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5 Considerations for Building a Successful Continuing Education Business

By October 16, 2019 No Comments

Written by: Matt Lee, VP of eCommerce & Integrations

When it comes to building an online continuing education business, many organizations take a Field of Dreams approach: If we build it, they will come.

It is true that you will need to build it and, if done correctly, they may come. However, it would be unwise to assume the latter just by simply doing the prior.

Marketing and selling courses online is no different than selling any other product. Whether you’re selling courses, shoes (Zappos), used goods (eBay) or just about anything (Amazon), it’s vital to have not only quality products but a great customer experience. This will not only drive new customer acquisition, it will create loyal customers that will return year after year to buy more.

A great customer experience is not the result of any particular software application or platform, it’s not the result of having the best product and it’s not the result of having superior customer service. It’s the confluence of these elements and a simple intuitive design all working together. As a tech veteran with over 15 years of experience designing shopping cart systems, creating integration with SaaS leaders like Salesforce.com and building customer-facing courses in a number of popular learning management systems, I’d like to share my 5 keys to success in building an online continuing education business.

1. Be Easily Discovered

Search Engine OptimizationThere are tens of thousands of online organizations vying for the billions of dollars that will be spent this year on continuing education. How will your organization stand out? Are you setting up a free Moodle site enabled with PayPal and hoping for the best? A learning management system should not be the face of your offering. While these systems are effective at delivering online education, sales and marketing powerhouses they are not.

Learning management systems (LMS) are a critical ingredient to a successful continuing education business. They are designed to manage students, enrollments, course structure and most importantly, the critical reporting that will be provided to your accrediting agency that gives your education value. LMS’s come in many shapes and sizes and each one claims its own unique way of driving student outcomes, which is why there are over 700 of them in the market. What they don’t do is bring learners to your business in the first place.

The key to being discovered is good old fashioned search engine optimization (SEO). LMS’s are closed systems that require user authentication for access to most content. The same applies to the bots and spiders that index the web. Since content is sitting behind user authentication, pages that are not open to the public get overlooked by popular indexing services like Google.

Sure, you can pay for Ads, but the most effective search is the result of organically curated information that tells customers that your organization is an expert and has customers that endorse that sentiment. Your site needs blogs, video testimonials, course samples, news releases, message boards and any other dynamic content that will continue to catch the attention of the bots that will push your listing to the top of search pages.

The online face of your program needs to be modern-looking, simple, responsive for mobile, integrated with social platforms and most importantly, updated regularly with industry-relevant information. Building these types of sites has never been easier. Platforms like WordPress, Drupal and Joomla are some of the most widely used systems, but there are newer and easier-to-use platforms to choose from as well. If you find those systems to be too complicated, try Wix, Squarespace, Weebly or Webflow. These platforms will allow you to build a professional website that is optimized for easy search indexing without having to overspend.

2. Persuasive Design

Persuasive DesignPersuasive design is an area of design practice that leverages human psychological triggers and emotional behaviors to influence a person’s interaction with aproduct or service. In a nutshell, it’s the art of leading a user through a process using intuitive motivators and by removing unnecessary barriers so the user can achieve a goal in as few steps as possible while maximizing the desired effect.

If you are running an online site to sell courses, then you are engaged in the art of persuasive design, even if you don’t know it. The real question becomes, are you doing it effectively? In our first point, we outlined the importance of being discovered. Now that we have users on our site, we want them to find their course, purchase it, and start learning with as little fuss as possible.

When you think about your site, do you look at it through the eyes of someone who has never seen it before? How many clicks does it take for a user to find a course and begin the registration process? Do you use language and visual cues to lead users to the desired offerings? Once a user finds a desired course, how difficult is it to purchase and/or register for it? Does your site intuitively recommend other courses the user may be interested? Are there reviews and comments from other customers endorsing your offerings? Can a user find a course, register and pay for it, and start their work all in one session?

