How to promote and measure the performance of your online courses

What’s CXL’s secret to successfully promoting online courses? We chatted with Alex Atkins to find out.

You'll learn

  • How to launch and promote your online courses
  • How the CXL team integrates storytelling into course launches
  • How to measure your promotion campaign performance
  • How to increase retention rate with cross-selling activities
  • What the best and worst campaigns Alex and his team have ever run are

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Anna Shutko:

Awesome. We have a very, very interesting topic in store for you today. So CXL is now a very well-established marketing academy with over 60 courses. Alex, my first question is what marketing activities do you do to promote your courses? And, how did you choose your target audiences? Because every single course has its own audience, and would really love to learn how you can combine it all together into a sound strategy. And, if you could share any tools or methods you used, perhaps you’d share about it.

Alex Atkins:

Yeah, absolutely. To start with, at first, that first part, so the marketing activities when it comes to promoting courses. It’s a great question for us right now, as we are currently shifting in a lot of ways, our promotional activities around course launches. This came about at the start of 2021; the leadership team met up and came up with some high-priority initiatives to execute in Q1. For the growth department, for the marketing department, one of those was building a repeatable promotion playbook for course launches.

So traditionally, we had taken a bit of a laissez-faire approach to launching new courses. We would schedule a webinar, set up static ads, basic email drip, launch. I guess you could call it more of a half-baked social campaign. I guess in truth, what I’m getting at is that our playbook for promoting these courses was relatively basic. Again, really this year, we started chatting about it as a leadership team, and I was turned onto Jeff Walker’s product launch formula, which is an absolute game-changer for me and the way I think about product launches. Or, in CXL’s case, course launches. Among other launches, but course launches primarily as that’s what happens quite often with CXL.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of Jeff Walker or familiar with his works. Or his, I guess you could call it, his secret launch formula. But, I do recommend his book, which I read called Launch. I won’t dive too deep into the methodology and the formula, but it’s cool and important in the way I look at how we do course launches now. It heavily revolves around three primary elements, being storytelling as one of those sequences and triggers.

So stories are how humans have communicated for thousands and thousands of years. They really engage other humans; they’re really natural. I guess you’d call it a genuine, organic narrative means of communication. So we are able to work with our instructors when they’re creating these courses, and we’re able to pull these stories that create some authenticity around who they are as an individual, how they came into the place and world they are in now, and how they became this authoritative figure in the space within the course that they are teaching. It’s not just about answering specific questions; it’s telling a story of their journey to relay that.

So sequences are basically this methodical approach to execute the promotion strategy. So it’s you organize the structure to set up this step-by-step piece and then implementation of a series of stories. We want to get multiple stories that we can basically aggregate into this sequence with the triggers, the final piece being the mental trigger, an ability to influence an action or launch these sequences. So triggers, the way I think of them, is Cialdini’s six or seven principles of influence. How do we create some scarcity? For instance, within some of these sequences that we’re putting out to promote these stories, which will hopefully get you interested in whatever the topic or subject matter is, based on this individual’s, their storyline.

With all these said, our team at CXL is starting to use this framework, working directly, again, with those instructors, as I was saying, to create videos, and blogs, and podcasts, and live virtual events. All these really cool things to launch courses in 2021, and we use video quite a bit. I think that one of our competitive advantages is our ability to quickly create, edit, and produce pretty excellent video content. That’s what I’m trying to specifically use, and it’s a great way to tell stories through video. I’m really trying to use that specifically as a tool to tell these stories within these sequences, and of course, layering in triggers to get folks to take the actions we want them to take when it comes to starting this new course.

That’s a little bit more into how we’re going to build up promoting courses. I think the second piece of that question was how do we choose the audiences, the target audiences. That’s also really a quite interesting focus for our team, as we’ve basically been taking this … We’ve been ramping up our initiatives to utilize and leverage our CDP, or custom data platform, Hull, which is the tool we’re using right now. One of my colleagues, Kyle Burger, who’s a Rev Ops manager, has been implementing this and owning this for quite a while now. So having this can be described as a single customer view, we found the personalization of the customer experience to be a super powerful tool when it comes to selecting audiences. So specifically, the segmentation and the nurturing of those audiences. We have demographic and firmographic, and behavioral, and all this information, this data, within this unified customer profile, which makes it super easy for our team to effectively nurture those prospective subscribers.

I guess examples of this; this is a good example because we’re just in the midst of launching a new course, R For Marketers. Let’s say we’re launching this new course, and a prospective subscriber expresses interest in a specific blog related to R For Python, which is, of course, a blog post we’re going to be publishing in time with this course launch. We can personalize that individual’s ad experience to focus on our course or technical marketing mini degree, which it falls under. Not always, but quite often, use other tools within Hull that connect really well with Hull to enrich information, to allow us to find some firmographic or demographic information, and allows us to serve them with better course options. Basically mentioning that, we’ve connected Hull with Clearbit to enrich customer information., which is our automated email, or I’d say more messaging system. Intercom, HubSpot, various tools. Audiences like Facebook, for instance, enrich data and strengthen our execution within paid as well.

