Time for Communicators to Jump on the Online Course TrainBy Kevin Anselmo

Google “online course,” and you will get more than nine million search results.

Very few of them are related to how online courses can be used to support marketing/communications objectives.

There is plenty of analysis about how online courses are affecting higher education, and considerable discussion about how individuals can make—or lose—money by creating their own online courses.

You will also see talk of how brands can use online courses to provide instruction for its products or services.

I see very little talk in marketing/communications circles about how brands can introduce free online courses to nurture relationships, build community, demonstrate thought leadership, and attract new audiences.

Online courses, when done right, can generate these types of outcomes. They should be on marketers’ and communicators’ radars.

Examples of Online Course Success

Case-in-point, consider two different case studies: One from higher education and the other from the tech industry.

The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania launched their MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) offerings back in 2012.

Thus far, more than one million people have taken part, according to a Wall Street Journal report.

Next consider what Hewlett Packard has done through its HP Life Program—a free online learning platform that trains students, entrepreneurs, and small business owners to apply IT and business skills.

Currently, they have 25 courses spanning a range of different business topics and 476,599 community members.

While these numbers are impressive, it should be noted that dropout rates vary. Nevertheless, think about the exposure these brands are generating as “students” consume their content to varying degrees.

As future entrepreneurs benefit from the HP Life Program as they grow their businesses, it is only natural they would develop loyalty for the HP brand and consider buying its products.

As students consuming MOOC courses at Wharton think about applying for business school, odds are the school itself will be on their radar.

The cost to develop an online course varies significantly. It’s safe to say the minimum investment would require a few thousand dollars or more, depending on the quality and functionality desired.

Nevertheless, there is potential for significant ROI. Communicators should be involved, whether that means teaching, directing resources, or advising.

New Skills Required

I have some theories as to why we marketers/communicators haven’t jumped on the online course development bandwagon. On one of the major hurdles is that it requires going a bit outside our comfort zones.

Frankly, this was foreign territory for me until I began developing an Online Media Training Course for Academics last year, which I just launched. My course is available for purchase, though indirectly I am using it to generate awareness about other services.

I am, by no means, the ultimate online course development guru. I still have a lot to learn.

That said, as I have delved into creating a robust course featuring videos, transcripts, and follow-up materials, I have encountered some of these hurdles.

Here they are:

  1. We need to have a razor sharp focus on the psychological make-up of our ideal student (ideally target customers). This can be quite difficult to decipher, as you don’t see your students in person. Therefore, it requires incredible intuition into your students’ wants and needs so that your course content solves their particular issue.
  1. Many of us are confident storytellers in formats such as video, blogging, and the like. With online course content creation, there is a whole other dynamic. You can’t just think about sharing your expertise or knowledge. You have to accompany it with clear learning objectives for the end user. Early on, I learned the P, E, A model – make a point, provide an example and then offer application. This needs to be presented in an engaging and timely manner given short attention spans online.
  1. How can students concretely apply the learnings? Online course creation requires developing an expertise in curriculum formation. So after a student consumes content, what are the practical ways that they can apply it to their personal context? What are the templates that the students can use? What are the follow-up questions?
  1. Many of us who might be gifted storytellers have never communicated via a comprehensive curriculum. One session needs to naturally flow into the next, similar to the chapters we’d read in a book. Easier said than done.
  1. Inevitably, there will be new technology to learn, or least become familiar with.

New Year’s Goal

Technology is always changing, and it sometimes feels like we are constantly trying to get up to speed on things.

It is worth considering online learning’s place within your organization.

If there’s potential, then perhaps developing some of the required skills to support the process can be a new year’s goal for you.

Kevin Anselmo

Kevin Anselmo is the founder Experiential Communications, a consulting company based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He helps learning organizations and executive education providers achieve business goals by devising and executing marketing communications strategies.

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