The barriers to entry in the online learning business are minimal. Any individual or organization can launch a website, create a few courses and promote them widely. In this competitive marketplace, you can’t sell a commodity—that’s a race to the bottom where the lowest price wins. But you can win the attention and loyalty of your members and market if you differentiate your online learning programs from the competition.
How to differentiate your online learning programs from the competition
#1: Train instructors in adult learning principles.
Most online instructors are not education professionals; they’re either volunteers or contractors who are experts in the program’s topic. They probably don’t know how to teach adult learners in an online setting; they’re figuring it out as they go and doing what feels right.
By requiring all instructors to complete a train-the-trainer program, you can ensure they understand and can apply the principles of effective adult learning. Then you can boldly state that you have the best trained instructors in your industry and market.
#2: Variety is the spice of life—and education.
People respond to different methods of program delivery based on their information consumption preferences, schedule, motivation level, and need for community. Offer a mix of content delivery formats:
• Synchronous programs with a live instructor and learning cohort
• Asynchronous programs for those who prefer on-demand, solo study
• Blended/hybrid programs for a mix of in-person and online solo study
#3: Appeal to the need for community and conversation.
The best learning happens when people can discuss and practice applying new information together. That’s when learning moves from a passive pastime to an active exercise. Provide a discussion forum for every online learning program where learners and instructors can bring new content to life. Some organizations even host off-topic discussion forums where learners can get to know each other and strengthen new relationships.
Providing social learning opportunities for asynchronous programs is more challenging but not impossible. Give learners access to exclusive group discussions on hot topics or Ask-Me-Anything sessions with industry influencers.
#4: Support learners throughout their experience.
Make sure the entire learning journey flows smoothly from a logistical perspective. For example, assess whether your website or LMS is easy to navigate and answers all the customer’s questions during the research and purchase phase.
Before learners begin instruction, provide resources on how to succeed as an online learner. Set them up for success by scheduling notifications as accountability reminders. Offer office hours during which instructors or course alumni can answer their questions and provide guidance—a microvolunteering opportunity for members.
#5: Offer microlearning programs.
Busy professionals are more interested in a program made up of 5- to 20-minute modules than a program requiring an hour each time they sit down with it. Microlearning programs made up of easily consumable components that can be viewed at any time are more likely to fit into their schedule. Plus, when learning is spaced out, giving people time to reflect and put it into context, information is more likely to stick.
#6: Become known for having the most current content.
Earn the reputation for being the education provider who has the most up-to-date content. Make sure your programs reflect the latest:
• Research and developments
• Articles, videos, podcast episodes and conference session recordings
• Policies and regulations
• Emerging trends and practices
#7: Keep learners tuned in by mixing up formats.
After a long day at work, learners need a little help with their attention span. Keep them alert by using a mix of text, video, audio and multimedia. Approach your programs like a TV news producer. They don’t stay with the anchor too long; they mix it up with interviews, panels and videos.
Add another perspective, maybe even a contrarian one, to your program. Invite guest instructors for specific modules, for example:
• Conference speakers
• Authors of assigned readings or related articles and books
• Industry influencers, trailblazers or innovators
#8: Provide access to VIPs.
Besides inviting industry influencers and other VIPs to participate as guest instructors or speakers, you could also arrange virtual meetups with them outside the program structure. Or ask them to participate in online discussion forums with learners.
#9: Include an exclusive resource in the registration fee.
When they register, give learners a valuable resource, for example, an industry “bible” or benchmarking report—a resource they can use at work. You could also offer the opportunity to get their product, service or other item audited or reviewed by the instructor or others, for example, an audit of website usability or a review of a marketing plan.
#10: Provide coaching.
Think of ways you might provide professional development coaching to loyal customers. Offer a course package that includes coaching. Or, for every X hours of instruction they purchase, they get one 30-minute session with an educational advisor.
#11: Offer digital badges.
If learners prove their mastery of the competencies taught by the program, award a digital badge that validates that mastery. You could bundle programs into a pathway the awards digital badges along the way and a credential or certificate at the end of the learning pathway.
#12: Start an alumni program.
Universities keep their alumni close because they want them to contribute to fundraising campaigns. Loyalty literally pays off. What kind of loyalty program can you offer to alumni so they’ll continue to look to your association as their preferred source for content and education? Think like a university: VIP events, special perks and invitations to advisory groups.
#13: Identify the unique selling proposition for each program.
What does each online learning program offer that no other program covering the same content offers? That’s the unique selling proposition you want to strongly promote. It must align with what a member and market segment values—something that makes a positive impact on their career and life.
Focus on designing and selling learning experiences that are different from anyone else’s. Let the others sell information; you’re selling a learning experience that leads to impact and transformation. After all, if nothing changes for the learner at work, what’s the point. Tell your members and market how your programs will improve and change their lives.