:Marketing / Marketing best practices

Marketing tip: Use a challenge or virtual summit to promote your online course

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With so many competitors for online students, how do you generate interest for your courses? Challenges and virtual summits are two ways to build your student base, relying on a straightforward principle to create enrollment: Give students a free taste, and they will want to pay for the full meal.

Building your online course

Many online content creators have excellent ideas but are unsure how to turn them into actionable materials. Understanding the basics of structuring a course and building mailing lists of potential students are critical first steps in becoming a profitable online creator.

But, even those with substantial experience can use help from time to time. Perhaps you don’t have enough time to draft the course materials. Or maybe you need help making exciting graphics. You can always turn to the freelance market for reasonably-priced assistance. Indeed, finding a quality freelance writer to help draft content is easier than you think, as there are numerous freelancing job sites that you can explore.

Don’t wait until you have finalized your course to begin marketing. You can use the marketing efforts described below to determine how much effort you should put into finalizing your course and refining its final content. 

Driving enrollment with challenges

Challenges are increasingly popular in everything from one-minute social media marketing campaigns to 30-day courses for building users for physical, mental, and financial fitness apps. They also can be very effective in creating paying students for your course. Building excitement progressively over a few days or even over a few weeks, you teach prospective students just enough to understand that their best option is to continue learning the material. 

There are several reasons people respond to challenges.


  • Promise results in a short time frame: Short attention spans rule the day, and people want results now. So you are more likely to engage potential customers with an introductory session that lasts only a few days. 
  • Tease: Just like the old television series tactic of leaving viewers on a cliffhanger at the end of the season, multi-day challenges should promise something more interesting for the next day. And while there must be a payoff by the last day, you can tie it to another tease—that for the full course. 
  • Are generally free: The lure of free content is almost always effective in creating the first contact with potential customers.
  • Engage the competitive spirit: Consumers love competition, even if it is with themselves. Can they make it through the five days of the challenge? You bet they can. You can also engage competitiveness by using gamification during the challenge. 

Challenges do require some upfront work. But you can leverage the effort you have already put into designing and developing your online course. Use one or two of your initial course modules as the basis for your challenge. 

The first modules tend to be introductory, providing a baseline understanding of the material and explaining how the course will proceed. At the end of the challenge, the prospective student will understand some basics, but not quite enough to fully apply them. To really make use of what they learned, they need to continue with the rest of the course. And you will be giving them that opportunity.

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Reaching the summit

Consumers love the notion of free training from acknowledged experts. So, assembling a group of expert panelists to discuss the subject matter of your course via a virtual summit is guaranteed to generate interest. It often doesn’t matter who acknowledges that your panelists are experts, as long as someone does (even if that’s you). If you have endorsements from your industry, that’s great too, but it’s far from necessary.

Virtual summits help you build large mailing lists quickly, as they typically receive substantial initial interest. These email lists will serve as the base for your future marketing efforts. According to London-based online marketer and software developer Alexander Williams of Hosting Data, email marketing remains one of the most effective strategies for reaching out to customers in today’s world. 

“Email marketing is incredibly cost-effective, with potentially massive returns on investment,” says Williams. “There are minimal start-up costs. It’s increasing in usage. And you have direct contact with your customers, with lots of flexibility in how you craft your message.”

Always upward

Virtual summits also offer excellent opportunities for upselling. The traditional online summit will have several access levels. The free pass gives limited access to a few introductory, general interest sessions and acts to generate interest in day passes and all-access passes. You can also use a virtual summit to build interest in your in-depth, follow-on training or personalized coaching to help participants apply what they have learned.

Rewards beyond compare

Organizing a virtual summit will require a significant amount of effort. But that effort often pays off for you in ways beyond just generating enrollment for your course. 

First, in arranging participants for your virtual summit, you build your personal and professional network and set up partnerships for future efforts. You may very well wind up being a panelist for someone else’s summit, giving you more opportunities to market your course.

You also get the opportunity to learn from the other panelists. Indeed, you may find additional material for your own course or may find interesting ways to present information in your course. And, importantly, by associating yourself with other experts, you reinforce your own expertise. As your reputation increases, you will see a corresponding increase in trust from potential students. They will have an even better reason to pursue training from you after the summit. 

Putting it all together

You’ve spent the time and effort needed to create valuable and informative online course materials. Now spend the time and effort to make sure you have a packed audience. Engage potential students by triggering their desire to complete challenges to prime them to buy. Draw them in by offering them panels of experts in a virtual summit that serve to highlight your own expertise. And, most importantly, give them just enough to know that they need and want more.

Author: Nahla Davies, Nahla Davies is a software developer and tech writer. Before devoting her work full time to technical writing, she managed—among other intriguing things—to serve as a lead programmer at an Inc. 5,000 experiential branding organization whose clients include Samsung, Time Warner, Netflix, and Sony.