Have You Tried This Time-Tested 4-Step Formula to Sell Education?

BY Jeff Cobb

young woman solving a mathematical problem standing at green chalk board

When prospective learners land on your Web site, open your conference brochure, skim your latest e-mail, or pull your most recent seminar postcard out of the pile of mail on their desk, are they seeing words and images that grab their attention?

Will their interest be sparked? Will their desire be fanned into flame?

Will they feel compelled to take action?

If that doesn’t sound like the kind of impact your efforts to promote and sell education are having, grab a representative example of your latest promotion efforts …

(Really, pause here if you need to, to find an example. We’re all about learning by doing.) 😉

… and take them for a spin through the classic 4-part AIDA formula for effective marketing promotions.

What is the AIDA Formula?

AIDA is an acronym that stands for:

  • Attention
  • Interest
  • Desire
  • Action

These represent the four stages that prospective customers move through in a typical buying process—from initial awareness to making an actual purchase. The goal of anyone promoting a product or service is to help prospects move through these stages so that they will be converted from prospects to customers.

The origins of AIDA can be traced back to more than a century ago, and since that time the formula has been used by countless copywriters. Nonetheless, as popular and useful as it is, many would-be copywriters either don’t know about the formula or do not follow it in a conscious, disciplined way when creating promotional materials.

As we move through the rest of this post, I challenge you to really think about how well the example I’ve asked you to find from your own promotions supports each step of AIDA. I’ll even ask you to score yourself on each step of the AIDA formula.

But First …

Using the AIDA formula successfully hinges on understanding your prospective customers as well as possible and, as a result, knowing what offer of value is really likely to resonate with them.

In other words, there is research to be done before you start writing. This research will likely include a combination of:

  • Reviewing and analyzing past customer behavior
  • Surveying and interviewing current and prospective customers
  • Assessing the competitive environment in which you sell

As a framework for this process, I encourage you to use the Market Insight Matrix. Regardless of the approach you take, you want to arrive at:

  • Appreciation of the customer’s situation: What is the prospective customer experiencing—e.g., challenges and opportunities—that may make her receptive to your offering?
  • Insight into buying motivations: What is she likely thinking or feeling might cause her to take action now?
  • Understanding of key barriers and objections: What would prevent her from taking action?

As we proceed, I’m going to make the assumption that you have a reasonable understanding of your customer, but to that extent you find it difficult to give confident answers to the questions that follow, you may need to back up and do some work to bolster your understanding.


Grabbing a prospect’s attention hinges on communicating a promise of value that aligns clearly with the prospective customer’s situation. The promise may be explicit or implicit, but, either way, it will suggest that you understand the customer’s situation and have something to offer that will change that situation for the better.

So, put yourself in the mind of your target prospect. There are dozens, maybe even hundreds, of e-mails in her inbox. She regularly receives postcards and brochures from your competitors (not to mention from you). For the particular marketing example you have chosen to review, what is the “headline“—i.e., the words at top of the page or in the e-mail subject line?

Does the headline really grab your attention? Does it deliver or imply a promise of value that is likely to resonate with your target leader? Is it likely to stand out if it is buried in a pile or queue of other communications?

(In case it isn’t obvious, you have to be willing to be truly objective and honest when answering these questions!)

If your headline seems a little weak, consider some of the following time-tested approaches to improving it. To help illustrate these and other aspects of the AIDA formula, we’ll assume we’re trying to grab the attention of a prospective customer who is (a) a director of education at a trade or professional association and (b) concerned that members are not engaged by her organization’s professional development programs.

  • Ask a provocative question: Is your professional development programming putting your members to sleep?
  • Use numbers: 7 Steps to Boosting Learning Engagement Today
  • Call for action: Try these simple steps to breath new life into your educational programming
  • Add relevant adjectives and adverbs: Research-based—and cost-effective—steps to dramatically boost learner engagement

In many cases, a strong headline will combine the approaches above. So, for example, you might combine the approaches in the last three bullets above to get Master 7 Research-Based Steps to Dramatically Boosting Learner Engagement.

While there are, no doubt, ways to improve each of these examples, they all point to something valuable this prospective customer is likely to want: help with increasing learner engagement.

