I’ve shelled out a lot of money for education over the years.
I have 1 bachelor's, 2 master's, and a post-grad certificate on my wall that collectively took me 11 years and $150,000+ to attain.
And I loved every minute of it. For me, university always felt like a sure thing, an investment. I knew for every dollar I put in, I'd get something even more valuable in return. Education, yes. But also connection, mentorship, experience, and, of course, prestige.
So, as someone who loves education, who has happily spent money on it in the past – and will in the future, who even dedicated part of their educational journey to understanding this space better (M.Ed. in Instructional Design)…
Why don’t online courses evoke the same positive feelings?
As I outlined the material for this report, I wrote this line:
Every time I buy an online course, it feels like flipping a coin on whether or not I’ll be taken advantage of.
That's a harsh truth not many people would say aloud on either end of the aisle: people buying courses to improve their lives or the ones selling them to improve theirs. But it's a reality we must face as the digital education space matures and competition grows fiercer.
As I conducted my research, I found an undercurrent running beneath every conversation around online courses. No matter if your goal is to:
- Sell more courses
- Purchase better ones
- Avoid scams
- Or earn your living in this space through consulting, services, etc.
The undercurrent is positioning.
The better we understand the factors that influence positioning, the better we can make the entire online education space, and the more we will individually and financially win as a result.
What is positioning?
We will spend the bulk of this report deconstructing the factors that make positioning possible. However, I want to start with a visual to guide our conversation (yes, this is a food analogy).
Deciding what to bring first requires choosing a category: appetizer, main dish, or dessert. Next, you choose whether you'll cook an old or new recipe. Then the packaging & delivery: how will you make the final product attractive; will people scoop it onto their plates, or will it come individually served?
When you arrive the day of the potluck, a whole new set of questions arise. Where will you place your dish? Will you serve it or allow others to serve themselves? Are there any similar recipes present? If so, should you place your dish beside it (for a more direct comparison) or closer to where people start their plates so they choose yours first?
All of this is positioning.
Positioning is the collective impact of the decisions one makes regarding their product. How people respond to positioning tells us what they value. Value is the subjective interpretation of positioning.
Often, 1 or 2 positioning elements will be most important and act as a filter for all downstream decision-making. For example, choosing an appetizer filters out the recipes you'll consider, placement the day of, and more.
Our first goal is to identify these elements. To accomplish this, we’ll briefly analyze 9 of the largest course companies on the internet.
Online course companies
Sources: Individual company websites, Crunchbase, Statista, ProPublica, SignHouse
I chose these examples to focus on for 4 primary reasons:
- They sell courses, not just the ability to sell courses (e.g., Teachable, Kajabi).
- They have their own distinct brands, unlike entities like MIT OpenCourseWare, which are tied to existing universities.
- There is public data available because of their size.
- Their success tells us which positioning elements students value most.
Common positioning elements
On paper, these companies have many more similarities than they do differences. The longer you spend in the online business space, the easier it is to overlook the overlap.
This matters because they all do a few core things (#1-6) well but choose to go all-in on distinct elements.
- Availability — Everyone on our list has some on-demand component so students can learn on their schedule.
- Accessibility — The technical requirements are low (computer + internet). And since they’re delivered online, location is never an issue.
- Outcome — Most of these share the same baseline promise: "Buy from us and acquire X skill." Though the expectation of what that skill will bring (a new job, promotion, etc.) varies.
- Proof of learning — Nearly all provide a digital certificate, badge, or way to validate your experience.
- Process — A student can "enroll" in any of these programs quickly and easily without speaking to a human or enduring a lengthy sales process.
- Quality — A certain level of production and content quality is expected for a course to be published on these sites, so this is an assumed element.
Distinct positioning elements
In the table above, I identify 4 advantages (prestige, price, network, and topic — #7-10) which are the elements we will examine closer here.
Prestige is “respect and admiration…based on perception.”
It’s why Ivy League schools demand the attention and cost that they do. And why employers line up like giddy children to hire their graduates.
Prestige is earned, usually as a result of time and accomplishments, like the handsome older brother to trust. But it can also be borrowed.
- Coursera borrows prestige from existing universities.
- Skillshare borrows prestige from well-known creators.
