How to Market and Launch Online Learning Programs at Scale

Man looking at a laptop
Thought Industries
February 10, 2020

Thought Industries sponsored the webinar, Seizing the Online Learning Revenue Opportunity, where Roberta Muller, Senior VP of Product Development for Northstar Travel Group, and Barry Kelly, CEO and co-founder of Thought Industries, met to explore new and smart ways that publishers and training companies can diversify and grow their revenue streams through online learning.

Online learning enables publishers to capitalize on existing expertise, grow engaged audiences and develop a scalable revenue model. This webinar explores the online learning opportunity, common obstacles publisher’s face and how to market and launch online learning programs at scale.

This article captures their expertise and insights, specifically for you.

Barry Kelly:

Let’s talk about building a training business, with technology as the driver.

Online learning platforms have moved to the cloud, which gives you the ability to launch and pilot online learning programs very quickly and efficiently to sell courses online. Additionally, learners have driven the demand for better online learning experiences.

I imagine a lot of you are familiar with compliance training and all those horrible learning experiences you’ve had to endure. Well, learners are studying everywhere all over the world on different devices now with much more interactive courses. They demand an experience which is more engaging and multimedia.

The good news is it’s a lot more cost effective to build a learning program today than it was even five years ago. Previously, you needed developers, instructional designers, graphic designers, marketing teams to sell training and then it would take a long time to get to market, perhaps a year. Now, organizations are able to do this, start to finish, in 3 to 4 months.

What Publishers Need to Launch Successful Customer Learning Programs

Barry Kelly:
We see three pillars, with the first one being technology.

It’s interesting – we’ve returned to the buy versus build conversation we used to have.

I think that there really isn’t a need to build, maintain, and scale technology. The technologies available today allow you to go to market much more efficiently. Without the burden of developer overhead you can focus on the next two pillars: content and marketing.

So where are we going to get all this learning content to grow your customer training business?

There are two main areas: your in-house teams as well as external sources. Your editorial staff is going to be heavily involved in the process in 100% of the cases. We work with editorial teams all over the country to help them build learning frameworks to take their knowledge and expertise and turn it into learning experiences.

Video for Customer Training

We’ve found that that video teams will be incredibly helpful in gap analyses of content. What do you have today that can be repurposed? What has to be added to make a valuable learning experience? External or in-house, these teams can work hand-in-hand.

Licensing and Leverage to Grow Your Professional Training Business

Organizations are licensing courses and courseware from other organizations, and also looking to leverage industry leaders and celebrities. Leveraging individuals that may already have a built-in network, or fan base. Partner with them, let them be involved in the co-marketing efforts. It’s a great way to get to market quickly and expand your reach immediately.

I can’t stress this enough, it’s not “build it and they will come” for every new product launch. You have to get out there and sell.

It’s the exact same for learning. Whether you’re dealing with direct-to-consumer sales, or you’re dealing with B2B commercialization, you need a strong team that can market and deliver.

How to Identify the Marketing Opportunity for Online Learning

Barry Kelly:

Building a learning experience requires focus. It’s really important to have a strong P&L owner, talented content contributors and smart marketers. This is not a set-it and forget-it business. You can build a very lucrative high-margin business – create a course once and sell it over and over again.

For any course to successfully sell you need to offer an elevated learning experience, with expert feedback, peer-based sharing, guides, tips and tools. This way it will rise above the competing long-format content. You’re not selling courses; you’re selling experiences and outcomes.

Barry Kelly:
Once you have an idea, you want to validate it in the market. Essentially, you want to do some research.

What are people interested in? What areas of your site are they visiting? How long are they staying? How are they engaging with you?

What’s the demographic breakdown of that audience so that you really understand where the opportunities are?
The second thing is defining the product.

What is the learning experience going to be? Is it going to be a webinar? Is it a 12 month certification with an instructor? Is it a time-based course into an on-demand course? Is it a blend of all those things?
Then go out there and do some testing to understand whether or not there’s appeal in the market.

Business Model Options

Barry Kelly:

We see three primary business models for publishers:

First is direct to the consumer. Selling individual online courses, and the ability to package those together and bundle them. This also includes subscriptions. A la carte is good as you’re starting out, but then as you build your catalog, subscriptions become important to grow lifetime value.

Ad-supported learning is a great way to monetize your online learning. Organizations that do well are diversified in their monetization approaches.

