One of the great benefits of the internet has always been its ability to inform. Whether through Wikipedia or YouTube, the tools exist for people to seek self-improvement at a moment’s notice, learning everything from historical facts to foreign languages. Nowhere is this better encapsulated than the booming online education market, which provides both formal and informal courses on a myriad of different topics.
With the industry already worth more than $255 billion, this isn’t so much a new frontier as a mature and successful industry. There are plenty of opportunities for new entrants however, with new areas of expertise and greater claims to success. Here’s a brief guide to the online education market, and how you can start your own online education business.
Decide what you’re going to teach
You’ve probably given this a bit of thought already, but you should really hone in on the subject of the course you’re planning to create. A successful online education business should be founded on your core competencies - in other words, something you can prove you know a lot about. Hone in on a skill you have that is valuable, marketable, and above all in demand.
A lot of this will depend on your credentials. It’s one thing to proclaim that you’re a great writer or singer, but another thing to have written successful novels or made it as an artist or performer. If you’ve reached a level of success in a career track, it will be far easier to sell the value proposition of your course, as you’re likely to have some insight on how to replicate that success. If you haven’t made it, any advice you offer is conjecture, and is likely to offer little more than any other person’s thoughts online.
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Offering courses online opens you up to a lot of potential markets, but you’ll also need to know that the marketplace isn’t already crowded, and that online courses are the best means of transmitting that knowledge. Settling on a subject for your online education business will mean doing some research into what’s already available and what’s popular. If the market for your topic is crowded, it might be that you can put a slight spin on it by changing the course title, or angling it towards a slightly different target audience or goal.
Make sure you have the required qualifications
For the purposes of this guide, we’ll assume that the majority of people wishing to start an online education business will be teaching informal skills, such as passing on tips and life advice. Examples of courses for informal skills might be ‘How to go viral on Instagram’, ‘How to write a successful Amazon eBook’ or ‘How to create your own movie with an iPhone’. These are skills which you don’t need a qualification to teach, and are a matter of experience as much as fact.
If you wish to provide a more formal education (such as how to pass an existing course from an examining body), it’s likely that you will need to be qualified and registered to do so. Even in instances where it is legal to provide unregistered or unapproved training for these courses, you will find it extremely difficult to secure customers for a course that you may not be qualified to teach. You will also usually have to pay a fee to host the courses and a percentage on each individual order, which will cut into your bottom line.
In cases where your area of expertise is a subject that requires additional qualifications and a rigorous course structure, there may be other ways to approach online education. If you’re a Site Supervisor, for instance, you might not necessarily be qualified to provide Site Supervisor training, or able to offer the courses online. You could however provide a more generic course, offering tips on how to improve as a Site Supervisor for people with less experience in the role.
Choose a means of distribution
Once you’ve settled on a subject, you’ll have to think about how you will deliver the course. With a classroom based course, the teaching process is fairly straightforward: you deliver it face-to-face, and can distribute and withhold training materials as you please. Online education is slightly different, as teaching multiple people at the same time is more difficult, and access to static resources could be shared with people who haven’t paid for them.
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Online video services such as YouTube or Vimeo are one option, and a substantial amount of educational content exists on these platforms already. However, most businesses cannot make enough money from views alone. Instead, online education providers put some of their content on YouTube and put the rest behind a paywall, or have a different content strategy for YouTube to advertise their service. Many language learning sites for example focus on fun videos such as curse words or popular phrases, and use the viral traction from these videos to bring people into the fold.
It is possible to host videos privately for customers on these platforms, but it’s not particularly practical. While links can be unlisted - meaning they don’t appear in the search function - the link could potentially be shared by the customer you send it to, allowing anyone else to view it for free. You may encounter the same issue if you email the course to customers, such as a download link for a PDF or video file. While people generally ‘pirate’ more from larger websites than individual tutors or course sites, you may still be at some risk.
Ideally, you wouldn’t allow users to download any paid course materials, instead hosting them behind a paywall on your website. Alternatively, you might choose to provide one-to-one training over a video conferencing platform such as Skype. This will ensure that the training is personalised and cannot be copied (although in theory, someone could record it), but will limit the number of courses you can sell. The upsell here could be that you are offering a more valuable service, and could therefore charge more for your time.
Find your audience
Now you’ve got a better idea of what your online education business will look like, it’s time to start establishing an audience. The first step here is to focus in on your brand. You’ll need to decide whether you are the product, or if you want to start a platform for a broader variety of courses. It’s probably wise at this point to promote yourself, as your experience and expertise will be the key selling point for your course. You can always move to a broader model later on, as you expand out from the things you know to courses written by other people.
A personal brand will also make your life easier on social media. People can be reticent about connecting with companies, but will engage much more readily with ‘real people’. Search for people who might be interested in your course - if it’s about writing a novel, then look for amateur novelists; if it’s about management techniques, look for middle managers. Follow them and look to join in with conversations, as well as joining business groups for both online education and your local area.
YouTube is a great way to increase the discoverability of your course and drive traffic to your site, as mentioned earlier, but there are other ways to kickstart your business. If you’ve written a great guide, then it’s fair to assume you’re a very good writer. Writing top quality content for a blog on your website (and employing a few SEO tricks) will help your website to pop up in search engines, while approaching other websites to write for them will help to establish you as a trusted name.
Building authority in this way is vital, as people will be likely to google your name to see if they can trust your courses. If they find articles you’ve written on trusted websites, this will increase your legitimacy by magnitudes. The old adage that ‘if you build it, they will come’ holds true for the most part, but people also need a push in the right direction. For a business that’s built on your credibility as a teacher, that means building a persona online that projects this credibility, and having a presence that’s as broad and reassuring as possible.
Create your first course
It can be tempting to pour absolutely everything you know about your chosen topic into your first course. In theory, a longer course with more valuable information will equate to a more valuable product, and one which stands out more easily from the crowd. But this is not necessarily what people want out of a course, particularly an online one. Many people seeking self improvement are looking for a quick fix; a way to learn in their lunch breaks and make steady, tangible progress. While this isn’t how learning generally works, there are ways you can look to accommodate this learning style.
The most straightforward is simply to hold some details back. Strip your first course down to its essence, and include the most pertinent details in order to get your point across and teach your students the things they need to know. Once they’ve taken the first course, you can then offer them further courses providing a greater level of depth and insight on some of the same topics. This will prevent people from being turned off by an overwhelmingly long or complex course, and give you some wiggle room when it comes to expanding your services. Just be careful to price the courses properly!
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There are many approaches to structuring an online course, but the main thing is to make sure that it gets the points across clearly, and flows in a way that makes sense from top to bottom. Think of it like building a house: you should lay the groundworks with basic information, and slowly build out from here, reinforcing previous points with new information. The best way to test this is to try out the course with a small focus group before launch. They’ll be able to give you honest feedback on how helpful the course was for them, and any areas where they were confused, or felt that some detail was lacking.
We aren’t an online education business, so this is very much a list of pointers, rather than a comprehensive guide. But if you need more information on how to start your business, including company formation advice in the UK, France or in over 30 countries worldwide, or how taxes work on digital products and services within the EU, don’t hesitate to get in touch by calling our team on 0033 (0)1 53 57 49 10 or emailing us from our contact page.
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