Key tips for starting & growing an eLearning business
A comprehensive guide to creating a successful independent eLearning business, from determining your audience to choosing the right platform.
Recent changes in the world have created a thunderous demand for eLearning -- whether it’s to prepare for high-stakes certifications, to advance toward better job opportunities, or just to satisfy the curiosity of the life-long learner. Independent online courses and study resources have thus become massive money-making enterprises.
So if you happen to have the right educational content of your own, you may be drawn toward the delicious potential to make good money and do good in the process. The challenge is that you need more than just good content...
You need to intimately know your audience and how to market to them;
You need to understand what experience they’re looking for and how to create it for them;
You need an attractive, functional, and intuitive online environment (for both web and mobile) that appeals to learners; and
You need to do a constant reconnaissance of performance metrics so that you can evolve your product to cater to even the most nuanced demands.
At the end of the day, if your audience doesn’t find what they want from you, they’ll find it at one of your competitors.
The good news is you’re in exactly the right place for advice on how to lay the groundwork for a lucrative eLearning business. As the team behind Brainscape, the world’s smartest study app for thousands of subjects, we know just what it takes to transform great content into great business (AKA dolla billz).
So we've laid out this comprehensive guide to creating a successful independent eLearning business. We hope it helps bring you clarity, efficiency, and profits!
[And by the way, we’re also open to new partnerships, so if you're looking to sell flashcards as a component of your eLearning business plan, look no further.]
Step 1: Know your audience (so you can sell to them)
The first step on your journey to building a successful eLearning enterprise is knowing exactly who your audience is so you can tailor your product and messaging to appeal to them. This requires you to answer the following questions:
What are their learning goals? (For example: are they after a formal certification or just interested in advancing their personal knowledge?)
What are the existing study resources for your particular subject/s or skill/s? (i.e. who are your competitors and why are they successful?)
Where does your audience congregate and engage online (like Reddit, Twitter, Quora, etc.)? You’ll want to insert yourself into these conversations so that you can (1) get valuable insights straight from the people who matter and (2) begin to build your presence pre-launch.
What are people willing to pay in order to achieve their learning goals? (You can learn this from your competitors’ pricing and from your conversations with your audience via the aforementioned channels. Also, consider how much learners have to pay for the exam they’re preparing for, the cost of learning materials, and how many other similar prep courses are offered out there. Affordability could be what sets you apart!)
Remember, content is king but it cannot be profitable without an audience! Do your research so that your efforts and resources are spent in the most targeted and profitable way possible.
Step 2: Know why you’re different (and how to communicate that with your audience)
The eLearning landscape is a fiercely contested one. And while you might think you’re the best person to teach this subject or that skill, the only way you’re going to be able to make money is if you convince your audience of that.
As such, a really important part of your preparation before launch—before you even position yourself in front of your potential customers really—is finding out what makes your product different from your competitors. What are the benefits and not just basic features of functionality? Why should people choose your eLearning brand?
Don’t just focus on yourself (I’ve got a Master's degree; I have x years experience teaching; I’m super smart blah blah). Focus more on how you serve your audience’s needs better than the other brands on the market. Then, articulate and demonstrate this so that you are positioned as the clear choice.
If you can convince your audience that you offer a better learning experience, they will be much happier to pay money for it, particularly if they’re prepping for a high-stakes subject or exam.
Step 3: Know your distribution channels
Distribution is the process of making a product or service available for the consumer or business user who needs it. For example: will you be selling your eLearning product or service to an institution, like a school or university? Or will you be selling it to individual consumers (learners)?
Knowing your distribution channels is the part where you figure out how you’re going to connect your product with your audience and it consists of the following core questions:
Who will be buying your eLearning product/service? Is it the CLO (Chief Learning Officer) of a company or an employee with aspirations of being promoted to management? Is it the dean of a university or a college student? Is it a high school teacher or a parent with kids in that school? What is the buyer's biggest pain point, and what words do they use to describe it?
What is your current online presence? Do you already have a big online presence and audience of your own, in your core market? Or do you need to grow this from scratch?
What combination of marketing strategies will work the best? Should you go with paid advertising (if your product is expensive enough to justify the high cost)? What about email lists? Or both? How about direct sales outreach, social media, or affiliate or content marketing?
A really solid approach to answering these questions is to test your marketing before your product even exists (if it doesn’t already). We’ll address this in a bit in our Landing Page section.
What payment method will work for me and my audience? Should you have a once-off price or monthly/annual subscription fee? How about one price for everything or a tiered price program where users pay more for more advanced features? Or a package offering versus an à la carte menu of courses? What about discounts, special offers, free trial periods, and referral programs? The more payment options you present, the more accessible you make your product.
Figuring out the answers to these questions will help you determine the best route to get your product into your audience’s hands.
Step 4: Decide whether your product will be full-service or supplementary
Are you the full, authoritative course? The A-to-Z on a particular subject? Or is there already a great course/book out there, and you just want to provide a study supplement, like digital flashcards? Or do you want to create both: the A-to-Z course and the supplementary flashcard collection?
If you do want to produce a comprehensive learning resource for a subject or skill, that’s great! But a lot of money can be made by leveraging existing authoritative courses simply by developing complementary study tools or resources for them (not to mention the fact that this approach requires a lot less work than cooking up a whole course from scratch).
For example: you could approach someone/an institution who has published a course or book on a particular subject and offer to translate that into an eLearning product and/or a flashcard collection* (on Brainscape).
Pro Tip: Don’t worry about speaking to them before you build your product: nobody is going to copy your idea; especially if you do a good job of convincing them why YOU are the right person to build the complementary product you’re pitching.
*If you DO want to work with Brainscape to resell flashcards as part of your product—or even as your entire product—check out our awesome Help Center articles for Resellers. Alternatively, go all the way and fill out this form and we will be in touch within 48 hours to schedule a phone call.
(If you are instead interested in publishing your own content on Brainscape's marketplace, click here. Or if you are interested in using Brainscape to train your employees, click here.)
Step 5: Figure out your knowledge format/s
Now that you have a better idea of the scope of your product, it’s time to figure out the best format in which to deliver its educational content and/or skills/expertise to your audience.
A 3,000-page ebook of margin-to-margin text is probably not going to do very well these days. It’s just not stimulating enough for most people, and the brain learns more efficiently and remembers longer when it’s stimulated. (Brainscape knows this because we’re deep into the science of how the brain learns.)
But if you mix it up and include a variety of media, such as those we’ve listed below, you’ll likely enjoy a more engagement. And great engagement = successful learning!
Animations and simulations
Quizzes or exercises
Practice exams (formatted like the real deal)
*If your subject is content heavy and requires quite a bit of memorization of knowledge, you should definitely consider creating flashcards for it in Brainscape! You can then offer this to your users and to Brainscape’s existing audience as a paid-for product. More on this in a bit.
How do I choose which knowledge format is right for my eLearning brand?
Naturally, that depends on a few things!
Is your subject SKILLS-intensive? A skills-based subject like writing, math, and sales requires more hands-on practice to master, so such a course should place an emphasis on both demonstrations (video tutorials, animations, and live lessons) and on frequent assessment like exercises, quizzes, and practice exams.
Conversely, purely skill-based subjects tend to have less of a need for memorization tools like flashcards, as they don't require as much internalization of theory, vocab, diagrams, rules, or procedures.
Is your subject KNOWLEDGE-intensive? On the other hand, a content-heavy subject that does require learners to master a lot of information (like biology, law, or a product catalog) would do very well with written resources and flashcards, combined with more formal summative assessment.
[Note that some subjects are both knowledge- and skill-intensive, in which case you might want a combination of all the formats discussed above. The variety of media should also help to keep students engaged.]
Is your subject complex and difficult to learn? Next, you should take into account how difficult your subject is. If it is a complex, involved topic, then you’ll need to unravel it in great detail and with plenty of adjunctive study tools and media so that students find it approachable and manageable. If it's easy, just a series of simple slides, videos, or readings might be enough instructional material to get the job done.
Are your students preparing for a formal certification? Another major factor in how students will be consuming your content is whether they are learning it just for their own skills or to actually prepare themselves for a big exam. Students preparing for a certification will need all the tools available to ensure that the knowledge sticks and will be mentally available on test day.
The need for true internalization of knowledge may justify the creation of digital flashcards with spaced repetition (as opposed to more casual non-assessed topics where a learner could just re-reference the videos or slides whenever they want).
Remember, if your students are preparing for a certification, you want them to score high marks so that they attribute (part of) their success to your eLearning brand! Be thorough in providing them with the resources they need to do that.
Is your course short and quick, or a long-haul journey? Hand-in-hand with the afore-mentioned consideration is how long students typically need to study. There’s not much point in offering a complete encyclopedia of study resources if all it takes to pass is a simple quiz. In fact, creating too much content can actually be damaging to your product’s success, since efficiency is one of the most important metrics.
If, on the other hand, passing that subject is a long-haul challenge that requires several months of intensive studying, it makes sense to supply the necessary support. And since students on this path will likely be with you for much longer, you may consider providing adjunctive tools like a study plan or calendar, or an adaptive flashcards tool with a progress gauge like Brainscape’s mastery meter, which will help them manage their time better:
Step 6: Determine whether to incorporate flashcards into your eLearning offering