Give a Taste: Let Prospects & Members Sample Online Education

If only prospects would give your educational programs a chance, you’d turn them into loyal learners—and customers, maybe even members. But how do you get people to make that first investment of time and money into one of your online courses? You don’t. Instead, you let them sample online education so they can experience it for themselves. Your free sample will do the selling for you.

Psychology: appeal to the emotional brain

Not convinced? Ask any wine or beer salesperson how many people walk away with a bottle of wine or a six-pack of craft beer after enjoying a few samples at a store tasting. It’s the principle of reciprocity at work.

Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, brought the six principles of persuasion to the attention of the marketing world back in 1984. The principle of reciprocity works like this: when someone gives you something (a small plastic cup of beer), you’re more likely to respond favorably to any subsequent request they make, explicitly or not, that is, you buy a six-pack of the tasty beer you enjoyed for free.

We’re wired to return favors—whether it’s inviting someone to a party, picking up the bar tab, or buying frozen appetizers at Costco. We can’t help ourselves. Reciprocity is the brain’s way of doing its work more efficiently. The brain quickly decides to take an action based on past experience.

If you let people sample online education, for example, a mini-course or webinar series, they’re more likely to react positively to your subsequent marketing messages about your paid online courses. They will feel obliged to pay attention to what you’re asking—they believe they owe you at least that much.

sample online education

Practicality: appeal to the logical brain

Researchers tell us that emotions play a key role in purchasing decisions, but we can’t ignore logic. When deciding how to spend their professional development budget, your prospects are not going to be ruled by their emotions alone.

What could be more logical than giving people a chance to try out one of your e-learning programs before they invest their time and money? By providing a sample of an online learning program, you reduce their perceived risk, eliminate the unknown, and increase the conversion rate. Participants will know from experience that your programs are worthwhile.

Choosing a sample online education program

Your sample program must solve a specific problem, teach a new practice, introduce or demystify a topic, or help participants think differently than they did before. When deciding what to offer, think about your association’s most popular educational sessions, web pages, and email clicks. What’s in demand? What do employers need their staff to learn?

Choose a topic that fits into your educational ecosystem. Pick something from an existing learning pathway—the learner’s next step will be both obvious and already part of your curriculum.

The sample program must teach participants how to apply what they’ve learned. The program must make an impact on their professional lives.

“Free” is often perceived as “no value.” You must dispel that preconception by spelling out in the program title and in the program description what you are promising to deliver. Whatever topic you choose, make sure the sample program can stand alone—it provides value in and of itself. Participants will walk away with a new skill, practice, or body of knowledge without ever having to attend anything else you offer.

Offers like these work better when marketed with a sense of urgency. Make it a limited time offer. They must sign up or use a promo code by a certain date. However, give them the option to talk to someone about postponing if the timing doesn’t work for them due to work or family schedule conflicts.

Even though you’re not asking people to spend money, you are asking them to invest their time—and that’s a more limited resource. You will need to market this sample program as much as any other product. If you hook them, you may have a customer for life.

sample online education

4 types of sample e-learning programs

You can use a sample e-learning program for four different audiences and purposes.

  • Prospects
  • New members
  • Inactive members
  • Volunteers

You’ll have to decide what type of sample program you will offer: synchronous (live course) or asynchronous (on-demand). As you know, there are pros and cons to each, but considering your goals, you may want to keep these ideas in mind.

  • Live programs have the social element in their favor. You could ask membership committee or other volunteers to act as teaching assistants/association ambassadors who answer questions about association resources, products, and services.
  • Self-paced programs allow participants to progress through the content at their own speed and on their own schedule. Ask member ambassadors to “coach” or check in on participants to see if they have questions or need additional resources.

Extending the personal touch through association ambassadors might make the difference in long-term customer loyalty.


Use sample programs as a membership recruitment tool. Give members a referral or promo code that non-members can use to access the sample program. Make sure these member recruiters are familiar with the program content so they can match it to the right person.

Get sponsors involved too. As part of their package, provide promo codes they can disperse to non-members.

Mini-course participants become warm leads for membership and for other educational products. Getting them to join shouldn’t be the only goal. Not all employers provide budgets for association membership, but many do provide budgets for professional development. At the end of the mini-course, give participants a promo code to use for another educational program.

Ask participants to opt-in to notifications about related educational programs so you can continue to nurture them as leads and nudge them along the sales funnel.

New members

Sampling is a frictionless way to get new members to try the association’s benefits and experience the value,” said Amanda Kaiser at Smooth The Path. In her research on new member engagement, she found that top performers are more likely to give discounted or free conference registration, educational products, publications, or research reports—“a taste of the value the association can provide to them.”

Add a sample e-learning program to your new member onboarding campaign. New members get exposed to your online learning programs and your learning management system. If they haven’t already developed a learning habit, a mini-course provides an easy way to get started.

Inactive members

Thanks to technology, most associations can identify at-risk members before renewal time. They’re the ones who aren’t taking advantage of association resources. They don’t make the time or they don’t know what you offer.

Make it easy for them to profit from their membership by offering them a free mini-course. Give them the opportunity not only to receive a benefit but also to make a contribution. While you have their attention, ask them for their feedback on the course and on other issues. Find out about their challenges and aspirations. Listen and learn.


You never want a volunteer to feel like their time and effort is taken for granted. Not only committee members deserve explicit gratitude but also all those other volunteers who help out at events, review session proposals, write articles, and help recruit and retain members. All types of volunteers deserve thanks.

A thank-you call, note, or email is nice, but what’s even better is something more valuable, like a mini-course—as long as it’s a program they need.

Take a look at your membership and customers segments, and then at your online learning programs. Can you find a mini-course topic for each audience segment that you can pull from one of your existing programs? As you design new courses, develop a mini-course or two from each one so you have a wide range of sample programs that will entice and reward prospects, new members, inactive members, and volunteers.

professional development