The purchase process – how students choose their courses


Whatever the type of course, long or short, academic or vocational, it may surprise you to learn that there is a standard thought-process that students go through before making their decision.

In fact, the process is the same for all of us, whatever purchase we are looking to make and understanding all of the steps involved will give you a head start when you are trying to attract students to your offering.

In this post, we’re going to look at the steps that are involved in the buying process and give you some ideas to help you refine your marketing to appeal to your target market.

In this post;

  • Problem identification
  • The information search
  • Matching
  • Making the choice
  • Post-purchase assessment
  • Using the purchasing cycle to refine your marketing

Problem identification

This is the starting point for any buying decision-making process and it relies upon the potential student identifying a need that they have to satisfy.

What people are doing when they sign up for a course is trying to alleviate a problem, whether it be looking for a first step to get into their ideal career or developing their skills to get a promotion at work, students are all looking for a solution to their issue.

Why is this important?

If you know the sorts of problems that your students are trying to solve then you can refine your marketing output to suit.

For example, imagine a thirtysomething who has a young family and needs to earn more money.

Writing a blog article on the ‘6 easiest courses you can take’ probably won’t engage them much, but a post called ‘The 6 courses that supercharge your earnings’ is going to hit the spot.

Understanding the problems that your students are looking to solve can make a massive difference to the quality of your output and the engagement of your potential students.

The information search

The second step that people carry out is to do an information search.

This is where the potential student looks around to find information about particular courses and the organisations that they might choose to enrol with.

The simplest example is our thirtysomething doing his google search.

But the information search actually goes deeper than that.

People will consult their own memory to see if they have come across anything that might fit the bill, then they may go online, to the library, speak with friends and family and actively seek recommendations.

This is where awareness comes in.

If the student knows that you deliver awesome courses then the first thing they are going to do is to check out your website, so building that awareness is key.

Unfortunately, awareness building is one area that many businesses neglect because it doesn’t show immediate, quantifiable results.

The next best option is to make sure you have lots of practical information available for students to search on the web and then make sure they see it.

You can do this through Pay Per Click (PPC) advertising to serve ads to targeted potential recruits although this does tend to be very competitive with variable results.

Another option is to work with a partner like Adhere that provides confirmed leads of potential students that have already expressed an interest in the courses you deliver.

Adhere work with universities and colleges around the world, matching students with the right courses which means that money isn’t spent blindly chasing people who aren’t interested in what you offer anyway.

And that’s important because as John Wanamaker once said: “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.”


Matching is the process of looking at all the offers and deciding which matches the criteria that the person has set.

For example, a working student may decide that they want an online-only course, with plenty of videos, marked assessments and a recognised qualification at the end.

They will then assess their shortlist of providers against these criteria and see who comes out on top.

Probably the clearest example of the matching process in action is the proliferation of comparison sites allowing people to compare and match the features of everything from insurance to electricity.

The key here is to make sure that your features and benefits are clearly stated in the prospectus for every course.

You wouldn’t want to be dumped out of the race simply because the potential student couldn’t find the features that they wanted in your course literature.

If your courses compare favourably with the opposition, or if you run courses at different price points then think about producing a comparison table a little like Xero do here.

Making the choice

The fourth step in the buying process for students is making the choice.

They’ve recognised the need, collated their information, compared providers and now all they need to do is to take the plunge and yet many buyers stall at this stage.

Something will stop them making a final decision and they’ll go back to the information stage or even reevaluate their motivation.

For course providers, the important thing is to remove any barriers to purchasing and to develop urgency.

If your potential sign-ups are going back to an information search then it means you haven’t answered all of their questions in sufficient detail for them to feel comfortable with committing.

That’s why it is important to make sure there is plenty of information on your website but also to go back to people and actively seek questions.

Some people are simply procrastinators, they’ve never met a decision that they couldn’t put off and so the trick is to develop urgency.

Universities and colleges already have an advantage in this area as they have defined course start dates so if you haven’t got a place by a certain day then you miss out.

Creating scarcity also helps. ‘Only four places left on this course’.

This is a method that is used extensively on platforms such as Laterooms to encourage people to book rooms before their allocation runs out.

Consider also offering time-limited booking discounts. People love to save money so if you offer them a deal that will expire after a certain amount of time then this helps push them along the buying cycle.

Don’t forget about people that still don’t go forward at this point either. Put in place a process that re-contacts them after a certain period of time, say 3-6 months and reminds them of your existence as they may well choose to buy a course at a later date when their circumstances have changed.

Post-purchase assessment

This is an area that you may think doesn’t need worrying about because after all the student has bought, but you’d be wrong.

In fact, the post-purchase assessment phase is really important if you want to build a successful education business.

This is where the student assesses the course they have chosen against their original criteria and what they were promised before purchase.

Customer satisfaction scores can be won and lost here because if the course doesn’t match up to what they expected then they will most likely be upset, whereas a course that exceeds expectations will result in a high rating.

Why is this important?

The best education businesses understand that students often don’t take only one course, they may do a series and if you have provided content that has delighted them then when they go through the purchasing cycle again they will often only consider you in their information search.

Remember also that one of the things that people do when they are searching for courses is to look for some form of validation.

They’ll ask family, friends or online acquaintances about good course providers and if your name comes up you’ll find that the likelihood of a booking is dramatically increased.

A good rating will also turn up on sites like Trustpilot or Google showing that you are an excellent provider. A good rating from a trusted source is also helpful in allowing people to commit to purchase.

Using the purchasing cycle to refine your marketing

If you are looking to enrol more students then it is always important to match your marketing to the purchasing cycle.

Understanding where your potential customers are and providing marketing that matches the point that they are at does two things; it increases the likelihood of signups and it increases the Return on Investment for your marketing budget.

The type of information you need to use for people who are at the start of their purchasing journey will be different from the communication with people who have stalled at the decision stage.

By customising your messaging you can make sure that people get the right information at the right time, thus making the decision-making process that much easier and your booking rate that much higher.