- MasterClass borrows prestige from the top figures in a field.
Prestige communicates trust and value, without requiring explanation. It’s why nearly all of MasterClass’s landing pages can have fewer than 100 words and still drive millions in sales — merely seeing the notable figure does the selling for them.
It’s why we assume Harvard graduates and ex-Googler’s will make better employees than the average hire, because a portion of the original prestige passes onto the student (i.e., we gain status from prestigious education).
Prestige is a positioning element anyone can not only leverage, but also manufacture — which we’ll cover when we address bad actors.
Khan is famously free, made possible by the generous donations of those who support it. This strategy has also enabled them to gather the largest student base. Udemy specializes in low-cost courses, most of which are priced around $20. This accessible entry point has also allowed their student numbers to swell into a massive customer/donor base.
Now, what they’ve both done well is play the only price card they had in their hand: go low. Why? Because no one is going to succeed by being more expensive than higher education.
If you look at pricing across all 9 examples, the average sits just under $300 per year. Coursera’s options climb into the thousands because they offer fully-accredited college degrees. And Udacity’s higher price point is a byproduct of the shorter timeframe most students enroll for (3 months on average).
LinkedIn has a unique advantage in the online course space: a captive audience of 1+ billion users. They knew this going in, which is why the acquisition of Lynda.com made so much sense and why the estimated $1B+ in revenue is likely a lowball guess (the "other" category, which includes course revenue, was at $6B in 2022).
Obviously, having an extensive network made it easier to get course sales. But, in terms of the student experience, benefits, or positioning elements — what is a network?
I'd say a network is 50% community and 50% prestige. The community piece allows students to find others who have taken similar courses and, ideally, help one another. Although this isn't something LinkedIn makes easy (but could be a huge advantage in theory). The prestige piece is even more valuable because LinkedIn Learning badges and certificates appear in your profile, which acts as a digital resume for new connections and potential hiring managers.
A LinkedIn Learning badge means nothing outside of a specific social network but means a lot to the right people.
Finally, Udacity, Codeacademy, and CreativeLive fulfill the element most people think of first when we say positioning or niching down — they cover topics not addressed by large educational institutions.
Whether it’s the latest software tool, coding language, or niche art form, chances are you’ll be able to find a guide for your curiosity on one of these platforms, and for a reasonable cost at that.
Topic differentiation is the clearest positioning advantage a creator or course can have. But it's also one of the most fragile. If that topic falls out of vogue, or the opposite, if it trends and brings in a swell of competitors, in either case, your moat is weak.
This is why positioning elements are stronger together.
Additional positioning elements
There are 4 more positioning elements (#11-14) worth mentioning because so few people ever mention them at all.
- Accreditation — In the US, approximately 38 accrediting bodies are responsible for keeping 4,300+ colleges up to par. In our table, the companies act as accreditors for the courses they sell. Outside of that, online courses have little to no standards. What if we changed that?
- Evaluation — Somewhere along the way, we've equated education with consumption (e.g., if I watched the material, that means I learned it). This is a gaping hole in the industry, which means it's a massive opportunity.
- Community — In many ways, a membership site is what a course should be. Learning alongside others doesn’t have to be the premium privilege it’s become, especially if we get creative with delivery.
- Format — When you hear the words "online course," an immediate structure comes to mind: approximate length, videos, organized into modules, etc. But like everything on our list, this is an element that can and should be played with.
The 14 positioning elements for online courses
Combining elements for compounding value
Now that we’ve identified the 14 positioning elements, the next goal is to understand how these translate into value for students, as well as selling points for entrepreneurs.
From what I’ve seen, there are two ways to accomplish this. First, combine 2-3 core elements and use those as a filter for all of your communication, design, etc. Second, go to the absolute extreme with any single positioning element and strategically weaken all others.
Let’s start with the example of prestige vs price.
Companies like MasterClass and Skillshare have done an excellent job of pairing moderate to high-prestige individuals with low-priced course offerings. By doing this:
- They've shown themselves to be a clear alternative to high-prestige and high-priced options like traditional institutions.
- Even though they compete on price with entities like Udemy, their prestige gives them a distinct advantage.
- Individuals who may have enrolled in a local college class to learn the skill are now pulled towards a cheaper option taught by someone they already know, like, and trust.
