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Is Creating Online Training Programs a Viable Business Model?
4th June 2015 • The Digital Entrepreneur • Rainmaker Digital LLC
00:00:00 00:24:30

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The need (and desire) for on-demand education has intensified, and will only continue into the future. But can you really make a living from it?

To further our ongoing discussion about online education as a viable career and business model for content creators and entrepreneurs, I brought in a special co-host today. It’s Sonia Simone, Chief Content Officer of Copyblogger Media and my long-time co-conspirator in all things content marketing and online education.

In this 24-minute episode Sonia Simone and I discuss:

  • The prediction about online education that came true
  • Sonia’s move from freelance copywriter to course creator
  • The improbable sports training program that’s killing it
  • Membership sites for kids? (It’s all about the parents)
  • Other examples of “non-meta” training programs
  • A free webinar for creating online courses

Listen to The Digital Entrepreneur below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

Is Creating Online Training Programs a Viable Business Model?

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.

Brian Clark: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the show. I am Brian Clark, founder and CEO of Copyblogger Media. This week, instead of flying solo, I’ve decided to start at least a one-week tradition of having a rotating co-host. Today’s victim is Sonia Simone, chief content officer of Copyblogger Media, longtime co-conspirator way before we actually formed the company in 2010 — going back to Copyblogger, Teaching Sells, and all of that good stuff. Sonia, how are you doing today?

Sonia Simone: I am fantastic. Thank you for asking.

Brian Clark: It is wonderful to hear your velvety voice because you also have a great voice. That guy who also has a great voice

Sonia Simone: That traitor.

Brian Clark: Yeah. I don’t know how many weeks I’m going to keep talking about him ditching me, but it could be quite a few.

Sonia Simone: I think you could milk it. I think you are not even close to saturating that.

Brian Clark: Yeah, I feel that way, too.

Sonia Simone: Yeah.

Brian Clark: It’s evergreen really.

Sonia Simone: It is.

Brian Clark: All right, so as you know, your Copyblogger post today linked to my last podcast. I was honored.

Sonia Simone: It did indeed. Yes, it did.

The Prediction about Online Education That Came True

Brian Clark: Online courses, online education and training — obviously, we always love to tell the story that how we met was you were one of the first people with your credit card in hand saying, “Go ahead and sell me something already,” back in 2007.

Sonia Simone: That’s right.

Brian Clark: That was Teaching Sells, our instructional design meets direct marketing uber course. Do you remember that it was actually that course where someone gave us a review and they said it was ‘Internet marketing for smart people.’

Sonia Simone: I do.

Brian Clark: Not as a compliment, but we took it as a compliment because we were like “Yeah! Smart people only, please.”

Sonia Simone: You know what? You’re right actually.

Brian Clark: Instead of feeling shame and dumbing it down, we actually co-opted that, created another course called Internet Marketing for Smart People, which I thought was so us.

Sonia Simone: It is us. It’s a little offensive, but not very offensive — snarky.

Brian Clark: If you’re playing the populous card, like a lot of the Internet marketing crowd does, because, of course, they’re going, “You can do it.”

Sonia Simone: Right, and we’re like, “You can do it if you’re smart.”

Brian Clark: You ‘can’ do it — just like you can graduate from college — but maybe not if you can’t. It’s just amazing to revisit slightly to see the mainstreaming of this. I don’t like to sit there and say, “Hey, I called it.”

Sonia Simone: You did, though. You did call it, actually.

Brian Clark: It’s still one of those things where you’re right and you’re like, “Wow, I didn’t know I was going to be this right.”

Sonia Simone: I know. It’s true.

Brian Clark: It makes sense because on-demand — reacting to trends, to market, fluctuations, to disruptions — everything’s moving so quickly. I don’t think academia could keep up 10 years ago, much less now. That’s what’s really driving this, and it’s only going to accelerate. The whole concept in that Fast Company article — I don’t really like the terminology. I think it’s pretty weak. I think this futurist guy is dead on about this is a real gig. It is now, but only more so by the time we get to say 2020, 2025. The whole concept of the ‘freelance professor,’ how does that strike you?

