As I’m writing this post the world is slowly emerging from a global pandemic and, as I’m sure you noticed, during that time everything seemed to move online. That certainly included education of all varieties and one of the side effects was that the market for online courses got a whole lot more crowded and a whole lot more competitive.
So, as you gaze out into the future, you may be wondering, “Is it even still worth building an online course, and what will it take to actually succeed?” The short answer to those questions are “yes” – it is still worth it – but clearly things have changed, and it’s going to take a different approach to succeed.
And that’s exactly what I’ll cover in this article: how has the e-learning landscape evolved and what will it take to succeed in 2021 and beyond.
I’ve boiled it down to seven key points.
Table of contents
Expectations Are Elevated
The first point is the most obvious in many ways, but that may also make it the most important: the average person’s expectations for e-learning have risen significantly.
A lot of people who had zero experience learning online before the spring of 2020 now have quite a bit of experience. And those who were already seasoned e-learners are now old pros. At the same time, a lot of really smart experts who hadn’t yet ventured into online education were pretty much forced to in 2020.
All of that means that pretty much anybody out to enroll in an online course these days has higher expectations for it than they did a year ago – sometimes MUCH higher expectations, especially if they are being asked to pay for it.
So, what’s that mean for you as course creator?
It means higher production values are going to count more than they did in the past. Just sticking a video camera in front of you in bad lighting or narrating over some PPTs is less likely to cut it.
Along those same lines, it means increased interactivity. People aren’t just Zoom fatigued, they are digitally fatigued. If you don’t give them opportunities to interact with your content, with you, and ideally, with other learners in meaningful ways, you will lose them.
Finally, all of this means better design overall. You can have high production values and lots of interactivity, but if there really is no design leading to tangible, meaningful learning outcomes, then you won’t be delivering the kind of value that keeps learners coming back.
Fortunately, implementing better design isn’t rocket science, but because so few course creators do it, just a little bit of effort can really differentiate you in the market. Start with understanding adult learning principles and following a time-tested process for creating your courses. And, of course, take advantage of the wealth of course creation resources that LearnWorlds provides.
Blended Is Better
My next point relates to the point I just made about expectations and design, but it also has to do with delivery. And the point is that blended is better.
By that I mean that getting good at blending different types of content and experiences is another way to really stand out and succeed – and that applies especially to blending online learning with face-to-face learning.
One of the biggest opportunities by late 2021 is going to be a return to face-to-face learning experiences – experiences that happen in a physical classroom – as people get comfortable with gathering in person again. People are going to be really hungry for it
If you have offered face-to-face seminars or other events in the past, now is the time to start planning to revive them. If you haven’t done them in the past, now is the time to consider launching a seminar business. Start planning for this fall.
But here’s the key – now that so many more people are comfortable with online, you can blend the best of both worlds. Face-to-face, of course, gives you a level of intimacy and human-to-human interaction that is just very challenging to replicate online. But online learning can be much better for reaching larger numbers of people with a consistent experience. At the same time, it can be much more targeted to specific learner needs, and it’s a lot more trackable.
So, aim to leverage online and face-to-face to support each other. Use online courses and other digital tools to deliver content that helps people prepare for face to face or reinforce what they learn face to face. Use face-to-face as a way to help your learners connect with you and each other and then carry those strong relationships back online for a better online experience.
If you really apply some time to thinking about, there are so many ways you blend together not just online and offline learning, but also different online formats – like self-paced and live online courses – to create a mix of high value offerings at different price points that serve different needs within your audience.
Less is More
In a way, blending is an approach to helping you get more out of what you already have to offer. My next point has a similar aim, though it comes from a different perspective. And the point is that less is more.
Let’s face it, most people don’t want to have to sit through hours of online course material to learn everything about whatever topic you teach. They want the minimum effective dose to address whatever problem or opportunity they are facing right now.
There are at least two major trends that make me think this. The first is that we are coming off of a year of people overdosing on digital communication. In the wake Zoom fatigue and Netflix binging, we are bound to see a backlash, a rise in digital minimalism.
