Why everybody is selling online courses

You’ve probably noticed this: everywhere you look, there’s somebody selling a course. Not only that, these courses are getting oddly specific: How to launch an online business; how to launch an online business for retired chefs; how to launch an online business for retired chefs with a passion for baking…You understand where this is going.

Besides observing the phenomenon, I started to wonder what where the forces behind it. This is relevant because many of these forces affect other businesses and seeing them in action might unlock new ideas for you, your job or your business. Lets get at it.

There are three levels to this:

  1. Society and Culture
  2. Market Dynamics
  3. Logistics

What is happening to society? A broad question indeed. I’ll make a couple of huge assumptions and just say I’m looking at western culture in general, especially white colar workers. A lot of this applies to blue collar workers as well, but I think that they might be better shielded from some of the upcoming changes.

Culture in flux

To start with, the world really is in transition. We are not what we used to be, but we are not at the destination yet. Habits, consumption and commerce are changing and with it, our livelihoods. The job market seems fickle as ever and those left with no work often have little hope to get back on the same living standard as before. There is no stability and whenever possible, jobs are made into tasks for the gig economy.

Especially in the west, the past seems better than the future. This is why all “new” movies seem to be remakes and reboots: nostalgia is a safe harbor. To further destabilize culture, traditional institutions like the state, academia, even the sort of church we went to as kids, are under attack. Their inertia acted as an anchor of meaning in slower times and now just makes them seem outdated, backwards and untrustworthy. Scandals are relentlessly presented whenever found and the public faces of these organizations are thrown out of their ivory towers.

New, infinite possibilities

Individuals, people like you and me, are now the protagonists. This not new or an accident ( Check out Century of the Self, the BBC documentary for the fascinating story of this idea ). We are ever more capable of spreading our opinions, stories and work and we are ever more treated as royalty. Services and software are made to fit precisely with our needs and desires and as the customer, we are always right. Naturally, each one of us is the center of the universe. Because of Internet, we can learn anything in seconds and can be sure to never be shown opinions we don’t agree with. Information is abundant to us and meaning is not some distant concept: we create our own meaning and name whatever models and concepts make sense to us. 

Meaning at the speed of markets

At some point, a few realized that meaning comes not from objective reality but from regular people with an idea. As long as you are willing to stake your claim to meaning, it belongs to you. Less adventurous people will believe you and perhaps even think you’ve uncovered something new but eternally true. As more and more people acknowledge this, the claims to meaning skyrocket. Some think it is all about protecting your family from pharmaceutical corporations, others are sure the environment is the only true important thing, a large group wants to demolish all gender definitions while others long for the seemingly simpler times of the Bible.

Meaning becomes a product you can try out, buy and change as it stops being of use. And as all products, there’s always a new meaning coming up, something you haven’t yet tried but have always needed.

Everything is moving faster you and nobody wants to be left holding the bag. We want to be up to date, know what is happening and adopt hacks and gadgets that gives us an extra edge. Because everybody is doing this, nobody is gaining any real edge. In Biology this is the Red Queen effect.

What is happening to the market?

Physicality = Liability

If you need a physical asset to create value, the value you create needs to account for the existence of that asset. This is why industrial facilities consider depreciation of manufacturing equipment when they price the goods they produce. Tangible things are fragile things. If you sell real books, made of paper and ink, whatever books are left unsold represent a loss.

There are no unsold e-books. E-books also don’t need printing machines or expensive logistics. It goes a little further: physical things occupy not only space but also time. If you bought a machine to help you do your job, you probably will resist changing your business model if it means writing-off that investment. Real things hold you down.

Much like investors can move their money around much faster than the companies they invest in ( the ones with the workforces, the buildings and the machines ) , people that produce ideas and not real products are the nimblest in the economy. You enjoy a craft and like to create furniture? That’s wonderful, but not as flexible as teaching others about making furniture.

Ideas don’t pay 

Have you been at a conference lately? If yes, chances are you watched a bunch of experts ( best case scenario ) explaining their ideas for free. As more and more companies use events as part of their marketing strategy, the trend of not paying speakers also goes up. Not only via conferences, but also through blog posts, youtube videos, podcasts and so on, content marketing acts as a ratchet to commoditize ideas.

