Marketing of Online Learning

“Education is an admirable thing, but it is well to remember from time to time that nothing that is worth knowing can be taught.”

– Oscar Wilde

Chapter contents

15.1    Introduction

15.2    A Horrible Home Truth

15.3    Timing and Duration

15.4    Techniques to Improve Response Rates

15.5    Design of the Invitation

15.6    Running the Actual Webconference

15.7    Consider a Regular Newsletter

15.8    Use Online Learning to Promote Online Courses

15.9    Some Statistics from Marketing of Webinars

15.10  Consider Social Media for Promotion

15.11  Applications of Marketing


15.1 Introduction

This chapter will show you some proven approaches to follow in marketing your online learning courses–and, naturally, in getting people to attend your courses. There is naturally a perception that anything on the internet should be free, and this certainly raises a few challenges in selling courses which can cost significant amounts of money to create.

Initially, one should always consider the four Ps of marketing: What Product are you selling; at what Price; how are you Promoting it and where are you selling it (Place)?


Figure 15.1: The four P's of marketing


The other perspective of online learning courses, in using the actual technologies for online learning (particularly web conferencing) for marketing of your products and services, will be emphasized.

Web seminars and online events are useful in marketing. As would be expected in a survey of marketing professionals, 41% (slated to increase to 53% in 2009/10) use webinars to generate leads and to provide customer training and sales training. The most important features of a package are ease of use, ability to use application sharing, record events for later playback and automated handling of invitations and registrations. It would also appear that video is becoming a key part of any presentation (e.g. flash video). Video would include video clips (from DVD / Flash / Windows Media), streaming video of the presenter and of a product.1

However, as web conferences are becoming so popular, it is obvious that participants can only give up so many hours a month in attending them, so it is increasingly important to make them as high quality and engaging as possible.2

Bear in mind that it is possible to provide recordings for those who can’t make it to webinars or web conferences as live events.

Most of the discussion in terms of marketing relates to web conferencing as opposed to asynchronous online presentations. However, there is no reason not to combine both approaches by commencing with a web conference, and then providing an asynchronous discussion board for later discussions of attendees. In addition, it can be useful to build in a website where participants can access additional materials (such as videos and notes) relating to the presentation.

This chapter on marketing of online learning courses covers a wide range of topics commencing from poor attendance at live sessions, timing and duration of a webinar, design of the invitation, newsletters, statistics and use of social media. The chapter is concluded with a list of typical applications of marketing.


15.2 A horrible home truth

One of the hidden truths of webinars is the extraordinarily low number attending them, as contrasted with those booking.3Typical no-show rates range from 40% to 70%. Factors cited for this low attendance, besides the inevitable forgetfulness, include changing perspectives of the need to attend due to other intruding priorities, the lack of consequences if a student doesn’t attend, concerns that it may be a sales or low value event and a student’s realization that reading the associated document would take five minutes rather than being trapped in a seminar which could grind on for over an hour. The low attendance at the casual web conference is in contrast to educational events where the web conference is mandatory and no attendance could impact on the final grade. Here, one would get a considerably higher number attending.

A suggestion is to ensure that there is a reason to attend the webinar because it is interactive, collaborative, encourages live questions and forms part of an overall project. A systematic reminder campaign of the webinars just before the event should also be undertaken selling the benefits of attending. Another strategy is to provide a useful whitepaper or other collateral materials to encourage attendance. An alternative way to look at the issue is whether actual attendance is critical or not; as long as the information is provided through print, recording or other means, does it matter whether the individual actually attends?


15.3 Timing and duration

There is a debate about the ideal time to run the seminar and this is further complicated with participants from different time zones. For work-related seminars, the safest is probably mid week during the middle of the day. Some success is being achieved with good responses to marketing “webinars-while-you-lunch”. If it is of no benefit to a company, only to an individual, the best is after work; say at 7pm.

The ideal duration is a maximum of 50 minutes and typically of 20 to 30 minutes duration. As at least 30% of the participants will join a few minutes after the official start time, it is necessary that key points are made well into the middle of webinar.

Marketing presentations

These should be kept short, to a maximum of 30 minutes. The audience is often comprised of people who may not be that fired up to listen, so its necessary to work hard on making the content as interesting and stimulating as possible. Avoid hammering away with brutal selling of a product, as this will ensure that people lose all interest, but try to make the presentation as interactive as possible and the audio and graphics as dynamic and interesting as possible. A popular approach is to plant seed questions among participants to pique interest amongst the group. It is obviously important to get across a coherent answer to the, “What’s in it for me” question to all the participants. This is always a challenging type of presentation as the information and conversation is mainly one way. Ensure that the presentation is ended with a set of action steps for the participants and all contact/sales information.


