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5 Steps to Make Your Online Course Sticky


A guide to driving engagement and increasing enrollment in your online course.

By Natalie Papazian, Manuel Feldmann and Professor Vishal Sachdev

With the explosion of online education, learners are finding they have more options than ever to choose from. For universities, this means a number of things. Although having an accredited university name can help attract learners, as larger players like Yale, MIT and Harvard enter the game and as hefty businesses like Microsoft and Google develop their own online courses, it will become more difficult to compete.

Now is a great time for universities to amp up their online marketing efforts for their courses if they want to be both seen and remembered.

For example:
Let’s take a learner who has just enrolled in a new online course.

By next week, he or she may have forgotten all about the course. Typically, online course completion rate is around 15%. However, let’s say in addition to enrolling in your course, the learner liked your course’s Facebook page. Maybe the learner forgot about your course when they woke up the next day. But as they scroll through Facebook during lunch time, they see an interesting article in their feed. They then notice it was posted by your course. Through engaging on social media, your course will now stay on the learner’s mind a bit longer. You now have the tools to make your course more memorable through social media.

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Getting Started!

For starters, go ahead and create a Facebook Page and Twitter accounts for your course. If you have someone dedicated to managing your social media, go ahead and get a Google+, LinkedIn, and Instagram account as well.

Here are some ways different platforms can be useful for your strategy (if you already have a good understanding of the different social media platforms, feel free to skip this section!)

Twitter is a great platform for interacting and communicating asynchronously with your audience. Encourage learners to follow your course account for updates. Share interesting articles, infographics, and videos related to your course content. Recognize learner achievements, such as when a learner mentions on Twitter that they have completed your course. We use a tool called Hootsuite, which allows us the ability to see all of our mentions and quickly respond to each one!

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Many learners will also tweet their questions to you ranging from course information to technical issues. Be sure to be prompt in your replies to student questions, as this will reflect positively on your course!

Facebook is the biggest and most successful social media platform, so it is a great tool to build up your following. Additionally, Facebook is great for not only communicating with your audience but also for interacting with them. Here, you are able to write more in-depth about a topic, because there is no character limitation. Moreover, Facebook groups are a great tool to utilize as well. They can be public or closed and provide a space for your learners to interact more closely with one another.

Instagram is a photo-based social media platform. Compared to Facebook, Instagram has 58 times more engagement per follower. Use this platform to give your learners a glimpse into the behind the scenes of your course through photos and videos.


Also, Instagram offers a great opportunity to highlight the learners in your course, post professor quotes, exciting infographics and more. Moreover, the interaction rate on Instagram is very high so you can use Instagram for creating discussion with your audience.


For a more in-depth explanation, here is a great overview of the differences between social media platforms

Let’s Talk Social Strategy!

Our social media strategy here at the Illinois Digital Marketing Specialization revolves around meeting two objectives:

  1. Engaging our current learners
  2. Attracting new learners

However, the catch with social media is that unless you engage your current learners, you will really struggle to attract new learners.

Here’s why:
Everything you post will only go out to your followers. Most likely, your followers are already current learners in your course.

So how do you attract new learners?

The key to attracting new learners is in nurturing your community. The more you engage with your followers, the more they will engage with you. And the more they engage with you, the more people your posts will reach. Once you get to a level of great engagement, learners will like, comment and share your posts, leave positive reviews, tag their friends, and even advertise your courses on their personal social media accounts sometimes. Most of these interactions are seen by their network (aka potential new learners for your course). However, it’s not always that easy. You need to post things that your audience is interested in, and you need to diversify the type of content you are posting.

So let’s take a look at how to engage your current learners:

1. Know Your Audience

Start with demographics. Find out who the actual people taking your course are, not who you think they are. It will help you a lot to take the time to answer the following questions:

  1. What is the age range of your learners?
  2. Where are most of your learners from?
  3. Are most of your learners male or female?
  4. What is their education level?
  5. What types of careers do they lead?

When you are making a social media post, you want to be aware of these factors as it will change the types of things you post and the language you use when addressing your audience.

Next, it is important to find out what your learners are looking to get out of your course. If you are trying to promote a computer programming course, most likely the learners in your course are not the same ones taking the art courses. So discover the value that learners are striving to receive through your course. Maybe they are bored of their accounting job and are looking to switch their career into a more exciting digital marketing career (We may be just a bit biased). Or maybe they are trying to rack up their skillset to become more competitive in the workforce. Find the value that your course is offering your audience.

Discover who they are and why they are there. You can only have a strong conversation when you know who you are speaking to.

You can only have a strong conversation when you know who you are speaking to.

2. Your Online Course is Not Just a Course, It’s a Brand

Once you know who your audience is, begin discovering who your audience wants your brand to be.

Think about brands like Nike. People choose Nike over Adidas because Nike’s Just Do It attitude is one that consumers want to adopt in their own lives. Nike provides consumers with a way of life they can aspire to. And although Nike is a sports brand and not an online course, this example just goes to show us that the way brands present themselves and make consumers feel is an important determinant in which brand they go on to choose later on.

