and a following to boot. They leveraged that visibility to create the first version of the online writing course:
“Tweets went viral, newsletter subscribership grew 10x overnight, and Dickie quickly learned just how powerful it is to be consistent. But with consistency, you need accountability, which is when he opened up Ship 30 for 30’s first unofficial cohort to a community Slack group.
For $50, you could start the 30-day challenge. You got your money back if you completed it. From there, the challenge became a more formal course and the cohorts scaled from there.”
Now, they use social media to not only acquire new members but also give current and former members a space to connect in.
Content marketing, especially in the learning space, is a really broad topic.
Content can be anything related to your business in any format; short-form, long-form, written, video-based, audio-based — so long as it establishes who you are, what your online course does, and what you hope learners will accomplish.
Content marketing is powerful because it’s both an awareness tool as well as an acquisition tool. It’s designed to educate, inspire, and entertain potential students to move down the sales funnel and get closer to converting (in this case, joining your online class).
You can use content marketing to help people understand the value in your curriculum and create case studies around successful alumni.
Content can also be tangible and actionable — downloadable assets, quizzes, and other assets can help better engage your audience and be used as a sticky lead magnet.
Everything from your standard blog post to case studies seeding social proof to a landing page designed to promote your online course fall under the umbrella of content. These assets have one goal: attract future students to your course sales page and grow conversions, and they're also suited for search engine optimization to bring website visitors to your site organically.
Content marketing has been business-design school d.MBA’s biggest marketing asset since its inception and, though it has a virtual line out the door, it continues to double down on content marketing to keep prospective students engaged:
“We are in this process of trying to create a content calendar and have certain topics that we write about. Just going back to understanding that creating content is your job is marketing. Having a plan and knowing where our audience lives [includes] having a list of resources they use.
Do the Google search analysis and see which keywords fit well with the topic you're trying to target and that have low difficulty so it's not as many content pieces battling for that phrase. That's our approach.”
Two tips for achieving multi-channel KPIs
- Quality over quantity: We’ll keep this brief — Make your marketing content short and snappy. High-quality, learner-centric content you post less frequently will always be better than high-frequency, lower-quality pieces
- Define your KPIs first: It’s important at each stage of your business’ lifecycle to determine which metrics are most important to measure. Then, determine what that pie-in-the-sky number is, and continue to chase it every single day
Now that you’ve generated brand awareness through an omnichannel marketing strategy, you’ll activate those strategies and create a memorable experience for everyone who comes across your course.
If you're interested in learning about Google ads, Youtube ads, and other methods of paid advertising for marketing online courses, tweet us @discolearn.
Pro tip: Monetizing your online course could mean the difference between breaking even and making serious profit. Learn seven ways to do just that from the best minds in learning.
Use effective activation strategies to bring your audience into the fold
At the activation stage of marketing, you’re hoping to seal the deal. You’ve brought these potential customers into the sales funnel and seeded the value of your online course. Now, your focus should be on getting people in the door.
There are a number of different strategies you can use to activate new students and entice them to join. Here are a few of our favorites:
Offer a free learning experience designed to pique interest
Free courses are fantastic marketing tools, but they’re also important mechanisms for expanding access to learning.
First: Offering a free mini course or a snippet of your curriculum gives potential learners a no-strings-attached opportunity to learn more about your teaching style, course topic, and course format.
Unlike a try-before-you-buy model, there’s no pressure to move forward with a purchase. Trust us — if you’re teaching the good stuff, they’ll want to stick around.
More importantly, free learning is a powerful way to expand access to online curriculum that many wouldn’t be able to afford. Putting an expensive price tag on your online course doesn’t always make it a premium experience — it can make it downright unattainable.
Create a “try before you buy” option
We employ a “try before you buy” model here at Disco. By giving prospective customers open, unabashed access to our online course platform for two weeks, they can really give it a test drive and discern what they like and don’t like. After that, they can make a decision.
The same goes for online courses; by letting people have access to your curriculum and your online community for a short trial period, you can let them see for themselves what your experience is all about. If they love it and they want to move forward, great! If not, you know it wasn’t the right fit for their needs and wouldn’t have helped them achieve their goals.
This model enables us to have deeper and more diverse experiences, where we have things that are ultimately taking place online but we also have different events that we host in-person and a whole slew of offerings that we offer as part of the annual membership to people as we believe it's ultimately relevant to help them achieve their goals."
Design different price points for different learning experiences
On Deck managed to scale their learning fellowships to an over 10k+ membership by creating tiers of online courses. In their case, a pay-per-experience versus a membership model allowed more people to access more offerings and design a learning experience suited to their needs, paying for only the learnings they really wanted:
“This model enables us to have deeper and more diverse experiences, where we have things that are ultimately taking place online but we also have different events that we host in-person and a whole slew of offerings that we offer as part of the annual membership to people as we believe it's ultimately relevant to help them achieve their goals,” says former Head of Education Eliot Gattegno.
This activation model allows you to separately market different aspects of your online course or, rather, market the fact that members can really curate their own learning experiences within your suite of offerings.
As such, your marketing tactic will start to bring people into your realm and garner interest for your online course offerings. It’s important, from the jump, to align your marketing efforts with the efforts you’re taking to build your community and the course content you’re creating to appease that community.
Pro tip: We designed the Disco Trust Flywheel to show that marketing efforts are cyclical, even if you have a line out the (virtual) door.
Align your marketing efforts with the values of your online course and learning community
If you’re selling to everybody, you’re selling to nobody. It’s important that your online course marketing efforts align with how you want to build your learning community and what you ultimately want it to look like. And — whether you intend to or not — you’ll be building a community of current, former, and prospective students as more and more people take your course and talk about their experience.
