Is it really possible to boost your course sales by highlighting its “problem areas?” That might sound like a load of bull baloney, but hear me out.
There’s a reason you sell more when you open up about your flaws. It’s because of a powerful persuasion trigger that most marketers overlook.
My theory is that this trigger gets missed because it sounds, well… sort of boring. At least compared to all the bright shiny objects out there.
And when I tell you this super unsexy word, a part of you will sigh with disappointment. So what is this unexciting, yet insanely effective persuasion trigger?
(You sighed a little right there, didn’t you?) Well, hang on tight, because I promise that in just a few minutes you’ll be rewriting your sales page so you can spill your guts.
First, let’s check in with one of the world’s greatest marketing minds, Joe Sugarman, on this topic of honesty.
Sugarman said, "It seemed the more truthful and frank my ads, the more positively the consumer responded." I soon realized that truthfulness was one of the best advertising lessons I had ever learned.
Joe knows every advertising “trick” there is. And yet, he says truthfulness is one of his most powerful selling tools.
Maybe there’s something to this idea after all?
Think about your own experience… When you’re looking for the best pizza in town, do you really trust those five-star Yelp ratings? What about when a new business book hits Amazon and is instantly blanketed with five-star reviews? Aren’t you just a tinge skeptical? I know I’m much more likely to trust a book with an average of four stars than straight fives.
So why don’t we trust these pristine ratings? It’s because, for all our smarts, we’re still imperfect mammals. And we know everyone else is imperfect too.
So when companies flip the script and are actually truthful about their faults, we trust them more. Advertisers have known this for years, but it’s still an incredibly underutilized strategy.
Here are a couple examples of classic ads that succeeded because of their brutal honesty.
Yikes. Can you imagine the boardroom battle that must have gone down at Avis when someone proposed that idea?
You can totally picture some crotchety executive horrified by the idea they might actually advertise being number two in the marketplace behind rival Hertz. Because no company likes to admit their faults. It’s not natural.
The common business wisdom is to project impenetrable confidence. But modesty works. It works like crazy.
Now, pull on your thinking cap and grab a pen. You’ll want to take notes on this next part. Because I’m going to give you three areas specific to selling online courses where you can win over more prospects by flaunting your flaws.
Say who your course is NOT for
You know it. I know it. We all know it. Your course can’t help everyone. Nor should it.
When you try to create a course that covers too broad a market, your message gets watered down. And the ironic thing is even though you’re targeting more people, you sell less because your message is so diluted that it doesn’t resonate with anyone.
How narrow should you get? It’s balancing act.
First off, you want to be crystal clear in who you are targeting. That’s critical. At the same time, you don’t to want to be too narrow to the point you’re targeting a market so small that 1) It’s hard to find prospects and 2) Even if you can find them, there aren’t enough to produce a healthy income.
But in my experience, 99% of online business owners go too broad rather than too narrow.
With that in mind, you should have a clear customer avatar in mind. You should know exactly who your course is perfect for and exactly who it’s not for.
Let’s look at a few ways to pick out a bad fit.
How basic or advanced is your training? Prospects will enter your marketing funnel with all different levels of experience. Take a look at the Experience Pyramid below.
Now, where would your ideal prospect fall in the pyramid? Who is your course perfectly positioned to help?
- Is your course geared toward the absolute beginner?
- Or, maybe instead of starting with “Sewing 101” your first course is “Sewing 501.”
In that case, tell them it’s not for beginners. And get working on that 101 class pronto. As you can see in the pyramid, there are more beginners in almost every niche.
- Is there something important your students should learn before enrolling in your course? Are you teaching swimmers how to do a flip turn, but they really need freestyle lessons first?
Important: Not all niches lend themselves to the Experience Pyramid.
If you’re solving a specific problem, like “How to Get into a Top 5 MBA Program”, then you’ll likely have a single experience level in your content.
But there are loads of niches where there is a clear progression of skills: music, crafts, software, and coding to name a few.
It’s difficult to tell someone, “Actually, this course isn’t right for you,” but the straightforward honesty will give you a big return on your investment.
Your prospect is reading your sales page looking for any reason to not buy.
One of the first lessons my copywriting coach taught me was to read my sales letters through the eyes of the most skeptical prospect. Look for any sentence where Mrs. Suzy Skeptic might think:
- “I can ______ in just one week? That doesn’t sound believable,” or
- “Yea, but what about people who ______,” or
- “That may work for YOU because ______, but it would never work for me”
Read your copy wearing these skeptic’s glasses and you’ll be shocked at all the edits you make.
For online courses, one of the most common questions from your skeptical prospect is about the topics covered.
What they’re asking as they read your sales page is, “Does this course cover [specific area of the topic]?” As in,
- “Does this course cover paddleboarding in the ocean, or just rivers and lakes?”
- “Is there anything about grilling included, or just indoor cooking?”
- “Do you talk about Instagram advertising, or do you stick to Facebook?”
It’s impossible for you to cover every topic under the sun (at least at first), so tell them up front what you do and don’t cover.
Jermaine Griggs of HearandPlay.com (which generates millions of dollars from online courses) is extremely targeted with his music courses. He offers seven levels of gospel courses and genres ranging from funk to salsa. It pays to get specific.
