Transcript of Creating Online Courses That Work for Your Students and Your Business
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John Jantsch: This episode of The Duct Tape Marketing Podcast is brought to you by Klaviyo. Klaviyo is a platform that helps growth-focused eCommerce brands drive more sales with super-targeted, highly relevant email, Facebook and Instagram marketing.
John Jantsch: Hello and welcome to another episode of the Duct Tape Marketing podcast. This is John Jantsch and my guest today is Justin Ferriman. He is the co-founder of a learning management software called LearnDash, which is a WordPress plugin that we’ve used and continue to use on a number of our courses. I thought it would be great to talk about the state of online learning. Justin, thanks for joining me.
Justin Ferriman: Thanks so much for having me here, John. I’ve been a fan of yours for quite some time.
John Jantsch: Well, thank you. Let me just ask you the big global question. Where are we and I know you’ve been in this space for a while and I know you study it. Is it waning? Is it growing? Is it changing? How would you describe what’s going on in terms of online learning?
Justin Ferriman: Yeah, certainly. Well, it’s growing. I think most people can probably see that just as they go on the internet and everybody’s offering a course, be it a formal institution, now they’re getting towards online courses as a offering for students and also entrepreneurs and folks like yourself who have online courses. The industry as a whole is growing. It is getting a little bit more challenging now in different ways and more so for keeping somebody’s attention, keeping a learner’s attention and keeping them engaged and interested. Gone are the days where you could just kind of put up a video on a webpage and think that that would get the job done. It used to, but not so much anymore.
John Jantsch: Yeah, no, I certainly remember that. But now you see so many people rushing online to produce courses and every consultant is teaching people to create courses. Now you have, as you said, I mean you’ve got the Udemys and the LinkedIn Learning platforms that are, in some ways, I think democratizing course production and creation and consumption because it’s gotten sort of so darn inexpensive as well. The 799 course better be pretty darn unique and pretty full of some stuff. Let me ask you first where do you see most people? I hate to start on a negative, but let’s clear this part up. Where do you see most people getting it wrong?
Justin Ferriman: I think, maybe I’ll make an analogy. It would be the better thing to do for this question, and remember a number of years ago where everybody was getting this advice that they should create an ebook or have an ebook on their site and have a download. That used to be enough to differentiate. You could have an ebook. People would go, Oh wow, that’s really cool. They would download it or purchase it. Then everybody had an ebook. You kind of alluded to the fact that there’s all these different places to have courses. LinkedIn, Udemy and all that. Everybody’s got a course. So, how are you going to differentiate it? I think that if somebody’s selling a course, I’m going to speak from strictly someone that wants to monetize their knowledge. If they’re selling a course, the biggest mistake I see is they think that just creating a course and putting a price on it is going to be enough now. Creating the course is important to put your energy there, but you should also have as much energy, maybe even more going into the differentiation and knowing your market and how you’re going to stand out and what’s your message and how is it more laser-focused than something broad, broad on a certain topic like marketing. Okay. So that’s not going to cut it anymore.
John Jantsch: I’ve produced courses for years, as soon as it was something that was doable. As soon as some of the first membership plugins came along. What always frustrated me was people would start with good intentions and they would never take action on the stuff that they’d learned. I’d follow up with people, “Hey, okay, you went through this, you consumed this, what have you done?” Maybe this is just the human condition that we can’t solve. But you know, why don’t people take action on the stuff they learn sometimes?
Justin Ferriman: Yeah. I wish I had an answer for that. But you’re not wrong. What you observed just for your own courses is actually what plagues the online learning industry in general. I think I’ve heard, there are some studies that have been done with formal education like universities and their completion rates are abysmal when you compare online students to the ones that show up that go to class and have to be there in person. So, that is a trend that we see. I think to counteract that, that’s when you see features like gamification and the points in the badges. Just trying to keep people entertained to some degree. Those touch points, the fact that you are reaching out directly with folks is huge because that probably did keep people invested longer than if you just set up something and set it and forget it and then don’t ever follow up.
John Jantsch: How important do you think that, just on that point, a hybrid course. So in other words the training’s there, but it comes with a coach or it comes with an instructor who is going to contextualize it, maybe personalize it and maybe give you feedback. Is that an element that you think is where we have to go now to kind of stand out a little bit?