Now, if we change the x and y axes to outcome and topic (aka topic variety), the value proposition shifts.
Udemy suddenly becomes one of the most attractive options because they cover the most topics (210,000+ courses) and clearly defined outcomes (e.g., run your first Facebook ad, build your first website, etc.).
This is the main value CreativeLive offers as well (topic variety + definite outcomes), but they flirt with prestige (by having some notable names for some courses), format (some courses are live, others are not), and others — and I can’t help but speculate this lack of focus is why they are the lowest revenue company on our list.
- Options like Codeacademy have far fewer options but strong outcomes for what they do offer. This is one of my favorite positioning strategies.
- Khan Academy offers a variety of foundational knowledge courses (reading, science, etc.). But being that these topics are merely prerequisites to more education — the perceived outcome is low.
- MasterClass has very few courses, and the outcomes are limited. The majority of instructors spend an hour or two presenting very high-level information, most of which can be gleaned from the books they’ve written and the interviews they’ve done.
People who choose MasterClass over Udemy value different positioning elements. They are not the same online learners. Choosing which elements to combine and which to ignore is how you influence the customers you attract.
When you attempt to sell an online course, you are not merely going up against other independent course creators. You are also competing against companies and universities. Students have an ever-increasing list of alternatives. The better you understand this and position yourself accordingly, the more easily you will find the success you’re after and the more substantial that success will be.
Positioning is ultimately about exclusion. When a stranger from the internet stumbles upon your course page and asks the inevitable question, “Is this for me?” You want that answer to be “no” 9 times out of 10. Why? So that it can be a “hell yes” for the ideal few.
Extreme positioning for drastic differentiation
The greatest positioning value comes from pairing elements in creative, industry-leading ways — like we just covered. However, I think an equally valuable tactic is to go all-in on a single positioning element.
This means your entire brand, messaging, tech stack, etc., all serve a singular purpose: to attract and serve customers who value that one element above all else.
Here are a few initial ideas on what this could look like.
24/7 access to experts is a feature the tutoring sector has marketed for years, with great success. A realistic way to do this as a course creator is to build a network of experts and share the responsibility in manageable chunks or hire graduates of your courses to hold sequential office hours around the clock (being from different time zones would help as well).
An even more extreme version would be an online course that offered home visits as part of the benefit. For example: instead of just teaching people how to set up their YouTube channel or start their first garden, you spent an hour in person with them.
However unlikely or impractical these “extreme” ideas seem, these are differentiators that will move the needle. And for the right creator with the right topic in the right situation, these will lead to massive wins.
Even with how much content management systems (CMS) and learning management systems (LMS) have advanced, the experience can still feel overwhelming and clunky for most people, especially those with lower digital literacy (e.g., older generations, technology-poor communities).
If someone could do for online courses what Typeform did for surveys, that would change the game entirely. Beautiful, simple, clear usability. It’s almost impossible to get lost or mess up because the entire screen revolves around a single question and action.
For most of us, extreme accessibility will look like a balance between addition and subtraction.
- Adding captions, larger buttons, clear next steps, transcripts, help docs & videos, support, and more.
- Subtracting complicated navigation, steps in the process, number of downloads and separate files, and more.
The user should at all times know what to do next and how to do it.
What if you created a library of short courses that each cost $1 to access? That kind of affordability would you open your content up to a range of markets typically priced out of premium education: fixed-income individuals, teenagers, countries with lower income levels, etc. Like what Fiverr did for access for freelancers.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, what would a business look like that offered $100,000 courses? What kind of value proposition would it need to make? Who would that target audience be?
Our assumptions are limitations. Can a $1 or $100,000 price point work for courses? Maybe. But if you don’t even ask the question and consider the consequences, you’ll never find the hidden truths within those ideas that can apply to your own business.
Maven is the ideal example of a company using format as their primary positioning. Every course is run in a cohort: live, weekly meetings with the instructor. This influences every other element: what they charge, the outcomes they promise, and their process for accepting (not just enrolling) new students.
Any creator can replicate this value proposition. You can be the only one offering cohorts, audio-only, text-based, or interactive courses for your subject.
