Filling Your Classes

group dog classesIf you’re a typical class trainer you’d rather think about what you’re going to do with students once you have them in your classroom than what you’re going to do to get them there. For most of us, teaching is much more fun than marketing — and it comes much more easily. But given the difficulty of teaching without students, it’s best to make sure you get the most from your marketing time and dime.

Here are some tips for getting your classes filled:

Class Titles and Descriptions
Everybody and their aunt teaches “Puppy” and “Basic.” You may be tempted to jazz up your class titles, and you should. But be careful that prospective students can still tell what you’re offering. Clever class titles may accidentally camouflage your classes, causing them to be overlooked. And many people will look for classes online. If a potential client searches for “Puppy Class” and yours is called “Surviving Your Dog’s Toddler Years,” they may not find you. So if you have a way with words, try subtitles. For example, “Basic Manners: Channeling Your Dog’s Inner Lassie.”

Focus your class descriptions on human-oriented outcomes. What will students be able to do after taking your class? How will they feel different? How will their lives be improved? A list of behaviors — the typical meat of a class description — does none of these things. It just lists behaviors, and so does everyone else’s class descriptions. Make yours stand out by telling potential students how they’ll be able to walk down the street with ease — no more embarrassment and no more back aches. Tell them how it will feel to have the dog that everyone covets. Wouldn’t they like to be the person asked, “Wow. How do you get your dog to be so calm and well behaved?” And wouldn’t it be less stressful to know they were coming home to a dog who hasn’t destroyed the house? Tell potential students that your class is the first step toward these goals.

Marketing Projects
We’ve written more than once about the power of community- or content-based marketing for dog trainers. Your time and money are better spent on projects that give people some sort of direct experience of your expertise, professionalism, and efficacy rather than on passive forms of advertising in which you tell them how great you are. (This is particularly true for positive reinforcement trainers, with whom we work exclusively, as they are less apt to feel comfortable singing their own praises — and, accordingly, are less apt to do so well.)

Think beyond fliers. Fliers are fine, but they’re passive. Instead, embed your class schedule in a content marketing project such as a quarterly newsletter or branded tip sheets. Dog owners are more likely to act on the class schedule printed on the back of a great Building a Solid Recall handout than to respond to a class flier. Why? Because the training tip on the front gives a taste of your expertise and style.

Give referral sources a taste. Referral sources who have directly experienced your classes are more apt to remember to recommend them — and to do so enthusiastically. Give pet supply stores, vet offices, and any other referral outlets you’re after a free class pass or two for staff members to use. (This will also help to fill new classes so you can run them for your paying students.) Or even offer a class just for the staff of a particular clinic or daycare at a day and time convenient to them.

Help referral sources help you. Once you have a referral source on your side, make it easy for them to refer to you. Provide them compelling material to give to their customers. Business cards are easily lost and brochures are commonplace and passive in nature. Your newsletter or tip handouts are more likely to finish the sale and less likely to find their way to the trash.

If you’re ready to take a referral relationship to the next level, ask them to include information about your classes on their website and in their email list blasts. (This is particularly appropriate in cases where you’re teaching classes in their space or engaging in any sort of cross-promotion.) Again, make it easy. Email language to use and any visuals you’d like them to include, such as your logo file. Your information will go up on their site and out to their email list faster if they don’t have to create the content themselves.

Optimize your website. If a dog lover can’t find you she can’t take your class. If your site isn’t performing well in searches for the classes and services you offer, it’s probably because it hasn’t been properly optimized. Don’t assume if you had your site professionally designed and programmed that it’s also been optimized. Search engine optimization, or SEO, is a niche skill set and, unfortunately, many programmers do not pursue it. SEO can range a great deal in simplicity and complexity, and in cost. But even a small amount of attention and money paid to it can bring significant results. Just be careful to seek out qualified, ethical practitioners, as the industry is sadly rife with scams. (dogbiz provides free SEO referrals if you are unable to find a local professional–just email and ask.)

Get caught in the act. What better way for people to experience you than to literally see you in action? Look for opportunities for public training. Post short YouTube videos of your classes. Provide demos or hold 15 minute mini-classes at local events and festivals. Take your advanced students on the road — hold class in front of the local mall or supermarket or in a popular park. It’s great practice for your students and gives onlookers a first-hand glimpse of what they and their dog might be capable of.

In all of these in-person situations, bring along someone to pass out class information to onlookers and answer their questions while you teach. At events, offer a 10% discount to anyone registering on the spot. And outfitting yourself and your students in logo t-shirts is a great way to increase brand visibility.

Get covered. Find out who covers goings-on in your community for the local paper and invite that reporter to take pictures of one of your classes. Better yet, have her show up for the class you hold in public. If she has a dog herself, give her a free pass to take your class so she can write about her own experience. And don’t overlook events calendars in the local paper. It’s often free to submit, so get your classes listed. Check with the local radio station about free event listings, too.

Put it in writing. Nothing says “go-to expert” like your name in print. Ask the editor of the local paper about carrying an Ask the Trainer or Training Tips column. Or offer the same to run in school, church, neighborhood association, or senior center newsletters or bulletins. Such smaller publications may also be happy to print your class schedule alongside your article.

Class Offerings and Structure
As we’ve written about in other articles, the structure and content of your classes can play a critical role in their success, too. One-shot teaser classes, shorter topics classes, open enrollment, and curriculum focused on real-life application all help first-time and retention sales. If you’re still teaching behavior-based classes following the old “explain-demo-practice” model, it may be time to shake things up a bit.

For more ideas about success with group classes: