Selling Online Education: Motivate Members with a Better Version of Themselves

What kind of person drinks Michelob Ultra? Someone who's good-looking, fit, and fun-loving like the people you see in Ultra’s commercials and ads. The advertising is really saying, “Make Ultra your regular beer and you can be like us.” This is a brand that understands a behavioral science principle: we believe our purchases say something about who we are—or who we aspire to be. Brands selling beverages, shoes, and cars do this, and associations selling online education can do this too. Help your audience connect what you're selling with their sense of belonging, self-image and aspirations. 

The behavioral science principle driving purchases

In the 1960s, a new youth culture was emerging from the post-World War II baby boom. Alan Pottasch, a Pepsi ad executive, took notice. In 1963, he launched an ad campaign about the generation he hoped would buy Pepsi, the Pepsi Generation.

The ads didn’t focus on selling Pepsi, or doing the usual comparison of Pepsi to its competitor, Coke. Instead, the campaign focused on selling the audience a better version of themselves: carefree, optimistic, hip young people.

Behavioral scientists know what’s going on here: it’s the principle of social identity at work. Social identity is your sense of who you are based on your perceived membership in a group. We recognize a set of behaviors as appropriate to a specific group, say, young, hip, grabbing-life-by-the-horns people. Our social identity guides our behavior in a way that enhances our self-image and status as part of that group.

We buy not only to own something, but to belong to something. Harley Davidson has been leveraging this principle for years. The investment in an expensive Harley helps the buyer feel how they want to feel about themselves and how they want to be perceived externally.

Apple was a master of this too. Like Pepsi, they focused their advertising on the buyer, people who “think different.” Meanwhile, their competitor Samsung was focusing on their phone’s features. They soon realized their mistake and changed their messaging. Their ads portrayed Samsung users as “makers, directors, creators” and Apple users as sheep who obediently wait in line for the new release. 

selling online education by showing members a better version of themselves

How to apply the social identity principle when selling online education

Think about how you can help your members (and others in your audience) associate your educational programs with a better version of themselves—perhaps a smarter, more competent, and forward-thinking version of themselves. Marketing expert Seth Godin once said, “People like us do things like this.” Figure out what characterizes the “people like us,” and how your programs can be the “things like this.”

First, you must understand your audience’s motivations and aspirations so you know what type of messaging will move them to register for one of your online learning programs.

•    What are their short- and long-term goals? 
•    What do they aspire to become? 
•    Whom do they admire and respect? 
•    What qualities do they admire and respect?  

Through interviews and other market research, you can find out what social identities might influence your audience’s decisions. The marketing messages you use in selling online education must reinforce the way your audience views themselves—or wishes to view themselves.

Here are a few tactics to try when selling online education

Talk about the person, not the program.

Don’t eliminate learning outcomes or impact, but dedicate some promotional copy to describing the type of person who attends this kind of program—the type of person your target audience aspires to be. For example, in your industry, phrases like “moving up” and “on the path to the C-suite,” “thought-leader” and “creative talent,” or “freedom” and “flexibility” might tap the right emotions. 

Include testimonials from influencers.

In this case, the word “influencer” means anyone whom your target audience respects and admires. Think of someone who was once where they are but participated in the program and is now living a better life—someone like them but better.

Let them experience how it feels. 

Apple knows it’s better to let customers try out an iPhone for themselves instead of having a salesperson demonstrate it. By holding and using the phone, the customer becomes a cool iPhone user. 

Can you give prospective learners a taste of what you have to offer? Develop a mini-course for each of your target audiences that you can either give away or provide at a steep discount. This “try-before-you-buy” approach also appeals to the logical part of the brain.

Look at all aspects of your branding.

What identity are you conveying to your audience? Make sure all aspects of your branding make the emotional connection you intend. Your branding should align with your target audience’s aspirations and social identity.

Besides your marketing copy, take a look at your association’s and your educational program’s logo, taglines, and, most importantly, photos and images. Excelsior College knows it audience. On their home page, you see a photo of a smiling, relaxed-looking, young woman holding a baby with the tagline, “Life happens. Keep learning.” Underneath it says, “Complete your degree while balancing work - family - budget - life.” 

selling online education by showing members a better version of themselves

Leverage FOMO (fear of missing out)

Social media has made people even more conscious of how others perceive them. Think about some of the “humblebrags” you see on Facebook or the photos on Instagram showing where your friends (or celebrities) are dining, drinking, hanging out or vacationing. 

No one likes to be left behind or miss out on something deemed important by their “tribe.” Let people know what they’re missing by not participating in your programs. 

Help learners show off.

Make it easy for people to show off the fact that they’re learners and knowledge seekers, staying on top of things and staying ahead of the crowd.

Provide digital badges for certificate programs and learning pathways. Turn on social sharing for course registrations and other activities so people can brag about their plans by saying, “I’m attending…” 

Provide exclusivity.

A recent study found that a majority of people think they’re smarter than average, so why not support that self-image. Let students surround themselves with and get to know other smart people by creating an online learning community for each of your courses. Give course alumni the opportunity to present conference sessions on how they applied what they learned in real life. 

Take it a step further. Give special benefits to the people who invested in online courses, for example, a VIP status that provides early notice on hotel block openings, and access to meet-the-keynote sessions and special receptions.

Like Samsung, you won’t always get the messaging right the first time, but keep experimenting and tweaking. Help your members see what their potential could be. Paint a picture of life after taking a course or pursuing a certification. “People like you—or who you want to be—do things like this.”

eLearning sales
professional development
continuing education
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