Keep in mind, of course, that words are not the only way to grab attention. On Web pages and print brochures, for example, you will nearly always want a relevant image to go along with the headline.

Does the example you selected use an image to help grab attention? Does it help to make the headline more powerful and concrete—a photo of a classroom full of snoozing learners, for example, to go with the first headline above—or is it simply there to look attractive?

Many organizations, I find, create generic campaigns where the headline is along the lines of “Knowledge You Can Afford” and the image is of something like a piggy bank. They look professional and polished, but there is really nothing in them to really grab a prospect’s attention. The headline may as well be “Put me in the recycling bin immediately.”

So how does your example fare overall when it comes to grabbing attention?

Score yourself on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being “Eye-popping attention grabber” and 1 being “Did you say something?”

If you feel like you need a little help with crafting better headlines, consider the following resources:

  • Portent’s Content Idea Generator
    This nifty little tool helps you generate headline ideas for any topic you choose. Even if you don’t use the suggestions, they will almost certainly help spark your thinking.
  • CoSchedule Headline Analyzer
    Enter your proposed headline and get immediate feedback on how well it is likely to work.

Finally, if you want to go really deep, two classic books I recommend are:


Interest arises from developing the promise of value that grabbed the prospective customer’s attention.

You do this by providing information that shows you really do understand the prospect’s situation

Stories and scenarios are one great approach. Continuing the example above, you might launch in to a scenario that begins with, “Five minutes after the presenter started speaking, half of the courses participants were checking their cell phones….” Our education director is certain to recognize and identify immediately with this scenario.

Data, if you have it, is another way to stoke interest. So you might offer up data like “Within 10 minutes of the beginning of the average professional development seminar, 75 percent of participants have checked their cell phones at least one time.” (That, by the way, is made up data, so definitely do not quote it!)

Finally, one of the most powerful ways to build interest—and lead prospects toward desire—is to actually deliver on some aspect of your value promise. If you’ve promised seven steps, for example, discuss one of them in some detail. Or perhaps even touch on all seven at a high level, with the promise of much deeper treatment in the actual educational offering.

This is an increasingly important approach in today’s highly competitive education markets, and it is the reason why “content marketing” is such a buzzword. You have to demonstrate value early and often to build the momentum that will carry prospects up your Value Ramp. You have to do this over time, of course, in your ongoing relationship with your learners, but you should also aim to do it every time you create a promotion.

If you have used stories, scenarios, and/or data and have done your best to provide deliver value in the actual promotion, then you can bet that your attentive prospect is now interested in what you have to offer.

So how are you doing? Again, score yourself on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being “Riveting, can’t put it down” and 1 being “Delete me now.”


Desire arises when three things happen:

  • The major positive outcome you propose to deliver is clear.
  • The prospective learner starts to connect the dots and to see clearly how the stories, scenarios, and data you have offered relate to her own situation.
  • The learner believes you have the answer and that the education you are offering will actually lead to the major positive outcome for her personally.

Through your headline and the information you provide to cultivate interest you have already been hinting at the benefits your prospect will get from participating in your educational offering. To move from interest to desire, you need to make these benefits crystal clear. I advocate framing these as a “major positive outcome”—basically, the big positive change a learner will experience as a result of successfully completing your offering.

In the case of the example I’ve been using, the major positive outcome is that the education director will be empowered to create programs that deeply engage learners and as a result:

  • Has them clamoring to sign up for additional programs
  • Turns them into vocal evangelists that help attract other learners
  • Delivers learning that actually sticks and positively impacts the learner…
  • And by positively impacting the learner, positively impacts the learner’s organization and the broader industry/field that the education director’s organization serves…
  • And, as word gets out, make prospective instructors for other courses excited about the prospect of teaching for the organization…
  • And…

Well, I could go on, but you get the picture. I might not cover all of these points in my copy, but I would certainly hit on enough of them to help the prospect see that there is major value to be gotten from participating in this offering.

Now, reaching this level of understanding is, at least partly, a learning process. With your efforts at building interest, you are giving the prospect the material she needs for elaboration, or connecting the information you offer with what she already knows. To the extent the you have done a good job with building interest, this process will occur naturally, but you can also help it along significantly by prompting your prospect with phrases like “Imagine if…” or “What if….” By doing this, you are encouraging the prospect to reflect, to integrate the information you provide into her own experience, and to see the positive impact it could have.