15.4 Techniques to improve response rates

Some suggestions about improving the response to marketing webinars are as follows:45

• It doesn’t matter who you are when you are marketing yourself. The primary source of interest to the would-be attendee out there is what the seminar is about and how they can benefit from it. The internet is a true leveling medium providing small time providers with the same opportunity as a multinational.

• The content of the webinar should comprise must-have and relevant content and a clear and unassailable benefit over a number of presentations with some linkage between each webinar. The topic is the biggest factor in making a decision to attend a web session. An outstanding and well-known speaker is another key attribute. Bear in mind that using the same speaker again and again is likely to tire potential attendees.

• It is absolutely imperative to answer one central question: “What’s in it for me?” It is quite irrelevant how good or useful the actual contents of the seminar are if a provider can’t clearly communicate this vital point. To maximize this benefit, providers will probably not only have to extol the virtues of the seminar but provide a free book / whitepaper / chapter from a book / software or perhaps a draw in a competition.

• Avoid selling a product and service directly. No one is going to be interested in attending these type of presentations. Focus on programs with a strong educational content or a well-known third party who is an expert in the topic.

• Ensure there is a clear set of measurable objectives with a clearly defined and interested audience not too narrowly targeted or too wide.

• Ensure that there is a tight match between target audience, presentation and speakers.

• Try not to overwhelm your audience with a high frequency series of topics but stagger them over alternate weeks, for example. Try different days to improve response. For example, some have found that Thursday is a better day than Tuesday. Examine the starting time carefully. If you are based in New York, you might find starting at 11am (instead of 2pm) will improve responses as you will have European participants as well.

• Don’t try and do too much with a webinar. Be specific and drill down as much as possible to a key topic. Having a general topic that you think may appeal to more people simply doesn’t work.

• Segment the database meticulously. For example, break it down by engineering category, civil/mechanical/electrical and instrumentation engineers and technicians. A topic such as: Latest developments in structural engineering might find a significant response for civil engineers but less so for electrical technicians, so only market to those who are interested.

The email to drive the audience to attend must also be structured to excite and draw the maximum possible audience. Email lists sourced internally are probably going to be unlikely to be sufficient, thus joint ventures with other list brokers or companies should be a key ingredient in marketing. It is unlikely that most of the attendees to one event will come to the other in a series. The key method of getting people along has to be a high quality list of contacts; in most cases, an in-house list that has been built up over many years. Typically 90% of the bookings can come from this list.

Each event requires a strong marketing plan to ensure it attracts good numbers, probably joint venturing with other list providers. When finished with one series, a provider should be contemplating new hot topics and considering how to improve the existing series. Every marketing campaign promoting a seminar is one providing market research for the next campaign.

It is important to indicate these key details in your marketing:

• Title of session.

• Date and time.

• Who the speaker is and why he is worth listening to.

• Breakdown of the topic.

• Call to action in a few locations to get them to register immediately.

Promote vigorously and often. One strategy is to promote two to three weeks in advance and then every week. About two days before the session, another reminder to everyone who had indicated interest with a final reminder an hour before the session starts. Ensure there is an easy to contact number and email for those who have difficulty getting on.

Follow-up to all participants by sending copies of the materials; a recording of the session and contact information for participants. Finally, those who indicated interest in being contacted about some aspect of the presentation or a product/service should be called by telephone.

Analyze (and compare with other campaigns) the response by looking at such items as:

• Overall response rate (number of participants/mailing size).

• Email open rates (where possible).

• Hard bounces.

• Click through rates to the offer to attend.

• Registrations (as opposed to those who actually attended).

• Cost per participant.

• Cost per lead if you are selling some sort of service or product.

• Number of unsubscribes to the email campaigns.

In our experience, the typical response rate in terms of actual participants against those who registered is about 30%. In following the abovementioned strategy, some suggest that you can get up to 60% attendance / registration rate.

Don’t underestimate the administration required in managing the potential attendees. The registration process has to be idiot-proof, simple and quick. Try and make it a one-click process. As the complexity of the form increases, fewer people will complete it.

People are busy and forgetful about something that is incidental to their lives. Send an automatic confirmation email at the time of the registration, and a day before and then a few hours before the session commences.

Our experience leads us to believe that very few people listen to recordings of webinars. However, this doesn’t matter. It is a great opportunity to contact those who didn’t attend and to provide them with a copy of the recording and add further value to those who did attend who will undoubtedly appreciate this gesture. This will strengthen your link with them.


