Make Course Sales & Marketing Less Hard & More Robust (Using This 1 Startup Principle)
Treat your course as a starting point (rather than an endpoint) and your students will too.
Yesterday, my blender blasted my smoothie across my kitchen like a sprinkler.
After an exasperated sigh, I realized the mess was nothing compared to the time I smashed a bottle of foundation in my bathroom in Paris. In case you don’t know, foundation evens out your skin by seeping into every pore and fine line. It also clings to your face for as long as possible.
Foundation can be a pain to remove from your skin at the end of the day. But I assure you it’s worse to extract from your bathroom tiles first thing in the morning.
I will forever think of that incident in Paris as “The Nightmare Before Coffee.”
But back to yesterday and the mess I made in Montreal.
As I crouched down to wipe my smoothie from my kitchen tiles, I had an epiphany. I’d been ruminating on a problem course creators encounter again and again based on conversations I’d had over the past week.
Here’s the problem: Course sales and marketing are hard from the beginning, and continue to be hard even several cohorts in.
So the questions on my mind were:
Why are course sales and marketing so hard?
Why are they not getting easier over time?
My blender-blasted mess inspired my answers.
The best thing that happened to me professionally in 2020 was landing a new job at a startup accelerator. (I say “professionally” because my niece was born that year and I became an aunt for the first time—nothing can compete with that.)
But back to the startup accelerator.
I worked with startup coaches to create courses on entrepreneurship for university students and recent grads. Steve Blank’s content was the backbone of everything we did. (Steve Blank is the self-proclaimed “father of modern entrepreneurship.”)
As I cleaned up my smoothie yesterday, I realized one of Steve’s startup principles is the backbone of how to make course sales and marketing less hard and more robust.
The Cost of Landing New Customers (i.e., Students) is Heftier Than You Think
Before we get to Steve’s principle, it’s important to understand this: it costs four to ten times as much to land a new customer as it does to keep an existing one. (The amount depends on the business.)
Pause for a moment to reflect on how this applies to your business.
Factor in everything it takes to qualify a new customer and close them. Then think about how fast—hell, maybe even effortless—it is for an existing customer to purchase more of your products or services.
There’s no comparison. New customers exhaust more resources.
Most course creators either don’t realize this or can’t figure out how to serve existing customers with complementary offerings.
I’m not judging. I spent most of the past year channelling my energy into landing new customers. Now, I realize I left money on the table with existing customers who would have benefitted from additional help.
This is where Steve’s startup principle comes into play.
Eventually, You Need to Replace Short-Term Tactics With Long-term Strategy
“When you’re first starting […], it’s all about short-term hacks like cold calling, cold emailing, and affiliate marketing. While these short-term tactics can get you those first few sales, your long-term success will depend on you creating an effective marketing funnel.”
—Raghav Haran, OBERLO
Here’s where my blender analogy comes in. Think of your course business as a blender and imagine your students are the wonderful ingredients you pop into it.
Now, imagine those ingredients gushing out in what feels like a sudden loss of control. That’s effectively what’s happening when you complete your course and don’t do anything—or enough—to maintain relationships with your graduates.
You’re left holding an empty blender you have to refill from scratch.
That means all the work you did in the lead-up to the course is no longer a funnel. The marathon you ran with content creation, free workshops, and other promotional activities to get students into your course leads them to a cliff upon graduation—a clear dropoff point.
Then you have to repeat the cycle all over again. And every time you do, you get people to the same cliff, they drop off, and you ask yourself…
When will it get easier? When will I be more profitable?
The answer is simple: when you optimize your get, keep, grow funnel.
Get, Keep, Grow Funnel
Get, keep, grow is a funnel to manage customer relationships.
Where Most Course Creators Are Stuck
Below is a graphic of a get, keep, grow funnel for online businesses (ex. online courses).
Before we look at it in full, notice how I’ve obstructed the keep and grow portions of the funnel in grey.
Most course creators get stuck doing two things:
Sharing content to acquire new students (ex. Using Twitter)
Making sales through pre-determined actions (ex. Course landing page)
These two things are vital but they’re not enough to sustain a business long-term.
If you want to escape the endless grind and make higher profits, you need to expand your offering into keep and grow territories.
What Course Creators Need to Build A Scalable Course
Below is a graphic of the full get, keep, grow funnel. Notice the keep and grow portions are yellow and green to indicate that growing your existing customer base is easier and more profitable than getting new customers. Whereas the get portion of the funnel is red and orange because it’s hard and expensive.
A lot of course creators don’t realize how expensive it is. They’ll say things like “I’m just creating content so it doesn’t cost me anything other than a Canva membership to create graphics.”
But they don’t account for the hours they spend creating content, sending DMs, and hosting free calls and workshops. If you were a salaried employee, your earnings would be significant.
So if you’re foregoing a salary in hopes of making a return on investment, make damn sure to prioritize your get, keep, grow funnel.
Course creators tend to think of their courses as an endpoint.
But that’s a HUGE mistake.
Your course is an onboarding ramp to working with you long-term. After all, students realize the benefits of your course through spaced repetition long after your course ends.
So they would benefit from spaced check-ins and feedback. It’s up to you to determine how that takes shape based on what they want, need, and are willing to pay for.
But ultimately, that’s how you make course sales and marketing less hard and more robust.
My Challenge to You
How can you keep and grow your customer base (ex. alumni pool) to optimize your get, keep, grow funnel?
Make some hypotheses and start talking to your customers. It’s that simple. Find out what they want more of and how much they’re willing to pay for it.
Here are some factors to consider as you think about potential offerings:
Student ratio: Individual, small group, full cohort, etc.
Regular events: Check-ins, accountability, coaching, feedback sessions, etc.
One-off events: Workshops, networking events, invite-only events, etc.
Cadence: Weekly, bi-weekly, monthly, quarterly, etc.
Pricing: Flat fee, subscription, amount, etc.
Payment frequency: Per session, monthly, quarterly, annually, etc.
If you’re unsure about how to conduct customer interviews, I have a resource coming to help you nail them. Read the next section for more information.
Stay Tuned For an Announcement on December 7th
Last week, I introduced my framework to build and scale a cohort-based course. And someone commented on my post with this great question:
Do you believe in weaving marketing into the course creation process? In theory, this should help validate the need.
Here’s my response:
Yes, I 100% recommend weaving marketing into the process from the get-go. In fact, a large part of the first phase (define course concept) relies on market validation. Pre-selling the course using a landing page is a critical step in that phase.
Here’s how I break down the first phase of my framework with milestones classified as either marketing, operations, or learning activities:
Phase 1: Define course concept
Milestones (i.e., outcomes that must be accomplished):
Finalize positioning statement (📈 Marketing/Learning 🍎)
Publish course landing page (📈 Marketing)
Validate course concept with pre-sale (📈 Marketing)
Each milestone entails a variety of actions that must be taken before customers can proceed to phase 2: Design course curriculum.
⚡️ For more information—including a project management plan—to build a scalable course with my framework, stay tuned for an announcement next week.
You won’t want to miss it.
That’s what I have for you today. Thank you for reading.
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Wishing you a wonder-full week,
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