One way to align marketing and community goals is to use pricing models as a tool.
Seth Godin, founder of altMBA, uses pricing to not only differentiate from the competition, but to directly reach learners who may be most interested in their offerings:
“And so, when we look at pricing, it has two effects: One is it gives us the revenue to do our work. But the second is that it sends a signal to people. So this is going to be a challenge in the online world [of learning] for a long time to come. Because if you say it costs $10 a month, for some people, $10 a month is too much. And for some people, $10 a month isn’t much. Then there's this band in between where it's just the right amount to get people to care and to take it seriously.”
Coding bootcamps have used pricing as a tool for over a decade. Bloom Institute of Technology was one of the first programs to use income share agreements — a system in which learners can access education and pay for that access only once the end goal of getting a job is met.
Not only is that message an effective tool for marketing, it’s a mechanism for building a more diverse, equitable community.
It’s important to think about marketing as not just a means of acquiring and activating customers, but also as a way to show the world what your intrinsic values are and why you’ve developed online coursework around those values.
If that message resonates with enough people, you’ll know your marketing is working.
Pro tip: Do you know the difference between growing and scaling? Learn how to scale your online course the growth-minded way with this handy breakdown.
Design new offerings to double down on revenue generation and galvanize current & former members to re-engage
If learners are loving your current online learning offerings, chances are, they’re going to want more.
Creating new offerings gives you a chance to not just create additional streams of revenue – it gives you a chance to re-market to current and former members. Ask any founder, and they’ll tell you that repeat customers pay the bills. Churning and burning students through a single course with no effort to re-engage doesn’t bode well for business.
The best part? You don’t even have to create these new offerings yourself. Founder of SaaS Academy Dan Martell uses this example:
“Let's say Facebook ads are not something I do, but all my clients struggle with it. I'll go find a $3,000 Facebook ad course, and I'll bundle it with mine so that my ticket size now could be $5,000 or $7,000.”
In this scenario, you’re not just creating mutually lucrative partnerships — you’re designing a holistic learning experience designed to solve the problems your learners may face, and you can market your course as such.
When you create new products or new learning experiences — say, event series or a cohort-based course if you’ve only offered self-paced courses in the past — you’ll not only have a whole suite of products to market aimed at what your end customer needs, you’ll have opportunities to bring former students back into the fold.
Trust us: You want to create superfans for your online course. They’re better than any other marketing tool in your arsenal. Nothing will ever beat word of mouth.
Pro tip: We’ll be referencing our article on 4 expert-backed tips for building referral programs. Highly recommend reading this for your own online course marketing efforts.
Build a referral engine stronger than any marketing strategy in your playbook
SEMRush reports that 90% of people are much more likely to trust a recommended brand and 88% of people had the highest level of trust in a brand when a friend or family member recommended it.
You cannot afford to miss out on that level of direct marketing impact.
Creating and nurturing a referral engine will ensure your happy customers tell friends and family who become new happy customers.
While different founders of online courses share different philosophies on what these referral programs look like, these are a few methods that have boded well for successful learning communities across the globe:
Make your online course so good, the referrals come naturally
This may seem like an obvious tip, but plenty of budding online course founders find themselves caught up in the administrative and operational tasks of running an online course so deeply, they forget to ask for and listen to feedback about the learning experience, course material, and other valuable insights from their learners.
When you’re actively listening to feedback from your students, you can implement it to make your online class that much better for future generations. The team at School16 determined this after testing different incentive structures for referral generation. The only thing that really mattered was that their experience within the course was positive:
“Early on in School16, we had decided to experiment with paid referrals, mostly to see how this might change as our alumni base grows. Even if we don't offer a paid incentive, maybe we can offer other types of benefits. Whether it was a paid incentive or it was unpaid, it didn't change the amount of referrals that we got,” founder Sergei recalls.
“What did drive more referrals were really good career outcomes. The faster our students can have strong career outcomes, the faster they can get great salaries where they feel, for the first time, that career stability they may not have had and job satisfaction that they thought was outside of their grasp.”
Create incentives (financial or otherwise)
Rather than spend thousands of dollars on paid advertisement or other marketing strategies, founders of successful learning communities have realized that money would be best spent incentivizing referrals from students who have had really great experiences. Many online course creators do this, but others have created rewards that are more unique to their learning experience.
Take business design course d.MBA: To this day, there’s a waiting list thousands of people deep for entry to their online course. They use this to their advantage to get kindred students in the door:
“If you recommend your friends [to d.MBA], they could skip the line. Because we would open applications only twice a year, it would fill up quickly,” says founder Alen Faljic.
“Now, the last version of this is that we do offer a small thank you. If a member of our alumni community recommends somebody, they skip the line and get a lower price, plus the recommender (alumni) gets an Amazon gift card.”
Creating a referral program is the last “step” in your marketing strategy but, as we mentioned above with the Disco Flywheel, the marketing loop never truly ends. As soon as new members are introduced to your online course, you’ll undergo the process again and again.
While these six steps may be a bit formulaic, the best minds in learning have taken them and created a plan that is as unique as their online course offerings. We recommend continuing to learn from them as they build lucrative learning businesses.
Continue learning from the best founders in the industry
We’ve had the pleasure of interviewing dozens of leaders in learning over the last few years, and we’ve compiled their insights and inspiration for you to enjoy.
Click here to read more expert interviews from Disco’s Learning Revolution Series.