Anatomy of a Great Online Catalog

Create a catalog that's good for your students (and search engines too!)

by Monique Bouchard, CourseStorm

Think Like a Student

Almost everyone has gotten, at some time, a class catalog in the mail and experienced it by flipping through, looking at photos, skimming titles, and speed-reading class descriptions until something interesting crosses our path. The tactile nature helps us remember, and we can often recall the organization of the content enough to flip back to something that grabbed our attention.

But what do you do when your catalog is primarily online? How do you keep the same sense of discovery and catch someone’s interest while enabling a streamlined digital experience?

Like a physical catalog, it’s about vision. When you look at a class catalog through the eyes of your students, what do you see?

Do you see visions of your future? The refinished table in the middle of your kitchen? Presenting gourmet cupcakes at the next family event? Successfully reading an English language newspaper? Starting a new career thanks to a welding certification? Entertaining everyone you know with ukulele singalongs?

Fortunately, it’s not difficult to create an online catalog that helps your students find what they want —and be inspired to find something new as well!

What can programs do to improve their online catalogs?

No matter what the focus is of an educational opportunity, one thing that all classes, workshops, and events have in common is the need for vivid and arresting descriptions. You can’t expect people to enroll in courses that they don’t understand or that aren’t clear about the benefits offered.

What you can do is offer your online visitors an experience that motivates by planning your class names, categories, and descriptions to maximize their effect. A great online catalog can improve class registration numbers and your adult learners’ vision of how your classes can help them.

Class Descriptions 101 

image of a class catalog with components as described below

Optimize Your Class Names

Use clean, descriptive class names.

A catchy but clear and descriptive class name is critical.

Forgo class numbers, season words, or other program identifiers unless they’re critical for your organization. Simple, straightforward, readable titles are helpful for those who are reading (and, bonus, also for search engines!)

Use the same class names in each season/catalog.

If the program runs the same class in different catalogs, use the same class name each time. This consistency helps reduce possible confusion and keeps your student from wondering, “have I taken this class or not?” (If you’re using a course registration system that prevents you from doing this, aspire for consistency any way you can, with minimal change.)

For example, if a class runs in multiple catalogs, consistent naming helps with clarity. “Watercolor for Beginners” is easy to identify as a class someone has either taken or not. However, “Watercolors in Winter” is likely a different class. Is it the same as “Watercolors in Spring” or not?

Give your students a break and make it easy for them when registration opens!

(For more on naming classes, check out our post “Creating Class Names that Attract.”)

Influence With An Image

Ideally, you will have the ability to include an image that will help a prospective student see the outcome of the class, something that will produce a vision of what could be. If you don’t have the ability, focus on what you can —the words and tone of your content, and your catalog’s ease of use. (If you’re having trouble finding the perfect image, check out our post on finding great pictures for your program.)

Use Categories

Categories help us to organize and sort, making them exceptionally useful for online catalogs. Categories help to group similar kinds of classes and make it easy for people to look for and find classes.

The more specific you can be when applying categories, the better. Seek the balance between overly generic and too specific. The goal is to logically group clusters of related classes. You’ll be able to identify your categories as you think through what classes match each other.

Some categories that are broad, yet specific enough to be useful, include things like:

  • Kids Classes
  • Workforce Development
  • Fitness
  • Finance
  • Music and Dance
  • Arts and Crafts
  • Computer Skills

For example, the category “Cooking” is precise but not too specific. You know the kinds of classes to expect in “Cooking.” It’s less vague than “Personal Enrichment” is and, therefore, more useful at helping someone follow a vision. (Mmmm, gourmet cupcakes!) On the other hand, “French Cuisine” may be too specific (unless you run a cooking school!) But this is where subcategories come in!

Add Subcategories When You Can.

If you’re using a format or system that allows subcategories, they’re an excellent way to help make your offerings clear to people. For example, you may have lots of classes in workforce development, but they also may cover a broad array of topics. For a category of “Workforce Development,” some subcategories might include:

  • Workforce Development
    • Skills and Employment
    • Job Training
    • Computers and Technology
    • Healthcare
    • Business Training
    • Transportation
    • Construction
    • Welding and Metalwork
    • Finance

It’s easy to imagine the kinds of classes that would fit neatly in each subcategory while also recognizing the possible diversity of topics that can fit in each too.

Offer a Vivid Class Description

Focus On the Reader

Aspire to write the class description to someone. Using “you” will make people envision themselves in a class more than “participants” or “students.” Rather than begin with, “This course will…” direct the content to help the reader envision an outcome.

Answer the “Why” Not Just the “What”

“Why should I take this class” is the ultimate question to answer. When you have a vision for an outcome, it’s easier to imagine yourself doing something (like taking the class), succeeding, and then accomplishing your goal. It’s the same for your students!