If you went to Amazon and it required 30 minutes of searching to find your desired product, then you had to fill out a full page registration form, then you had to go to another site to enter credit card information, and then it took two weeks for the product to show up at your house, would you keep using Amazon? This is exactly what it can feel like to many students shopping for continuing education classes.

Millennials, all 75 million of them, measure their time in seconds and minutes compared to the days and weeks of older generations. If they can’t find products and services and transact their business quickly, they will move on to sites that offer a more efficient experience. Use platforms that leverage strong persuasive design principles and follow the lead of successful online sites that you enjoy.

Persuasive design in education doesn’t end with a credit card transaction. The principles that apply to a well designed purchasing process can also be used in course design. Our President and Chief Innovation Officer, Dr. Page Chen, has written a number of articles on the use of persuasive design in learning including this article written in partnership with ATD. By applying strong persuasive design strategies to your website and your courses, you will create a positive learner experience that will increase new student acquisition and improve long term student retention.

3. Automation

AutomationUnlike with physical products, where an online transaction still requires some amount of time for delivery, the sale of a course online can result in immediate accessand in most cases, immediate access is expected. This begs an important question: “How are you fulfilling your new orders?”.

In our business, we have a number of technologies in play including a website, an LMS, a shopping cart, a payment gateway, an accounting system and then possibly a student information system, a learning record store, a CRM, an ERP and probably a marketing automation system. How quickly does a transaction on your site convert to student access in the course? How many export/import procedures are you managing to move data from system to system? How are you managing data integrity between systems within these manual processes? Are you maximizing revenue recognition and cash flow?

Managing data between systems manually can create all kinds of problems, especially in a training business where accurate outcome reporting is crucial to success. Every manual process introduces opportunities for human error, delays and inaccuracies. Amazon is successful today because a customer places an order on their site and that order is immediately transferred to the next available agent where inventory is available in a warehouse in close proximity to the buyer, which all happens automatically through integrated systems.

10 years ago the prospect of integrating your website, payment gateway, accounting platform, LMS and marketing systems was cost prohibitive and a highly custom nightmare. You had to piece meal systems together and augment those capabilities with manual import and export processes, leading to some if not all of the challenges already highlighted in this article.

In today’s world there is no shortage of next generation platforms that are designed to be integrated with other systems, right out of the box. Today’s systems are SaaS-based, so you always have access to the most current versions and feature sets. Systems have freely available API libraries that make integrations achievable. Some even have their own application exchanges that offer turnkey integrations with popular platforms. Instead of continuing to put band aids on antiquated systems that result in expensive consulting, look instead to upgrade to systems that have been designed for automation. Fulfilling orders quickly through immediate access and error free through integration will positively add to the customer experience and drive repeat business with happy customers.

4. Security

SecurityPeople buy from people and organizations they like and trust. A great customer experience will make people like you. A secure experience will make them trust you. Most people assume security using the transitive power of an Amazon Web Services (AWS) association. If we use AWS and AWS is PCI compliant then we are PCI compliant, right?

No. Security policy and PCI compliance go way beyond the security applied to your server. A sound security policy affects the way you hire, the way you onboard new employees, the training you provide, procedures for taking orders over the phone, your policies for collecting and holding onto personal data, the protocols you use to connect systems, the types of partnerships you engage, how you use sub-contractors, and how you document and make available your policies to your customers. Sounds daunting, doesn’t it?

It doesn’t have to be. Make no mistake about it, when you are in an ecommerce business, you are in the security business. But you don’t have to do it alone. There are software and service companies that support every aspect of business and PCI compliance is no different. You can subscribe to services like Security Metrics, PSC, Sikich or Trustwave for assistance in getting your company compliant. These companies offer a range of services for small and large businesses, with support for all levels of PCI compliance.

The good news here is that you are not building a bank. PCI compliance takes on many shapes and sizes, depending on your participation level in the ecommerce food chain. Your obligations towards compliance will vary if you are selling your courses through Amazon Marketplace compared to building a platform where you insist on storing sensitive customer data like credit card numbers.

