Sell More Courses By Understanding These Three Types of Students


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According to some recent research, there are three types of students that you’ll find in online courses:

  • Active Participants
  • Passive Participants
  • Lurkers

Which ones do you have in your courses?

Does it even matter?

The short answer is yes!

Each type of student approaches a course in different ways: understand their approach, and you’ll be able to target your marketing and teaching to suit them. Ignore them, and you’ll find yourself slipping into generic mediocrity.

Meet the Three Types of Students

#1 The Holy Grail: Active Participants

Estimates peg the number of active participants in a given course at about 5-10%. These are the people that read everything, watch every video, listen to every audio (twice!), do every exercise, quiz or activity, start and comment on discussions, and generally go out of their way to ensure that they are squeezing every possible ounce out of their learning experience.

Now, it’s a well-established fact that active participation is one of the keys to actually creating lasting learning. These are the ones giving you rock-star testimonials that even YOU can’t believe are true (they got all that as a result of MY course?!?).

#2 The Seemingly Uninterested: Lurkers

You know the ones. Lurkers are the people who log into the course website to check it out, maybe skim through the first module, but generally don’t do much beyond that. They have whole sections of their harddrive dedicated to eBooks they’ve never read. Their inbox is full of unopened email courses. They make up an estimated 10-15% of your course participants.

And they’re the ones that, if you’re not careful, will drive you absolutely NUTS. I mean, you’re glad they decided to buy (more money is always good, right?) but it’s kind of uncomfortable. You feel like they’re not actually learning anything, and it makes you feel like somehow you’ve ripped them off. In truth, they are more likely to pick and choose the bits that feel important to them.

#3 The Vast Majority: Passive Participants

And then there’s the rest. 70-80% of students in online courses are passive participants.

They read the materials, watch the videos, maybe even take some notes now and again. But they are there primarily to consume information; they’re unlikely to do things like participating in discussions, doing activities or worksheets, and doing assessments (either self-tests or actual quizzes) unless they have to in order to progress.

If you were to assign grades, these would be your “solid C-students”. They won’t rock your world, but they’re definitely learning and progressing, and will show modest success as a result of going through your program.

Why These Three Types Matter

Clearly, we all love rock-star testimonials and want to see every one of our students rocking the world. This means that, when you create your course, you might be tempted to spend a lot of time and effort trying to convince lurkers and passive participants to turn into active participants. After all, you don’t want to teach to the lowest common denominator, especially when the research is clear that hands-on learning is far superior.

The truth is, great curriculum CAN help encourage participation, but if a lurker wants to stay a lurker, you (and your business) will be better served by focusing your attention on those who actually want to learn and succeed.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be an either-or proposition. You don’t have to focus exclusively on your active, and to hell with everyone else. In fact, you can actually leverage your understanding of these different types to give them what they want – and grow your revenues as a result.

What you do is let people self-select into the offer that is the right fit for them.

What They Really Want

Let’s break it down. Each of these types of students has a particular perspective of what they want and need in a course; what they think they need to be able to get out of it, to be successful in their own minds:

The LURKER wants something they can pick up, skim through, and put down. Rinse, repeat. They want a quick reference, maybe some checklists, so they can get quick wins without actually investing a whole bunch of time into the details.

The PASSIVE PARTICIPANT wants some meat to chew on. They love content, and feeling like they’re learning how things work. Give them lots of information to work through, help them feel like their mind is being blown. What they don’t need is a bunch of exercises, one-on-one attention or opportunities for application.

The ACTIVE PARTICIPANT wants it ALL. They are hungry to not just learn at a conceptual level; they want to get their hands dirty. Worksheets, case studies, coaching calls, discussion boards, practice material, quizzes, homework… the more the better. Bring it on.

Sell More By Giving Them What They Want

As always, knowing what your buyers really want is the key to making a sale that leaves them feeling like they got their money’s worth.

Try to sell an active participant a course that consists of a few readings with few if any activities, and they’ll feel ripped off. Give a lurker a fully-developed interactive learning experience, and they’ll be overwhelemed.

The secret, then, is to create multiple offers: one for each group.

This isn’t a new concept – Nathan Barry, for example, has a three-tier model at the core of his pricing strategy. He advocates this model because of the plethora of evidence out there that shows that you will make more money just by offering different packages at different price points, due to a phenomenon known as price anchoring. (Not familiar with price anchoring? Here’s more from Nathan)

But when creating your package offerings, you have the opportunity to also align your offers to appeal to lurkers, passive participants and active participants.

[Tweet “When selling a course, align offers to lurkers, passive participants AND active participants.”]

Your lowest offer is for the 15% or so of people that are lurkers. Maybe it’s just an eBook – something that can be browsed, skimmed, and digested independently (or not at all).

The middle offer targets the 80% majority. The passive participants will be drawn to the additional “meat” you provide through the addition of incredibly powerful content. Videos. Audio. Interviews. How-To Guides.

And the top-tier “you get everything” option is for the 5% active participants, with activities, exercises, worksheets, assessments, opportunities for feedback and discussion.

By aligning your packages to the intention of each of these customers, you’ll not only see better sales and revenues, but your course will be seen as higher value because it actually hits the mark for what they are looking for. It even leads to better retention, as shown in this great article from Educause.

What It All Comes Down To

Like I said off the top, the sooner you realize that you’ve got these different types of students looking at your products, the sooner you’ll be able to adjust your offers and messaging to take advantage of it. And that means better results for them, better sales for you, and happier customers overall.

Now, if you’ve found this article useful, I’d like you to do two things for me:

1) Leave a comment telling me about how you’ve encountered the three types of students in your business.

2) Do you know someone that keeps trying to sell the wrong packages to the wrong types of students? Or worse, someone that is always trying to sell ‘lurker’ stuff to ‘active participants’ (or vice versa)? Share this article with them.