UPDATED: This article was originally published in 2020, prior to the dramatic changes which occurred in the Chinese ESL market. Prior to the shift in China’s regulation of language education, many online instructors were attracted by the apparently easy online lesson opportunities offered by companies like VIPKID and MagicEars. Those companies no longer operate to the same degree in mainland China.
However, the language education market for young learners is not limited to China. Parents in Japan, Korea, the Middle East, Latin America and other parts of the world are all willing to invest heavily in their children’s education in order to guarantee a better future. To put it into perspective there are an estimated 300 million people actively using or studying English in China. But there are approximately 2 billion English learners worldwide.
So how can freelance ESL instructors effectively market their services to take advantage of these opportunities? To build a sustainable, profitable teaching business you will need to attract new student prospects, conduct successful “trial” classes, close the sale on lesson programs and leverage your success.
Table of Contents
Attracting Prospects: Segment Your Audience
Most of the big online ESL schools have a “mass market” approach to teaching kids. Their curriculum is standardized. Teachers are usually expected to follow a one-size-fits-all curriculum. As an independent online instructor you have the opportunity to outflank the big schools by focusing your marketing message and course offerings on a targeted niche. “I teach kids” isn’t a niche. You should try breaking it down further by age category, teaching approach and student interests.
In most ESL markets, the kids sector can be divided into at least two age segments.
- kindergarten/elementary school ages
- junior/senior high school ages
For the first group of students, parents are more focussed on building their child’s comfort level in using a foreign language. Don’t forget that you, as the teacher, will possibly be the first foreign person many young kids will have encountered. So be prepared to break through the shyness barrier. Highlight to parents how you are able to deal with those situations in your marketing material.
For older kids, parents will be more intent on seeing actual skill progression as they are focussing on their offspring’s preparation for university and the work force. Students in these age groups are usually very busy with regular school homework and extracurricular activities. You will need to think of strategies for when they are tired and lacking energy.
This is where understanding your student’s interests will be crucial. For example, if you know your student is interested in tennis, don’t be afraid to talk about that as a warm up activity or incorporate that theme into your lesson. Again, emphasize that you take a customized, “student centered” approach to your teaching when you promote your services to parents.
By learning style
Children respond to a range of learning styles. Some will enjoy music, singing and chanting rhymes. Others need kinetic drills to reinforce their learning. Some will enjoy group activities (if you are teaching groups) whereas others learn better on their own. Attention spans will vary depending on age and personality. A good tip is to always have a range of “transition activities” ready for when your kids look like their attention is drifting. Your unique teaching style, tailored for different types of learner will help differentiate you from the mass-market ESL schools.
Kids generally aren’t excited about doing dry, boring grammar drills. Who can blame them. As an independent teacher you have an opportunity to try something that connects with the students’ interests. For example, why not base your whole lesson program around teenage interests like pop music, fashion and movies. For younger kids you might find that a whole curriculum involving the use of puppets works for you. Having a unique and consistent “theme” to your lesson program will distinguish you from all the commoditized English classes for kids offered by competitors.
In your marketing materials you should emphasize how your lesson curriculum and teaching style specifically works with your niche. Use photos, screenshots and testimonials from satisfied students (and their parents) where you can. Your website landing page should include some information about your qualifications, your nationality and educational background, and ideally a personal greeting video. I can’t emphasize enough how much power a video greeting adds to your marketing message.
Video gives parents a chance to see who you are and calm their concerns about whether your accent is hard to understand. This is particularly true for non-North American instructors. A lot of parents worry about their children learning “non-standard” English accents. Ideally, your video would be of you actually teaching a lesson but if that’s difficult to arrange, a self introduction video is almost as good. Speak clearly in a slow but natural way to the camera. 📽️
Pay attention to lighting. Natural light works best for video, so try to film near a bright window if you have one. Even outdoor videos can work if the background isn’t too distracting or noisy. Maybe try shooting a 60-second intro video down at the local park. It doesn’t need to be Spielberg quality. Be neatly dressed and most importantly… smile! If you absolutely cannot post a video on your website the next best thing is a quality photograph. That means no “passport style” photos. Ask a friend to take a dozen different snaps of you when you are in a relaxed and happy pose then pick the best one.
The Trial Class: First Impressions Count
Before parents are ready to commit to a program of classes with you, they will usually ask for a demonstration lesson.
Have a well practiced demo lesson
The trial class is your opportunity to showcase your professionalism. As this is the first time you are encountering the child you won’t know exactly what to expect, so it’s good to have a well rehearsed “demo lesson” ready to go that you can modify as you find out more about the student’s language strengths, weaknesses, personality and motivation level. Manage your time effectively so that you don’t go overtime or finish early.
Organize your classroom
Pay attention to your online classroom settings. Does it look consistent with your brand? Is it neat and well organized? Is it free of distracting background items? Is it quiet and well lit? Parents will be taking notice of all these things.
