10 Ways to Grow Your Training Business without Spending a Dime on Marketing

Years ago, the president of a small software training company asked if it was possible to grow your business without spending any money on marketing. My gut reaction was simply, “No way!”

However, knowing that wasn’t the right answer, I gave it more thought and it dawned on me that some of the best marketing ideas I’ve seen haven’t cost a lot of money. Of course, there was plenty of labor involved in having someone implement each of those activities. That certainly was a real cost. No doubt about it. So how could you possibly do it for free?

What if YOU were the President of that small training company and didn’t have a marketing staff, didn’t know a whole lot about marketing, and didn’t have a marketing budget? How would you do it?

First of all, if you offer a great training service and know how to sell it, and know how to effectively run a business, you have a good chance of growing. Maybe not as fast as you want to, but it would grow if the economy was good.

Great marketing is somewhat like rocket fuel for an already solid product, effective sales approach, and organized business infrastructure. A good marketing plan can turn something good into something great, and can get you there a lot faster.

Here’s how to do it.

1. Read, read, read, as much as you can about marketing

If you can’t afford to invest in a marketing person, you have to invest time to educate yourself. Also, you get what you pay for if you bring in a marketing person just out of college or with no training industry experience. If you can’t afford someone with lots of experience and with a training background, then you will likely waste a lot of money learning what works and what doesn’t work.

Assuming you’re not ready for the cost of a marketing person, it’s time to make a resolution to learn marketing fundamentals. Start by educating yourself through books and newsletters. Thirty minutes a day will get you there pretty quick. I like to do my learning from 8:00 to 8:30am each business day.

2. Spend time developing your value proposition and positioning

I can’t say enough about the importance of investing time in your value proposition, target customer and positioning. This affects everything else you do, so it’s the foundation of your sales and marketing efforts. If this is mediocre, then your brochures, websites, advertising, etc. will also be.

There are hundreds of books written about this, so go to your library, get one, and follow the steps they recommend. It’s time consuming, but it’s your foundation. Everything else will benefit if you do it well.

3. Focus on getting referrals

I happen to believe that 80% of every training purchase is somehow influenced by some sort of referral. Before people buy training, they almost always talk to someone who has had a good experience. This means that encouraging your happy customers to pass your name along may be the most effective way to spend your time. You should look at every new customer as a foothold into the company they work for and their colleagues.

4. Promote the next class

It’s a common conclusion that the cost of marketing to a current customer is much less expensive than the cost of obtaining a new customer. Some say that this number may be as high as twenty times the cost.

Focus on marketing to your customers before you invest in marketing to a new audience. Every time you communicate with a customer, help them figure out what they should buy next. You could do this in the ILT classroom, in eLearning, after the class, in an e-mail, on a sales call, etc. After they consume your training, if they have a very clear idea of what to buy next, then your company will grow rapidly. The timing may not be “right now”, but they need to know where they’re going next so that they’ll remember it when they’re ready.

5. Increase your lead conversion rate

Every inquiry from a qualified prospect is golden. What’s the value of an inbound lead? If you’re selling instructor led training, the marketing cost of creating a lead can be as much as $500 US. When that lead comes in, do you treat it like it’s worth that much?

What percentage of your leads do you convert to sales? If you don’t know what that percentage is, then take some time to figure it out and you might be surprised. Generally, if you’re not closing one in five leads, then there’s some work to be done. If you are able to close 30% of your incoming leads, then how much would this increase your revenue? Long story short, increasing the conversion of inbound leads can have an immediate and huge effect.

6. Pay close attention to your web site

These days, every prospect sees your website before they ever talk to you or buy from you. What does it mean to have your website as your first impression? First, ask yourself if your website makes your company look better or worse than you actually are? If it’s worse, then you’re losing sales. How many clicks does it take for a visitor to find the course they want and click the register button? If it’s more than three clicks, then your website is frustrating and leaving money on the table.

7. Understand Search Engine Optimization (SEO), and spend lots of time on it

Unlike Google Adwords, SEO is “free”, assuming you have the knowledge and the time to take advantage of it. The more time you spend on it, the more organic website traffic you will get and the more training you will sell. You can hire companies to optimize your website for search engines, but it’s usually over $5000 US to do so and it’s an ongoing thing. I still recommend educating yourself and getting good at SEO.

8. Get the most out of e-mail marketing

This is another free one that anybody can do, but most don’t do it very well. To do it well, you need to start by planning way in advance. Put together a six month schedule of every e-mail you want to send. The more you plan the more the emails will complement each other and the less likely they’ll be perceived as SPAM. Also, you’re more likely to stick to the schedule if you’ve planned far in advance.

Second, you must have a plan to email your customers after they take a class. Right after the class is when they are most likely to register for a second class. The further away they get from the class date, the less likely they will be to take a class. Think this one through and setup weekly email batches that go out to your students.

Third, do a newsletter. This is a natural for a training company. Get your upcoming class schedule in the e-mail with links to each upcoming class. Remember that for your prospects, the timing of the class is almost as important as the class itself. With so much competition, make sure you show the class dates in the e-mail.

9. Document your success and get customer testimonials

On your class evaluation, do you ask your students if you can use their name and comments in your marketing materials? Like I mentioned earlier, almost no one buys training before they learn how good the training is from someone else. Grow your business by putting testimonials and positive quotes on your website, brochure, and catalog. There’s a direct correlation between the number of testimonials a prospect reads and the likelihood they’ll buy your training.

10. Network with other training companies you don’t compete with

There’s a lot of training companies in the same situation as you. They have great training, but are a small company with little time or money for marketing. Call them and get to know them, and share what you’ve learned. Nine times out of ten, if they’re not competition, they’ll share right back.

If you get one great idea that you can immediately apply to your business, that can be the difference between profit and loss. This is knowledge that you will rarely find in books.

The big lesson learned is that there really are a lot of things you can do with little or no money. And even more importantly, you should do them before you spend a lot of money anyway. So, work your way through this checklist. After you’ve mastered them all and checked them all off, then you can start investing more in marketing.


Gordon L. Johnson has been a marketing leader in the corporate L&D industry for over twenty years with the last ten years focused on learning technology. Along the way, he’s discovered what works — and what doesn’t. More info at www.gordonljohnson.com.


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