Sonia Simone: I don’t love ‘freelance professor’ for a lot of reasons. I like your old term ‘entreproducer’ because I think you want to not forget that this is about a business. It is about teaching, but absolutely, equally, it is about business and about producing a result somebody else wants. Also, maybe because it’s just because too many people called me ‘Little Professor’ when I was a child. I have trauma from that, so that could be the source.

Brian Clark: Is that why you call me ‘Professor Clark’ when I get too esoteric?

Sonia Simone: It is. That’s right.

Brian Clark: That’s not a compliment, either — just in case there’s any confusion.

Sonia Simone: No, you have my story. That’s my story.

Brian Clark: Yeah, it is a business, and I did like that he said you need course materials, a plan, and a marketing plan. That’s what really set me off on this. You’re not going to get away from understanding the marketing component of it. The big thing about Teaching Sells, which was amazing to me when I was creating it, was that the intersection of direct marketing principles — which everything you sell online is direct marketing. Don’t think about junk mail. That’s not what it means. It means direct to the consumer, or customer, or client.

The principles, especially of copywriting, are applied in instructional design because that’s what gets adult learners to pay attention, to retain information, to stick with it — all of these things. Even if you say, “I don’t want to be a marketer,” or “I don’t care about selling,” creating great training is a component of exactly the same elements of retaining an audience and their attention in order to actually get some value out of it. It really is doing a great job of teaching people that builds your business in the long-term.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, most, maybe all smart marketers and salespeople have known for a long, long time, well over 100 years, that in order to have something that is marketable or sellable, you need to have a transformation that you can offer the person you’re selling to, while teaching has the transformation baked into it. The whole point of teaching is to create a transformation. That’s one of the reasons it’s such a strong model. It’s very easy to explain to somebody, “I am going to teach you to do something you want to know how to do.”

Brian Clark: Also something we talk about a lot, ‘baking in’ — it’s not just knowledge. It’s the benefits.

Sonia Simone: The benefits of knowledge, yeah.

Brian Clark: Guess what? Those are the same benefits that go on a sales page.

Sonia Simone: Yeah.

Brian Clark: You really can’t separate the two. I always was proud of Teaching Sells and how well it integrated it together because humans just naturally compartmentalize things. “This is that, and this is the other.” No, it’s really one thing, and it’s all related anyway.

Sonia Simone: Yeah.

Brian Clark: You and I have created many courses together. I still remember that time we created that freelance X Factor course, and I had to rent a room in Durango, Colorado, because I was there for the summer. My kids were little maniacs running around the place we actually were staying in, so in order to have quiet

Sonia Simone: You were in a closet in an office building or something crazy.

Brian Clark: I know. But, hey, we got it done.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, that was a good course.

Sonia’s Move from Freelance Copywriter to Course Creator

Brian Clark: Many years of education courses and all that. I want to talk to you a little bit, because you created in the time that we’ve known each other — this was before Copyblogger Media, though — you created your own course called Remarkable Marketing Blueprint. Is that correct?

Sonia Simone: That’s right.

Brian Clark: Oh I got it. You did that all by yourself. I remember you just went off, and then a long time later it was done.

Sonia Simone: I did, yes.

Brian Clark: Talk about that process as tackling what was a really big project. That was a good-sized course.

Sonia Simone: It was. What I wanted to do when I left the corporate world — and I have talked to other places about my serious post-corporate traumatic syndrome — I left the corporate world. I needed to make money. My husband stays at home full-time with my son, so it was all on me. My idea was I was going to be a freelance writer. That was okay.

I did moderately well at being a freelance writer, but I hated the ‘you don’t kill, you don’t eat’ mentality. It was not emotionally a great fit for me where I had to close all these new clients, and I was always prospecting. It wasn’t well-suited to me, so I did take Teaching Sells. I was one of those people who messes up your server by refreshing the order page two times a minute trying to wait for it to open — don’t do that, guys. It’s annoying.

