June 4, 2021
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Are Courses a Good Focus for Publishers?

There has been an increasing interest in online courses being a new driver of revenue for media companies, with some making news over the past few months about their offerings.

It’s not a new concept. In 2012, The New York Times called it “The Year of the MOOC,” which stands for massive open online courses. There were so many online courses. Colleges and universities got involved. Soon they were offering accredited certifications for a relatively low fee. It was all very big.

As what happens with everything, we see a huge investment, a ton of excitement, and then things level off to an equilibrium of steady growth—sort of like the newsletter craze of 2020.

But years later, we’re starting to see excitement again. It’s creeping in from the creator space, with individuals recognizing that there is revenue potential tied to creating a cohort-based course. Rather than an open-ended course which is fully self-guided, a cohort-based course runs on a pre-determined schedule. Examples of these include:

They all run for 3-4 weeks and require 6-8 hours a week of your time. I’ve seen longer courses that run for a couple of months. Courses can have varying costs and levels of participation. I’ve seen some that cost $1,000+ and have 100+ people participating. That’s not an insignificant amount of money.

But it’s expanding to publishers as well. A couple of weeks ago, The Economist announced it was releasing an online course called The New Global Order: How Politics, Business and Technology are Changing. Sounds daunting. It runs for six weeks, takes 6-8 hours of work per week, and will cost £1,475, which is a little over $2,000. That’s a decent amount of money, but The Economist is targeting a very specific audience with this:

This course is for senior leaders and executives in organizations of all kinds, who wish to gain an advanced and comprehensive view of the contemporary world order. It will enable you to:

* Lead your organization’s strategic response to geopolitical trends

* Make informed and confident decisions in an international context 

* Identify and manage threats to global business growth and navigate change accordingly

Back in February, Front Office Sports launched its first free course in partnership with Pepsi. Unlike The Economist’s course, which costs $2,000, FOS’s was free for the user and underwritten by Pepsi. In March, FOS told Axios that it expected this course to be a seven-figure business by Q3 and that it had already had over 6,000 people register for the first course.

The broader question remains: are courses a viable path forward for media companies looking to diversify revenue?

For many publishers that have a somewhat professional audience, there’s going to be a very real desire to run courses. We’re going to see an incredible proliferation from creators because they’re going to see “easy money.” And getting the first cohort might be easy; it may even be easy to get the second. But what will happen is that subsequent courses will get harder to fill and many will stop doing it.

But that doesn’t mean it’s not a good opportunity. There are just a few things that are important to understand and get right.

1. Upskilling Matters

In my opinion, the reason people take a course is because they are looking for more economic success. That could come in a better job or understanding a new area because you want to invest in it. Let’s look at a couple of the creator-led courses I mentioned above.

Rachitsky’s is all about becoming a better product manager. Pompliano’s is about understanding crypto so you can either get a job in it or invest better. Both of these are driven by an individual’s desire to upskill themselves. “I want a better job as a product manager, so let me take Lenny’s course.” Or… “I want to work in crypto, but I don’t get it, so let me take Pomp’s course.”

And this stuff works. I had coffee yesterday with a friend I hadn’t seen in years. He was excited because he was running product at a pretty well-known b2b company. The last we spoke, he was chief of staff to the CEO at a marketplace company. I was curious… How had he made the jump? As he explained it, a new initiative has presented itself and he wanted to jump over into the product world, so he volunteered to work on it.

Except… he had no real experience in product. To get himself up to speed on the proper frameworks required to be efficient as a VP of Product, he took a bunch of online courses. As he explained it, many of them sucked. But there were some that really provided the necessary tools he needed to be efficient in this new job. He’s been doing it for four years now and seems pretty happy with it.

If your material can legitimately help someone become better at their job and because of that, they get a promotion or a raise, it’s going to be worth it for them. This is why I have doubts about The Economist’s course. The topic feels very fluffy. There’s no hard skill that you can gain from it. Perhaps there’s value in thinking about the “contemporary world order,” but I don’t see it. Maybe I’m wrong.

2. It’s About The Network

The next thing to understand—and why The Economist’s course could actually work—is that the course material is actually secondary to who else is attending. Anytime I’ve asked someone with an MBA whether getting the degree was worth it, they’ll shrug their shoulders and say, “I met really great people.” And it’s true. If you get an MBA, you’re meeting the next generation of senior executives. And you’re part of that group. While you might learn necessary skills and having those three letters really helps, there’s nothing better than that network.

The same is true for your course. Yes, people want to learn the course material because it’ll make them stronger and get them jobs. But they also want to meet other like-minded people. These courses become a mini-community of sorts. Therefore, there needs to be an opportunity for participants to meet other course takers. A simple way to execute this is to bundle projects into the coursework and break the bigger cohort into small teams. This way, you’ve got 4-5 people who are working together, doing actual work that they then have to present. This builds a deeper connection between the participants.

3. It’s Constant Work

I think about the promotion of a course in a similar way to how you promote an event. You’re trying to convince a group of people that they should participate in something that is going to take them away from their work for a period of time.

That means you need to have people on your team responsible for marketing this. That includes scouring your database for the right profile and inviting them to register. It means sending email blasts to your audience when you announce it. It could also mean spending on paid acquisition to get the target audience participating, even if they are in your database already.

You also need to have an editor responsible for creating all the course material. It’ll likely be a blend of original content creation as well as curation. Additionally, you’ll need a community manager who is ensuring that there is an active discussion amongst the participants. That person can check in on the various sub-groups within the cohort and if there are breakout video calls, help foster some discussion.

Then there’s the iteration process. As the course progresses, you should be learning what helps the participant and what wastes their time.

I think the mistake many publishers are going to make is to curate a bunch of content, slap a four-figure price on it, and then wait to see if people decide to pay for it. If courses are something that you really want to have as a revenue driver, you’ve got to treat it as a business unit and give it the resources it requires.

This is constant work. We shouldn’t forget that.

An Alternative Approach

One idea that I’ve been thinking a lot about, especially on the b2b side, is the concept of courses as a licensed product. Rather than trying to sell the course one-off to an individual, why not, instead, target the largest companies in your space.

In exchange for a lump sum of cash, their entire company can gain access to the course. Rather than a course on how to be a better employee, it can be an introduction to that specific industry. This would be especially great for new employees that are pretty green in that industry.

I go back to my time working at CoinDesk. When I first started there, much of the industry was comprised of people who really believed in the technology. By the time I left, there were far more employees that were completely green to crypto than true believers.

We never did it, but what if we had created an “Intro to Crypto” course. Every major company could pay us a licensing fee and include the course as part of new employee onboarding.

One example I think a lot about is the legal world. There are thousands of laws out there. Some are relevant to some industries and others are relevant to other industries. A legal publication could create a series of courses that act as a quick intro on the major regulatory topics specific to that industry. It would, at the very least, guide a new lawyer at a firm in which direction to look for more information.

In this approach, the publisher is only responsible for creating high quality content to bring an individual up to speed on a new industry. It’s not about helping people upskill for better jobs or networking. It’s about helping an employer reduce its onboarding time.

However publishers decide to tackle this, one thing is clear. Many are going to try, most are going to fail, but those that put the work in, really dedicate themselves to it, and bring together strong course material with a great network could very well find a high-quality revenue stream.

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