Having a uniform and consistent branding strategy for your courses will allow your audience to feel a stronger connection with your course. Not only that, but your course will also be more memorable compared to others. People feel attached to brands, not products. When creating your branding strategy on social media, you want to make sure that the language you write and the images you design work to communicate the perception of your course that you want to convey to your audience. Don’t make the mistake of assuming that this step will take a few minutes. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither were the most iconic brands.

Take some time to look at these resources on creating a brand voice and designing consistent images:

How to Find Your Social Media Marketing Voice: The Best Examples, Questions and Guides

How to Develop a Strong Visual Brand on Social Media

3. Engage Your Audience

You’ve done all of the research work, and now it’s time to begin posting content to social media. Besides posting articles and promotions for your course, it’s important to post content that will encourage your audience to comment and share your posts. When we were first facing the problem of low engagement on the Illinois Digital Marketing Facebook page, we knew we had to change up what we were posting. At that time, we were only posting articles about digital marketing. And while digital marketing is super interesting to read about, articles don’t always work well at getting people talking.

After looking at other brands’ posts and seeing which posts worked and which not so much, we switched up our strategy. The content we post now centers around our learners. Some things we post include a learner of the week, trivia questions (we give a shout out post to the winner the next day), quotes from professors, learner-written articles, and questions. And we’re always changing things up.


A great way to create an online community is to recognize the individuals in it. We began interviewing a different learner of the week and then creating a blog post featuring them. The learners highlighted usually share these posts with their network. They also feel grateful for the opportunity to be featured on our blog and social media pages. Soon after, many of these students begin engaging with our posts at higher rates than previously before. These two-way relationships will really work to push your community-building efforts forward.


Don’t be afraid to fail. Experiment with what you are posting, and if it doesn’t work then ‘oh well!’ However, if it does work, then you have just come up with an awesome new way to engage your learners.

4. Reward Your Most Engaged Learners

When you have developed an engaged community, you’ll soon begin recognizing the names of learners who engage at higher rates than others. I could tell you the names right now of all the learners who routinely engage with our posts without needing to reference our social media pages.

By not forming relationships with these individuals, you could be ignoring what could potentially be the greatest advocates for your course.

One initiative we began was to recruit a small group of these engaged students to form the Illinois Community Ambassadors team. Our ambassadors come from all over the world. For instance from Brazil, Germany, India, Dubai, and the United States.  However, they are similar in key ways. For example, they are incredibly passionate and hardworking individuals with a strong desire to help us increase the awareness of our open access digital marketing courses to others around the world.

With their contributions, we were able to finally launch our digital marketing blog. They benefit through the opportunity to be published on a blog connected to an accredited university, while it provides us with the opportunity to post unique content.


Aside from writing blog posts, our ambassadors have helped us improve our efforts to reach other learners online in several ways. Many of the ambassadors are very active online and help keep the conversation going on our social media platforms. They also help us form new communication strategies to better connect with our learners. Additionally, they have been an incredible help in advising our social media strategy as they have been in the same shoes as our audience. Their ideas are limitless. We’ve already had a learner host a live ask me anything session with a professor, collected testimonials from learners, and launched a digital marketing book club. Moreover, we are now working on creating more content for our YouTube Channel together with our ambassadors.

Recruit your most engaged learners and give them the autonomy to lead social media projects that you need help on.

5. Create Closed Communities

With public social spaces, some learners feel nervous about commenting on posts. Or sometimes, it’s not even a thought for them to engage with a social media post. A common struggle with online courses is that learners find they have a tough time forming connections with their peers similar to those made in the physical classroom. Additionally, some learners will try to engage their peers through conversation in course forums only to end up disappointed when they check in a few days later to see the comment count on their forum post remaining at zero. One effort we are currently launching with the help of our ambassadors is an online digital marketing book club. In the club, we host discussions about the latest trends in marketing through reading substantial articles in these topics. We are even hoping to host a live video discussion with our members at the end of each session. This allows us to get to know our learners even better. And for our learners, they get the opportunity to get to know their classmates better.


To wrap it up:

Creating an online presence for your course is an effective way to develop a network of engaged learners and advocates for your course. And if you are successful in engaging in conversation with these learners, they will begin telling their friends and colleagues about your course.In a crowded MOOC world, the social media sphere is your path to becoming a known and established

In a crowded MOOC world, the social media sphere is your path to becoming a known and established course. Engage your audience, develop relationships that matter and your efforts will be fruitful.

About the Authors

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Natalie Papazian is the Digital Marketing Project Manager for the iMBA at the University of Illinois’ at Urbana-Champaign. She is a third-year undergraduate student studying marketing and supply chain management.



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Manuel Feldmann is a Political Scientist and graduate from the University of Heidelberg with a focus on Political Communication and modern digital communication like social media. In addition, he has specialized in Social Media Marketing, Digital Marketing, and Digital PR through various universities. He is an Illinois Community Ambassador as well as a mentor for all six courses in the Digital Marketing specialization. He is also preparing his PhD in Political Science.


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Vishal Sachdev, PhD is a Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He is the co-founder of the Illinois MakerLab, the first 3D Printing lab in a business school. He is the faculty lead of the Capstone course in the Digital Marketing Specialization.