In the last 15 years as a firearm instructor, I've seen many different firearm instruction business models. There are some very successful firearm training companies out there but the vast majority of instructors are part-time and effectively stuck in a rut not knowing how to grow their business.
This article is part of a series I'm writing about marketing for firearm instructors in the hope to share some of the insights I've gained into an industry that I love.
Introduction: Setting The Stage For Marketing
A properly built product funnel or customer journey should be the first step in any business. It amplifies the results of all other activities.
For example, imagine if you owned a coffee shop on a busy intersection in town. Would it make sense to you to run ads on the radio, distribute flyers for your coffee shop, and boost posts on Facebook when you are limited in the shop to a single machine and only selling coffee black?
Ideally wouldn't you have multiple machines and a full menu before you start driving people in the door? Otherwise, you are going to provide a negative experience for the customer and your advertising and marketing expense is going to generate a poor ROI.
Yet, this is effectively what firearm instructors often do.
Building out a clear customer journey and product funnel maximizes the return on investment for any activities you engage in to drive more traffic to the business.
A Product Funnel For Firearm Instructors
A product funnel is a progressive product offering designed to take a consumer through a desirable journey. In this case, taking the consumer from being an untrained gun owner to one that is trained to some degree.
We use the visual of a funnel because generally you have the highest volume of students in the classes at the top of the funnel and as the progression takes place less and less students come back and continue through the journey.
This image represents a potential example of a product funnel for a firearm instructor but please understand this is just an example and your class offerings are likely to be different and you will likely have a different number of levels. This image is purely meant to help explain the concept.
Some firearm instruction businesses are sophisticated enough to have multiple funnels with different entry points and different customer journeys which enable them to target different demographics and consumer groups. Something to think about.
The One Trick Pony Problem
If that seems overwhelming I understand. In my experience, the majority of firearm instructors are one-trick ponies. They have a single class they teach or offer and that summarizes their business.
In many cases that one class is the state-required concealed carry permit class. If you suffer from this business problem your business is extremely unstable.
First, if the state passes permitless carry your business will shrink and you may be unable to adapt.
Second, you can't afford to spend much in advertising on acquiring a student because you only make money on that single transaction. So competitors with a real product funnel can afford to outspend you in advertising.
Third, you have no strong way to separate yourself from competitors. You may be convinced that you are a better instructor or your PowerPoint deck is more valuable but the potential students in the marketplace don't know the difference and many of them don't care. Having a true product funnel means standing out as a more serious business and one that can provide much more value to the student.
*NOTE: I'm not advocating for teaching skills or classes that are outside of your expertise and experience. Any quality instructor knows they should stay inside their lane but also should be working to expand their expertise and seek out new knowledge and skills themselves.
The Chicken and Egg Problem
When I talk to instructors about being one-trick ponies they tell me that they have other class options available but they don't schedule them because nobody expresses interest.
Students won't enroll if you don't schedule and post the class. Having a list of class options you COULD teach and letting students know they can contact you if interested is a dysfunctional business plan. It will NOT work out.
For the greater part, you will only sell seats in a class if you provide potential students with a clear description of what the class entails and put it on a calendar to run on a specific date/time.
This leads to a chicken and egg problem where instructors don't schedule classes because nobody is signing up and nobody is signing up because the instructor doesn't schedule the class.
You address this problem by properly building a product funnel and building a baseline for the conversion rate from one product to the next. Also, see the section below about frequency.
Experiment and Automate The Process of Moving Students Through The Funnel
Once you map out your product funnel the next step as a marketer is to work on the process of moving students through the funnel.
Let's look at my example funnel again:
When I say “move” students through the funnel I mean helping them choose to spend more money and buy your next product/class. In this example, you need to figure out the best way to “convert” as many students in your Concealed Carry Class into students in your skill builder class.
That might include specific references and a call to action in the class, follow-up email or SMS, or any number of other activities. That is outside the scope of this article.
The key is to figure out the most efficient way to get the highest percentage of customers to continue their journey from their current place in the funnel forward from each step to each subsequent step.
The Most Difficult Conversion is from 1 to 2
Without a doubt, the most difficult challenge is getting students in your top-of-funnel class to come back for class #2. You can probably expect the conversion rate to be at least 1/2 of the rate of students who will move from step 2 to step 3.
This is because once the student comes back a second time you have overcome the attitude that no additional training is needed. The student is converted to the idea of ongoing training and education and you just need to guide them through those steps and provide a quality experience.
So focus your internal marketer (everyone has one) on a process and system most likely to get the first-time student to come back a second time. The rest of the journey should be easier.
For this reason, you may want a few different Step 2 options in your funnel that appeal to different types of students based on their interests or levels of experience. Here is a potential modified funnel based on that strategy:
CCW May NOT Be The Best Top of Funnel Product
Your top of funnel product becomes the most important product you offer because it determines everything else in your business. It needs to be a product with a great deal of volume in terms of what it provides the students who take the class.
For many firearm instructors, this is the state-mandated Concealed Carry Class because it is the first touchpoint for most gun owners looking for some sort of class. The government effectively drives your customers to you.
In states where a permit is not required to carry OR no training is required to obtain a permit, it is much less likely to be a driving force in your product funnel. You may need to look at a much lower cost / high appeal option.
Here is a potential alternate product funnel that focuses effort on 2 different top-of-funnel classes that appeal to different types of gun owners.
The Top of Funnel Offers Are The Only Thing You Need to Drive
Once you have built out your product funnel and have confidence in your process to move students through the journey at the highest rate possible the only real marketing activities you need to engage in are the activities that support the top of funnel product.
After all, your entire business will succeed now if all you do is add as many students as possible to the top of the funnel. Focus your ad dollars, promotional plans, and marketing generally on driving people into your top-of-funnel product.
Frequency of Class Is Driven By Funnel Position and Conversion Rate
The frequency at which you schedule classes is driven by their funnel position and conversion rate. Let's go back to my original example funnel and add example conversion rates.
By conversion rate, I mean the % of students who move from one step in the journey to the next step. (Note here it represents the percentage of the total. Defensive Handgun for example will have 7% of the original Concealed Carry Students enroll which is 70% of the students in the Skill Builder Class)
Next, indicate your total max number of students in each class:
Again a reminder this is an example. In my example, the max number of students consistently goes down but that might not necessarily be the case.
Now estimate the number of how many people you will add to your top of funnel class each month. For my example, I'm going to suppose 100 students per month.
Using the conversion rate I can calculate appx how many people, of those 100 will funnel down into each class:
Now using the max number of students per month I can decide how often to teach each class:
Of course, you can teach any of these classes more often if you want. These estimates are based on having roughly full classes and based on the input of 100 students a month and our estimated conversion rates. A different way to look at your frequency is to consider your MINIMUM students instead of your max students.
How many students at a minimum do you want in a class to proceed?
Scheduling classes more frequently will always have a positive impact on the conversion rate and the number of students you have in each class.
To grow a strong and stable firearm instruction business you need to focus on building out a customer journey that both empowers and supports the customer's goals while also supporting your business.
Focus on helping customers move through that journey and then focus on driving more customers into the top-of-funnel class.
I welcome your feedback and questions below!