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How a Free Course Can Pay Off for Your Programs

Nic Lyons

September 7, 2021

Giving away classes for free may seem counterintuitive. After all, it costs money to bring in instructors, develop a curriculum, provide supplies, and set up spaces where students can learn. Unless you’re running a non-profit (and often even if you are) it might seem like you can’t afford to offer free classes. Then again, maybe you can’t afford not to. 

Offering a free course, or even just making some seats in a class free, can help promote your programs. When chosen carefully, these freebies can give students a taste of what you have to offer so they’re more likely to enroll in the future. They can also promote goodwill in the community and help you fill your class roster. All these benefits sound valuable, but you might still be skeptical about whether a free course is really worth it. So before we jump into how to make them work for you, let’s take a closer look at how free courses can help you meet enrollment goals.

Why Your Program Needs Free Classes

Imagine you’re standing in the middle of a food court at lunchtime. You’re surrounded by places to eat, but you’ve never tried any of these restaurants before. Hungry and without much information to go on, you need to decide which restaurant is worth spending your hard-earned money on. 

Then, you notice someone standing in front of one of the eateries. They’re holding a tray of samples. When they offer you one, you take it. It’s delicious! That free sample effectively made your decision. You know where you’re going to eat. 

Free classes can create the same experience for your learners. A short class or one-time session can break down some of the most common sales objections by giving learners a taste of what you have to offer. You get a chance to show them that enrolling with you is a good choice. And that’s just one possible benefit.

If you’re considering adding a new type of class or subject area to your catalog, free classes can help you gauge interest. They can also give you a testing ground for new formats and styles. For example, if online classes are new territory for you, students might be hesitant to enroll. A free class lets them test out the experience without spending money.

Even if you understand the value that free classes can bring to your programs, you may not be able to offer a whole class for free. You might not have the budget. In some cases, you may have to contend with coworkers or board members who aren’t as convinced as you are. In that case, free seats might be the answer. They can provide many of the same benefits as free classes, with less financial risk. 

Goal: To build your list

How to Achieve It: Advertise a raffle for everyone who joins your mailing list over the next month. The winner gets to attend the class for free.

Bonus Benefits: Gauge interest in the class you’re offering. More email sign-ups mean more people are interested in the course.

Goal: To fill empty seats

How to Achieve It: Offer last-minute free or discounted seats for classes that aren’t as full as you’d like. You can promote these as a benefit for previous students or an invitation to new students who want to try your classes.

Bonus Benefits: A full class feels more vibrant and gives the impression that your classes are in demand. Students may benefit from the community atmosphere.

Goal: To foster goodwill

How to Achieve It: Reach out to local non-profits, church groups, senior living centers, or other community organizations to offer free classes to members of these groups.

Bonus Benefits: Strengthens community bonds and helps you expand your audience. Unexpected partnerships may arise from this offer, and satisfied students may introduce friends and family to your programs.

Offer the Right Free Course

The goal of a free class is to get the learner through the door. Some courses are better at this than others. Whether you’re creating a new class to offer for free, or running a promotion on an existing class, you want a course that checks the following boxes: 

  • It’s short. Longer, more complex courses are more expensive, so you’ll get the best return on investment if you offer a short class for free.

  • It’s introductory. Classes that assume a certain level of knowledge appeal to a smaller group of people. These people are probably already committed to learning about the subject and willing to spend money to do so. By contrast, a free introductory class can start someone on a lifelong learning path, with many enrollments as they grow their skills over time.

  • It’s high-quality. Even if you’re offering the class for the first time, make sure it meets your highest quality standards. You wouldn’t choose a restaurant that gave out undercooked food, would you? Remember that students in a free class will assume that this is an accurate representation of what you offer.

Whether your free class is short or long, online or in-person, make sure it delivers real value. Your students need to walk away feeling like they learned something, or at least had a good time. The worst mistake you can make is to offer a class that’s nothing but a long sales pitch. Learners will notice if they don’t actually learn something. If you waste their time or don’t deliver on what you’ve promised, your free course could backfire. This is your opportunity to show off what your instructors know and give learners a sense of how your programs work. 

Tell Learners What to Do When the Free Course Is Over

The course may be free, but the opportunity it creates is priceless. Ideally, a free class is the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship. The learner doesn’t just finish the class and go away satisfied. They become a return customer, enrolling in your courses again and again. They might even tell friends and family about your programs, helping to promote your program through word of mouth. 

Give recipients of free classes the tools to become lifelong learners in your program by telling them what to do next. Instructors can point students toward the next course that will further expand their skills. Now that the student is on your mailing list, you can automate student recommendations about related classes that may be of interest. Don’t forget to encourage students to follow you on social media so they never miss a class announcement. 

Most importantly, make it easy for them to enroll in the next course. CourseStorm can help with simple class registration software that offers custom forms, automated marketing, and essential integrations.

Nic Lyons

Nic is skilled in scaling start-up edtech and education organizations to growth-stage success through innovative marketing. A former journalist and copywriter, Nic holds a postgraduate certificate in digital and print publishing from Columbia University School of Journalism's publishing course.

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