Probably more importantly, though, two of the biggest buzzwords in online learning for the past several years have been microlearning and personalized learning. These are all about keeping things short, focused, to the point for the individual learner. As platforms have gotten better and as artificial intelligence has improved, these two trends are becoming a reality.
As course creators, it’s a good time to be thinking about how we can create shorter, more focused experiences. And that may mean figuring out good ways to break apart larger courses into separate, smaller offerings – ones that can be purchased individually, or maybe bundled together for learners who really do want more.
This kind of flexibility goes back to that shift in expectations that I noted as my first point. Increasingly, people are going to expect that e-learning is available in smaller, more focused doses.
And smaller, more focused online learning may be just what you need for the sort of blending I talked about in the last point – content that can be used to prepare people for face-to-face learning or reinforce that experience afterward and keep learners engaged with you.
You may even want to consider whether you create or carve out shorter learning experiences that you offer for free, as a form of content marketing. In general, consider ways in which you can rethink your content or approach creating it differently to deliver experiences that are still impactful, but that represent a minimum effective dose of learning.
I just mentioned content marketing and I’m a huge advocate of it. I think consistently publishing high quality content that demonstrates your expertise and the value you can provide is really essential for attracting people to you and convincing them that paying for a course with you is worth it.
But content will only get you so far these days. It’s just so noisy and competitive out there in many markets. There are a lot of online courses – a site like Udemy alone, for example, offers well over 100,000 at this point. Even with good content, it’s hard to get in front of people and get their attention, much less convert them into buyers. Most people really can’t do it on their own, especially in the earlier days of their business.
Because of that, network selling – tapping into other people’s networks to reach highly qualified prospects for your course – is going to be more important than ever in the coming years.
If you think about it, people just have so many choices these days, and you really only have three possibilities for being a choice they even consider. One is to get in front of them through some sort of mass media or paid advertising. That can work, but it can also get expensive, and the level of trust is usually low. As a result, so is conversion.
Another is to show up at the top of the results on the search engines or maybe on ratings and reviews sites. That’s a lot better, and it’s definitely something to aim for over the longer run, but it can be very competitive and labor intensive. So, it’s rarely the best or most direct strategy for creators who are just starting out or looking to grow significantly in the short run.
And that brings us back to the third option: network selling. This is all about forming relationships with other people who have audiences that align with or even overlap with yours and developing concrete ways to market to each other’s audiences.
Usually, the most productive way to do this – and this is especially true for anyone offering courses – is through Webinars in which you share valuable knowledge and skills with their audience and vice versa – obviously with a call to action woven in that paves a path to your courses.
In some cases, you may do this on an affiliate or revenue share basis, but that’s secondary. The main thing is to build a network of relationships that gets you in front of people you would not reach otherwise and, better yet, in a way in which you have a warm introduction to them. And you should, of course, be prepared to do the same in return.
You don’t actually have to have a large audience to leverage network selling, you simply need a high quality audience and a group of potential collaborators who share goals similar to yours. Building that network of collaborators should be a top priority for all course creators moving forward.
Businesses Will Buy
One of the great things about network selling is that it introduces you to new audiences of buyers, and some of those potential audiences are bound to be businesses. That leads me to my next point: businesses will buy your courses.
In fact, I think selling to businesses is one of the biggest untapped opportunities for most course creators. We all tend to be focused on that individual learner who will pull out her credit card and purchase an enrollment.
But let’s face it, outside of successfully pulling off big launches – which can be very labor intensive and often don’t produce the results we hope for – selling to individuals means building you business single sale by single sale.
On the other hand, if you can manage to sell your course to a business buyer, you may sell 10s, 100s, even 1000s of seats at once. That’s a much faster route to positive cash flow and growth.
Of course, you can’t just say “I’m going to sell to businesses” and have it magically happen. You are going to need to rethink in a number of areas.
Selling to businesses may mean modifying your content somewhat or figuring out ways to supplement and enhance it to fit business needs.
It will definitely mean selling to a different type of buyer, one who has different goals and decision making criteria than an individual student.