Of course, this sort of integration is unlikely to occur if the prospect doesn’t feel she can trust you or your proposed solution. Like learning, the development of trust can be a complex process. Partly, it will depend on factors like your organization’s credentials and the credentials of the instructor—both of which should be made clear, as concisely as possible during the promotional process. It will also depend on the material you choose to present as part of cultivating interest and the tone you use in presenting it.

Another key factor in developing trust, however, is often overlooked or poorly used. Namely, the use of testimonials as social proof. We’ve written about this extensively in other places, so I won’t go into significant detail here. The main point is that are few ways of establishing trust that beat a peer or someone the prospect is likely to esteem saying, “Use this. It worked for me.”

By offering testimonials of this kind you help the prospect identify with the offering (“Others like me have had success with this.”) and you chip away at objections the prospect may have to making a purchase (“If they thought it was worth the time and money, then it will probably be worth it for me.).

So back to our scoring. You may or may not have any desire to, but once again score yourself on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 being “Pure, raw lust” and 1 being “Meh.”


In the world of religion, preaching is nice, but conversion is everything. (At least it is down here in the South where I live.) The same is true in marketing.

You can grab their attention and get them all lathered up, but if they don’t ultimately click “Buy” or “Subscribe” or “Get the full story” or “Like” or whatever it is you want them to do, you’re putting in an awful lot of effort for very little return. This applies doubly or triply if you don’t have actual sales people who can ask for the sale.

So what is the key to an effective call to action? In a nutshell, it is ask them for the right thing at the right time.

Let’s start with simply “ask them.” I routinely encounter marketing materials that have a phone number in tiny print on the last page or a “click here” link buried three clicks in to a promotion. As calls to action, these are almost worthless. A prospect should never have to search for or decipher a call to action (e.g., If I “click here,” what’s in it for me?”). In most cases, the “ask” should be made multiple times in a promotion, and it should always be clear what result the prospect’s action will lead to.

Now, ask them the right thing.

And, here’s a key point: that may not mean “register now.” As the first three steps above suggest, effective promotion is a process of establishing value. Depending on what you are selling and to whom, there may be multiple stages and, as a result, multiple actions that prospects need to go through. (As a rule, the more complex and more expensive the offering, the more steps before asking for the buy.)

If the only “ask” you ever offer your education customers is for them to register—i.e., fork over some money—whenever they receive a seminar or conference promotion from you, then don’t be surprised if they aren’t exactly eager to hear from you.

One last time, the 1 to 5 scale, with 5 meaning “Ka ching!” and 1 meaning “Don’t call me; I’ll call you.”

So How Did You Score?

We’ve reached the moment of truth. Add up your numbers for the four parts of the AIDA formula. Here’s my rough and ready take on how you can interpret your score:

16-20: Solid to excellent.

Don’t let up the effort, but if you are scoring this high, you should be seeing good to great results already. (If you aren’t, then go back to the parenthetical way up top about being objective and honest in your assessment.)

11-15: Ho-hum to hopeful.

You may be experiencing moderate success, but it is likely driven by habit and loyalty among your customer base. (Not that these aren’t important—quite the opposite—but even these will fade over time if your promotional efforts are lacking.)

6-10: Hurtin’.

You need to rally the troops and maybe even call in some outside help.

0-5: Um, call me. (800.867.2046, x101)

Of course, keep in mind that you have only gone through one example at this point. Maybe it was an anomaly (for better or worse). So definitely run through this with a few examples before drawing conclusions. And no matter where you end up, keep the AIDA formula top of mind as you create promotions going forward.


P.S. Bonus Points: If you’ve already thought to have someone else in your organization—or better yet, prospects or customers—go through this exercise, give yourself two extra points. That bit of initiative suggests that brighter days are ahead for your marketing promotions. If you haven’t had anyone else go through this exercise, I highly recommend getting them to do it and then seeing how your scores compare.

This post aligns with the Marketing domain of the Learning Business Maturity Model.

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