Now, we’re not just sending everyone these email drips, but we’re targeting them with paid ads, with specific messages. If they express interest in a specific focus or blog subject, or webinar, to actually target them, then towards a course that we think would best fit them. That’s how we’re building out those audiences with Hull and these other tools. What’s also cool about that is if individuals have a high engagement on our courses, if they’re in a trial period and they are for seven days … Right now, we have a $1 seven-day trial period. We can choose to further nurture those individuals, in-app, through and Intercom, versus just your standard email drip if that individual is not highly engaged. And then, we get to determine what high engagement is, based on how people are using or basically engaging with our courses.

That’s a little bit on the tools and the methods that we use to engage, nurture beyond that traditional nurture flow that folks would put up, even just a few years ago, before they had this CDP access and this central, individual view. Yeah, that’s a little bit more into how we promote the courses, how we choose our audiences, and the tools we use to get that promotion done.

Anna Shutko:

All right, fantastic. I really love the playbook you described, and clearly, there are quite many tools you are using. It’s Clearbit, HubSpot you mentioned, Facebook, and running all the video campaigns. Yeah.

My next question is now, given that you have so many tools and most probably a lot of data about every single individual campaign, can you please tell me more, how do you measure the success of these campaigns? If we imagine a funnel where you’re trying to attract, first of all, people who have never heard about CXL through a course, and then someone who’s on a seven-day trial to purchase the subscription or start another course. How would you measure the success of these campaigns? Which metrics would you track? And, my next question would be, what reports should you have in place to track data coming from all these different tools successfully and make sense of this data?

Alex Atkins:

Yeah, for sure. Absolutely. That second part, on the reporting side, is an interesting element of it as well. I worked, early on, to define what success was within our group, with Peep, our CEO, and founder. I believe we have a pretty good understanding of our user data right now, as it pertains to course consumption, and I think specific to course launching, course launches, that is a pretty massive success metric for us. Basically, after aggregating a ton of our data within the consumption of these courses, we can paint a pretty clear baseline or expectation of what we want to see when we launch a course.

There’s obviously a spectrum there, and it differs based on the application of the course and how broad the topic is the specific content. Whether it’s a course on branding, which applies to a large audience, or if it’s like I was mentioning before, R For Marketers, which is a smaller audience. And then, there’s the difficulty of the course that determines how many of our subscribers, new subscribers, or engaged users will be able to take it immediately once it’s released. So we have these baselines laid out based on the different courses’ difficulty levels and how applicable they are to larger audiences.

But, with that baseline information, with the revamp of our new course promotion, we can now see how the engagement changes for new courses that are getting launched, that we can map out to some of these other courses, how well they launched without much promotion at all. That’s our baseline. We have this new promotional strategy; we can determine whether or not we’re driving a significant volume of trial signups from these specific course landing pages that we’re now promoting pretty actively. We can see whether or not folks are engaging with the course content. That’s, I think, even more, important to me.

It’s not necessarily whether somebody starts a trial from a specific course page, obviously indicating that they have a lot of interest in that specific course, but how engaged they are once they start that course. Are they making it through 25% of the content, 50% of the content, 100% of the content? Some of our courses range from one hour to five hours, to 10 hours. We have pretty long courses, so it’s really how they engage with that course once it’s been launched. That, for me, is how we determine the success of our course launch campaigns. And again, these metrics, as far as it goes for video consumption, we have a specific dashboard to see how, basically, the behavior happens within each of those specific courses. So that’s one dashboard that I keep a close eye on when we do have course launches.

That said, though, that course launches. When we take a look at, again, CXL’s growth loops, from a step back, there are other metrics that I keep a very close eye on. Honestly, I report weekly to leadership in the greater organization. Some of these happened earlier in the growth loops; some of these happened a little bit later. But, a couple of these metrics, I guess, would include emails that we’re generating, unique emails generated week-over-week. I would say that that’s one important metric for us to keep a close on, proceeding with the trials. Of course, then after the trials, what is our converted trial count each week?

We have several active campaigns running at any given time to boost these metrics or to focus specifically on driving these metrics. I set a quarterly goal for both, for all emails captured, trials started, trials converted. And then, of course, the LTV of the individuals who are on our platform, based on the specific subscription that they’ve started with us and how those are trending. So I set the goals, and then we check in on those, we go over weekly with the greater organization to [inaudible 00:14:59] transparency around how we’re pacing on these goals and how they influence, ultimately, the revenue for the company.

