Value by Design: A positioning framework for course creators

Online education is about to get a whole new look.

Value by Design: A positioning framework for course creators

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.

college degrees on wall
These are, by far, the most expensive items I have on my wall. 😅

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?

The undercurrent

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.

Thesis: Courses, and the creators who make them, succeed or fail based on their positioning; and our definition of positioning is too narrow.

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).

Imagine you’re invited to a community potluck and are asked to bring any dish you like. But, being the competitive entrepreneur you are, you want your dish to be the most popular.

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

CompanyEstimated Revenue# of StudentsPricingAdvantage
Udemy$629M57M$20-200 per coursePrice
Skillshare$14M12M$160 per yearPrestige
LinkedIn Learning$1B+27M$240 per yearNetwork
Khan Academy$44M135M$0Price
MasterClass$94M12M$120 per yearPrestige
Udacity$100M14M$400 per monthTopic
Codeacademy$42M85M$360 per yearTopic
CreativeLive$5M10M$150 per yearTopic

Sources: Individual company websites, Crunchbase, Statista, ProPublica, SignHouse

I chose these examples to focus on for 4 primary reasons:

  1. They sell courses, not just the ability to sell courses (e.g., Teachable, Kajabi).
  2. They have their own distinct brands, unlike entities like MIT OpenCourseWare, which are tied to existing universities.
  3. There is public data available because of their size.
  4. Their success tells us which positioning elements students value most.

Common positioning elements

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