In this case, fully branded microsites that can be sponsored – Coca Cola brings you the online site, or sponsored courses on your online sites, or just the basic setting of ads right into an online course.
High level licensing on the B2B side is tremendously important as fully branded learning experiences for corporations.

How Northstar Travel Group Transformed

Roberta Muller:
Just like many other publishing companies, we’ve had to transform ourselves over the years, relying less on print revenue. Over the past five years, we’ve accomplished that by adding robust digital products and platforms, and more face-to-face events and subscriptions.

We’ve transformed ourselves by creating a division within our organization that focuses on custom client marketing and development opportunities. We offer them a whole learning management platform.

Roberta Muller:
We listened a lot to our clients and there seemed to be a common thread amongst all of them that revolved around their need and their ability to educate their audience. I’ll give you a few examples:

  • A while back, Hyatt Hotels merged with Playa Hotels and that required the brands to re-educate their audience on their products and markets that they served.
  • Hilton Hotels opened up in West Palm Beach and happened to be attached to a state-of-the-art convention center. There’s a whole area of learning and education that Hilton wants to make sure that they can broadcast.
  • You can even have something like a hurricane. One hit Mexico and they had to rebuild their destination. They relied heavily on the tourism industry, so the learning management opportunity for them was really critical.

There’s lots of different creative ways that you can work with your clients to get their message out.

Roberta Muller:
Our brands are highly regarded in the travel industry. Putting our name behind our learning platform helped elevate the product.

We also looked at the ability to have a targeted audience already in place, once that learning management platform is built. Because, as Barry mentioned, once you build it, they don’t just come, you really do need to market the platform.

We are experts in the travel industry and we have deep knowledge when it comes to looking at how we can help our clients build out the platform. It could be daunting when you start to think about, “Okay, how do I organize all my content? What is it that I actually want to get across?”

We felt this was central to our value proposition.

Our clients don’t always have technical resources in-house, they don’t have project managers to draw upon, and sometimes they don’t have all the people they need to build out their own online course. We decided we wanted to offer a full-service solution.

When we say full service, we mean that we do the heavy lifting for our clients. We started out with a very small team. As we brought in new clients, we were able to scale up our business. We now have teams located throughout the United States so that we can react quickly to our client’s needs.

Of course, there is nothing stopping us from scaling that back a little bit if the client wants to be in the driver’s seat.

Our teams consist of client service directors, project managers, implementation people, as well as marketing and communication specialists. This differentiates our branded solution from our competitors, who usually offer a cookie cutter approach. Each client installation looks like, and is an extension of their brand.

When we started, we built out our own custom learning platform, but you quickly outgrow custom solutions. I’m definitely a proponent of looking at what’s out there and finding great partners and technology like Thought Industries.

A few years ago, we hired a consultant to go out and do a competitive analysis on what customer training solutions are out there. We ended up landing with Thought Industries for a few specific reasons:

  • We like vendors who are not too large so that we are the low man on the totem pole, and that are not too small so that we end up being the client that’s driving all the innovation.
  • We also select vendors who become an extension of our own team, who are very collaborative.
  • We also liked the platform right out of the box, it was responsive and had a lot of bells and whistles that enhanced what we had already. It allowed us to focus on what we do best, which is content and marketing.

Partnering with Thought Industries enabled us to offer a full suite of support – content, marketing, technology. Whatever they need, we pull out something from our bag of tricks.

Roberta Muller:
Most of our clients are subject matter experts, but need help organizing the information into educational content.

We assign one of our custom content creators to sit with the client to map out, almost like a storyboard, the journey that the learners will go through and what are they are going to learn along the way. Then we organize the information so that it is manageable and digestible.

Most times, our clients rely on our in-house editorial expertise to develop the learning experience. We have a team of course writers who are experienced in developing the educational experience.

The travel industry is global, and so we also offer localized narration. We build their first platform in English. Then we translate that into Portuguese or Spanish or Mandarin or a slew of other languages. That’s been a big upsell for us.

Next comes design and development. We can scale up or down depending on the client’s needs. We can offer full design and also full development support if there needs to be integration with a CRM system, or other applications.

Sometimes we integrate to create a single sign-on, so that when the learner signs on to the client’s website, they’re passed seamlessly to the education portal.

Rounding out the program, we also offer hosting, and maintenance and support.