In addition to delivery style, format can also mean course length and organization. What if you created the longest or shortest courses for your area of expertise? What if you locked modules or lessons in a creative way that boosted completion rates? How could you make the experience of the course as memorable as the content itself?
How to spot a scam
It’s darn near impossible to write a lengthy investigation of what makes online courses tick and not address the scam problem. And as I fleshed out the positioning concept, I started to see two things: (1) why scams work so well and (2) how we could spot them better.
Nearly every scam leverages the same 3 positioning elements.
The second is the YouTube channel Coffeezilla. He’s doing some of the best investigative journalism work on the platform and has the pile of cease-and-desist letters to prove it. For new watchers, I recommend starting with his Logan Paul series.
Both of these resources will help you build a better lens for scams while learning how to use their techniques for good.
Now, I talked about the compounding value of combining elements above. This is how MasterClass built a near 9-figure business, by marrying prestige and price better than anyone else; or how Udemy has built a half-billion-dollar company by combining price and topic variety.
Scammers have their own combination formula:
- Outsized outcome
- Premium price
- Manufactured prestige
Outsized outcomes are the promises that sound too good to be true: make 6 figures in the next week, work only 1 hour a month with our proprietary system, use this little-known secret to automate your wealth. Yes, there will be “proof” that they’ve done this for themselves and have helped others — but a portion of this will always be smoke and mirrors. It reminds me of the quote [paraphrased] that trying to win in business by following the same plan is like trying to win the lottery by playing the same numbers as the last winner.
The hurdle, then, is that they charge a hefty sum (aka premium pricing) to access their knowledge. Of course, it’s justified because of the incredible “value.” What’s a thousand bucks if you’re going to make 100x that before your next car payment is due?
So, if it's not to communicate massive value, why would they price so high? The answer is ad spend. If your courses cost $1,000+, you can justify spending $500, $600, or even $900 in ads to enroll a student.
You can also justify buying what I call manufactured prestige.
As I defined earlier in this report, prestige is respect based on perception. Usually, prestige is won over time. It’s hard-earned through things like career accomplishments. And the prizes for prestige tend to be wealth, fame, and access.
But the internet blurs the lines so those willing to pay for the prizes can shortcut prestige. We assume a person who drives a Lamborghini did something of value to earn it, but what if they just rented it for $2,000, like anyone can do in almost any city in America? And what if they have a picture with a notable figure because they waited in line for hours, not because they have a personal relationship with them?
What if the plaque showing how much money they’ve made from their course is deceptive because they only got there through false promises and refusing refunds?
If we can learn one thing from scammers, though, it’s how well they understand what their target market values (aka the elements they prioritize). They win because they communicate what people want to hear, regardless of whether or not they deliver.
We can do better. We need to be as good at communicating our value as we are at delivering it.
Applications for online course success
Like always, we've covered a lot of ground in the last few thousand words, and we've all had that experience where we encounter a seemingly great idea and then ask, "Okay, but what do I do with it?"
This is where we answer that question.
To do so, we’ll revisit the 4 goals I briefly mentioned at the beginning of this report:
- Sell more courses
- Purchase better ones
- Avoid scams
- Or earn your living in this space through consulting, services, etc.
How to sell more courses
Make smaller promises.
You don’t need to promise the moon to run a successful course. In fact, you should do the opposite.
Keyword data shows that the most searched-for terms related to online courses pertain to specific skills or specific tools. Our problem as knowledge experts is that we automatically equate more information as being more valuable. Students are coming to courses not necessarily to learn something but to do something (i.e., outcome).
For example, when I first started learning Ahrefs for SEO research, I didn’t need a 20+ hour course on all of its functions. I just needed to know how to find and interpret enough data so that I could plan out my next 10 articles.
The closer your promise can match their desired outcome (think skill acquired, not necessarily result achieved), the easier the sale will be.
One of my deeply held beliefs is that you can win on any social platform. Yes, some take more effort and resources than others, but if the desire, strategy, and longevity are there — you will win.
In the same way, I 100% believe you can win in any niche. That's why I tell the people I consult you don't need to find the next big thing; you need to go all in on your thing.
You do that by choosing the positioning elements that (A) you have the most control over and that (B) are the most valuable to your target audience.
