What to Do If Your Association’s Online Course Failed

You were so proud. You really thought you had a great idea for an online course. The curriculum, instructor, and materials were all top-notch. But when the course launched: crickets. So few people registered you decided not to offer it. After you and your colleagues put so much effort into it, how do you explain to your boss and committee chair why your online course failed?

Learn why your online course failed.

The first thing to do is to realize that, as cliché as it sounds, failure is a learning opportunity. It’s one step along the way to eventual success but only if you figure out what went wrong and how you can prevent the same thing happening again.

You now have two options. Depending on the reasons why your online course failed—and we’ll review several of them below—you can either move on to other projects and leave this bad memory behind, or you can revive the course and try again.

Move on.

Problem: Market need

You may have built something that isn’t in demand, at least among those who are willing and able to spend money on it. Is there really a market for this course? You assumed so because…

  • Your committee said there would be a demand for it. But what was the basis of their opinion? Are they in the position to know what the market needs?
  • The survey said members want to learn the skills taught in the course. Unfortunately, what people say and what people do are sometimes two very different things. Instead, watch member behavior for clues about what they want to learn. What in-person or online events do they attend? What type of content do they click in emails? What web pages do they visit? What do they download or purchase?

You thought people wanted this course, but it looks like they didn’t. Next time, validate the need for a program before you develop it. Test your idea to make sure there’s a profitable market for the program. Understand that market and their needs before you start working on the course.

Review the data you have to see if people are telling you with their actions that they’re willing to invest time and money in a course like this. Talk to members and non-members in your target audience. Here are a few other ways to test an idea and assess demand:

  • Create a lead magnet (an ebook or report) related to the course topic and send traffic to it via newsletter links, Facebook ads, and other paid advertising.
  • Develop a webinar based on a portion of the course.
  • Create a few free course modules and test them on a segment of your mailing list.

If your audience flocks to any of these tests, your course idea is worth pursuing.

What? My online course failed?

Revive it.

It’s possible your online course failed because something went wrong in the execution. If you can fix the problem, it’s worth trying again.

Problem: Awareness

Did you target the right market segment? And, did you use the most effective marketing tactics for that segment?

Understand how your target market prefers to get their information. Use a mix of organic and paid channels to get their attention. You most likely promoted the course in newsletters, but next time, try some of these other methods.

  • Related content recommendations: Anywhere you suggest “Related Content” for a reader who wants to dig deeper into a topic, add the course where appropriate. Do this on your website, blog, and online learning catalog.
  • SEO: Wherever the course is mentioned on your website or blog, make sure that page is optimized for search engines.
  • Paid ads: Online advertising—for example, Google, LinkedIn, and Facebook—gives you the ability to target specific demographic and interest groups.
  • Webinar: Host webinars on the course’s topics to reach your target audience. Don’t forget to promote the course. Consider offering attendees a promo code to get a discount on registration.
  • Guest appearances: Encourage the instructor, staff, or volunteer leaders to make themselves available to blogs and podcasts where they can write or discuss the course’s topics—and, naturally, link back to or promote the course.
  • Leverage influencers. What can you do for industry influencers in exchange for asking them to promote the course to their followers? Perhaps, let them take the course or attend another event for free. Get a testimonial from them about the course. Give them a referral promo code they can share with their followers.

Problem: Course descriptions

Once you have someone’s attention, you have to make the sale. Your course descriptions make all the difference. The course description must be a compelling promise of how the course will improve someone’s life. Learners are exchanging their cash and time for that promised outcome—make sure they can picture it.

Optimize your course descriptions for search. Include testimonials when possible—prospects are looking for that social proof. The folks at Velvet Chainsaw Consulting have written several posts about conference session descriptions that apply as well to online course descriptions.

Your online course failed because it wasn't eggspecially different.

Problem: Competitors

What you’re teaching is most likely readily available from several other organizations—non-profit and for-profit. What makes your course so special? What’s your differentiator, your unique selling point?

Competing on price is a race to the bottom, so that better not be it. In fact, people will pay more for a product providing a better experience. Here are a few ways to make your course stand out.

  • The course provides access to industry thought-leaders and VIPs that learners can’t get elsewhere.
  • Learning continues after the course ends with follow-up activities or coaching sessions.

Problem: Price

Maybe the problem isn’t your marketing or course content. You priced it wrong—either too low so you’re in the red or too high and no one’s biting. Consulting firm Tagoras has written extensively about online course pricing—check out the related content listed below the post too.

Problem: Platform

If prospective learners find it even slightly difficult to get information about and register for your course, they won’t go any further. They’re comparing your website to all the other websites they visit throughout the day. If your website and content management system, learning management system (LMS), or association management system isn’t intuitive or responsive enough, they’ll find their education elsewhere.

The user experience you provide is as important to a learner as the content you provide. Learners want to use their phone or tablet to take your course, not only their laptop or computer. They want to interact with instructors and other students in an online learning community. They don’t want to have to think about how to use your platform. Your LMS should enhance the learning experience, not inhibit it.

With change occurring as rapidly as it does, every forward-thinking organization is going to encounter a few failures as they evolve. Learn what you can from the experience and don’t be afraid to try again.

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