Welcome to the first post in our blog series reflecting CourseStorm’s core values: Simplicity, Growth, and Helpfulness. Our mission is to streamline access to education to empower personal growth through our impossibly simple course registration software. In this post, we’ll be discussing the value of simplicity.
If you don’t think of yourself as a marketer, and sometimes even if you do, course marketing can feel like a complex task with too many moving parts. You might find yourself wishing for marketing made simple—a way to do less, but still get great results. That is the very theme of the book Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less by Leidy Klotz.
Through research and anecdotes, Klotz explores how subtraction can help us address everything from climate change and racism to city planning and play. If subtraction could help in all those areas, couldn’t it also apply to course marketing? Let’s find out.
What Is Subtraction?
First, what does Leidy mean by subtraction? Clearly he’s not suggesting that first-grade math can change the world. Leidy writes that “subtraction is the act of getting to less, but it is not the same as doing less.”
In fact, it often takes effort and focus to subtract. But that effort is often worthwhile. In a world where we all have too much to do and experience near-constant information overload, choosing what to remove is a vital skill. Yet it’s a skill most of us never get the opportunity to develop.
Taking a simplified approach to our product allowed CourseStorm to grow more quickly.
“When we first built CourseStorm, we had a lot of interest from customers and investors in our product, but we weren’t moving fast enough,” CourseStorm CEO Brian Rahill said. “So we took what’s called the “MVP approach” — minimum viable product.”
“We took our 18-month plan to build out our software and instead cut it down to a 3-month plan. Taking this simplified, minimal approach allowed us to grow more quickly.”
Subtracting Can Be More Effective Than Adding
We often try to make our marketing more effective by adding. We add social media platforms, tools, and messaging. We invite more people into brainstorming meetings. Maybe we even hire a consultant who inevitably wants to add more ideas, more systems, more content.
For several reasons, we tend to overlook the option of subtraction even if it is the best choice.
Leidy and his colleagues ran a number of interesting experiments showing that this tendency to add goes beyond marketing. We tend to overlook the option of subtraction even if it is objectively the best choice. Leidy offers four reasons why we neglect subtraction:
- Bias. We don’t even think of it. This reason is influenced by the other three.
- Biology. We have a biological need to show competence, and subtraction is often less visible. We also tend to feel safer and more comfortable when we have more.
- Culture. Material culture is created by adding. We’ve added laws, religions, buildings, academic disciplines, clothing … the list goes on.
- Economics. After World War II, growth (that is, adding) was touted as a way to restore our economies and improve life for everyone.
Given these four reasons, it’s clear why we ignore subtraction. Fortunately, there are ways to help ourselves remember to consider it as a helpful strategy.
How to Apply Leidy Klotz’s Research
Klotz and his colleagues found that people were more likely to subtract if you reminded them it was an option. His book, and by extension, this article, are ways of bringing subtraction to your attention.
Leidy is quick to point out that this approach isn’t some kind of magic bullet. He doesn’t want you to view subtraction as an alternative to addition, but rather as a complement to it. Simplifying won’t solve every problem, but it is a solution worth investigating.
You can help yourself and your marketing team by:
- Mentioning subtraction. When asking for feedback, remind people that subtraction is an option. For example, you might say: “Here’s what I have so far, is there anything you’d like to add or take away from this document?”
- Inverting the idea. Words like subtract, remove, or take away can feel negative and trigger our loss aversion. Try using other words like simplify, reveal, or streamline to make subtraction more palatable.
- Asking for outside help. Get advice from an editor, consultant, or other person who is not emotionally connected to the work. Ask them what they would remove.
Where to Look for Opportunities to Subtract
Once we recognize that subtraction is an option, we can apply that knowledge to marketing. Here are a few places you might look for opportunities to subtract or simplify:
- Courses. Could removing a course or courses from your catalog free up resources for other, more popular or impactful programs?
- Tools. Do you really need all of the software you use? Are there ways to streamline or simplify to cut down on the mental load and task switching required by users?
- Messages. Every piece of marketing should have one, clear message, and your program should make a single promise to students. Are you trying to say too much?
- Marketing channels. It’s good to reach people where they are, but are you spreading yourself too thin by trying to be present on too many social media platforms or other marketing channels?
- Formats. Again, multiple formats can help you reach a wide range of potential students, but using too many formats can overwork your team and confuse your audience. Do you really need video, audio, text, images, gifs, memes, downloadables, etc.?
To make subtraction successful, you may need to zoom out and look at the whole system. Consider your goals and how the thing you’re considering letting go of influences those goals.
When you understand the system, you can find the leverage points most likely to cause the change you’re looking for.
Marketing Made Simple With Subtraction
If you want to simplify your marketing, try applying Leidy’s subtraction checklist.
1. Simplify before taking action
Simplify your thinking before you take action. If you start by trying to understand all the details that make up your marketing strategy, you’re going to be overwhelmed. Instead, boil it down to the main goals and actions.
“Subtracting unnecessary detail is how we clarify places and ways to intervene,” wrote Klotz.
For example, you may have a goal of registering more adult students for your theater classes. You plan to do this by reaching new audiences and strengthening relationships with existing audiences to encourage return registrations. Success will be measured by growth in registrations.
Clearly, these three sentences aren’t a full marketing strategy, but they’re useful as a starting point for subtraction. This simplified picture helps you keep the most important points in your working memory so you can make smart decisions about subtraction.
2. Subtract before adding
Before you try adding new platforms, tools, or messaging, consider what you can subtract. Keep in mind that subtracting early in a process often has ripple effects. For example, paring down your message to a single clear idea or promise is an early decision that affects everything from email to social media marketing to whether a student decides to register.
Something further down the chain, like subtracting a social media platform from your weekly posting list, has a more focused effect.
3. Persist to “noticeable less”
When subtracting, we often stop at good enough. But good enough probably isn’t the best we can do. Often noticeable less will also mean noticeable change. You won’t just shave a few minutes off your social media posting routine, you’ll fundamentally alter the way your team approaches marketing.
4. Reuse what you subtract
One of the big problems with subtraction is the feeling that you’re wasting something. Good ideas, interesting data, or a well-written sentence may be subtracted in pursuit of noticeable less.
The good news is, you don’t necessarily have to throw the good stuff away. You can reuse and recycle it. For example, the messaging you removed from your social media strategy might be perfect for email, where you mainly interact with existing and former students.
The time you save by simplifying your social media marketing could be used to build stronger student relationships, or just to create some quiet time in which your team can have their next big idea.
At CourseStorm, our mission is to streamline access to education to empower personal growth. One of our core values is simplicity. We subtract the complexity of multiple tracking tools, payment systems, and registration forms and replace them all with a single, simple student registration system. To see it in action, start your free trial or contact us today.