From Zero to Online Hero: Building Your Online ESL Client Base

From Zero to Online Hero
Building Your Online ESL Client Base

Graham Dixon
by Graham Dixon 3,712 views |

Teaching English online, either through a school and as an independent freelancer, has become one of the fastest growing sectors of the ESL marketplace.

 There is tremendous, global demand for cost-effective, personalized lessons, and no shortage of both new and experienced ESL teachers who are keen to take advantage of the new, widespread availability of broadband Internet. From Tokyo to Timbuktu, new students are signing on in ever-growing numbers, and for many teachers, the flexibility of working from home has become an attractive alternative to the week-in, week-out grind of working for a traditional, bricks-and-mortar school.

4 Tricks for Building Your Online ESL Client Base

  1. 1

    Generate a Contacts List

    If you sign up to work for an online school, then they will handle the tricky business of finding students for you. This relieves you of the burden of marketing, using social media and generating a contacts list, although it’s important to stress that many school-based online teachers eventually ‘graduate’ to working for themselves, and that their existing students will form the basis for the client base as an independent teacher. However, if you’ve decided to strike out on your own from the outset, you’ll need to put some time and effort into creating the client base for yourself.

    In such an active marketplace, creating a studio of online students might seem as easy as posting an advert on Craigslist or creating a simple website and then waiting for the students to come knocking. But the very vibrancy of the market poses a challenge: how can teachers hope to differentiate themselves from the competition, when veteran teachers and low-cost providers are so well placed to sign up these eager students? How can we reach, sign up and maintain relations with a range of students when so many others are doing the exact same thing?

    Unless you’re arriving in the online ESL field as a brand new teacher, you have the luxury of using your existing students as the basis for a larger, ongoing client base. They know and respect you, and are in a position to recommend you to their friends, family and classmates. Depending on where you’re working, it might be possible to quietly gather contact information (most critically email addresses) from your existing students; ensure them that you won’t be spamming them with offers of cheap Rolexes! This information will form the first few lines of your all-important contact list, a master database of all the potential students you’ve ever been in contact with. If possible, also include contact information for their parents, as many online teachers have found consistent business by teaching first the older child of a family, and then their younger siblings.

    Your contacts list will probably be an Excel file which will include:

    • the student’s name
    • their email address (and, if possible, those of their parents)
    • their social media details (Facebook, Twitter, Skype etc)
    • their age and/or grade level or university year group
    • notes on their age, level and life situation (applying to colleges, studying for an MBA, big fan of How I Met Your Mother, etc)
    • notes on any friends or family who might become students in the future
  2. 2

    Use Your Contacts List

    The main purpose of having such a list is to generate customers, in this case, students for your online lessons. Though they know you already (either personally, or by reputation), it’s important to remember that most people don’t respond too well to a bare-faced sales email, begging them to sign up for classes. Instead, generate relationships with these people which will be maintained by email. Ask how their studies are going, or whether they need help with their university or job applications. Send them a friendly email on their birthday, graduation day, or to celebrate their engagement or wedding. In this situation, it might be best to liberally bend the rules regarding the separation of ‘students’ and ‘friends’ in your life; they will be far more likely to sign up with you if you demonstrate a genuine interest in what they’re doing, and offer guidance on those nerve-wracking and important rites of passage, such as the first day of college, beginning a new job, giving a major presentation, speaking at a conference, or traveling abroad for work.

  3. 3

    Consider Your Niche

    Where are your strengths as a teacher? Did you teach a Business English class, or work mostly with one particular L1 group? Are you a specialist when it comes to university preparation, or test-taking? Perhaps you’ve worked with one age group more than others, or you’re a wizard with beginners?

    Deciding your niche will help you tailor your marketing to a specific group who are more likely to respond to someone with your skills set. Demonstrating a strong track record in the very type of teaching your clients most need is a great way to show that you’re just the person for the job.

  4. 4

    Keep Your Quality High

    The most efficient marketing is done through word-of-mouth, and this relies on your students having a good experience during your lessons, both before and after you take the plunge and become an independent online teacher. If the students loved your style, produced tons of language, learned a lot and grew in confidence while working on engaging, relevant exercises, they’re much more likely to recommend you to their friends. To ensure consistent, high-quality lesson delivery, make sure to:

    • Plan every lesson carefully, even if you’ve taught the material many times before, or know the student very well
    • Carry out detailed diagnostics and needs analysis in your initial lessons so that the student will see and feel their progress, lesson by lesson
    • Follow up each lesson, or set of lessons, with a courtesy email. This should include:
      • Your thanks for their taking the time to practice English with you
      • Praise on their progress; be specific on this, e.g. “You’re really improving your grammar, especially your past tense conjugations – well done!”
      • Recommendations for practice exercises, especially if you are their only teacher
      • Confirmation of, or suggestions for, the timing of your next lesson.

Building a list of potential students need not be an awkward or invasive gathering of personal data; students who have enjoyed your classes won’t mind sharing their details, or agreeing to recommend you to friends and family.

In the increasingly crowded and competitive world of online ESL teaching, such a list is critically important for building a client base which will hopefully enable you to create the independent, home-working lifestyle you’ve been dreaming about, and to generate lasting relationships with people for whom you’ll be an important guide and mentor over a number of years.

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