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Can you promote your new digital programmes direct to customers?

As an ELT education provider, how can you start promoting your new online options, in an already crowded marketplace, if you never did this before? How can you go straight to your direct clients if your agents don’t want to sell this solution? Jimmy takes a look.

By now, you may have honed some digital products to deliver an effective distance learning programme. It might not be the full service you’re used to, it might not even be as much fun - but it’s a product with a revenue attached to it.

And in these difficult times, the margins you’re making on that product are vital. More than ever, it’s the difference between survival and going to the wall.

One of the first issues you’ve got, though, is how to market this efficiently in an increasingly crowded space. After all, everyone is piling into this market right now. In the past, you may have relied, to some extent at least, on agents. But this might, just might, be a good time to reassess your use of agents.

While education agents will, most likely, continue to be the major source of enrolments for most ELT schools for their ‘traditional’ offerings (and such bookings are counted as “commissionable”), now is a good time, with a different product, to look for direct business.

If, for the moment, your main offering is digital, then the knowledge, expertise and connections your agent offers are less obviously useful. And explaining that to them personally would help to manage the relationship so that when/if normal returns, you can re-engage with them on old lines.

The industry has already, pre-Covid, begun to see a shift towards an increasing percentage of direct bookings, and this current crisis is likely to act as a catalyst to that progression. But, if you want to join that bandwagon, what are the best levers to pull? Exploiting existing infrastructures is one thing. You may have markets which are specifically fertile for you - and they will have organisations who are designed to support you - so get in touch with the British Council, the Great campaign and others who can help with your marketing. As we emerge from the pandemic, there will be lots of government activity designed to kickstart the economy. Make sure you’re on board as they can do some of your marketing for you.

In general, though, a digital product will be best served by digital marketing so put your energies there:

  • Make sure your website has your digital offerings front and centre and that your search engine optimisation is up to scratch. If you’re not sure, it’s worth getting an agency to audit your SEO and to make sure you’re competing on the searches that should surface your prime digital products. If you’re not on the front page of a Google search, then you won’t get far.

  • Consider supporting that with paid-for promotions on the core platforms, Facebook most likely, that will enable you to target specific geographies and demographics that are your target market.

  • And back that with an active social media presence. Make sure the platforms you use are appropriate to your product. If you’re doing a business language course, then LinkedIn might work better than, say, TikTok. If you’re a younger audience then a presence (organic or paid-for) on Instagram might put you in front of the right people. Don’t be afraid to experiment and commit small amounts of money first, before backing the platforms which start to deliver.

  • You can also use video tutorials on free platforms like YouTube to draw new audiences to you, and convert from there.

  • You are aiming to send people back to your website to actually book. Some schools report that digital marketing produces more enquiries but they translate to bookings at a lower rate. Some of that might be due to rather arcane booking processes on your site, so see if you can refine them and keep those user journeys as short as possible.

  • And back that up with a live chat facility. The big role that agents played was a human one - you can replicate that, to some extent, with the ability to answer potential client questions, in their own language, in a live online setting. It gives the flexibility to answer questions - and if you log the topics that you’re asked on, it enables you to update your FAQs as well.

  • Use email to see if you can go back to old customers. You can offer to-up courses for those who enjoyed the travel/study option in the past few years. In an industry notable for its lack of upselling, you can go back with a new product that supports previous learning.

  • Some have leveraged the power of influencers - YouTubers or Instagram influencers can drive significant traffic to your site. They may not be cheap and they may drive fly-by traffic rather than huge numbers of genuinely interested people, but the scale of the audiences can be interesting and with good sales copy and a decent sales funnel on your site, it can pay off. You can make yourself stand out in a crowded market. The basic principles remain as for most digital marketing - if you can target your content, either through email (to those you know have shown interest in the past) or through pay-per-click (so that they define interest by their actions), then you’ll be spending more efficiently. And if you back that up by being canny in the two major routes for most people to get information (search engines and social media), then you’re giving yourself a pretty good chance.

Jimmy Leach is a consultant and digital strategist working with Disquiet Dog. He has previously worked in the media - as executive editor for education at the Guardian, as digital director at The Independent and as editor in chief at HuffPost. He has also worked as head of digital communications in Downing Street and at the Foreign Office. He has also worked in consumer and public affairs agencies.