I think you’d be well-served to consider out-of-the-box technology.I am definitely a proponent of partnering with and using a best-in-class SaaS solution.

It’s really important that you look at your industry and figure out where the need is and get creative regarding how you can make a revenue stream out of learning management.

How hands-on do you want to be? Do you have internal writers? Do you have internal people from the marketing department who can craft the marketing campaign? Think about the resources you need.

A critical decision is who is going to sell this?

There are traditional salespeople that sell digital and print, and they may even sell events. When you’re selling a learning education platform, you really need to make sure that team is trained so that they understand the SaaS solution. Make sure your sales team is educated, they have that technological aptitude, and that they understand SaaS models.

And remember, as Barry said, you’re selling experiences and outcomes.

Finally, make sure you look at your margins, from the beginning to the end of the process. You need to make sure that when you start to plan this area of your business, you look at all of the costs across the board, and you plan accordingly to make sure that you can definitely scale up and make sure your revenue is maximized.

Successful Marketing and Promotion Strategies for Online Learning

Barry Kelly:
Marketing online learning requires a very different multi-phased approach. This is key. It’s not an impulse purchase. They’re going to want to consider very carefully before they decide.

In many cases it may not be until their second, third, fourth or fifth visit to your website.

You’re marketing, promoting, and selling an experience and an outcome, not a “course.” At the end of the day, they’re looking to make changes either in their career or their life.

Segmenting becomes important in understanding who you’re selling to, to focus on only those who are really interested. Then it is absolutely about persistence. It’s also about utilizing marketing automation – you want your technology to capture information about the visitor to your website and then put them into a cascade or drip campaign.

Your highest performing channel will be your existing website. The challenge is to leverage that website to direct traffic to online learning programs. Email marketing works hand-in-hand to optimize the funnel.

There’s lots of different ways to sell, package, and deliver these experiences, whether it’s just single programs or bundling them together. You can not only sell the learning experience; you can also sell the types of products that would go along with that. You can optimize the point of purchase and extend the lifetime value of that learner.

Primary Channels for Promoting Online Courses

Your primary channels are your website(s) and email. Print has been a significant driver, but it has to be incorporated into editorial. A quarter page ad or two is not going to really pay dividends. You want to incorporate the ad into the editorial of the magazine.

Your longer-term channels are going to be paid search and social, as well as SEO.

Defining your funnel is tremendously important – understanding all the stages in the sales process (and this goes for B2B and B2C). Understand where your users’ consideration process is starting, what information you’re getting about them and how you’re getting those leads.

Understand how you are qualifying those individuals and distributing information based on the qualifying information to move them through the funnel.

E-Mail Marketing Online Training Courses

Email is one of your primary channels. Previewing content is an effective exchange for an email address. That address allows you to put them into a drip campaign. That could be a combination of all sorts of materials from testimonials to more information about the course to offers, discounts, coupons, etc.

There’s a tremendous amount of data that can be collected through the marketing process: how long they’ve been there; the questions they ask, their answers to surveys.

Often they discuss learning with other users. How long did they watch the video? These are really important metrics that you can use to trigger automated campaigns.

When somebody completes a quiz, you can immediately send them an email with a coupon that says, “Hey, we see you just completed this quiz. Here’s 20% off your next course, if you sign up today.”

Frequency is central to success. If you plan to send one email a month and that’s it, it’s going to be a long road. It’s all about persistence and focus. Your job is to leverage website traffic, and each visitor, and direct them towards online learning programs.

Print Advertising, SEO, Paid Search & Social Media to Influence Online Training

Social channels tend to influence B2C consumer-related learning a lot more. It’s a tremendous way to build an audience, but I suppose it shows less metrics in terms of hard conversions. Remember, your objective should be to capture an email address, and then hand off to your email funnel process.

SEO success is going to take a little bit of time. You want to make sure you’re looking at SEO across your entire site, optimizing pages, and course descriptions. In addition, print is going to be a fantastic opportunity for you to incorporate more extensive overviews of the courses, outcomes, testimonials of users, etc.

I’d like to add one last thought.

We think the road to success, to increasing engagement and reducing churn, is to find a customer training provider that is willing to work in partnership with you, to understand the complexity of your business, how you’re looking to grow, how you need to scale. It’s not just what the technology can do, but the support you get in the long term.

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