Justin Ferriman: Yeah, absolutely. You hit the nail on the head. I think people are seeing that now that they can put out the content, but if you have that, it’s a blended learning approach, right? You have some interaction, be it with a webinar or even it can be like a forum or a Facebook group. Those are huge, now. Facebook groups are kind of that attempting to close the loop between the material, getting the material and then seeing that other people are doing it is kind of social proof, but then also having other people to talk to about it, about implementing the material. That’s that last part that everybody drops off or traditionally they have. That blended learning approach, you’re seeing folks now have conferences attached to their courses maybe once a year, be it online or in person. I think those are the courses that are most successful. I know that you are friends with Troy Dean and he’s got very successful courses because he does do that. He’s very in touch with as learners and his user base and he’s constantly interacting with them, not just giving them course material.
John Jantsch: Yeah, and I think a lot of course creators and instructors have learned that it’s gotten harder to sell courses just blank to people. I think a lot of purchasers have bought, they bought 10 courses they did nothing with, so I’m not going to give the 399 for another course that’s just going to sit there on my hard drive. I think that that idea of, okay, I might pay more for this, but I know I’ll at least get some results if it has that blended learning idea.
Justin Ferriman: Yeah, you’re right I think, and you know this better than anybody, but when you’re selling somebody a course, you’re not selling them the material of the course. You’re selling them the results of whatever that course is teaching. If somebody is looking to buy the course and they see that there’s these actual touch points with the instructor or with coaches or what have you, then they’re going to feel like the result that you are selling them, they’re going to feel like, okay, I can obtain that because I have this extra help. It’s not all on me.
John Jantsch: I know that I’ve seen either you personally or certainly from LearnDash, this concept of story boarding a course almost like you would do an ad back in the day or a video. But you’re talking about actually story boarding the entire flow of the course. I think a lot of people probably do just jump in and go, okay, what’s the lesson one going to be? Maybe unpack that idea, that practice of story boarding a whole course. Explain that if you would.
Justin Ferriman: Yeah, absolutely. It’s kind of funny you bring that up. Actually that whole concept and my allegiance to that concept comes from my life prior to LearnDash, I was in e-learning consultant setting up these programs for a big name companies, Fortune 500s, the US government, et cetera. There was no way that they would let us just start creating courses without story boarding them and getting them approved. This was actually a good exercise because before we got into the tech, which I think is what people make the mistake as they get the tech, because it’s the shiny bells and whistles and it’s really exciting and fun. But before you even get to that, you can open up a Word document. We did it in Microsoft Word or sometimes PowerPoint and we would just start mapping out the structure of the course, the sections, the lessons, how are we going to splice those lessons up.
Justin Ferriman: We call them topics and then checkpoint quizzes and quizzes and assignments if that was relevant and you just start. You don’t have to fill that slide with exactly what you’re going to teach. But you just start going through what you want to cover and making sure that these key points of whatever your topic is, are getting addressed. Then it helps you create a flow, whatever’s in your head. Sometimes it just makes more sense because you’re seeing the final product. But when you actually say, “Okay, we’re going to spend five minutes on this particular topic. Oh shoot, I don’t have five minutes of material.” Then you start thinking more through it. I think that’s a lost art to some degree because like I said, when you’re going looking at software, what are you going to use? Whether it’s LearnDash or something else and you’ll see it being demoed and you’re super excited because you’re like, wow that looks really cool. I can have that right away. People want to jump right in and start tinkering. The story boarding kind of gets put on the wayside. I’m a fan of it. You should take the time to map out your journey for your students.
John Jantsch: Well and I think that going back to sort of traditional academic principles, it also to me starts kind of with what do I want the learner to achieve here? Not like, what am I going to teach? It’s like what are they going to be able to do because of this? I think sometimes if you start there, you might actually create something that’s more useful.
Justin Ferriman: Yeah. You can even start your lesson by saying, “At the end of this lesson you are going to be able to …” That’s a good way to start things out. Now you have to fulfill that promise. As you create your content, you go back to that statement. Am I fulfilling that promise statement at the beginning of the lesson?