This means that experts are left without some very important income streams and need to create others. Like courses.

The longest of tails

Physical supermarkets have limited shelf space and need to serve theoretically infinite number of desires from their local consumers. The game of running a supermarket is to have the best use of shelf space, that sells the most stuff, at the best possible prices.Airlines sell watches and perfume because they take little space but cost a lot of money.

With the internet and its infinite shelf space, you don’t need to create products that appeal to a broad segment of the population. You can create something very specific ( like a course on “how to launch an online business for retired chefs with a passion for baking” ) and you don’t have any opportunity costs. This online course is not really taking away space from something else.

Also, since you’re selling to the entire world ( language barriers apply ), you can find the oddballs that share your passion anywhere in the world.

What is happening to logistics

Age of the platform

Much like uber owns no cars (for now) and airbnb owns no real estate, most sites where you can buy or get an online course don’t produce any courses. Content is both king and a commodity, depending on how you look at it.

What these platforms have made easier than ever is to distribute your content to a large audience. Couple them with amazing cellphone cameras, easy to use editing software and office suites and all of us can be an author, a teacher and an expert.

There are plugins that make your website work as fully automated course platform and companies that take care of payments, taxes, refunds and even support. This is connected to the rise of the individual, that is now capable of doing alone what used to take dozens of persons.

Prosumerism

Besides consuming and producing content, we can now even do something in between: interact with the content of others, to refine and express our views. We can participate in discussion groups via slack or discus, we can call our mentors  via zoom ou appear.in and we can participate in the very creation of new knowledge.

Not only this allows for the distribution of content creation, it also acts as a way for course makers to test out assumptions and ideas to make their long tail courses ever more focused and aimed at a very specific market.

New packaging

As products shift from physical to digital and educational, they can be repacked in much more ways. If you have a book, you can distribute a few free chapters or turn it into an audio book. A course can be split into modules or be bundled with materials from other authors. Snippets of video can be used on social media. A framework that is tailored for one specific market can be adjusted to serve others at very little extra cost.

Last but not least, this allows for derivative work to be almost instantaneously refurbished and be made to look like new, updated insight. 

All of these possibilities allow for different distribution strategies and be leveraged to make the author appear to be everywhere, but there’s yet another layer: the business model.

With the flexibility of repackaging content for different channels, comes the ability to experiment with new monetization strategies, such as subscription-only blogs, content hubs focused on specific topics ( e.g. the Netflix of Innovation ), Crowdfunding or separate tiers for different levels of access to course materials and support.

What lays ahead

For the past couple of years, I’ve paid a lot of attention to the market for ideas and expertise. It’s a topic that fascinates me and fueled my curiosity to understand this industry. It only makes sense that from these observations, I try to extract a few corollaries

Specialization is half the battle

For experts looking to sell their expertise, it is essential to understand and apply the tools of modern marketing. It is a personal point of pain for me that so much of what is being done today has a tinge of snake-oiliness but I still believe that honesty is a real way forward.

What experts must not confuse is bullshit selling from marketing. One is a race to the bottom, the other allows you to sleep at night, make money and be respected by your peers. I suspect this is a bigger problem for those who’ve invested their careers in learning very hard and technical subjects, as they assume they’ve already paid their dues.

Merchants of thought have the advantage

People that understand ideas and expertise from separate worlds have an opportunity to package them into something truly novel that could never be found via traditional education. Much like merchants of the past, moving goods between and ideas between places, those who can move between areas of knowledge have a much broader view and potentially a unique advantage: they can serve each of their several markets with the same product.

EdTech has to get more ambitious

One of the bottlenecks of great digital content is its creation. Right now most content is video because it is so easy to create and consume. Obviously some creators already go the extra mile and innovate in approach, format and content. With innovation in mobile phones, cameras, AR/VR, AI and so on, the platforms that move ahead from the commodity space (some videos, quizzes and slides) will leverage some of the new things.

That’s not all, folks.

I’ve enjoyed trying to understand this phenomenon, but I still feel there’s more to unpack here. Might write more on this as it comes up

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