You’ve developed some expertise that you plan to capture in a series of videos and you want to launch a web-based course. You can create the videos, but need help presenting the course on the web, encoding and distributing the videos, and processing payments. You’ve considered but rejected online learning companies such as Lynda.com, deciding instead to self-publish your videos and keep the lion’s share of the profits. So what are your options?
You could go with one of two directions: a marketplace or a platform. In this article, I’ll explain both approaches and list their positives and negatives. I’ll finish with a high level discussion of features to look for in whichever product or service you choose.
By way of background, after producing multiple online courses for several online training vendors, including one that ended up (by virtue of an acquisition) on Lynda.com, I introduced my first self-published course on the marketplace Udemy in March, 2014. After publishing a second course on Udemy, I’ve ported that course for sale on my own website via platform vendor Patience.io. I haven’t gotten rich, but I do have deep experience with both marketplaces and platforms, and the pros and cons of both approaches.
Marketplace vs. Platform
Learning marketplaces, like Udemy and Skillshare, offer multiple self-published courses from a variety of vendors. You create and upload your course, and it’s sold by and distributed from the marketplace. The value proposition of the marketplace is that in exchange for a share of course revenue, it will promote the marketplace to entice potential students to take your class. You can market the course on your own website or blog, but the marketplace typically owns the relationship with the customer and sets most policies surrounding pricing, discounting, and who gets what share of the revenue.
You may be able to communicate with your students within the service, but you don’t get their contact information. With most services, you get to set the course price, and Udemy lets you keep 100 percent of revenue from new customers buying the course with a coupon code that you supply (which is fantastic). However, Udemy (and most marketplaces) are free to offer course-specific or general coupons that can drive the price on a $59 course down to $3.00 or lower. With Skillshare you can’t even apply for a revenue split until you offer two courses with over 500 students.
In contrast, learning platforms like Patience.io and Kajabi.com provide course and payment technology, which you use to build your course and integrate it into your own website. You make all pricing and discounting decisions, and pay the company either a fixed monthly fee (Kajabi) or a fixed monthly fee plus a revenue share (Patience.io). The value proposition here is simple: They supply the platform to produce a great learning experience and you do the rest. You get to keep most of the revenue and own the contact information and customer relationship.
Which approach is better? That depends upon a number of factors.
All That Glitters
Let’s be honest; if you produce a course you plan to charge for, your likely goal is to maximize revenue, and that’s the lens you should look through when choosing a marketplace or platform. From this perspective, marketplaces present a highly alluring picture, though all that glitters is not gold. If you scan either Udemy or Skillshare, you’ll see some courses that are fantastically successful. For example, one course on Udemy costs $149 and has about 22,000 students. Though the instructor/Udemy split varies by sales source and other factors, that instructor almost certainly has earned six figures several times over. Not a bad return for about 17 hours of video content.
On the other hand, there are many, many courses with few students. When assessing the number of students enrolled in a particular course, understand that enrollment numbers includes students who received the course for free. Udemy recommends giving away hundreds (if not thousands) of free coupons on the theory that a course with high enrollment looks popular (and no one wants to eat in an empty restaurant).
When I decided to produce my first Udemy course in February, the only other video compression course had 2,130 students, a marvelous target I felt sure I could exceed. Six months later it had 2,134, and my own course has only 82. Perhaps my fellow compressionist gave a bunch of courses away; or perhaps demand simply cratered. Maybe he just captured everyone in the Udemy community who was interested in compression. For whatever reason, the 2,130 figure was obviously a bad predictor of continued demand for compression-related courses.
Once you find a course you think might be a good predictor for your course’s sales, don’t look at a single number, which probably is inflated with early giveaways and highly discounted sales meant to prime the pump. Instead track sales of more mature courses over a period of days or weeks to ascertain current demand and sales.
Even then, however, it’s hard to predict sales of a new course based upon the success of other courses. For example, one Udemy yoga course costs $59 and has 5,400 students. Another costs $50 and has 47 students. Both appear to have been available for around a year.
That said, if you legitimately believe that your course will have mass appeal, marketplaces are probably the way to go. If your expertise is in a narrow, vertical market, and you have a mechanism to reach that market, like a popular blog or website, you should strongly consider a platform.
Have it Both Ways
If you don’t mind a little bit of extra work, you can actually have it both ways. For example, with Udemy, you own the content, and you’re free to present the same materials on your own website via a courseware platform. That way, you can use your own website to promote your own courses, where you control the relationship with the buyer and have total control over pricing and discounting. Any enrollees that the marketplace delivers are gravy, and the marketplace takes its fair share.
With a flurry of cutting and pasting and some fast uploading, it took under two hours to port my Udemy Adobe Media Encoder course to a separate course hosted on my own website by Patience.io. While it’s not yet 100 percent complete from a branding perspective, the learning experience is almost identical to that provided in the Udemy course.