Answering “what will happen if I enroll in this class,” will help propel a student toward a goal and the vision helps set them up for success. ( Visioning is pretty cool. Check out this article from to see how powerful it can be! ) At the end of the class, you want your students to be able to do something new. Using student-focused “why” language will move people to the registration form more effectively. 

Be Brief But Beefy

Your description should be between a few sentences and a couple of paragraphs. (60-200 words or so.) If the course description is too brief, it may seem too insignificant to take. If it’s too long and overly detailed, people may skim and not pay attention. When creating a class description, you also want to consider what potential students will be searching for online and include keywords that they might use. For example, for our cooking class, your description would include words like “food”, “cuisine”, “meals”, etc.  It’s worth noting that this is helpful not only for your students but also for the search engine optimization of your website content.

Even though you may have endless space online, you don’t need to take advantage of that all at once. Leave the fine details for the class syllabus or a pdf class description. Don’t overwhelm your visitors with too much information. (You want to offer the trailer, not the whole movie! Spoilers are, however, encouraged!)

Use a Keen Lead-In

Inspiring text may take more thought than a list of things offered by the “This course will…” format, but it makes a big difference in motivation and vision. Keep thinking about the student, and you can’t go wrong. The lead-in to your class may be your make-or-break content, so it’s worth polishing! 

You can capture attention quickly with a clear class description, an explanation of the end result, a question, or relevant facts. You can also add in some verbal flair to excite and entice with something clever or witty that will resonate with your audience.

Real Examples of a Great Lead-In

York Adult Education is an adult and community education program with diverse class offerings on dozens of topics. Their class descriptions are always catchy and entertaining, whether it’s for an enrichment class, basic adult education class, or workforce development. Here are some first lines from actual classes offered by York’s adult education program.

  • When you sing in the car, do you imagine that you are singing a solo in church, singing a song for that special someone, rocking karaoke, or harmonizing in a music group?
  • Gluten-free doesn’t have to be flavor-free!
  • Most of us complain about what we don’t have. In this course, you will learn how to create a compelling statement of what you do want and also learn several techniques on how to get what you want.
  • Have you ever thought about a job/career in hairstyling, skincare, or professional make-up?
  • The healthcare industry is one of the fastest-growing industries in Maine and is expected to generate the largest number of jobs in Maine between 2016 and 2026.

With openers like this, who wouldn’t want to enroll in these classes? 

Introduce the Instructor

While you want your message to remain centered on the student, information about the instructor can provide a compelling reason to take a class. It’s worth taking the time to add instructor information to the bottom of your class description (or in the appropriate area if your registration system supports it.)

An instructor’s experience, focus, and reputation all contribute to the vision of what a student will have of their class experience. You only need a couple of sentences. If your instructors are ok with it, a link to their LinkedIn profile will give students a chance to learn more if they choose.

Other Details

Your class catalog also needs the price, the class schedule, and information about where the class is held. Every system will display these elements a little differently but they’re important parts of the whole. 

An online catalog has the benefit of linking easily to anywhere online. You could add a link to a brief video about the class, or a testimonial from a past student. A couple of mp3 downloads of the last ukulele class finale are a fine way to let your student envision (or enlisten?) the results. An article about the need for registered nurses for the next 10 years could be a solid influencer for someone looking for a career path. You have endless resources to use, so use them creatively and thoughtfully. 

The Registration Link

Of course, one of the most important pieces of information can’t be overlooked —an easy and straightforward way for someone to register for your class once they decide to take it! If you’ve done all this careful work to make effective catalog entries, you don’t want to lose everything with a complicated registration system. Whether online or offline, be sure that you have a low-friction way for your students to immediately register for the class that has influenced them. Make your call to action with an obvious link or a button that takes your students to your mail-in registration form or online shopping cart where they can check out and pay. 

The Whole Package

When your catalog has categories, subcategories, evocative photos, interesting writing, all the details, and a quick path to registration your program will reap the benefits. 

image of an individual class entry in a CourseStorm catalog with components as described above

A well-designed online catalog will empower your students to easily discover the classes they want and answer the question, “Why should I take this class today?” If you have all the elements, you’ll find that your online catalog will entice and delight your students as they register for classes every session, and their experiences will bring them back again! 


If you’re a CourseStorm customer, the suggestions made in this article about class names, categories, and descriptions also help optimize your classes for our automatic student recommendation emails. Our automated recommendation engine sends personalized suggestions for upcoming classes to your students based on classes and courses they’ve taken before. If you’d like to learn more about how to enable it in your CourseStorm catalog, visit our help site and reach out to our customer support team who are happy to help.