A number of factors should be considered when determining the right approach. How much revenue are you generating? How large is your typical order? How frequently do your customers place orders? Are you managing other compliance policies like HIPAA? Do you have a highly customized sales model? Bottom line, if you sell courses for $50 to a transient audience that might purchase something once a year, don’t over-engineer your offering. On the other side of that coin, if you represent a large global corporation that generates millions every year selling courses around highly sensitive subjects, then you are probably going to need to make a larger investment in how you address security. For a better understanding of your security obligations, be sure to check out the PCI Security Standards Council website.

5. Flexible Sales Modalities

flexible salesEcommerce is big business. According to this article from Digitalcommerce360, over $520 billion will be spent online in 2019 and there are plenty of software companies out there that would love to help you capture a piece of that market. Take the popular shopping cart platform, Shopify. Long recognized as the market leader in the “build your own Amazon” space, this little startup went public in 2015 at a price of $28 per share and recently hit a four year high of $409 per share, achieving a market cap of $37 Billion. That’s a lot of commerce being generated by one platform and Shopify is not alone. There are dozens of platforms to choose from, all of them achieving similar success.

The problem with these platforms, as they relate to the education industry, is that they are designed for selling physical products. They contain features for managing inventories, sku numbers, tax rates, shipping calculation, warehouse routing, and product weights and dimensions. When was the last time your course inventory ran low? How often are you having to ship a course? If you are in the US, have you ever charged tax for a course? Apart from being able to put a course into a shopping cart and use a credit card to pay for it, little else in these platforms applies if you are selling education.

Now think about the needs of your education business where classes have start and end dates, organizations purchase quantities of seats for their teams, courses can be purchased one at a time or in bundles or as a subscription, and certifications have expiration dates. To look at it from a different perspective, would you ever subscribe to a shoe? Would you ever be required to rebuy a shoe after 12 months? Have you ever purchased a pair of shoes that had a prerequisite requirement? Would you buy a shoe and then assign access to a team of people? It’s not hard to see that most shopping cart platforms are actually solving different problems than those faced by educators in addressing “how things are sold?”.

This leaves educators with some choices to make. Build a custom solution that fully meets the sales needs of the organization, subscribe to a popular platform and augment it with plugins and customizations, or seek out platforms designed specifically for academic needs. Building a solution will give you exactly what you want, but will have the highest upfront and ongoing maintenance costs. Augmenting a platform will be lower cost, but will introduce a larger number of vendors to manage and decentralize support. Seeking a supplier that is designed for education with flexible sales modalities should optimize costs and streamline support relationships so that you can focus on your core business, which is delivering education.

In Summary

That’s a lot to think about if you try to eat the whole elephant all at once so let’s simplify it.

Be easy to find: Don’t try to use your learning management system as a marketing tool. Set up a site that is easy to index using common SEO tools and update it with fresh content on a regular basis.

Persuasive Design: If a user finds your site searching for “Health and Safety” training, make sure that is what they find with a clear and obvious call to action. Reduction theory tells us that if you make something easy to do, people are more likely to do it.

Automation: Even though we aren’t using our LMS for marketing, chances are you are using one for the actual course delivery. The hand-off from your shopping cart to your learning platform needs to be immediate and seamless with reporting that is error-free.

Security: You probably won’t grow exponentially just because you are the best at security, but cut corners in this area and you could be out of business in no time. Customers want to know that their data is safe and that you make that a priority.

Flexible Sales Modalities: Selling education is just different than selling a pair of shoes. Leverage a system that allows you to sell the way you need or you will be faced with manual back office processes that negate the customer-facing design and automation efficiencies you worked so hard to achieve.


If you found this article helpful and would like to learn more, I’d like to invite you to a free webinar we are hosting next week titled “Building A Smarter Continuing Education Business”. I look forward to seeing you there. Thank you for reading and happy business building.

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