Thursday, May 21, 2009

"How do I market my online classes or exams for little or no cost?"

A while ago, one of our newer clients asked me if I had any advise on how to market online courses and exams. When I asked her what type of marketing the company was currently doing, she told me that they had paid for ads (print and online) in trade publications specific to their industry. Apparently, they did not get the response they had expected and were looking for other, perhaps expensive, marketing ideas. While paying for ads can be an effective way to market your courses, there are other cheaper, often better, ways to get the word out about your online courses and drive people to your school just as effectively, if not more.

So what ARE some different ways to market online courses and exams?

I had some ideas, based on my experiences, but I decided to start by conducting an informal poll of our clients to see if I could uncover more tactical marketing techniques in order to improve the sales of their online materials.

Here are the top responses:

Direct Mail

Believe it or not, it appears that direct (snail) mail is alive and well in our high-tech, digital world. It is relatively inexpensive, and as one client puts it, "that marketing piece has a tendency to stick around a home or office where perhaps a number of people might have a chance to see it. Compared to online advertising, "if you are lucky enough to get a web search hit, once the user closes that browser window with your ad on it, it's gone." The other nice thing about direct mail is that it can actually be more targeted and cheap compared to other more trendy options. Often industry organizations like trade association and government entities maintain (and will sell) contact information of the various members in your target field. Unfortunately, different states have different policies about providing this type of information. If you do end up getting a chance to market your courses or exams to the certified members of a particular State or association, one client advises that you make sure your curriculum matches their requirements.

One caveat about marketing from 3rd-party contact lists. Be careful about using email for marketing purposes unless there is a high likelihood that they know who you are. For example, we have a client that teaches live seminars where they collect opt-in email subscription information for sending out a monthly newsletter. If the newsletter manages to get to a person's inbox, the likelihood that these people will open email from this organization is fairly high. Whether they read it is another matter so make sure your content is also useful and interesting.

Website Marketing
There are a bunch of activities that fall into the category of Website Marketing. This article, aimed at Internet start-ups, covers quite a few things your organization can do to "get your face out there in cyberspace" (more than are worth discussing here). The basic suggestions, of course, involve driving traffic to your site by showing up high in search rankings so that you can persuade people to purchase your courses or exams. The most well-known strategy involves the placement of key words or phrases into the content of your website that relate most closely to the subject of your courses or exams.

Another search related tactic that can improve search rankings involves building the number of external links to your site. If you are interested in trying a few things to improve your site's "visibility," do some searches on search engine optimization and make sure to read what Google has to say about the subject.

To increase related keywords and boost your chances of having people link to your site, one client recommends writing useful, informative articles about your area of expertise. This will allow you to include keywords and hopefully get related sites to link to this article. With this in mind, it is a good idea to avoid fluff articles. You may improve the keyword search count on your website but few people will want to link to that article and even less will come back looking for more.

Referral Links
Have you heard about affiliate programs? These programs allow the publishers of websites or blogs to earn money by referring website traffic to a specific product or service on another eCommerce site through the use of referral codes embedded in the link. Big ole' Amazon has the most well-known program but many online businesses are successfully using similar programs to boost sales, including publishers of online courses. The great thing about these programs is that they allow sellers to extend their marketing reach by paying a small commission to those who refer actual BUYERS. Unlike the keyword ad programs -- sold by the search engine companies who charge you for every "click"--affiliate programs only cost money if you make a sale. And the best thing is that it's fairly easy to implement. By inserting a special code into your URL you can send that link to an organization that features complementary content or services like trade associations or the various industry related publications. The affiliate then places that link somewhere on their website or blog (perhaps as an ad) and when someone clicks on it the embedded referral code is transferred (via a browser cookie) which allows you to track a user's purchases until the cookie expires. Referral code cookies can be set to expire at any time and show up in the transaction reports of your online courses so you can easily track affiliate activity to compile payment reports.

Offer free courses or tutorials

One client I spoke to highly recommends offering a small portion of your course materials as a free sample. This can be done by publishing free tutorials on interesting subjects related to your industry or by creating a free teaser course available from an online learning system. The great thing about free learning materials is that it allows you more opportunities to increase your keywords, possibly get some external links, and provide a sneak peak to the window shoppers that come to your site looking for courses and exams. If they see that the substance and the quality of the course materials meets their needs they are much more likely to pay for a course and even refer others to your site. This will also give potential affiliates an opportunity to see the quality of the course materials they might be endorsing on their sites.

Post instructional videos
If you haven't noticed, the internet is not just text and pictures anymore. YouTube and other similar (but not as big) video posting sites have become the next place to go for information about a variety of subjects. Believe it or not, school-age kids are starting their search for knowledge on YouTube and other video sites. Not surprising, apparently not all YouTube search queries return the desired results. In my opinion, this is actually and opportunity for you to market your courses. Now it's probably going to be a while before the grown ups catch on and start looking for quality information from videos, but when they do, you should be ready with quality videos that provide useful information that have the potential to lead them to your courses or exams. Of course, not all subjects lend themselves to video but even a video about your courses could drive traffic AND boost your site ranking!

Eventually, if you produce enough videos you can create your own channel so people can bookmark or create a feed that will bring them back as new videos are posted.

Some thoughts about Ad Words?
I suppose an article about online marketing should at least mention the use of pay-per-click advertising. Of course, the most well known program is Google Ad Words, where "adverstisers specify the words that should trigger their ads and the maximum amount they are willing to pay per click" (Wikipedia/Ad Words ). In trying to market your courses, there are probably some opportunities to utilize pay-per-click advertising if the key words associated with your courses are not too expensive. No matter how cheap each click through may seem, make sure you do the math and figure out the cost to sell one course in order to determine if it is worth it. One course developer points out that a well written, informative article will sit on your website and draw traffic to your site long after it is written whereas paid advertising costs you money every day.