15.5 Design of the invitation

You only have a few lines in which to get the key benefits across to your potential audience. A great suggestion is to summarize the benefit in the subject line of the email.6

The marketing copy of the main body of the email should be unashamedly focused on selling the benefits. No one cares much about the company, related products and administrative information; they only want to know what is “in it” for them. The use of bullets and simple English reinforcing the benefits is critical to the success of the proposal. Ensure that the value of the give-away gift is reinforced Finally, a simple but urgent call to action is required. What does the potential participant need to do to book on the seminar. They need to click on an online registration page which is quick and easy to fill in. Anything awkward and convoluted will reduce the registrations from 50% to 10% in short order.


15.6 Running the actual webconference

A few tips on maximizing your next webinar performance include:7

• Don't suck webinar participants dry of every available bit of personal information when they register. A name, email and company name is probably more than adequate. Anything else is irritating for the would-be participant.

• Avoid requiring mandatory information from participants before they can join. Much of this information is irrelevant and probably supremely irritating to your “wannabe” participant. People will often prefer to jump out of registering rather than provide this possibly intrusive information.

• Ensure 100% familiarity with the technology when presenting. Don't learn about presenting at the last minute as this will come across as clumsy and unprepared in the presentation. Practise, practise and practise some more.

• “Death by PowerPoint”, as the expression goes. PowerPoint is not the be-all-and-end-all of a presentation. It is a small part. Anyone who thinks a course should be based on PowerPoint slides will be disappointed.

• Get to the core of the program quickly. Many web presentations take an inordinately long time to get into the core part of the program and spend a considerable amount of initial time covering an introduction to the speakers, fixing technical issues, promoting a company and doing some initial (generally unwanted) sales promotion. This is unacceptable and will not create the right atmosphere.

• Cut down on the sales talk. Many programs spend most of the presentation selling a product or service. This will lose considerable credibility, damage the future delivery of web sessions, irritate the audience and definitely not sell the product or service.

• Failure to deliver value. You only have a short time; typically 45 minutes. You must concentrate on delivering value throughout, so participants walk away and rave about the presentation and feel satisfied with their investment in time. Ensure that you don’t squeeze too much into the time available by a hyper speed presentation. On the flip side, ensure that you don’t waffle and stretch out a presentation unnecessarily.

• Concentrate on interactivity. Although many feel this is contrived at times, it is vital to get the participants involved throughout. Having a one-way presentation from the speaker, with no feedback from the participants, is a questionable way of teaching.

• Make time for questions at the end of the presentation. Make time at the end of the presentation for people to probe and ask questions, either via text chat or audio.


15.7 Consider a regular newsletter

A suggestion is to use a regular newsletter to promote consulting and web conference sessions.8 The concept is to promote to your potential clients on a monthly basis any news items or useful snippets of information and thus "to stay in touch". A few important points here are:

• Standardize your newsletter with a template. This could comprise an interesting and vital topic, perhaps some details on the company is doing and finally a short two line description at the bottom of the newsletter on what the company does.

• Use a standard newsletter delivery service allowing you to compose the newsletter in html, test it, manage the lists (such as unsubscribes or bounces) and finally (vitally) track the results (e.g. the number that are opened).

• Manage and segment subscribers into interest areas. This can be particularly difficult, but is worth doing. The most powerful results in marketing come about by sharpening the message to be relevant to the recipient. Finally, ensure that the lists are opt-in. Although it doesn't cost to email an individual, it is best to ensure that this person actually wants to be on your subscription list rather than is a random subscriber who has absolutely zero interest in your products.

• Finally, every newsletter sent out provides useful information for the next one. Use people's feedback and comments to optimize and hone the next message.


15.8 Use online learning to promote online courses

When promoting online learning courses, why not use a regular series of webcasts to do the marketing and promotion of the courses? Our experience leads us to believe that approximately 10% of those who attend the webcasts sign up for the courses. With a fully-fledged live professional presentation of what the course involves, this can be surely raised to over 30% (according to the experiences of the Academy of Art University in San Francisco). This also minimizes expenses incurred in travelling throughout the country running recruiting events. Obviously it’s important to ensure that after the event there is plenty of supporting documentation and information on an easily located website.


15.9 Some statistics from marketing of webinars

The World Trade Group claim that they had over 10,000 participants register in 2010 on their webinars.9 They conducted a survey on what these participants ideally wanted from their webinar experience with over 1,000 responses.

Over 21% of the respondents found out about upcoming webinars through the professional networking site called LinkedIn, although inevitably most (42%) were advised by email.

62% of the respondents stated that the topic of the webinar was what caused them to register; the speaker only caused a surprising 13% to register. Paradoxically, in answer to the further question, “What do you use webinars for?”, 39% indicated that it was to hear leading industry speakers, closely followed by educational resource at 34%. In essence, the key surely must be to get an outstanding speaker present on a topic of interest to your market.