I put this course together to teach people some of the things that I had, had to teach myself in order to be a good marketing writer — how to market stuff, how to sell things if you’re not the $10 million marketing budget company. It was revolutionary for me. It completely transformed who I was as an independent professional. Instead of constantly prospecting and talking to people who weren’t ready to move forward and closing people and all this stuff, I said, “Here’s a thing. Here’s what it will do for you. Here’s what to do next.” A bunch of people bought it, and then they gave me whatever it was, $27 a month.

It was a great deal. It really changed my business. It really changed my relationship with my customers. They created this whole identity. They called themselves the ‘Remarkables,’ and the first group were the ‘Remarkable and Originals.’ That was an identity that they had that many of them carry.

There will be people listening to this podcast who’ll say, “I’m a Remarkable.” It was really a great experience professionally and personally in terms of satisfaction, in terms of my ability to help people. It was just cool, and fun, and awesome.

Brian Clark: I remember the community you built there

Sonia Simone: It was intense.

Brian Clark: was rapidly pro-Sonia.

Sonia Simone: As they should be.

Brian Clark: You have that effect on lots of people. You come across so nice, but behind the scenes

Sonia Simone: Brian knows how evil I really am, but I do get [inaudible 0:11:22] very nice.

Brian Clark: When Sonia goes on a rant, just duck. What was the hard part about it? Again, it seems to me the content was so right up your alley. Was producing it the biggest challenge?

Sonia Simone: Producing it was great. I had to get my act together, but that was fine. That was all good. The site was really tough. I’m still so grateful to this day for the wonderful developer who was able to help me out with it. But even so, I think it took us about two months to get the site together before I could make any money. I was spending money.

Brian Clark: This was WordPress plus plugins?

Sonia Simone: WordPress plus proprietary membership plugins was what this was.

Brian Clark: Yeah, we won’t name which one.

Sonia Simone: No, we won’t name. There were a couple at the time. They all had issues, and I encountered the issues. It took a long time to get it together. During that time, I was spending money developing the site, but I wasn’t getting any revenue. We had security issues. Some kind of creepy Russian hackers were putting porn into my member library. I don’t know why. To this day, I’m not sure why — “Why are you doing that?” — but they did. That was great. We were playing whack-a-mole with security.

It didn’t work the way I wanted it to work. There was a lot of manual work to make sure that, if people left the course, like stopped paying for it, that we would stop giving them access to it. Just things like that, that today we have some tools — you know, cough, Rainmaker Platform — that make that really easy. It was not easy.

Brian Clark: That’s such a familiar story. When it was just me and Tony — and then later you joined us with Teaching Sells — Tony was gluing together, duct taping. No one would ever tell me just how fragile these sites were. They looked pretty, but they were built out of all these different parts. Also, in the original version of Teaching Sells, remember how Tony had to try to teach people to build an LMS out of what was it, Joomla and Moodle?

Sonia Simone: Moodle, right.

Brian Clark: Later we could finally get it done with WordPress, pretty much with the stuff you use, but of course, there were issues. People were always asking us, “Oh my gosh, you’ve taught me things that I didn’t even imagine I could know about creating instructional content and about marketing it. Just give me the technology platform.”

Sonia Simone: Right.

Brian Clark: That’s going to take a while. In fact, it took, oh, I can’t even do the math, seven years.

Sonia Simone: Yeah. There have been platforms, and those platforms had issues because it’s hard. It turns out when we set out to build it, it’s like, “Oh, this is actually really hard.”

Brian Clark: It took a while. It either takes a ton of money or it takes time. We were bootstrapped, so it took some time. Anyway, I mentioned that last week. At least, at this point, Rainmaker takes care of those headaches, and now it’s become essentially a part of the Teaching Sells experience that we’ll be doing next month.

Sonia Simone: Yes.

Brian Clark: Anyway, I think one objection people have when they hear us talk about creating the marketing blueprint, or a Copyblogger course, or even the