Why people buy online courses

By Stephen Pratley, January 26, 2018

A while back I used to run a marketing course for a well known training organisation in the UK. Eager to make as much use of the content they’d paid for as they could, they created an online course on Email Marketing, but abandoned marketing it within a few months. When I spoke to the […]

A while back I used to run a marketing course for a well known training organisation in the UK.

Eager to make as much use of the content they’d paid for as they could, they created an online course on Email Marketing, but abandoned marketing it within a few months.

When I spoke to the programme manager I was really surprised at their reasons for canning it…

“There’s just no demand for it” she said “people want the face-to-face workshops more”.

Now, I know for a fact that this isn’t true, I’ve seen the numbers behind some big email marketing courses and some of them regularly sell $1m+ year in year out.

So what was going on here?

Where is your audience?

I dug a bit deeper and discovered that they hadn’t done anything to reach an audience outside their usual tactics, which were considerable, but 100% focussed on training corporate teams.

Marketing trade magazines, trade shows in London, mailing their own postal and email lists and organic activity pretty much limited to LinkedIn.

So here lies the problem. There’s plenty of demand for online courses, just not from their usual audience.

Have a think about how a typical attendee ends up on a training course in London.

They sit down with their manager for their review every quarter. The manager picks out their weak points and they come up with a training plan to fix the gaps.

Then they take a look at the catalogues of trainers who already serve the company (because getting a new supplier through procurement is too much of a ball ache), and if one fits the need closely enough, they book in for the course sometime in the next couple of months.

So, no urgent need. No burning house problem that drives them to look for a solution, just a longer term need to fill a gap in their knowledge and something of a tick-boxing requirement of the manager to show they are investing in their team, without adding to their own management workload by training up the junior themselves.

The junior turns upon the day and sits in a room with a bunch of people from a variety of industries, maybe even a competitor and listens to the tutor, does a couple fo excercise s and heads back to the office with a completion certificate and maybe a few CPD hours ticked off.

The advice is generic, delivered once, and maybe backed up with a book of slides, the junior’s hastily scribbled notes and a fading memory.

Now, I’m going to leave aside whether this format bears any relation to how people actually learn new skills, you can probably tell my answer already, but we’ll cover that another day.

Now let’s take a look at how the majority of online courses get bought and consumed.

The prospective learner has some sort of itch to scratch, a new skill they need or a problem they need to solve, and one day the itch gets too much to bear and they have to do something about it.

They start to scour Google, then YouTube, they ask friends on social media for help, and two things happen.

First, the conflicting advice they get leaves them more confused than when they were ignorant of the options.

Second, they come across a few different ways to learn the new skill.

Amongst one of them is a single chapter which seems to solve exactly the problem that are having right now.

They treat the rest of the course as a bonus, decide that that one hurdle that’s been causing them so much trauma can be solved with this one chapter, and get out their credit card.

Minutes later they are watching the material, executing a plan and practicing a single, narrowly defined plan to get over their problem.

The problems that can be solved this way are endless, and usually very tactical.

  • A few new recipes to kickstart a diet
  • A couple of exercises to start a fitness regime
  • A few words to say to their spouse to start to reconnect
  • A script to start a sales call
  • 3 pages of copy to start their website
  • A test to try out a new freelancer or a VA
  • A trick for reading faster to get through a university reading list.

These are all things I’ve seen taught online. Skills and knowledge that can be put in place quickly and effectively, and in cases where the learner revisits the skill, ones that can have huge effect on that person’s life.

“Educators” often mock these courses as lacking in theory, or exams to check understanding, but they miss the point entirely.

The immediacy, and pacing of these courses is their biggest selling point, and for the most part the buyers want results, not accreditations.

If your prospect's problem is acute enough, two things will change.

  1. You won’t want to wait for a workshop to roll round in your diary 2 months later.
  2. You’ll be prepared to spend a significant amount to solve that problem in a tangible way, in a short timeframe.

Last year I did a study across multiple online courses, mostly in business related skills, and the first cut of the results was pretty shocking.

Consistently, there was a huge drop-off in people consuming content after about 1/3 of the way in.

Then I took another look and found a different pattern that was causing the results.

There are 3 types of students.

A small number who diligently worked their way through the whole course.

A number who bought and barely opened the material. Probably got distracted and intend to come back to it tomorrow, but as we know, tomorrow never comes.

The others though, the ones who completed maybe 20% of the course did it in a non-linear way.

They’d probably watch half of the intro, then skip to a specific section (very often the practical tools given out as “bonus material”), then bounce around the course finding the bits of material necessary to execute just one part of it.

They had no interest in completion certificates or accreditation, just in executing on one specific part of the course. And then they were done.

They’d got what they wanted, scratched the itch, crossed the chasm, and were back in equilibrium again.

A few came back later and repeated the material. That one attempt hadn’t stuck, but they knew how to get started again.

Bear this in mind if you’re going to market your courses online.

  • Is the advice practical and executable immediately, or is it theoretical
  • Does the student have long-term access to the material
  • Does your sales message break down all the things they’ll be able to do on completion of the course? (Remember, they may only need one piece of it)
  • Can they see how to apply their new skills to their own situation easily
  • Is there any possibility of getting questions answered by the instructor, even in a group setting (private Facebook groups are almost a necessity in most B2C sales at the moment).

But most importantly, do you have the capacity to find out where this market is, if they aren’t in your existing database?

In the case of this training organisation, it was answering “no” to this last question that led them to drop a course where I know there is HUGE demand, outside their usual audience.

If you’ve developed an online course and are having a struggle getting sales for it, we now have our own Facebook group to help you solve that problem, and to help you refine your offer and find your best audience.

Click the link, answer a couple of questions about your current situation and we’ll send you an invite.

Stephen Pratley
Head of Conversion Consulting
The Conversion Academy

A 20-year veteran of turning digital traffic into sales, Stephen has built email lists of millions and created revenues in the hundreds of millions for clients across education, ecommerce and B2B industries. He now works exclusively with online training businesses to scale their online sales through paid ad campaigns and high-converting funnels & follow-up.

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