Motivate People to Register for Your Online Courses

Shauna Carson

You've thrown your heart and soul into developing the ideal learning program for your company. You started with a needs analysis and stuck to your objectives, so you know you're offering just what your employees need and want. You read all the latest research on learner engagement, and you can be sure you've created a compelling experience. But no one's signing up! What do you do now?

This article will review two related approaches to motivating people to register for your online courses: selecting effective marketing strategies and removing motivational barriers.

Motivation to attend training is largely the outcome of a personal cost/benefit analysis. Focused on the advantages of our courses, those of us in the learning development field often wonder why everyone isn't rushing to sign up.

We tend to overlook the very real costs to the employee of participating in training: time, effort, fear of change and even putting one's ego on the line by risking failure. But surely the benefits are worth it? Strategies for doing one's job better or more easily and building skills that offer greater opportunities for future advancement are worthwhile in an absolute sense, but they don't always rate as highly as they might in potential learners' cost/benefit analyses. The problem is that learners, being human, are subject to temporal discounting, "a psychological bias that makes us much more sensitive to immediate rewards and costs than those in the future."

In training, the costs happen now while the benefits follow later. So, what can we do now that we know our target audience is overestimating the significance of training costs while undervaluing its benefits? We can market the message that benefits are real and tangible while costs are less than learners might assume, and we can work to minimize the real costs.


L&D professionals are inclined to make learning content the focus of our marketing message, publicizing lists of learning objectives and content summaries. This is a mistake. Corporate learners are more likely to be motivated by learning's expected results than its content. Marketing is most effective when it sends these messages:

1. This course will improve your job performance or job prospects.

Start by clearly stating the benefits of taking the course. Counter potential learners' tendency to discount long-term advantages by returning emphasis to those advantages. The more immediate the benefits the better, although it's still worth mentioning the ones learners will have to wait for. Messages learners want to hear include:

  • This course will help you improve your performance stats.
  • It will make it easier to complete complicated or difficult tasks.
  • It will help you keep your skills current in a rapidly-evolving industry.
  • It will develop transferable skills you can use to further your career.

2. You need this course to prevent your skillset from becoming obsolete.

Resistance to change is a powerful demotivator for learning. Learning new ways to do something, even if they're better ways, means abandoning familiar processes in favor of untried and often uncomfortable practices. Bobby Hoffman, an expert in the psychology of motivation, recommends you "overcome this motivational hurdle by communicating the consequences of not adopting new methods or procedures. Create a psychological dilemma and convince users that current methods have limitations."

An effective learning program marketing message emphasizes problems the learning will help you overcome. In one sense, the goal is to produce fear of the consequences of not taking the course and make that fear greater than the fear of change.

3. Your friends, coworkers, supervisors and that person who got the promotion you applied for are all taking this course, and they think it's great!

I haven't seen many eCommerce sites that lack an option for purchaser reviews. Many also have popups announcing, "Bob in Ranfurly just bought a widget!" These are examples of social proof, a psychological phenomenon that causes us to view an action as more correct if we see (or read about) other people doing it. Convince learners that taking your course is the right thing to do because everyone else is doing it.

You can leverage several forms of social proof to market learning:

  • Course reviews
  • Testimonials
  • Case studies
  • Showcase examples: tell the story of employees who took the training and gained some advantage from it
  • Role modelling: encourage supervisors to take a course and discuss it with their reports

4. You'll get recognition and a pat on the back for successfully completing the course.

Recognition of an accomplishment is another formidable motivator. Consider:

  • Certificates and other forms of formal recognition
  • Gamification: reward accomplishments with points and bragging rights
  • Informal recognition: encourage supervisors to take a moment to acknowledge training and, even better, to offer their workers opportunities to apply new skills

I've read numerous articles suggesting tangible incentives like money, gift cards and other items. I recommend against this practice. Direct financial rewards will usually motivate people to complete a course, but at the cost of effective learning and registrations in any future courses that don't offer similar benefits.

Address Demotivators

Promoting the right message can go a long way to motivate your learners, but it's not the only approach you should take. Spend some time looking at demotivators, those fears that are preventing people from registering for your course, and see what you can do to reduce them.

1. Fear of the unfamiliar

People may be anxious to know what the course is like - what the experience of taking it will be, rather than what topics will be covered - before they register. You can tackle this fear by including screen shots and verbal descriptions in your promotional material. Even better, you can offer free access to a short introductory sample course for learners to explore before committing to the entire program.

2. Fear of commitment

Learners who are overwhelmed by the thought of the time and energy required by training will be reluctant to commit to a course. Lack of time is a key reason why the employees who demand L&D material so enthusiastically often fail to use it. Ease their fears with some of the following strategies:

  • Be upfront about what you're asking for. List average or expected completion times, both in hours of work and in the days or weeks it takes to work though the course.
  • Reduce your demands. If it's appropriate for the material, break longer courses into 5 - 15 minute microlearning segments. It's much easier to commit to a ten-minute course than a ten-hour one.
  • Build a corporate culture that helps employees find time for learning. If learning is truly valued, set aside time for training during the business day. If an employee is expected to commit significant time to your course, also make sure that their regular duties are adjusted to provide that availability.

3. Fear of failure

A well-planned online course usually incorporates qualities designed to alleviate fears of failure. Promote any of these common traits that apply to your situation:

  • Online courses are often asynchronous. Learners can take as long as they need to fully grasp the content and schedule an assessment only when they're ready for it.
  • Practice exams or exercise questions help learners build the certainty that they're ready for assessment.
  • There may be multiple opportunities to succeed at assessments. If at first you don't succeed, try again.
  • Unlike an open classroom where everyone hears your responses, online courses may offer privacy. Let learners know who can review their progress, and who can't.


What do you think about the motivating power of incentives? Will monetary incentives pull in the learners or turn them off?

This article has discussed how to motivate potential learners to register for an online course or learning event. For effective marketing, build a message that motivates by focusing on concrete benefits, problem solving, social proof and intangible incentives. Next, deal with the fears that are keeping people away and provide a safe, organizationally-supported learning opportunity. Before long, you'll have registrants in droves.

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Shauna Carson

Shauna graduated from the University of Toronto in 2002 with a Master of Arts in English before moving home to Calgary to work in the fast-paced, detail-oriented oil and gas industry. Now certified as a technical writer, Shauna is comfortable writing in a variety of styles, and for a variety of audiences.