There’s plenty of reports; our team has built a lot of these reports, so custom builds. But also, I think when I came into the organization, there were so many different tools we were using; I was reviewing multiple reports on different platforms. And I still am, in some respect. I still check into a few different tools at any given time. I was able to consolidate a lot of these reports into a single analytical dashboard, which I can jump into a little bit more on what it is I look into this dashboard. But, I still use Google Analytics plenty for traffic data. And I use this tool called [inaudible 00:15:43] for revenue-related information, LTV, LTV to CAC, stuff like that. But, I try to keep tabs on a lot of our leading indicators and a lot of these metrics I was mentioning before within a single dashboard that I log into every day. Not that that is necessarily the best idea, but I do keep a really close eye on that specific dashboard.

Anna Shutko:

All right, that sounds awesome. Thank you for providing such a comprehensive answer. It does sound like you’re running lots of different campaigns with lots of different goals, which is amazing.

But, I wanted to dive in specifically more into cross-selling activities you are doing now. Can you please tell me which campaigns are you running to improve retention? And then, another question here would be what metrics are you tracking to understand whether you’ve successfully completed your goal there?

Alex Atkins:

Sure, sure. Cross-selling activities and improving retention, both initiatives that have been totally focused on by me, by Peep, by some of the other folks on the team. By some of the folks on the product team, as well. Obviously, trying to answer the goal of how do we keep folks on the platform for extended periods of time, increases that LTV.

I guess the simplest answer here … Yeah, this is the simplest answer here. I would say it’s our mini degrees. Our cross-selling activities are our mini degrees. So outside of specific course launches, which we’ve been talking about right now, I like to focus our budget primarily, and resources, on promoting mini degrees. These are really in-depth training programs, I like to refer to them as pathways as well, but taking you from a novice learner to an expert or practitioner in that specific focus. We have a handful of these specializations, including commercial optimization, digital analytics, growth marketing, technical marketing. And these specializations are how I focus on these cross-sells because we’re able to aggregate a ton of these courses that allow you to simply cross-sell to the individual, whether it’s through a subscription, or through a purchase of a specific mini degree which we also offer, a la carte, those mini degrees.

But, beyond I guess the fact that having one of our students enroll in a mini degree drastically increases that retention and LTV, it’s also very on-brand for CXL, which I think is incredibly important. We really are working on getting folks to take that next course, to cross-sell the next opportunity, the next course, through this mini degree. We’re improving retention because these mini degrees are very long. I was mentioning a minute ago how long our courses are. Our mini degrees are dozens of courses pulled together to create this pathway and specialization. It’s an excellent way for us to cross-sell, it’s an excellent way for us to promote the CXL brand.

We’re pitching a marketing career transformation, here. We’re for those folks who are looking to take that seriously in their career, and to get that next job, to get that next promotion. We’re not really, interestingly enough, even though we’ve been talking a lot about course promotions, we’re not all about selling a course or training, per se, we’re talking about that serious growth. This allows us to reach the right audience for CXL, which is really important for us because, typically, that audience consists of folks that are in it for the long haul. So that really assists with the cross-selling, that really assists in improving retention for us. Hopefully, that answers that cross-selling and retention question.

Anna Shutko:

Yeah, definitely. It makes a lot of sense and I love the mini degrees, by the way.

Alex Atkins:

Oh, thank you.

Anna Shutko:

And I think every single marketer should take them, really. No, they’re amazing.

Alex Atkins:

That’s awesome.

Anna Shutko:

Another thing I was really curious about because you mentioned that you run a variety of campaigns whether it’s cross-promotion, promoting mini degrees, or just attracting different kinds of audiences to take the courses. Can you please tell me what was your most successful marketing campaign? And following that, who did you target more specifically? And, how did you analyze the results? So I’m really interested to know what kind of conclusions you’ve arrived at, and how you’ve arrived at these conclusions after analyzing the data.

Alex Atkins:

Yeah. That is a really good question, and there have been several marketing campaigns. Not all successful, by the way, so far since I joined CXL. Some are, some aren’t, that’s just how it works.

Yeah, okay. So I’ve used this example in the past, but it’s one of my favorites so I’m going to roll with it. It focuses a bit on retention, it focuses a bit on bringing in the right kind of subscriber, and then retaining them, and then converting them to be a paid subscriber with CXL hopefully for the long haul. There were some promotions that went around this in building this output. This is actually an interesting one, and I do like it because I was able to track the success very clearly here.

But, back in I guess early, mid-2020, we had … I started a seven-day trial with CXL, early on in my days when I joined. We had this free trial going, we weren’t generating a ton of volume for trials. And honestly, our conversion rate from a seven-day trial to a paid user was relatively low. It wasn’t long after I launched free trials that I replaced our free trials with seven-day $1 trials. And, this required folks to provide credit card information upfront. Peep and I knew that this would obviously create more friction upfront, but in a way, we decided that could ultimately lead to more serious folks going through the motions to start a trial so we decided it might be worth it. We figured okay, we might limit the volume but we’ll increase the conversion rate of folks that do join.

