Recently, I received an email from my middle schooler's superintendent. “On March 15th, our teachers receive the COVID-19 vaccine; students will partake in asynchronous learning from home.” My first response? *Sigh* Yet another ball thrown to the juggling act of ongoing work-and-learn-from home saga. Once I made note of the logistics on my calendar, my next thought brought into question the quality of the education. What will my pre-teen truly take away from a series of pre-recorded videos casually viewed between Snapchats? It’s only a day, but still – isn’t it easier to just take the day off?

Working in the field of online course marketing, I know I’m not the only one who feels this way. 

Asynchronous learning – the general phrase used to describe forms of education that do not occur in the same place or at the same time - has a perception problem. For many, it falls into the realm of “anytime” content, lacking in timely relevance and meaningful engagement. Students who don’t (or can’t) truly focus on the material can be less likely to absorb the information. The effectiveness of the outcome – and value of the course - is greatly diminished.

Research proves the efficacy of live, synchronous learning over pre-recorded alternatives. Different studies have found that, while engaged with synchronous learning as compared to asynchronous learning, students (a) can find means of communication, (b) tend to be focused, (c) feel a greater sense of contribution, and (d) experience better assignment/course completion rates (Chen to You, 2007; Hrastinski, 2010)*

If asynchronous learning is so problematic, why do the vast majority of online courses succeed with this format?

I think we can all agree that this autonomy has many benefits and removes a primary barrier to entry – scheduling issues. Students can participate on their own timeframe without the obstacle of a planned commitment. For middle schoolers, this obviously isn’t a problem – they plan to be in school every weekday from 8-ish am – 3-ish pm. But what about the bartender seeking a career shift to web development? She may not be able to make your virtual web training classes every Friday at 7pm.

Many of our online course clients who’ve started their businesses with live learning cohorts have made the switch – in part or in full – to asynchronous learning. These offerings generally come with a lower price tag because prospects place higher value on instructor and community engagement. This cost differential is often made up in the advantage of residual income without additional resources – while Sally’s taking your web training course at 2am after her restaurant shift, you’re making money in your sleep.

Sometimes, the nature of the topic requires a shift to asynchronous format.

One of our clients, a pediatrician, had an idea to do a live parenting course for first year parents with live sessions each month. This concept is fantastic in theory, especially from a community standpoint – parents can not only gain timely advice from the physician at each stage of development, but also lean on their peer community for support.

From a marketing perspective, this posed a challenge. How would we reach late-stage pregnant prospects at just the right time, then convince them to commit to a course on specific days when they weren’t sure how their schedules would change with a new baby in the house? This limited window of opportunity dramatically reduced our volume of target prospects and the odds of filling a cohort of dozens of engaged new parents were slim.

Before we invested serious marketing dollars in this concept, we surveyed prospective participants to ensure the approach was sound. In a survey of target prospects, we asked:

What is your preferred structure for this course?

  • Scheduled, one-hour live virtual sessions with the physician
  • Pre-recorded webinars featuring the physician that I can watch anytime
  • A blend of pre-recorded webinars and scheduled live virtual sessions as needed

Only 15% said that they would attend scheduled, one-hour virtual sessions with the physician. The majority of respondents preferred a blend of pre-recorded webinars with occasional scheduled time with the physician to answer specific questions. Additionally, when asked how important a community of parenting peers would be to their course experience the response was lukewarm, disproving our theory that new parents craved community interaction.

The next time you survey your prospects or students, be sure to add a structuring question like this to the mix. You may be surprised by the answer.

Whether you’re considering how to format your first course or you’re thinking of pivoting to asynchronous learning, here are some best practice considerations to make the effort worth your while.

Use asynchronous learning as your entry offering and upsell live instruction. We’ve structured our Online Course Marketing Playbook in this way. Ambitious course builders on a limited budget can DIY each chapter and worksheet series at their own pace and walk away with an actionable marketing plan that works. For those who need more support and guidance along the way, we offer a weekly accountability meeting with a one-on-one course marketing consultant at a higher price.

Put your (or your instructor’s) face forward in the materials. People like to learn from people. Rather than (or in addition to) a basic slide show or assigned worksheets with very little interaction, include videos featuring the instructor. One study* on asynchronous learning found that the use of videos impacts the learners' feeling of association with their instructor. The author discovered that in courses that included teacher videos, as compared to the courses that did not utilize videos, students could overcome the feeling of being at distance from the instructor.

We’ve found that one of the easiest, most cost-effective ways to produce these videos is with Loom.

Upsell 1:1 or 1:few one-time supplemental workshops. After the course is complete, a one-time, focused session on a specialized or complex topic is an easy way to ensure your students are getting the live attention they deserve without the commitment of long-term scheduling. Price this session by the hour or package it with a discount for volume.

Some learning communities, like our friends at Predictive ROI, offer free virtual gatherings to their members a few times a month featuring expert speakers on topics related to their expertise. This is a great way to cultivate relationships with your students and stay top-of-mind for future upsell opportunities.

Update asynchronous content often to give people a reason for coming back. Tracy Anderson, a leading force in the at-home workout space, creates three new workouts each week without missing a beat. After each workout, she speaks directly into the camera for a “weekly pep talk” to keep subscribers motivated. She encourages participants to work out daily, if possible, working to improve the routines before the next content switch. She has also supplemented asynchronous content with live class options for an additional cost.

Position live courses as scarce. If you’ve had success with your live course cohorts, it’s likely this format will continue to work for you. Consider reducing the frequency of your live offerings so they’re positioned as limited – both in time and space. This allows you ample time to build a marketing runway and elevates these options to premium in the midst of “always available” content.

Use asynchronous content as a marketing or trial tool. Test a few asynchronous webinars of your most popular topics to use as a lead capture (access for free in return for giving up an email address) or at a minimal cost, allowing prospective students to trial your content without a full commitment.

Shifting your course structure to a blend of asynchronous learning often opens the door to new revenue for your business while bringing added value and convenience to your learning community. Let’s brainstorm ideas together! Contact a Muse online course marketing specialist to discuss your course structuring strategy.

About the Author

Jackie Bebenroth is Founder and Chief Brand Advisor of Muse. She works alongside leading brands and executives to develop strategic positioning and messaging strategies that set the stage for long-term success. Her work, from local restaurant branding to six-figure global initiatives, has flown her around the country to speak on the art of content marketing. Jackie has earned a number of accolades, most notably a SXSW Interactive finalist award, the American Advertising Federation’s 40 under 40 award and Content Marketing Institute’s Content Marketing Leader of the Year.

*Chen to You, 2007; Hrastinski, 2010

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