Choosing a Marketplace or Platform
Whichever direction you go, there are a number factors to consider when choosing a marketplace or a platform. When choosing a marketplace, you should understand the general focus and content of that marketplace. For example, Udemy is general purpose, offering a diverse range of courses on topics from advertising to yoga, with cooking, time management, technology, and sleep hacking in between. The only requirement is that a class is at least 30 minutes long, with 60 percent of the content comprised of video. In contrast, Skillshare “is an online learning community to master real-world skills through project-based classes,” with classes more artistic and/or business-focused.
For platforms, you should discern the overall focus of the technology offering, either via the content on the site or by skimming user sites available in the testimonial section. For example, Kajabi primarily provides a membership site with the ability to deliver content, with extensive marketing aids like squeeze pages and similar tools to optimize your sales funnel. Patience.io is primarily focused on optimized course delivery, with aggressive pricing.
Obviously, you need to determine who owns the content, though in most instances it’s you. You also need to check pricing and revenue split. In this regard, though Udemy’s discount structure is complicated, you have total transparency regarding how much and when you’ll be paid: At any point you can login to a revenue report showing your lifetime earnings, payments made, payments due, and expected payment date. Udemy has a 30-day return policy, paying you (via Paypal) two months after the month of sale, so you’ll get paid in early May for March sales, for example.
For most Patience.io plans, the schema is similar: You get paid at the end of the month following the month of sale, so you’d get paid at the end of April for May sales. The exception is the Premium plan (299€ per month), which delivers daily bank deposits for the previous day’s sales.
The Learning Experience
Beyond these basics, focus on how the service enables your ability to create a compelling and effective learning experience, which involves a number of factors including the breadth of instructional formats and the ability to test student learning. For example, with Udemy, a lecture can consist of video (with audio), audio-only, a PowerPoint presentation, a Word or PDF document, text or a Mashup, which is a video synchronized with PowerPoint. You can also upload documents for students to download, and supply URLs as further references.
A mix of learning mediums is important, because different concepts are better taught through different mediums. For example, screen cam video is a perfect medium for demonstrating how to use a software program, but it’s less effective for delivering facts and figures, which a student can learn more quickly and efficiently from a document. In addition, continual use of a single medium can get boring; it’s often better to mix up the mediums to help keep the experience fresh.
Udemy also lets you create quizzes in three different formats: true/false, multiple choice, and fill-in-the-blank. While not all lessons lend themselves to quizzes, students do seem to appreciate them. Many students also seem to appreciate getting a certificate of completion, so check whether or not this is available in your marketplace or platform.
Where students can take the courses is also key. At this point, virtually all marketplaces and platforms support computers, tablets, and smartphones, but you should take a course or two on a variety of platforms to assess the quality of the experience.
Whether you choose a marketplace or platform, the main marketing page should present an attractive mix of content that will entice potential students to take the course. Most platforms and marketplaces let you create an introductory video and provide information about pricing, the number of students, and ratings and reviews. Skillshare does a particularly good job here, presenting an attractive, tabbed course description that provides a useful at-a-glance look at critical course stats, with other tabs providing access to lesson descriptions, discussions, and projects. All the information is above the fold, and easily accessible. In contrast, Patience.io presents the same basic information in one long webpage, which feels less scannable. If you’re evaluating a platform, you should also check how much you can customize your course to match the look and feel of the website you’ll be integrating it into.
Marketing will likely be key to your long term financial success. Unless your expertise is marketing, you’re going to need a little help. It’s worthwhile assessing the marketing resources each candidate system brings to bear. Udemy invests a lot in helping instructors market their courses, as does Kajabi. In contrast, Patience.io focuses almost exclusively on developing its courseware system with little marketing or sales assistance.
Also check whether the marketplace supplies conversion analytics, which identifies the sources of your visitors so you can track the effectiveness of your marketing campaigns. If you’re distributing via a platform you’ll likely have to use your own website analytics tools to supply this information.
Whether you choose a marketplace or platform, look for the ability to track your students progress through the course materials. Udemy does a nice job here, supplying monthly figures for overall content consumption, average content consumption per student, and student completion ratio. All this helps you understand if your students are actually finding your materials useful, another key to your long term success.
You’re not looking for a YouTube with a paywall; you’re looking for a mechanism that can help you create, market, and sell a highly-effective, multiple medium learning experience. At this point, it feels like the marketplaces are ahead of the platforms in terms of overall functionality and polish. For example, Udemy offers multiple free courses on creating and marketing your course, reviews all course content before it goes live, and provides helpful commentary and advice. Beyond the fact that my course didn’t sell particularly well, the site is exceptionally useful and polished, and it’s a great starting point for all do-it-yourself course developers.
However, if your expertise is vertical, and you spend a lot of time and effort driving traffic to your own website or blog, you should strongly consider offering your course on your own site. That way, you retain a greater percentage of the overall revenue and own the relationship with the buyer. Though only available for around seven months or so, Patience.io is competent today, and most of the product-related feature gaps are scheduled to be filled in the next few months. The introductory low pricing makes it essentially a no-risk proposition.
Online course image via Shutterstock.