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John Jantsch: You mentioned a couple but are there some tried and true practices? The bad thing about this is as the space evolves the tried and true practices stop working too. But are there some tried and true practices for creating more engagement as a general rule? These are kind of like table stakes now.
Justin Ferriman: Yeah, there’s some things that you can definitely do and that can be as simple as, I know a lot of people think engagement, like gamification, which definitely is one. For those that are listening that don’t know what gamification is, it’s when you’re completing different tasks, be it a lesson in a course, maybe you get a badge or some points. Those can be exchanged later on or maybe they’re put on your profile. But before you do any of that, some simple engagement things can just be content variation with the delivery. A lot of times people, if they’re in the videos and do video after video after video after video, I mean at some point you’ve got to stimulate a different part of the brain, break it up with a quiz. Maybe you just have some text now. Maybe you’ve got some kind of drag and drop exercise. Maybe an exercise that people step away and they have to upload something and then go post in a forum. Get people engaging more with the content, with different parts of their brain than just watching, because they’re going to forget most things anyway.
John Jantsch: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’re right. I mean there are definitely, I’ve seen the course where somebody is able to do three hours of material at one time and break it up into five minute videos. They’ve got a giant program.
Justin Ferriman: Yeah, that’s true.
John Jantsch: Do you think that that everyone needs, and again, that’s really broad. Should most companies be thinking about courses even if they don’t think of themselves as a training company? I guess what I’m saying is, the traditional sense is that I sell a course because it’s part of my coaching program or you know, whatever. But like, would a remodeling contractor benefit from a training program for employees?
Justin Ferriman: Yes. The short answer to that is yes. I think if you’re selling courses, I mean you can sell courses or you can give them away for free as like a lead gen. I’ll give you an example of somebody that was in a completely unrelated field that I was talking to him. I went to go get a new suit and this place, they did do some custom suits and they had some suits there. I’m talking to the owner and he was telling me about his business, very successful guy, really likable. He asked me what I did and I explained, “I own a software company that makes it easy to create and sell online courses.” He started asking about it and I was like, “You should create a course. like how to pick the right suit for you. It’s a free course. People can register, you get their email, you get their contact information, now you can market to them, but you’re giving them something of value.”
Justin Ferriman: Now there is a company or a business that probably wouldn’t think about courses, but he latched onto that idea and I should probably follow up, see if he, he’s probably a busy guy. I don’t know if he did it, but that would be an example of what a course would be good for a B to C that maybe isn’t traditionally with courses. Now, to your point with courses and training and onboarding, every company should do it with online courses because employees can go back and reference that material. In fact, we have a lot of use cases of people using LearnDash that it doesn’t seem as cool. They’re not selling all these courses, but they trained their entire staff, new employees, existing employees with these online courses. That’s an asset for them.
John Jantsch: Yeah. As I hear you talk about that, anybody who sells, particularly sells a high end product or service, there needs to be education. The more that you can, I’ll go back to my remodeling contractor, the more that you can teach somebody, here’s all the things that go into actually remodeling a kitchen. Here’s how to consider what appliances to pick out. I mean, I think that would be a great course for somebody that’s selling $50,000 kitchens.
Justin Ferriman: Yeah, absolutely. Even to the point of, I think, not necessarily selling it. You’re an expertise in remodeling kitchens or whatever. You create the best course on that and you just give it away. Then somebody is going to take the course and there might be a small percentage of say, “Okay, I can do this now with this material.” But there’s probably going to be a large people that would be like, “Can I just hire you to do it?” Then there you go because you just proving you are an expert because you have the best course on it.
John Jantsch: Yeah. Yeah. I think that it does, that’s another element of it. It raises the bar because everybody else in the industry has got the schlocky websites still and now you’re basically training people. It kind of raises your brand I think. All right. We do have to eventually talk about the technology. Walk us through, what does somebody need to be thinking about? Obviously they need to have a website or someplace that there is the home for it. But what are all the moving parts in making a learning management system and signing people up and giving them access? What are all the moving parts?
