Until a few years ago, online education of any sort was most often associated with digital degree mills and dubious promises of graduating college from the comfort of your own bedroom and pajamas.
A new generation of students, however, has been exposed to digital learning throughout their standard education, and many professionals are looking for more efficient, flexible ways to get certifications and credits towards advancement. To wit, just about all of us treat YouTube as a free-to-access academy for how-to’s on any subject. Not surprisingly, the worldwide e-learning market, which was pegged at $165 billion in 2015, will explode to $275 billion by 2022, according to market research firm Orbis.
Magazine brands in both B2B and B2C markets now have the opportunity to leverage both their brand equity and their existing content infrastructures to turn this taste for digital self-enhancement into serious businesses. But in talking to several publishers in different grades of e-schooling, several lessons become clear: Formats must map against use cases, careful attention must be paid to customer acquisition strategies and cost containment and content quality and innovation are the specific strengths that the magazine world brings to e-learning.
With about 40 percent of company revenue coming from its learning group, online publisher Praetorian Digital (PoliceOne.com, FireRescue1.com, EfficientGov.com and others) is among the most evolved media companies in the space. Compared to “low-double-digit growth” on the publishing side, digital course offerings are seeing “40- to 50-percent” growth, according to Bob Bradley, senior VP of Praetorian’s learning division. To be sure, Praetorian is in a uniquely lucrative niche, serving first responders and local governments that are always in market for time- and cost-efficient certifications and continuing or refresher education requirements. The company offers over 1,000 hours of courses across its fire, rescue, EMT and government verticals, many paid by municipalities and through site licensing.
“We submit millions of course records to accrediting bodies,” Bradley says.
Among the most important rules Praetorian has followed in building their success is for form to follow function when it comes to crafting the content and the technology. Built entirely in-house, the company relies on its own instructional designers and videographers to build courses that fit into first responders’ needs and professional lives. The typical course is an hour-long, but is broken into four or five segments that blend videos with quizzes, some PowerPoints and reading. With testing, they found that most users did not want flashy interactivity or gamification.
“They just want to get it done,” Bradley adds.
But they often need to get it done on the go. It’s important that the courses are not only mobile-friendly, but can also be quickly started and stopped across screens. They follow the Netflix consumption model, because “a firefighter can be halfway through a course and have to hop on an emergency call,” says Bradley.
And while a B2B niche like this has a lucrative certification market, it also means Praetorian cannot lean back and cash in on evergreen content.
“We have a philosophy that every course gets reviewed every 18 months and edited if necessary,” Bradley continues. “And every three years it gets totally revamped as techniques and technologies change.”
The learning group boasts 60 people, divided equally in sales, support and development, including content. But the potential upside for Praetorian is considerable here, as only about 20 percent of municipalities have yet embraced online learning.
“We are the market leader in training and we have 12 percent of the market,” says Bradley. “Our biggest competition is live training.”
And just as the customer base has headroom for growth as towns and cities look for more affordable solutions, Bradley adds that the profitability of a digital-only e-learning business is enviable.
“All SaaS businesses try to shoot for 85-percent gross margins,” he tells Folio:.
From Enthusiasts to Trainers
While consumer-facing magazines may not have access to the same certification gusher as B2B’s, enthusiast publishers like Active Interest Media are already discovering that the line between hobby and vocation blurs in their favor.
“Yoga courses can satisfy yoga [instructor] certification,” says Collin Stewart, executive director of marketing. And some fitness content can even qualify for vocational education credit. But with 10 to 20 courses now available for each of its major enthusiast titles, (including Yoga Journal and Oxygen Backpacker) AIM’s main market is in consumer passion.
In the last two years, the e-learning unit has seen revenues grow “from low million to a few million at this point,” says Stewart. AIM offers à la carte courses via several online “universities” (AdventureU, HealthyU, etc.) at a wide range of price points, some as high as $400. In fact, “We definitely learned there is an audience for every price,” he says. “People are willing to pay for high quality learning experiences.” One $350 yoga anatomy course with noted author Tom Myers has sold in the hundreds of thousands.
Like some other magazine publishers, AIM’s e-learning business contains costs by leveraging the publisher’s existing video expertise with an additional team of eight dedicated to the classes. After trying some outsourcing of video production, “We found quite a bit of efficiency in bringing it in-house,” he says.
Following the experts to coastal centers usually involved the Colorado-based company contracting city-priced production talent. By flying the experts to the home office and doing the editing there, “it has helped a lot in average course cost.”
While exponential growth characterized AIM-U’s first few years, Stewart admits it has plateaued and moved the publisher to reassess its strategy. In the early stages, the group was building a critical mass of courses, often driven by expertise. But as variation in performance increased last year, the 2019 plan involves greater attention to curation and advance research.
“We put in audience sizing for different topics to minimize low performers,” he says. “We show how there is an audience inside our existing audiences that is searching for or engaging with a topic to show we could drive sales.”
AIM has also been deploying smarter customer acquisition tactics. Facebook Lead Ads have been effective, especially when users can sample course materials, such as a downloadable workout.
“We have learned that not all email names are made equally,” Stewart notes.
On-site pop-ups and giveaways are helping to drive better prospects, but now the company uses on site behaviors to send follow-ups targeted to their interest. They scrutinize search queries to identify hot topics. “We identify assumptions around clickthrough rates for how many courses we should sell on a given topic.”
Setting a New Course
Golf Digest’s “Schools” project is just marking its first full year of operation, but general manager Chris Reynolds says of the $9.99/month, $99/year subscription, “with every little investment we are making, we are very happy with the returns so far.” And Reynolds does underscore how lean and “scrappy” the project has been.
While golf tips video has always been a mainstay at GolfDigest.com, “in a lot of ways, we have commandeered the majority of [the team’s] time to produce video for this business,” he says. “In the last 12 months, we have had to steal time away from other ends of the business.”
But the company believes these paid products will be key to future revenue, and it’s giving them tons of direct feedback on how golfers want to learn. One early discovery has been that more is more.
“Once consumers pay for it, they want more in terms of time and depth,” says Reynolds, who has been surprised by how much time online students want to spend in these videos and with a Peloton-like model of following along with the instructor.
Golf Digest’s production team is reveling in this invitation to innovate. A workout series has proven surprisingly popular and “Undercover Lessons” may be their first hit. The series lets users simply drop into a practice session with a pro or interactions between the golfer and their coach.
“Seeing practice at that level is something no one has ever seen before,” Reynolds says.
A video team that had been limited to tight, free formats of clips and tips now gets to let loose with drone shots, new camera angles and artful editing. “We realized this can’t just be a talking head and standup tips and talk about tips. There has to be an entertainment factor.”
And so the eye-catching new ways of doing golf instruction themselves drive the marketing strategy. In addition to promoting among its own hardcore audience, paid media in video channels like social are doing well. In fact, Reynolds has been surprised how this channel is harvesting a much younger demo. “They are more familiar with paying for [content] and with e-learning,” he says.
e-Learning New Tricks
Golf Digest is redirecting resources toward this project because they see in it the core of a new direct-to-consumer hub that can go in many directions.
“We feel subscriptions will be important, and we see a future where it expands beyond instruction. We see an opportunity to play in the equipment space and even in the [golf] course travel space,” says Reynolds.
Praetorian is looking even farther ahead into an AI-driven model, in which the publisher comes to the student to demonstrate how their recent performance suggests where they need to focus their training. When sensors and outcomes data, first responder performance in the field, diagnosis accuracy and the like can be tied together, the publisher can push necessary assignments out to professionals.
“This is going to change the game,” says Bradley.