Dangerous Discounts vs. Excellent Education
Online professional continuing education (CE) providers have been struggling with a difficult challenge since the great recession started—the onslaught of free online CE. And the gauntlet was thrown down by none other than CE providers themselves. One of the things that makes free online CE so challenging, and so destructive for the many of the CE providers we work with, is that the revenue typically provided by CE is invested back into more benefits for the CE provider’s participants—more high-quality education and other member benefits, in the case of professional membership organizations like bar associations and medical societies.
The thing is, many of the CE providers who did not create the free CE problem in the first place are making it worse. This may make some of my customers angry because they believe that they are reacting appropriately to a threat to their market share and, ultimately, revenue. But the fact of the matter, IMHO, is that giving CE away or offering drastic discounts, if not handled in a specific way, perpetuates the idea of CE as a commodity, where the purchasing decisions are driven by price. It’s also, in the long run, bad for the CE provider’s brand.
I should explain that the organizations we work with are premier CE providers. What I mean by that is they offer top quality, highly relevant continuing education programming geared toward highly educated professionals. This is programming that requires a considerable investment and top subject matter experts to develop. There should be no need to give this kind of educational content away It’s like giving away Jimmy Choo shoes because Payless offers a $5 pair of loafers. So why did anyone start giving education away in the first place and what can be done about it?
There are several types of organizations offering free CE. The first is willing to invest in the development of CE without a direct return on the investment, because they are betting on an indirect return—like a loss leader in a retail outlet, they want the participants’ attention for another reason and/or plan to sell the participants something else that will result in a much greater profit. This is the more difficult strategy to compete against because the product may actually be a decent product. The other is the “you get what you pay for” provider. The educational content is exactly that—worth little.
We recommend that our customers take the high road when marketing online CE. They are high-quality providers and should position themselves as such. But if they decide that they have good reason (and it really should be good reason—not a knee jerk reaction to percieved competition) to discount courses, we encourage them to make the actual value of the courses very clear to their customers, even if they are not charging what the course is worth.
I’m not saying never,everdiscount. There are effective ways to provide selective bargains for your customers, but dropping (or eliminating) the cost needs to be treated as the secret weapon it is, since discounting as standard operating procedure is a dangerous row to hoe.
I came across an BLOG recently that addresses the danger of holiday discounts for retailers, and offers strategies for effective discounts. The advice here translates well for online CE providers. Here’s the link. I think it provides some sound advice for CE providers trying to combat the free CE problem. Would be interested in hearing what you think.