So we rolled out that seven-day $1 trial. Unfortunately though, while our trial volume didn’t drop significantly, the conversion rate of those trials didn’t really increase much either. Which didn’t really make a lot of sense, people were providing credit card information upfront, it was an easy click to convert after the seven-day trial period. In fact, they really didn’t have to do anything at this point so you’d think it would go up pretty significantly, it didn’t. So that’s when I decided to test out personal video messaging with this tool called Bonjoro, which I highly recommend, it’s been amazing for CXL.

So, personal video messages. Basically, my hypothesis was that if we could convert new trials more effectively by sending a personalized video to welcome them within 24 hours of starting their trial, who knew how much better they would convert, but that they would convert better. So I tested this hypothesis out by sending personalized welcome videos, by myself, to 50% of trial sign-ups over the course of the next several weeks, over the course of the next month. Basically, I was able to take a decent volume of trial sign-ups every day, make sure 50% received this personalized welcome video and 50% just went through the standard nurture flow to get them to convert. I was able to conclude that this test audience, this group that was receiving these personalized videos, was 18% more likely to convert than our control audience, out of the total 100% of trailers.

These messages, by the way, were about 30 seconds to a minute, it featured me in my home office, basically just explaining how excited I was that they were joining, that they were there for them throughout the entirety of their journey. If they ever had any questions, especially within the first seven days of joining CXL, I’d be more than happy to answer those questions for them. It created this sense of transparency, it created this sense of access to me because they could then respond to those messages and I would be able to respond right back to them, very quickly, through a messaging platform. It really provided a more human touch.

Since that original test, by the way, we were recently looking at some of these conversion metrics, we’ve continued to optimize that process. I’ve brought in more teammates to help me with it, so I have plenty of folks at CXL, and I do believe it makes a difference when you have several different folks at CXL round-robin these incoming inbound trials. We’ve also expanded these personalized messages to other elements of the business. So when somebody completes a mini degree, they get their own personalized outreach and message to congratulate them on a job well done. Spending hundreds of hours on one focus and being able to accomplish that is an amazing, amazing thing and we all express how excited and genuinely proud we are of those individuals. That’s another example. We use these for webinars, we’ve used these for live virtual events. So Bonjoro messages, the campaigns that we have, are incredibly successful for us when it comes to converting folks.

But now, we’re honestly coming back to those trial tests. We’ve continued to optimize the experience, and we’ve seen close to a 40% increase in trial conversions, which is insane. At times, we’re converting upwards of 50% of our trials within a specific week, and on the low end, roughly 42%. So it’s an amazing success story about the ability to provide this new, unique experience for folks through their journey with CXL, to drastically, seriously increase conversions. Basically, wherever we’ve implemented these campaigns.

That is what I would say is probably the most successful marketing campaign, to be able to maybe not drive a higher volume of trials, but for sure convert way higher. And then, maintain LTV, build LTV, build retention through these campaigns as well. I would say that is the best growth campaign we’ve had so far, and that’s how we’ve gone about analyzing the results on how successful it was when we initially rolled it out, but how it’s continued to provide more and more success as we’ve continued to optimize that process.

Anna Shutko:

That’s fantastic. I really, really love this story, thank you so much for sharing.

Alex Atkins:


Anna Shutko:

I really loved how there is a topic of personalization that seems to be flowing throughout your whole marketing efforts.

So Alex, now I’m pretty sure everybody’s super excited to take any CXL course or mini degree.

Alex Atkins:

I hope so, I hope so. I enjoy them, personally, I can say that. I take these courses all the time and also, like you, I like them. I think they’re pretty good.

Anna Shutko:

They are, they’re amazing. I really love that the whole professionalism level of instructors is extremely high there.

Alex Atkins:

Totally, absolutely.

Anna Shutko:

Yeah. Now, where can the audience learn more about you, if they’d like to?

Alex Atkins:

Oh, sure. Well, you can find me on LinkedIn, I’d love to connect with other growth marketers, digital analysts. Please, CROs, feel free to contact me up on LinkedIn, I’m just at Alex-N-Atkins. So that’s Alex-N as in Nancy-Atkins on LinkedIn. And I’m also regularly posting about my adventures on Instagram as well, at @alexandtheelements. So feel free to connect with me on either of those platforms, would love to chat and connect.

Anna Shutko:

Amazing, thank you so much. Thank you so much for bringing awesome energy to the show.

Alex Atkins:

Oh, absolutely. Thank you for the awesome energy, it’s a lot of fun. This has been a great chat. I really, really appreciate it, thank you for having me on.

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