Justin Ferriman: The LMS space or learning management system is enormous and there’s so many options out there. Naturally, I’m partial towards WordPress because it’s open source and allows you to kind of customize a learning program with LearnDash kind of at the helm. Then you can add to it based on what your unique needs are. But without making it like a pitch or anything for LearnDash, let’s just look at it from a high level. What are some things you should consider when choosing an LMS from the tech standpoint? One would be try to avoid lock-in, vendor lock-in. LMSs, by their nature can be very sticky. Meaning once you’re in, sometimes you’re in there for a long time and that’s even true from a LearnDash standpoint though, much, much less than if you’re with a hosted platform.
Justin Ferriman: That would be number one is getting something that is going to allow you to easily kind of move that content somewhere else if you want to. Secondly, I would say try to find something that branches, out has an API. Maybe Zapier. I mean if they have Zapier, great, then you’re not going to be stuck with whatever internal tool that they use. Now I’ll give an example because this is something that I think we all as people wish there was that all in one product. I mean that’s something we’ve been selling to ourselves since the 50s with the blenders and everything. We wish that was out there. It doesn’t exist for a reason. What happens, I’ve seen this in LMS space, I’ve seen it in other tech stacks as well, is somebody chooses an LMS because like, “Oh, they can do the lessons and the courses and the quizzes. Okay great. But they can also do my email and my touchpoints and my forums and my …”
Justin Ferriman: Then it just, it piles on and on. It sounds good on the surface, but if that company’s focusing on all those very unique disciplines, it’s not going to turn out too well. I would say at a high level, try to avoid any kind of lock in whatever tool you’re using and then make sure it’s flexible. Rather than the API talk, is it flexible? Can you use other tools as you grow? Because here’s one thing I do know for certain, if you have a course or you have a learning program, and you can probably attest to this, it looks different. It will look different a year from now than it does today because your learners are going to have more demands. You’re going to want to meet those demands and you want to offer more things. If you’re stuck, pigeonholed, you can’t do that. Your business, your learning program, cannot not grow and therefore your business can’t.
John Jantsch: Tell us about where people can find out about LearnDash and feel free to kind of talk about why you think you’ve hit on a unique space or unique place in the LMS space.
Justin Ferriman: Yeah, certainly. LearnDash.com is the best place to go. We have a great demo site, so I would just say go to the demo site. One of the courses on there, it’s free to take, just sign up. It walks through how to set up like a LearnDash course, your first course. We call it the bootcamp. It’s the same training materials that are actually in the software, so when you get it and install it, you’d have access to that. But it’s kind of a cool way to see behind the scenes and see if it’s something that registers or clicks with you. The reason I think that LearnDash is gaining popularity and is still around after all these years actually is just the fact that WordPress is growing as well. I mean, what is it, 33% now of all websites are on WordPress. It’s open source, which means pretty much any developer can help you out if you get to a point where you feel like you need a developer.
Justin Ferriman: But besides that, there’s all the plugins and the themes and that whole ecosystem where you can tinker and get exactly what you need. It kind of hearkens back to the whole reason that LearnDash started is I was doing some research for my consulting engagement that I had on an LMS and I was going through the usual players. I just kind of wondered if there was an open source one besides Moodle, which people that are out there that happen to know Moodle, it’s a bear. There wasn’t anything on WordPress at the time, which is what prompted, this was back in 2012. This is what prompted the whole project. I think we’re seeing that people want that flexibility for learning programs that grow. There’s no more of these big behemoth LMSs that cost tens of thousands of dollars a year. I mean, they still are there, believe me, but they’re not needed. If you’re looking for something that’s flexible, pretty easy to just jump right in, it has a community behind it, has been here for a long time and has big names trusting it in the WordPress space, then LearnDash is the go to.
John Jantsch: Yeah. I think that idea of, of having the extendability, I mean, even within the LearnDash environment, there are people that are building extensions of LearnDash.
Justin Ferriman: Yeah. It’s pretty funny how that works. I think some of the coolest things I’ve seen are folks that are creating just full blown mobile apps off of LearnDash. I mean, that’s pretty incredible.
John Jantsch: Yeah, that is. I’ll have to look into that myself. That sounds interesting. Awesome. Well, Justin, thanks so much for stopping by the Duct Tape Marketing podcast and talking a little bit about online learning and LearnDash and hopefully we’ll run into you soon someday out there on the road.
Justin Ferriman: Oh, thanks so much, John. It was a pleasure.