Why Online Learning & Publishers Are a Perfect Match
The online learning market has been in steady growth for over 20 years and continues to blossom. The proof is in the numbers: according to IBIS Capital Partners UK, the global online learning market currently stands at $91 billion, and according to the Ambient Insight Report, the global market for self-paced online learning will reach $53 billion by 2018.
Many organizations are embracing digital learning experiences and seeing success. In addition to building new and engaged audiences, online learning is opening the doors to a new revenue stream.
For publishers in all categories -- book, association, B2B, and consumer magazines -- this is an especially good time. Not only are these organizations appropriately staffed and organized to build profitable learning businesses, but new developments in online learning technology have reduced the cost of entry. Innovations in online learning have enabled superior experiences for learners and course creators. New cloud-based learning systems have drastically reduced the cost of delivering online programs. And the costs to staff and support online learning programs has fallen dramatically.
Content Expertise: Where Publishers & Online Learning Align
Publishing organizations lend themselves extremely well to the operation of an online learning business. Why? Because much of the integral pieces of a successful online learning business are already in place.
Publishers have a great deal of rich content that can be easily transformed into learning products of all kinds: guides, webinars, courses, programs, and more. Furthermore, there are editorial teams, authors, and contributors, all "subject-matter experts" that can serve as credible sources. Publishers also have established marketing and distribution channels that are available to promote and offer online learning to both existing and new audiences. Above all else, they often have preexisting loyal audiences that trust them and look to them for advice.
Curating the Right Content
Transforming content such as text, videos, and images into real learning experiences requires a curatorial approach to this existing content. As such, it becomes important to take an inventory of what's already available. Certainly, some publishers choose to start from scratch, but how quickly quality content can be created will impact the profitability timeline.
How do you know what works? What do users want? What will they pay for? I think it's simple: A learning path that breaks down process and offers transferable skills. To begin assessing your level of "content readiness," take a look at the following examples of assets that can be effectively transformed into learning materials:
- Written Materials: These are essential. When it comes to creating a quality learning experience and having it resonate with your audience, a lot depends on what you say and the way you say it. Luckily many publishing organizations already have this at hand.
- Photography: Strong images not only establish a visual tone, but also work as powerful teaching tools. Depending on resources, you may want to use stock photography. When possible, create original photography. It's an investment that will help a brand shine.
- Video:If a company doesn't have a video budget or a studio, don't worry. Shooting, editing, and capturing video has become amazingly affordable. There are lots of ways to shoot high-quality video on a small budget.
- Presentations: These can serve as powerful online learning materials. Adding audio commentary in many cases can bring them to life.
- Books & ebooks: Books are golden sources in the repurposing process. The book layout format will map closely to that of a course. Existing chapters neatly organize materials, content, and learning paths. Books with rich imagery and content make especially great courses. A course accompanying a book can also make a great bundle or value-add.
A Variety of Business Models
There are a number of creative online learning business models taking shape. Most publishers work to their strengths and deploy with a revenue model that closely maps to their core business. Some organizations opt to sell courses direct to their audience with an a la carte and subscription model approach. Others stand-up the business with ad-supported or sponsored learning. Many will leverage online learning as a key component of their content marketing strategy, enjoying the exceptionally high engagement metrics and repeat visits. Licensing models are also popular with publishers selling learning programs into businesses. In most cases, all of these models are being mixed and matched with a lot of success.
Online Learning & Audience Engagement
Beyond their know-how and content resources, publishers also have audiences already turning to them for knowledge. Online learning offers a powerful tool to further this audience engagement. Curated digital learning content demands a high level of interaction from users. There are two reasons for this. First, learners are engaged because they want to learn. Many may have invested to learn more about a passion or a hobby or to improve their career. They're engaged with an attitude full of purpose and curiosity. Second, courses are just more structurally interactive than much of the web. Learners play videos, click on hotspots, listen to audio clips, take quizzes, work through PowerPoint presentations, have discussions with other learners, take notes, and download materials. As a result, learners are engaged longer and are getting a high-quality experience with the brand, publisher, or even a product.
Are There Challenges?
Of course. Publishers will face a lot of the same challenges as any other organization when building a learning venture such as content creation, marketing, and technology. However, most of these challenges are mitigated by the strengths that publishing organizations offer.
Content can be repurposed in many cases and with a little training, editorial staff can quickly get up to speed creating content. The number one issue we see in this area is bandwidth. It is advisable to budget time or assign time for editorial staff to create course content. For scaling and the success of a learning business, dedicating an individual to content creation is beneficial.
For those selling online learning services, marketing a new product can take time. While marketing courses and educational content relies on many of the same core marketing approaches, there are nuances that require a slightly adjusted strategy. As online learning models vary so much, it is key to explain to the user what exactly they are buying and what outcomes they can expect. Depending on price-points, online courses are not usually impulse buys, so a multi-touch marketing approach will be key to conversion. Email drip campaigns, previews, reviews, and testimonials are core in the selling process. Email tends to be the most effective channel with site cross-promotion a close second. Expect to get creative with couponing, bundling, and other tools to optimize revenue.
And then it comes to technology: The big decision is whether to build or to buy. For those who chose to build, this work is not for the faint of heart. There is a lot of technology to create in an online school such as, course authoring, user management, ecommerce, messaging, reporting, hosting, and infrastructure, not to mention the storefront and site for your school. This will take many developers, designers, project managers, and web development team members. The work is not over after launch either, as there will be significant support required, in addition to a long list of feature requests from customers and business owners.
The buy side has improved a great deal in the last number of years. Technology has improved significantly, and the costs to use it have come down a great deal too. In choosing a buy model, you can pilot and scale your business without making an enormous up-front investment as you would have to in the build scenario. You can also allocate development resources elsewhere for other revenue optimization projects. You might have to wait for a custom feature or not own the code base, but that's a small trade-off when you think about all of the advantages of working with a technology partner who can help point you in the right direction and who is always adding features that will help you grow you business into a profitable operation.
Publishers that have begun this journey already (see Rodale U) are creating new vibrant businesses with expertise and assets that are already in the building. For those looking to build new revenue streams with legitimate growth potential, then learning might just be an option worth a closer look at your next strategy and planning session.
Barry Kelly is the CEO of Thought Industries, an online learning platform for publishers.
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