How to Create an Unexpectedly Awesome Onboarding Experience

You work hard to get people to buy your course.

But how much have you thought about what happens once they do?

As a course creator, each new student feels like a big win. And that’s great for you, but for the student, the journey has only just begun.

So what are students’ early impressions of your course? Are they delighted? Or disappointed?

Do they get moving quickly and painlessly, or do they struggle from day one?

If you want students to have a consistently great experience, you’d better starting thinking about your onboarding experience.

What is Onboarding?

In a nutshell, your onboarding strategy should answer the following question:

What are you doing in the minutes, hours and days after a customer buys your online course to ensure they take their first steps towards success?

(Another more hard-nosed but equally valid way to look at it is: what are you doing to minimise your refunds?)

Creating an onboarding strategy means designing the experience you want new joiners to have. A truly effective one will do three things:

  1. It’ll make them feel good about their decision to join your course
  2. It’ll get them comfortable with logging into and navigating your course
  3. It’ll help them get started on their journey and help them to stay in momentum

If you don’t have an onboarding strategy yet, you risk giving students a crappy first impression. And that may mean they never get started with your course.

It will also affect their perception of your brand as a whole. So you’ve got to get it right, right?

Where Does Onboarding Happen?

You might struggle to get an accurate fix on the onboarding process because it’s doesn’t happen in any one place.

In fact, there are three separate aspects to onboarding:

  1. What happens on your course site?
  2. What happens in the student’s inbox?
  3. What happens wherever else you connect with your students? For example: on Zoom calls, inside a students-only Facebook group or Slack channel, etc.

From your perspective, these are very different environments that you don’t fully control. From the student’s perspective, they’re all part of the overall experience.

Successfully integrating these three parts of the onboarding process is essential to creating an experience that sets students up for success.

The Three Most Important Time Frames for Onboarding

You can split the onboarding experience into three separate time frames, each longer than the last. And your onboarding strategy needs to cover each time frame to create a seamless experience.

Time Frame #1: Immediately After Purchase

This first time frame covers what happens immediately after someone buys your course.

It’s a critical point and emotions are high—your customer is excited about their purchase and the results it might bring but…

…they’re also nervous about the money they just spent and whether they made the right decision.

Your goal during this time frame is: CONFIDENCE.

You want to reassure students that:

  • They’re in good hands with you and your course
  • They’re going to get what they’re hoping to get
  • They’ll be able to get started without fuss or confusion

Managing the student experience during this time frame helps to avoid any knee-jerk refunds. It also carries the positive feelings around their purchase into the next time frame.

Time Frame #2: The First Course Login

Some students will jump right into your course after buying it, others won’t get started until later.

Either way, we’re talking here about the first time a student logs into your course to get settled and do some work.

(Just imagine they’ve put aside an hour to get to grips with their shiny new training. It may not be the same day as they bought it, but it’s likely within a few days of purchase.)

Emotionally, the endorphin rush of making a new purchase has faded and reality is starting to kick in. They’re still excited about getting the result you promised, but they’re also thinking about the hard work ahead.

Your goal during this time frame is: ORIENTATION.

You want to make sure that students:

  • Understand how your training is structured and how to navigate it
  • See how what they’ve bought will lead them to their desired goal
  • Learn how to get the most from your course and everything it has to offer

Managing this time frame successfully helps to cement students’ positive feelings about the course and builds their resolve to do the work.

Time Frame #3: The Rest of the “Honeymoon” Phase

After their first session inside your course, students are still in what you can think of as their honeymoon phase.

This is where belonging to your course remains a novelty and the thoughts and emotions behind their decision to buy are still relatively fresh in their mind.

While there’s no specific point that marks the end of the honeymoon phase, one milestone stands out as significant: the end of the refund period.

So if you offer a 30-day money-back guarantee, you can think of the honeymoon phase as lasting until the end of those 30 days. (But it may be shorter, such as 14 or even seven days.)

Your goal during this time frame is: MOMENTUM.

You want to help students:

  • Achieve the first (small but significant) win on their journey
  • Develop a healthy rhythm of study and action-taking
  • Overcome any obstacles to their progress as efficiently as possible

Managing this time frame successfully means that once it’s over, students have made clear progress and feel confident of getting further results if they continue.

You’ll also have built positive learning habits that will carry them through the rest of the course.

A Practical Guide to Onboarding Awesomeness

We’ve talked about different time frames and where the onboarding happens, but let’s dig into the details.

What specifically can you do to ensure an unexpectedly awesome experience?

Read on for some practical ideas you can use to flesh out your strategy.

How to Make the Post-Purchase Experience Awesome

Your first chance to impress shiny new students comes immediately after they decide to purchase your course.

Here’s how to make the early experience awesome.

Do this on your course site

  • Share Your Excitement — on the “thank you” page immediately after purchase include a short video that tells students how pleased you are they’ve joined your course and reminds them of the exciting result they’ve signed up to get. In addition, tell them exactly what they need to do next, e.g., check their inbox for a welcome email.

Do this via email

  • Send a “Star-Worthy” Orientation Message — users will probably get a few emails from you on the first day of signing up, including their credentials for logging in. Make sure you include one email with all the essential details so they can mark it as important and refer to it in the future. Tell them how to get started, how to register for additional benefits like support calls or a private Facebook group, and how to reach out if they get stuck.
  • Add a Personal Touch to System Messages — some course platforms allow you to personalise the “system” emails sent to students, for example, the one that gives confirms their username and password. Don’t miss your opportunity to add some personality to this “microcopy”.

