An effective online learning marketing plan has three phases. First, create awareness in your target audiences—their awareness of the need for pursuing professional development and their awareness of the educational programs your association offers.
Then, make the sale—move your prospect from thinking “I should take a class” to “I am registered for a class.”
And finally, manage the relationship—get to know them better, earn their loyalty, and inspire them to become raving fans.
The three E’s of marketing educational programs will help you succeed with each of these three phases of marketing.
You don’t often hear about expeditionary marketing but in times of change, this bold approach could take your online educational programs—and non-dues revenue—to new heights. Expeditionary marketing is envisioning and creating new markets for your educational programs before your competitors do.
If one thing is certain about the future, it’s the increasing number of competitors in the lifelong learning space. Besides other associations, you now have online professional platforms like LinkedIn (now owned by Microsoft) and Udacity to worry about, plus all the MOOCs like Coursera and EdX. Colleges and universities have also identified the lifelong learning market as a promising source of new revenue.
With the continuing need for people to develop new skills for new kinds of jobs, for-profit companies with deep pockets will also get in the game. So how do you compete? Management consultant and business professor Gary Hamel says you need to unleash your organizational imagination. He describes four ways to do that.
- First, escape the tyranny of served markets. Don’t limit your vision to a portfolio of products and services, think instead about the portfolio of core competencies you have at hand to develop new products and services. Find new underserved audiences, perhaps the customers of your members, professionals who don’t quite belong in one of your membership categories, employees of member companies, or partners of member companies.
- Search for innovative product concepts. Try flipped learning for conference workshops. Provide advanced level programs for executives or 101 courses for affiliate/associate members. Experiment with new ways of delivering popular content. Introduce an entirely new product, perhaps providing education for the whole person, not just industry-specific skills.
- Overturn traditional assumptions about price/performance relationships. Include a monthly class/webinar and access to an online community in a new online membership level. Figure out how to get people into your educational sales funnel, perhaps by luring them in with a loss leader product. Self-published authors have become millionaires by giving away the first book in a series for free because readers will come back and pay for subsequent books.
- Get out in front of your customers/members. Hamel says, “Go back a decade or two. How many of us were asking for microwave ovens, cellular telephones?” This approach would become Apple’s philosophy. Educate your target audience as to what is possible in their professional lives. Create awareness about the type of skills and expertise that can help them thrive no matter where their career(s) take them.
Hamel admits this is a risky business: “Sometimes the hoped-for market does not exist. Almost always it emerges more slowly than anticipated.” He describes expeditionary marketing as determining the direction in which to aim—the competencies your audiences will value—and the distance to the target—the hurdles you must overcome to achieve the combination of price and performance that will open up new competitive space.
Expeditionary marketing as he describes it sounds like agile marketing. Bring your target rapidly into view by accumulating understanding as quickly as possible through a series of low-cost, fast-paced market incursions.
“Expeditionary marketing increases the number of hits a company achieves not by raising its hit rate but by increasing the number of market opportunities, niches, and product permutations it explores and thus the rate at which it accumulates market knowledge.”
We’re not as rational as we think. On an episode of the Leading Learning podcast, marketing consultant Graeme Newell said 85 percent of decision-making is subconscious. We feel something, make a decision, and then find the facts to verify what we believe. Emotional marketing uses messaging that “hits people on a deep emotional level.”
Newell warns associations about “buying their own press,” getting too internally focused, and forgetting why customers buy their products. Effective marketing requires research. You have to understand the desires, aspirations, interests, frustrations, and worries of your audience. He suggests talking to members and noting when they light up or get demonstrative. Those are emotions to tap into and use in your marketing messages.
Your association brand must inspire positive emotions, like the Harley Davidson and Disney brands do for their fans. Make sure members know your association shares their values and priorities. If your mission statement isn’t future-forward, transformative, and exciting, then it needs some work. You want members to believe that their association with your brand says something important about them.
Appeal to your audience’s ego and desire to feel (and look) smarter, more future-forward, and more competent. Appeal to their self-esteem with messages that let them know, as Seth Godin, says, “People like us do things like this.” In this case, people like them pursue professional development.
Emotional marketing is aspirational marketing. Appealing to a person’s psychological, social, and/or economic aspirations is successfully used by designer fashion, sports apparel, and business class airline brands. You’re not selling a program. You’re selling members a better version of themselves that results from participating in your program—that’s what they want to buy.
Too often marketing only focuses on getting people in the front door, but you also have to get them to stay with you. Develop a plan for creating brand advocates—people who identify with what you do and spread the word to others. Evangelism marketing is a more intense level of word-of-mouth marketing. Guy Kawasaki described it as: “When you convince people to believe in your dream as much as you do.”
First, you have to identify these influencers (or potential influencers).
- Identify repeat customers.
- See who’s visiting your website and LMS, and who’s opening and clicking your emails.
- Scan course surveys and other feedback from students.
- Monitor social channels to see who’s talking about your programs.
- Keep your ear to the ground. Ask customer service and other frontline staff who talk to members and students to tell you about potential advocates.
- Include a field in registration forms asking “How did you hear about this program.”
Your evangelists are program alumni whose careers and lives have been transformed by their participation in your association’s educational programs. Because of their participation, they’ve developed networks, relationships, and friendships, or they’ve received promotions or started their own businesses.
Nurture these “raving fans” by making them feel like they belong to an exclusive group. Give them special treatment in return for their good words—perhaps a promo code, event invitation, or surprise gift in the mail, like a popular non-fiction book.
Help them spread the word and boost their professional reputation by giving them a platform to tell their story or share their opinions on your blog.
And don’t forget to capture their messages in writing. Ask them for a testimonial for your website and course catalog. Potential students look for social proof when making decisions about how to spend their time and money.
Using these three approaches to marketing—expeditionary, emotional, and evangelism—your association will spot and leverage new opportunities, convert prospects to customers, and unleash the power of word-of-mouth marketing.