Say you're launching a course on acting. Immediately, I would not want to compete on prestige positioning because Masterclass has Helen Mirren, Samuel L. Jackson, Natalie Portman, and more at their disposal. However, you could focus on the outcome (e.g., I'll help you land a role in a local production), community (e.g., we'll meet at the local theatre once a quarter), or accessibility (e.g., mail students materials to follow along).
As Gary Vaynerchuk says, “Play the games you can win.”
Think in elements.
Every course I’ve ever created began with a topic idea. From my anecdotal experience, this is where 99% of other course creators begin as well.
What if you chose a different starting point?
What if you began with a target group of people, reverse-engineered what elements were most important to them, and built a corresponding course? Or what if you had an idea for an element model around availability, evaluation, or proof of learning and then brought in topic experts to help you build out multiple offers around your unique positioning?
The next time you want to build a course, don’t immediately assume it has to be a video course about X that costs $Y. Play, experiment, ideate. With 14 positioning elements, there are approximately 364 different combinations to provide a unique value proposition. Use them.
How to purchase better courses
Target small wins.
People in education love to obsess about completion rates. They take low rates as a sign of failure. I interpret them differently.
What if most completion rates are so low because most courses are too long? Could it be that people drop off because they were able to get what they needed without completing the entire course?
And for those of us who are improvement junkies. Maybe our library of unfinished courses are due to a lack of specificity, not a lack of motivation.
Ask for recommendations.
Scammers are incredible at supporting one another. They’ll cross market until the tides come in, host one another on their socials, and become effective affiliates for each other’s products.
This is much less common among genuine experts. Of course, people need to protect their brands and don’t want to risk eating into their potential revenue by recommending other premium products (even if they’re outside their niche).
But this is a case of cutting off your nose to spite your face.
As a creator with courses, you should be vocal about the digital products that have given you great value. Actively look for partnership opportunities in complementary niches. Build a habit of asking for recommendations from people you respect and trust.
Get more data.
The best way to get better at any activity is to do it more often. Therefore, if you want to become a better course buyer, buy more courses.
Give yourself a quarterly learning budget and spend it. Figure out what formats you like, what platforms you prefer, and what teaching styles resonate most — learn how you learn and dissect what positioning elements matter to you most — because those will feel the most valuable and give you the biggest wins.
How to avoid scams
We addressed this above, but as a review, look out for:
- Outsized outcomes — promises too good to believe
- Premium prices — almost always $997+
- And manufactured prestige — are they trying to gain your trust by showing off things they bought/rented?
In addition, find reviews from non-affiliates and be honest about your expectations.
Why do you trust them? What do you think their content offers that no one else’s does? What are the best- and worst-case scenarios that could result from purchasing? Would you be comfortable telling your partner, colleague, or mentor that you purchased this course?
Poor decisions are often made quickly and emotionally. Slow down and sober up before you buy.
How to provide value to course creators
Master a single element.
If you’re a consultant or service provider in the online learning space, you know how competitive the market can be. You also know how frequently the scope of your work, or of client’s expectations, can expand causing unnecessary stress.
Both can be remedied by your own positioning strategy: choose 1 element and provide that to course creators.
- Become the consultant for helping clients implement quizzes and tests in their courses (evaluation).
- Build onboarding and offboarding flows that students rave about (process).
- Develop a network of influential leaders or experts and leverage those relationships into partnerships on behalf of course owners (prestige).
Act as an editor.
Your job as a course professional is not to bring their idea to life. It’s to bring the best version of their idea to market.
It’s not uncommon for editors to remove 30%+ of a manuscript during the editing process. I think it would be useful if more leaders in the space thought the same way about courses. A reduced product that offers small promises with clear wins is almost always better than an exhaustive experience that wanders through the creator’s entire expertise.
Reduce to clarify.
Be a consumer of courses.
Specifically, take courses outside of your niche of expertise, in formats you’re unfamiliar with, and by experts you’re new to.
You’ll connect dots in a way no one else has thought of so that your clients will win in ways no one saw coming.
Collectively, we can make the online course space a more positive experience by leveraging the 14 positioning elements to transform education in ways traditional institutions never could.
We can design the value we deliver as meticulously as a chef formulates their recipes. Each element calling to a different brand of learner; every one a lever we can pull to build the business, skillset, and internet we want.