That means you will need to communicate your value differently, to ensure your value proposition resonates with whoever is actually the buying decision – which usually isn’t the learner.
And it also means you need a platform that can support selling to businesses. That may mean that the platform allows for a business to access a part of the platform carved out just for its learners. Or it might mean that the platform supports you creating courses with authoring tools that conform to e-learning standards like SCORM – like LearnWorlds does – making it possible for a business to use your courses in its own learning management system, if necessary.
These are all points to think through as you plan your course creation efforts going forward. Most course creators have a business audience for their content, but you have to do the work to ensure businesses will buy.
Community is Key
My next to last point picks up on a Webinar I did with LearnWorlds CEO Panos Siozos. That session was on how to create and grow an online community, and I’m more convinced than ever that community really is the key to thriving over the long term and really maximizing your potential as a course creator.
The logic is pretty simple. A single course is just that – you get someone to buy once and go through a single learning experience with you. Even if you have a good e-mail list, are able to stay in touch, and sell that learner additional courses, you probably have not created or delivered anywhere near the value that you could in that relationship – and, of course, that’s just a single learner.
All of that is pretty transactional. When you build a learning community, you move beyond transactions and into relationships – relations between your learners and you and relationships between your learners and each other. You develop much more of an emotional connection. And there are a number of reasons all of this is valuable.
It helps you to differentiate and stand out in the market – when you have not just a course, but a community where people get ongoing access to you and to peers, that’s much higher value than most of your competition can offer.
It supports how people tend to learn today – this goes back to the point about less is more. People often don’t want or need a course. They just have a particular question or a challenge on which they need input. And being able to dip in and out of a community fits well with the whole idea of learning in the flow of work, which is another big buzz term in the world of learning right now.
Communities also provide a way for people to revisit and re-engage with ideas over time, which is a much more effective approach to learning than a single course experience.
As already mentioned, a community gives you a way to stay in touch with your learner in a meaningful way, and that makes it much easier to sell your future offerings to them. It also provides a powerful way to get input on what those offerings should be.
Finally – and this is the sum of all the parts I’ve just mentioned – when you create community, you create a huge asset for your business, one that is self-perpetuating to a large degree. That has immediate value for your business and, if you ever decide to sell, it can also dramatically increase the price you are able to get for your business.
Data is Direction
I’ve mentioned a few of the buzzwords in the world of learning – things like microlearning, personalization, learning in the flow of work. Data is a buzzword that transcends the world of learning – you hear about it everywhere – but it does have some specific applications and implications in the world of learning and I think the most successful course creators going forward are going to take those applications and implications to heart.
My view is that data is direction.
Data about our learners is really the most reliable tool we have for figuring out the right learning experiences to create, to making sure those learning experiences are successful, and to mapping out the future path for our education businesses.
If you aren’t paying attention to the data, then you are just flying blind and depending purely on instinct and luck. Eventually those will fail you.
Of course, you have to have access to data to actually be able to use it. That means using a course platform like LearnWorlds that captures meaningful data about your learner’s behavior and empowers you to use that data to grow and improve your course business.
And don’t overlook data in other tools you use – like your e-mail platform or social media tools. Finally, if you don’t have Google Analytics hooked up and know how to get relevant data from it, it’s past time.
Keep in mind, too, that some of your most valuable data is less formal. It’s things like what types of topics tend to get people excited in a community, or the reactions you get when you pilot an offering.
In general, the days are long gone when assuming that just because you have expertise in a subject area you know what to teach. Rely on data for direction.
Success Requires Action
So those are the points I think it is essential understand for succeeding with e-learning in 2021 and beyond:
A final point I’ll make is simply that action is everything. If you don’t take action on these points, then they don’t really matter. That may sound obvious, but there’s usually such a big gap between knowing and doing that it’s always worth saying. ‘
So, take some time to think through each of the points and how they apply to your course business. What opportunities do they represent? What challenges do they suggest you will need to address?
Then, make a plan, and start your journey to e-learning success in 2021 and beyond.