5 Secrets to Sell Courses Online with Subscriptions

Hand holding a card typing on a tablet
Thought Industries
March 9, 2020

5 key essentials and 3 steps to exploit the use of training subscriptions

If your training company focuses on a single product line – whether that’s in-person training or selling courses online – you’re restricting yourself to a single channel of sales. To increase revenue, it’s time to diversify your training mix as you sell training and courses online.

The key to your business growth is to leverage what you already produce. And that involves the use of online subscriptions.

The Many Forms of Training Subscriptions

  • Traditional subscriptions, where individual learners pay for continuous access to professional training content over a set period;
  • Team or bulk subscriptions, where a group of learners gain access to the latest training materials over a given period;
  • Tiered subscriptions, that vary the exclusivity and depth of training offerings based on the “status” of the sale – e.g. bronze, silver and gold;
  • Event subscriptions, where attendees sign up for a series of real-time online or in-person events;
  • Membership sites, which limit content access to members only – read: “subscribers”;
  • Bundles, where subscribers buy access to multiple courses and possibly a blended learning mix – either ones they’ve chosen themselves or a collection that fits a given pathway; and
  • Blended subscriptions that mix eLearning subscriptions with classroom training or physical elements that require shipping, such as printed books, DVDs, posters, or giveaway items.

The marvel of introducing any of these options to your customers online is that with the right technology, you can rapidly test them to see what mix has the strongest pull.

The ones that bomb can disappear from your website, while those that succeed can get continued airplay. No matter what people sign up for, you can still deliver the digital training they’ve ordered and woo them over time to alternative subscription formats that have staying power.

Even within each type of subscription, you can tweak the offer. For example, you may discover that because of the price point you advertise, twice-yearly cycles for subscription sales generate a better volume of business than monthly or annual timing.

The Financial Benefits of Subscriptions for Online Training

The magic of the subscription business, of course, is that you’re in a better position to turn your online training into a habit for your customers. Once they’ve committed to a subscription, they’ve elevated themselves from a one-time purchaser into a repeat client, which represents both a larger sale and a greater level of engagement with your training.

More importantly, a subscription represents recurring revenue for your organization. If you have the capacity to provide an auto-renewal function, that recurring revenue can keep on giving for years to come, growing revenue and making your business more predictable.

Why Don’t More Companies Offer Subscriptions to Sell More Courses Online?

Amazingly, as Thought Industries reported in 2019, the Technology Services Industry Association (TSIA) found that even though subscription revenue from education services nearly doubled year-over-year, it was still just a fraction of the total revenue those companies were generating. It grew from a scant 12 percent to 21 percent.

What holds companies back from pouncing on the opportunities inherent in subscription success? They most likely lack the technology needed to streamline subscription operations. If you’re tracking subscriptions manually, such as from a spreadsheet, the initiative can never scale.

Let’s go through five essential components you need to put in place to exploit the use of subscriptions.

Essential #1: Quality Content is Number One

The subscription business starts with quality content. To convert your one-dimensional training sales to a multi-dimensional approach that will turn your training company into a profit generating subscription machine, you need to make sure you are content-ready. That means you have sufficient and on-going sources of recurring and high-quality content.

Your content forecast — what you can produce in the next 6, 12 or 18 months — will help you determine what forms of subscriptions you can deliver.

For example, if you produce training for large-scale certifications, which entail a lot of courseware and assessments and a lengthy production cycle, you’d be better off considering either:

  • a tiered subscription – in which customers at one level of certification are offered the next level for a discounted price; or
  • a bulk subscription – that grants a group of learners in the same organization access to your training materials for a set period, all the while pushing them towards the assessment that will grant their credentials.

That’s different from a traditional subscription in which learners expect to go into your catalog and choose training for microlearning as they need it on whatever topic is most compelling to them. In that case, your ability to churn out timely microlearning and create an online course as quickly as possible is more important.

Essential #2: Use Alerts and Notifications

If you buy into the concept of the Pareto Principle, the 80-20 rule, then you may also believe that roughly 20% of your customers provide about 80% of your revenue. Think about your largest clients – those mega-companies that pay you tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for your training. Wouldn’t it be nice to receive alerts when their seat licenses have reached a particular threshold or the contract has hit an important renewal milestone so that your salespeople can spring into action?

