What Your Learners Are Really Buying

Seth Godin has a way of crystallizing the complexity of human behavior in one or two pithy sentences. This pronouncement of his got me thinking about how we market and sell educational products.

“People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories, and magic.”

Okay, so what he’s saying is… people aren’t buying courses, conferences, or continuing education credits; they’re buying something entirely different, even if they don’t admit it to themselves. After thinking about this one for a while, I can buy that. Can you?

The role of emotions in educational purchases

You’ve probably heard this marketing 101 principle before: most buying decisions are driven by emotions, not logic. People buy what they want to feel in the future. How will you feel behind the wheel of that brand new Subaru? How will you feel in that smashing dress?

The education marketer’s goal is to figure out how to connect the program you’re offering to what someone wants to feel or experience when they finish it. Start by identifying the emotional buttons that the idea of learning, mastering a skill, or earning a certificate pushes for different segments of your audience. Think about the kinds of learning experiences that will appeal to the emotions of people in those segments.

learners are really buying relations

What your learners are really buying

Let’s dig into the three things Godin said people are really buying—relations, stories, and magic—and see how you can appeal to these desires in your program marketing.


Here’s another Godin quote—you’ll see several in this post: “People don’t buy what they need. They buy what they want.”

Post-pandemic, what many people value and want has changed, so you need to keep up with their changing beliefs and desires. Listen in as many ways as you can: polls, interviews, focus groups, online discussions, informal conversations, and behavioral data analysis.

If your educational product—a course, webinar, or other educational program or event—is hardly any different from the others offered in your industry, it’s a commodity. People will choose the lowest priced program unless they feel a sense of loyalty to your association. If it’s a commodity they seek, they’ll settle for a lonely on-demand experience—whatever’s the cheapest, most convenient way to get their credits. You don’t want to sell commodities. Instead, spot a market need and fill it in a unique way.

Here’s something we know: people who work from home often feel professionally isolated. Although everyone’s on digital overload, people would enjoy conversations with peers beyond the colleagues they see nearly every day on Zoom. Even diehard loners might enjoy connecting with others when given the chance.

People would love the opportunity to learn with and from their peers, even better if a few mentor types are involved too. Find creative ways to build the human touch into your online programs. Online cohort courses are growing in popularity for just these reasons. Even asynchronous programs have the potential for connection, for example, supplement them with exclusive virtual events like learner and alumni meetups, or online communities. Suggest ways for learners to continue the community feeling by working together on volunteer projects or meeting for masterminds or peer advisory groups.

Godin said, “The only way to be indispensable is to be different.” Don’t be like every other education provider—a faceless institution. Figure out how staff and/or volunteers can interact with learners. Check in after their first week to offer tips and introductions, and again right before the end of a program with suggestions for related content or next steps. Make the learner feel like part of a community, whether or not they’re a member. They invested time and money in you, invest some time in them.


Storytelling is trendy in the marketing world, but for good reason. Godin said, “When your story aligns with my worldview, we have something to discuss. When it doesn’t, you’re likely to be invisible.”

As a mission-driven organization, your association has an advantage here. People rather spend their time and money with organizations sharing the same values and interests. We’ve seen this backed up by research studies, especially those focused on younger generations. Remind learners and prospects that the money they spend on your programs helps to fund your mission, not line the pockets of investors.

“In many ways, as individuals, we are also looking for a happy ending to our own stories,” said Godin. You can sell them that happy ending—a better version of themselves, one they will realize after completing your program.

Make them the hero of their own story by taking them on the hero’s journey, which may look something like this—with apologies to the memory of Joseph Campbell:

Going about their day in The Ordinary World, they hear The Call to Adventure—your marketing copy. They overcome their internal objections—the Refusal of the Call—thanks again to your marketing copy. They Meet with the Mentor—a real mentor or the instructor, volunteer, or coach and Cross the Threshold into your program.

During the course, they progress through Ordeals and Tests, finding Allies (but hopefully no Enemies). Finally, The Reward—a passing grade and digital badge. They take The Road Back to the office feeling proud of their mastery of new skills and knowledge, new friends, and all the other feel-good emotions they’ve hoped for—the Elixir.

Education is a transformation story—more about that in the next section. Purchasing the course moves them closer to who they want to be—the hero of their own story—and how they want to feel. Maya Angelou said, “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

what learners are really buying - transformation


Your programs can deliver a few different levels of magic. Everyday magic is delivered during the ‘surprise and delight’ stage of marketing. What can you provide in your program that the learner never expected? Think of something memorable that so exceeds expectations they can’t help but talk about it.

A higher level of magic is transformation—turning a frog into a prince. The hero’s journey is all about transformation, through smart purchases and hard work creating a better version of themselves.

Godin once said, “People don’t buy paint, they buy painted walls.” Learners aren’t paying for a course, they’re paying for results. They’re paying for the impact the course will make on their life. They’re buying success and transformation.

Transformation is hard earned, but magic, a remarkable thing. Godin said, “Products that are remarkable get talked about.” Capture and share stories and testimonials of transformation from people who have taken the course you’re selling, who have gone on the same journey your prospect is considering.

“Marketing begins before the product is created,” said Godin. When you’re designing courses, conferences, or educational programs or events, think about your audience’s desires and needs—both educational and emotional. Bring your marketing team into these discussions. Their understanding of human behavior can help you design an experience that appeals to emotions and delivers the relations, stories, and magic your prospects desire.

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