Other survey results showed that although the overwhelming majority (48%) only attended one webinar per month, there were still significant numbers (14%) attending more than five webinars per month. Suggestions for improving webinars included providing additional content such as whitepapers (32%) and simple one-click registration (25%). Finally, there is considerable interest in online training and conferences (for a total of 45%).

Marketing suggestions for management

As noted earlier, many companies use webinars to market products or services; however, there is no reason why you can’t market online learning using this approach too. From a marketing perspective there are five main techniques for lead generation: newsletters, press releases, case studies, white papers and webinars. In 2008, a survey was conducted by MarketingProfs of 500 business-to-business marketers to see what worked for them.10

The key attributes of a successful webinar were having dynamic recognizable speakers, a clearly defined process for following up, marketing of the webinar and a clear definition of the actual audience. The companies who have been doing it the longest felt it was the most effective.

Some suggestions on a successful webinar include:

• Plan for a realistic timetable in promoting the event with five to 20 days’ notice.

• Do not even think of doing direct sales during the webinar. Great content in a webinar will attract more people, keep them riveted during the presentation and enhance your stickability for people to come back to your site.

• Ensure that the right audience comes along.

• Define the results of what you are hoping for, measure them and work on ways to improve them for the next presentation.


15.10 Consider social media for promotion

Social media can also assist with marketing of online courses.11 Wikipedia notes that, “social media are media designed to be disseminated through social interaction, created using highly accessible and scalable publishing techniques”. This is generally done through a web-based site. The best known examples for engineering professionals would be LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook. Social media can be used to locate new students, market to the students and access more varied and up-to-date information and trends. Build an opt-in email list to promote webinars using free whitepapers and other resources. One can source great content by trawling social media sites. Use social media sites to research what is required in terms of webinar content. Create your own social media site for students to allow them to interact and to deepen their learning experience. Use the social media site to continue the conversation with students long after the webinar has finished.

One way of improving the promotion of online training is to build a Twitter following and use this especially to drive last-minute registrations. Use extensive and ongoing blogs and online videos (from YouTube) to drive more interest in the course. Actively participate in social media sites with postings, contributing to specialist forums, being seen as an expert on a topic and also in promoting the webinar.


15.11 Applications of marketing

A few applications of marketing online courses are as follows:

Achieving good numbers for summer school

Achieving good numbers for university summer school can sometimes be challenging and insufficient numbers and thus income can result in their cancellation.12 The University of Arkansas at Little Rock (Criminal Justice Department) promoted a traditional face-to-face session with the added flexibility of an online component and achieved the requisite numbers to make it financially viable. The course also had an extremely high level of interaction, collaboration (using telephone conferencing) and enthusiastic support from students. Although standard methods of marketing using the web site were used, the innovation was in changing the standard face-to-face session to an online component.

Promoting engineering distance learning

The Engineering Institute of Technology (EIT) runs monthly web conferences lasting about 45 minutes on a variety of topics. Although over 200 request details of sessions, between 20 and 30 actually attend. A correlation has been identified between participants and those who book on the 18-month advanced diploma programs. The challenge is to keep the presentations fresh and interesting and of appeal to the mailing list. Marketing is done only by use of the website and very limited use of the mailing list. Topics that appeal are generally standard engineering subjects such as Troubleshooting Centrifugal pumps or Troubleshooting a TCP/IP network. More esoteric topics, from gaming applications to engineering disasters, although important, don’t draw numbers. Everyone (including the non-attendees) is sent a recording of the session, a pdf of the PowerPoint slides, other associated materials and marketing materials relating to upcoming diploma courses. This has been found to be a successful way of marketing the EIT courses.

Key points and applications

Chapter 15

The following are the key points and applications from this chapter entitled: Marketing of Online Learning.

1.  Webinars generally have very low numbers attending with typically 70% of people not showing up.

2.  Webinars are a good way to market courses.

3.  Best duration of a marketing webinar is a maximum of 50 minutes but typically 20 to 30 minutes in duration.

4.  Improving the response to marketing webinars include:

• Ensure the reasons for the webinar and the benefits to participants are extraordinarily good.

• Ensure the content is very valuable.

• Avoid selling a product or service directly in the webinar.

• Ensure a tight match between target audience, presentation and speakers.

• Segment the database carefully to achieve the right audience.

5.  Some typical statistics for webinars include:

• Don’t do too much in the webinar.

• 21% of participants found out through LinkedIn.

• 42% were advised by email.

• 62% indicated the topic was what caused them to register.