Do this elsewhere

  • Give Them Something Tangible — if the price point allows it and you can handle the logistics, why not send new students something cool in the post like a branded notebook or a printed workbook? When you’re selling something intangible like a digital course, freebies students can have a big impact. (Insider secret: they reduce refunds too!)
  • Send a Personal Message — do you know what makes a great follow-up to showing a video on your “thank you” page? Sending new students a video you recorded just for them. Tools like Loom and Bonjoro make it easy to record and send short webcam videos. Yours only needs to be 30 seconds or so long but students will be blown away with a personal message from you where you mention their name and welcome them to the course.

How to Make the First Login Experience Awesome

Your second chance to make a great impression is the first time that students access your course.

Here’s how to make it awesome.

Do this on your course site

  • Roll Out The Red Carpet — when students arrive make sure they see a clearly signposted section called “Introduction” or “Getting Started” which holds all of the pre-training content designed to get them settled. Too many first-time course creators bury their orientation material in the first training module. However, separating things makes it so much clearer.
  • Lead Them on a Guided Tour — Record a short “screen capture” video showing students how to navigate your course platform. Each platform operates a little differently and the quicker they can get used to yours, the sooner they’ll start making progress with your training. (Tip: Record this just before launching so that it reflects the latest content in your course.)
  • Show Them a Road Map — Provide a visual road map that’s easily accessible within the course showing the entire student journey complete with major milestones. Make it printable so they can have a physical copy to pin to the wall as a reminder to jump back into the course regularly.
  • Teach Them How to Get Great Results — one of the biggest obstacles to student success is time management. Different approaches work for different people but tackle the problem head-on by including a mini-lesson on how to approach course consumption. Suggest blocking out some time in the calendar. Explain how slow but steady usually wins the race. Even a great course won’t get results for students who can’t find the time to get into it.

Do this by email

  • Tease the First Module — within a day or two of joining the program (once the essential emails have been received and read) send an email that gently “sells” the first module. Tell students what they’ll learn, what they’ll achieve and why it matters. Give them a reason to get a strong start on your course.
  • Give Them a High Five — if your course platform supports it, send an automatic email once they’ve taken their first detectable step in your course, for example, marking a lesson as completed. Congratulate them for taking their first steps and put them into the context of a first major milestone.

Do this elsewhere

  • Run Regular Orientation Sessions — if you’re using a traditional open-close launch to get your course out into the world, run one or two live orientation sessions for new students soon after your cart closes. Yes, the content should mirror the orientation material already in the your course but people will appreciate the personal touch of having you give them a live tour.

How to Make the “Honeymoon” Phase Awesome

The time between the first login and the end of your refund period is the last phase of your onboarding experience.

Here’s how to make that time as positive as possible for students.

Do this on your course site

  • Keep the Learning Curve Shallow at First — ease students into your materials by making the early steps as gentle as possible. That means delivering short, engaging lessons and steering clear of complex or challenging topics. (Once students are in momentum you can gradually increase the intensity of the training.)
  • Give Them a Quick Win to Celebrate — design your training so that students get a small but meaningful “win” as soon as possible. When friends ask about their progress, you want your students to say “I only just started and already I’ve got… X“. For instance, if your course is about productivity, a quick win might be students discovering their top productivity killers.
  • Make It Easy to Get Answers — when students get stuck you want to “unstick” them as soon as possible. That’s because stuck students quickly turn into frustrated and disillusioned students. Not good. Within your course interface make it clear where students can go to get help. You can include an FAQ to filter out the most common questions but also provide a way to contact a human being.

Do this by email

  • Encourage Them on Autopilot — within the first few days of joining your course, kick off an automated onboarding email sequence designed to maintain their momentum and keep their enthusiasm levels high. This a good time to tackle common sticking points, share student success stories and encourage specific types of participation (e.g., posting an introduction in the course’s Facebook community.)
  • Reach Out to Slow Starters — if your course platform lets you see who has and who hasn’t yet logged into your course, reach out personally to anyone who hasn’t logged in within the first week after purchase. Keep it light and friendly but remind them of the goal that awaits them if they get started. Ask if there’s anything you can do to help them get moving.

Do this elsewhere

  • Throw Them a Welcome Party — if you provide a community element to your course, such as a private Facebook group, officially welcome (and tag) new joiners to the group each week and invite them to share a little about themselves. Encourage existing members to give them a friendly hello.
  • Handle Refunds with Good Grace — however great your course is, you’ll almost always have some people who ask for a refund. Maybe it wasn’t what they thought, or they simply acted on impulse and regret clicking buy. Whatever the reason, handle the refund promptly and wish them the best. You may create an ambassador who recommends it to others.

Ready to Level Up Your Onboarding?

It’s such an easy mistake to make as a course creator…

You become so focused on what needs to happen before you get a sale that you neglect what happens after you actually do it.

So take some time to design the experience you want new students to have.

Your onboarding strategy doesn’t need to be complicated. (Just having one will put you ahead of most course creators!)

But since you worked so hard to get people into your course, shouldn’t you give them a smooth ride once they’re there?

Get it right and you’ll get better results, fewer refunds and more referrals.

Pretty sweet, huh?

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