Make a personal connection
Use the student’s name wherever possible. Remember what Dale Carnegie said? “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.” It shows that you are taking the time to recognize them as a unique person. “Students don’t care what you know until they know that you care” – former VIPKID Brand Ambassador Kristina Garcia.
Closing the Sale: Pitch a Road Map
Parents will want to see that you have a road map for future lessons before they commit to a lesson program. What’s your curriculum outline? What is going to be your lesson goal, week by week? What should the child be able to do at the end of the course that they couldn’t do at the beginning?
The proposal document
When you are selling lesson programs of 5, 10 or more lessons as a package, you’ll need to have a professional document that explains the stepping stones along the students’ learning path. There are plenty of online apps that can help you craft a proposal document. My favorite is BidSketch but there are other choices which offer free or cheap monthly plans:
Your proposal document should (in simple language) explain:
- The problem which parents need to solve
- Your solution to that problem
- What the benefits of your solution will be
- The NEXT STEP parents need to take in order to book you
If possible, make the NEXT STEP a link to a dedicated web landing page where parents can pay for the program and book the lesson appointments at the same time.
Promise lesson feedback
Parents will appreciate feedback from each lesson. It doesn’t need to be too detailed. Just pick out a few of the things that the student did well, what they need more practice with, and what you are planning to do in the next lesson. If you want to go the extra mile and really distinguish yourself you could try offering the parent a recording of the lesson with the key moments annotated. For example “At 10:35 in the lesson, your son made a perfect sentence describing the weather today!” A lot of parents probably won’t be watching intently during the lesson itself, or have a good idea what’s happening on the screen, so a recording like this could be an excellent way of adding value to your lesson offering. Make sure you emphasize this as part of your proposal.
Get parental involvement
Try to enlist the parent/s as active partners in the English education of their children. Of course each parent wants their kid to succeed in learning the new language, but they don’t necessarily know what they can do in a practical way to help. Give the parent some simple drills which they can practice with their child before the next lesson. They’ll appreciate becoming an active part of their child’s learning experience. If you want to take it up a notch, ask the parent if they would like to be a “sit-in” student for a couple of lessons i.e. they complete all the language drills and exercises alongside their son or daughter. This technique can be especially helpful if the child is shy or uncooperative. Explain these ideas in your proposal.
Decision makers and stakeholders
Even though the student isn’t paying the bills (usually it’s the parents and perhaps even grandparents) the student is of course a “stakeholder” in the educational process. If they aren’t motivated by your lessons and feel disconnected from you as a teacher, the parents are likely to look for somebody else. Of course there will be some mothers or fathers who favor a strict “no nonsense” instructional approach. But for the most part, parents want to see that their son or daughter is enjoying their lessons with you and motivated to learn. How the child responds to your lessons will be an influential factor in whether the parents will continue with you as their teacher.
Leveraging Success: Parents are the Ultimate Social Network
Parenting has always had a “social networking” component, long before anyone heard of Facebook or Twitter. Most parents have a network of friends, family and neighbors who also have children. Often those connections come about through play groups, school and other social activities for children. Many hands make light work of supervision and logistics duties which come with raising youngsters. So if you are teaching kids, don’t ignore the fact that your student’s parents are potentially the greatest source of many introductions and new bookings. “Do not underestimate the influence that your happiest and most satisfied customers will have on your student base. The mother of my very first online student simply recommended me to her neighbor, whose son also became a student. That second student’s mother recommended me to all the mothers at her son’s tennis club”. – James Heywood, online ESL teacher and co-founder Off2Class.
Connect on social media
Find out what online social media the parents use then make sure you have an account page which they can direct referrals to. In the case of Chinese parents, you almost certainly will want to have a WeChat account. The best strategy of all is to have a website landing page that offers some free learning content in return for an email address. You should be building a list of email marketing contacts that you can regularly touch base with. People don’t often buy the first time they hear of a new product or service. Some studies suggest it takes on average seven contact points before customers are ready to make a purchase decision.
Incentivize and make it easy for parents to recommend you to other parents in their social circles. You could try giving a free class to their child if they make a successful referral of a new student to you. Give the parent a discount “coupon code” for your lesson program which they can share with their friends. Make it a win-win situation for all concerned.
ABP: “Always be personalizing”
Finally, don’t forget that a little effort to show you care about your students can go a long way. Birthday messages 🎂, graduation and academic end-of-year messages 🧑🎓 can all have a powerful effect on your students and their parents perception of your services. It only takes a few minutes to record a personalized greeting which you can embed into an email or social media private message. Make it a link which they can proudly share in their circle of friends.
Hopefully this article has provided a few ideas about how to market online English classes for kids in your target niche. Do you have some original ideas about how to achieve any of the four steps in the marketing process which I outlined? Leave a comment below if you do. 👍
The author of this post lives in Japan with his wife and family. He has taught English part-time (online and off) for more than a decade. He is passionate about WordPress consulting, online marketing and using the power of the internet to help people achieve their dreams.
He thinks that until you’ve tried sashimi tuna with wasabi, soy sauce, hot sake and a cold beer chaser, you just haven’t lived.