10 Things I Learned About Online Courses and Publishing from Udemy LIVE 2016

Udemy_dinner

This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Udemy LIVE conference, held at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco. For those who may not know, I’ve had a course up on Udemy for three years, teaching DIY authors who to format ebooks and learn enough HTML and CSS to make their ebooks look professional. With so many options for making ebooks these days (like hiring someone, using Smashword’s meatgrinder, or leaving it up to Word or InDesign’s export functions and hoping everything still looks perfect), the course is geared toward a pretty specific audience. Still, it’s done pretty well and I’ve really enjoyed being part of the Udemy platform.

After a weekend of connecting with fellow instructors and meeting the Udemy folks, I’ve got an idea and an outline for a new course, about a completely different topic (dinosaurs). As a side note, if you’re interested in learning about what dinosaurs really looked like, and how we keep learning awesome new things about them (one dinosaur, Deinocheirus, was known for 50 by its giant arms, and then last year scientists discovered it actually looked like Jar Jar Binks from Star Wars, with a strange hump back, a big gut, a duck-bill, and horse-like hoofs), then please let me know and I’ll give you a discount when the course is published!

I learned a lot this weekend, and it’s interesting just how similar online courses are to ebooks. Not all of these are new concepts, but it was interesting to learn specific data about Udemy and to draw comparisons with indie publishing. Now, on to some more specific takeaways from the conference (in no particular order).

1. Focus on quality.

In addition to providing high-quality content, the content must be produced professionally. For courses this means crisp audio and video, quick exercises to keep students active, and accurate course descriptions and landing pages to entice students who are generally interested in your topic. For books this means having a strong story, but also a professional cover and book description.

2. Accommodate a global audience.

About 65% of Udemy students are international, so having content with a global reach is key. For instructors, this means localizing content, offering closed captions on videos, and making sure content is mobile-friendly, for all the students who access courses via smartphones and tablets, instead of laptops. For authors, this can mean having your book translated so you can sell in more markets.

3. Communicate and encourage high engagement.

As an instructor, you want students to be highly engaged. If they are engaged they are more likely to enjoy the course and leave a positive review, as well as buy more courses. Instructors should answer questions and messages quickly, as well as update course content periodically. For authors, this means engaging with your email list of readers.

4. Know your target audience.

Udemy did a deep dive of their students and broke down their 11 million students into seven personas: knowledge seeker, conversationalist, millennial, targeted professional, obligated professional, lifestyle learner, and mature hobbyist. As an instructor, it’s important to know which type of student you are targeting. Create content around the type of learner that student is, and make sure the course description reflects that so that students know what to expect and aren’t disappointed. Same goes for authors, but with book genres and book descriptions.

5. Use a combination of SEO, paid ads, and word of mouth to promote.

Strong SEO means having backlinks to reputable websites and blogs, having the right keywords in landing pages Google can crawl, and having low bounce rates with high engagement. And paid ads can be on Facebook, Google Adwords, and Twitter. Udemy said they’ve had the most success on Facebook, partly because they are promoting such a wide variety of courses, while some instructors shared they have the most success on Google Adwords.

6. Plan a PR campaign.

PR is more than press releases. It’s about having objectives, crafting a message, and finding your audience to share your message with. You can do this by starting a blog, being a regular contributor on other blogs or websites, pitching stories to blogs, websites, and other media, being a subject matter expert and host a meetup, provide commentary on trends (thought leadership), and participate in panel discussions with relevant associations. You can also be a guest on relevant podcasts. Just remember when you contact people to pitch how you would add value to their site or podcast or video, etc. Also, find the expert in your topic and then work to fill in the gaps.

7. Build a following.

Start looking for your audience three to four months ahead of your course or book launch. Leave hints about it, and share images. You can also offer free content in exchange for opt-in to your email list and run contests to gain interest. Once your course or book is live, make sure to keep spreading the word.

8. Specialize and become great at one thing, not a bunch of things.

Sometimes this means quitting some things to become better at other things, like focusing on building an email list instead of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and all the other social media channels. Seth also recommended not reading reviews, good or bad. Instead, ask some trusted friends for honest, well-thought out feedback, and improve based on that.

9. Do work that matters.

Seth Godin, the keynote speaker, talked about doing work that matters. It’s about building communities and giving something for people to talk about. And to do that, you need to earn people’s trust. You need that trust if you want to sell online courses, or books, or anything really, especially something creative. To earn trust and gain attention, you need to be emotionally consistent and figure out what it is you want to do. “People remember how you make them feel,” he said.

10. Remember it’s about the students (or readers).

Creating content is not about making money. It’s about making a difference, and helping people, whether that means teaching them a new skill or taking them on an epic fantasy journey. It shows when you like what you do, and people are more likely to trust you.

Seth Godin also cautioned how writer’s block is a made up thing. “It’s a way of hiding,” he said. And in fact, it was invented in 1941. So don’t let writer’s block stop you from accomplishing your goals!

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