That’s the idea behind automatic notifications – to simplify the job of managing, selling, and upselling accounts. Imagine that your flagship customer has hit a 75% usage rate on your training. That’s an opportunity to let them know they may want to double their licenses so nobody is turned away.
Likewise, two months out from renewal, it would be useful to be proactive by reaching out and telling them about the pending deadline to renewal in time to prevent a lapse in service.

Essential #3: Show What Premium Looks Like

While we’re on the subject of your largest clients, no doubt, you want to show them premium service that goes a step above the norm. In training, that means allowing them to have a customized learning portal that uses the branding that belongs to them alone – logos, colors, layout. You could dedicate development hours to building and maintaining those. Or you could apply smart templates that allow you to customize the appearance through checkboxes and quick uploads of images.

While you’re creating this automated “panorama” of brands – different looks for different clients – you should also consider the domain that learners visit for the online training. Rather than using a domain that includes your own company name, your top customers deserve a domain that reflects their name: “”.

And most importantly, a custom portal allows you to deliver and recommend courses that are specific to that client. If you know they only care about leadership training, for example, then present them with only your leadership courses and give them an easy user experience and more sales.

Essential #4: Make Sure You Capture Payment

To run an efficient subscription model, a big element for ensuring success is the automation of “dunning.” Dunning isn’t as bad as it sounds. It’s the jargon used by the accounting department to describe the process for communicating with customers about money owed. In the context of subscriptions, dunning is the ability to optimize credit card processing through your payment gateway.

Two scenarios that regularly occur with subscription orders is that the credit card on file expires or the payment fails because the credit card holder has reached a limit. In either case, automatic renewal doesn’t happen.

Dunning management provides an automated way for you to retry the card, for instance, at set periods after the initial failed transaction. The ability to do this minimizes the churn of subscribers and leads to greater revenue. Rather than walking away from a lost subscription, you get the chance to try to recapture it when the credit card number has been updated or the charge limit has been removed.

Essential #5: Tap into the Wonders of Bundles, Coupons, and Membership

By having the functionality to do bundling and coupon and member management, you open the vault to your marketing experts to try out all kinds of new programs in pursuit of even greater subscription revenue. These aren’t stand-alone programs so much as ways to augment your recurring subscription revenue by punching up sales in a given area or giving your subscribers a perk in the form of discounts.

Bundling, as I mentioned above, is the capacity to give customers access to a fixed set of training courses for less than they’d pay for each course separately. These can be “a la carte” – products they’ve chosen themselves from a collection; or they can be pathways – ones you’ve structured to follow a set theme.

The use of coupon management allows you to set up campaigns to push particular training courses by offering limited time discounts or bundles.

An important aspect of member management is to display member and non-member pricing, side by side, or one on top of the other. This approach has two benefits: Those who come into the site as a registered member will see the amazing discounts that they’re privy to as a member, reaffirming the value of their membership. And those who come in as non-members will see what they’re losing out on by not being members.

3 Steps for Transforming Your Online Learning Business with Subscriptions

To get started in growing your online learning business with subscriptions, follow these three steps:

Step 1. Assess your content
See which subscription options are most appropriate. The goal is to lock two ideas into your customers’ minds: Your company is their go-to source for the training they need; and you always have the latest high-quality and compelling online courses and content.

Step 2. Make sure your payment options are flexible and automated
A client may start off with a basic subscription for three people and then decide to add additional team members. Your technology needs to be able to accommodate that sort of straightforward transaction without human intervention. The same is true for other transactions: renewals, redeeming coupons, moving from a trial subscription to a paid one, customizing the learning experience for your biggest clients, sorting out the member from the non-member by what they view on the screen. Automation is necessary.

Step 3. Use your learning data
To increase sales, you need to analyze what you’re currently doing and iterate on that. If your learning management software integrates with tools such as Stripe, it’s easy to drill into your current ecommerce state to understand what’s selling, who’s buying, and what particulars are working. This is whether it’s coupons, bundles or other components of your subscription business. Using that information, you can explore other options.

Finally, remember, if you’re not taking advantage of subscription-based learning models, you are walking away from a big opportunity to expand your online training sales revenue.

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