Don’t pretend that you tackle everything.
Your prospects will be more likely to buy from you in the future when you finally release your “Ocean Paddleboarding” course.
That’s a much better scenario than them joining your course, finding out you don’t cover something they want, and they develop a sour taste in their mouth.
Pro tip: If there’s an area you decided to leave out, but you suspect might have potential, create an interest list of email addresses. It will help you gauge demand AND have a warm list of prospects should you decide to launch it.
Tell them your course is a work in progress
This is a “must” for anyone launching a new course. First of all, Version 1.0 of your course should not be perfect.
Far from it.
It may even be downright ugly.
Tech entrepreneur Reid Hoffman put it best: "If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late."
That can be a tough pill to swallow.
We put our blood, sweat, and tears into our course and we want it to look amazing. But if you’ve followed Reid’s advice, which you should, your first version of your course will have a bad case of bedhead:
- The audio isn’t clean and crisp
- The lighting in your videos is dim
- The lesson content has some gaps
- Your worksheets look like you threw them together in Google Docs (which you did)
That is OK! And I encourage you to address this elephant in the room with your prospects.
In fact, you can spin it into a reason to buy.
Say something like, “Look, this is the first version of the course and it’s not exactly ‘Prom Queen Pretty’ - yet. But I know you care more about cooking healthy paleo dinners more than you care about a Hollywood-quality video. Sure, I could have spent countless hours shining things up. But you told me you’re really struggling in this area and you need help right now. So the fancy design will come later, but you can get started getting results immediately.”
You don’t need to produce beautiful videos to be successful. Rand Fishkin’s legendary Whiteboard Friday videos built him a huge audience in the SEO industry. Sure the videos are gorgeous today, but compare them to his first video in 2007. Not pretty, but it worked.
You can see how this is the perfect opportunity to play the, “I focus on results, not production quality” card.
Be honest about your course’s blemishes, and not only will you set expectations, but you’ll come across as more trustworthy.
The result? A roster of students that’s pages and pages deep.
Be upfront if they need to invest in additional tools
Okay, this one isn’t exactly a flaw with your course per say, it’s just the nature of learning whatever it is you’re teaching.
When you learn something new you often need to invest in tools, software, or gear.
You want to be frank with your prospects about what else they need to purchase to realize the benefits of your course. Maybe your course is only $20, but if they don’t already own a certain gizmo or doodad, the actual cost is $400.
For example, I teach a beer brewing course and am very clear with my students up front that they will need to budget ~ $250 for their brewing equipment.
This is a buyer’s guide I wrote in 2010 for my very first homebrewing course. My students appreciated that I was transparent about how much money they would need to invest to get into the hobby. Many of them are still with me today.
I wish they didn’t have to spend a penny more than my course fee, but that’s just the way it is.
The good news for you is most people expect this additional investment.
It’s like how college students know to budget for textbooks on top of their tuition fees. The key is to make sure it’s a known expense, not a surprise. Could this dissuade some prospects from buying your course? Absolutely. But ask yourself these two questions:
- They’re going to find out eventually, right? So would you rather have them join, figure it out, resent you, and ask for a refund? Best to just get it out there.
- If they aren’t willing or able to purchase the companion tools, are they a good long-term customer for you? Nope.
Photoshop is at the heart of her courses.
You can see on her sales page she tells potential students up front that they need Photoshop:
I would even take it a step further. Photoshop is a such a big, hairy beast of a program that it needs more explaining. Jessica could create a free Photoshop Buyer’s Guide mini course and link to it everywhere she mentions Photoshop.
A free buyer’s guide is a smart strategy if your course requires any sort of gear.
And with an online course as the vehicle, you can transform a buyer’s guide from an uninspiring ebook into a rich video experience. Imagine how helpful it would be to have screen recordings for these buyer’s guides:
- Sewing kits
- Woodworking tools
- SEO software
- 3D printing
- Audio mixing
Think about the quality of prospects that pop out the other end.
Not only are they more informed, they’re hot & ready to buy your training.
Not to mention a bonus benefit… You could turn your mini-course into a lead magnet that gets shared around the web and brings in even more prospects.
So once again we have a situation where turning an apparent negative (i.e. the additional investment needed to use your course) into an advantage.
Make the skeletons dance
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said:
"If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance."
That’s refreshing to hear, isn’t it?
So often we stress out over the imperfections in our product. We may even try to hide them. “Nothing to see here, folks! Carry on... ”
So it’s incredibly liberating to have proof that not only do we not need to hide these flaws, we can actually turn them into reasons to buy.
Honesty ain’t so boring now, is it?
Look, your prospects aren’t stupid. They know that no one, and no business, is perfect. Yet they’re inundated with marketing messages that say, “We’re so great! We do it all! We’re perfect!”
So when they hear a business open up about their flaws, it interrupts their normal thinking pattern.
You’ve captured their attention, which is a Herculean task these days. And as you explain these faults in total honesty, you build trust with your prospect.
In fact, they love you for it.
Alright you course tycoons. Go open the closet and drag out that skeleton. Slap a cowboy hat on his head and fire up Achey Breaky Heart. Because that dancing stiff might just be your best salesman.