Brandon Hassler is the founder and CEO of Market Campus, a premiere digital marketing course and certification program. Market Campus helps students from all over the world learn the ins and outs of digital marketing, from content marketing to SEO to web analytics, as well as offering digital marketing certifications. Brandon is an accomplished entrepreneur, online marketer, as well as a thriving online course creator!
We recently caught up with Brandon to hear what got him interested in creating online courses, and to ask how he uses course creation as a tool to scale his business. We also thought, since we’re sitting down with a successful digital marketer, it was the perfect time to pick his brain about digital marketing tips for beginning course creators.
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From bootcamps to a booming business
Like many successful entrepreneurs, Brandon got the idea for Market Campus when he saw a gap in his industry and had a vision for how to fill that gap.
While working at an agency in Utah, Brandon noticed the rising popularity of coding ‘bootcamps’, where aspiring programmers could learn how to code. What Brandon couldn’t find, however, was a similar program for marketers, specifically programs that taught people how to market online.
“I wanted to do something where somebody could come in and, in a very fast-paced way, learn everything they needed,” Brandon said. “What are the tools that you need to be using? What are the good resources that you can go to get inspiration and start learning?” With this idea, Brandon started an in-person marketing ‘bootcamp’ to teach marketing fundamentals to people in Utah.
After a year and a half of in-person seminars, however, Brandon and his small team found they were unable to meet the demand for teaching, as people were contacting him not only from outside the state, but also from outside the country. “I had a lot of emails coming in saying, ‘I can’t afford, and I don’t have time to go to Utah’, or ‘I want to learn…when are you guys coming to New York?’” Brandon said. Market Campus wanted to reach as many people as possible, but didn’t have a way to get to them. That’s when they turned to online courses.
Creating an online experience with a classroom feel
Since Brandon started as a big fan of the in-classroom experience, he originally was only looking into online courses as a way to supplement the in-class time. He wanted to provide his bootcamp students with the ability to view lectures at home on their own time, so actual classroom time could be spent on questions and hands-on learning. “But as we were going through this process,” he explains, “I thought, man, this is really good stuff. Let’s actually just package this for people. We could do it for a cheaper price for people who just want to be self-paced.”
As Brandon researched the best ways to move all his teaching online, it was crucial for him to find a platform that wouldn’t sacrifice the interactivity and connection his students got from a real classroom setting (he was not a fan of PowerPoint presentations thrown up online). “I wanted to create an experience that made you feel like you are in the classroom with us,” he said.
Launching his first online course
As a self-described perfectionist, Brandon researched for over three months looking for a course creation platform that provided that ‘in-class’ feeling he wanted. He was between two other online course options when he found Thinkific and said he was amazed at the affordability. “The other platforms are cheap upfront but then when you get in to start building it’s like, ‘this is an additional $50 a month. This is an additional $100 a month’ and I thought, ‘we’re going out of business if we do this.’ Then I stumbled on Thinkific and looked into it thinking it…was extremely affordable compared to everything else. So Thinkific was awesome for me”. We’re glad you found us Brandon!
The trick now for Market Campus was figuring out how to effectively translate a year and a half of in-classroom teachings into online courses (and getting people excited about them). Brandon admitted that it was a slower process for him, since he wanted everything to be perfect. “It took us about 6 months to convert all of our bootcamp curriculum online…my biggest issue is I’m a huge perfectionist and…I didn’t want to launch until it was perfect”.
Although running Facebook ads to his courses and improving SEO helped grow traffic organically, Brandon spoke at length about an event called 1MillionCups that helps entrepreneurs speak with likeminded people and get feedback on their business idea.
“The bottom line is, you are an entrepreneur whether you believe it or not. You’re building a business, even though you may look at it as, ‘I’m just making side income.’ It’s a business. It’s an entrepreneurial endeavour,” Brandon said. With help from both online and offline feedback, and by taking on extra help and learning how to delegate, Brandon said he was eventually able to streamline his online course creation process.
Finding the right format for his online course material
After trying out a few different formats to teach his courses, and after asking for lots of feedback, Brandon found that short video lessons saw more success than text, and noticed his students especially loved whiteboard videos. “I like whiteboard videos because I think it keeps the person’s attention,” he said. “So we try as much as possible to have a human in front of the camera and not just a screencast.”
We asked Brandon why he thought students responded better to videos where they could watch real teachers map out the process on a tangible whiteboard. “Humans naturally connect with humans,” he explained. “It’s just a fact of how we’re built. And so the more you can have a human face in front of the learner, the more they’re going to be paying attention…especially when they’re alone in a room learning online. It can get lonely if you don’t have those human faces.”
One important lesson Brandon learned while formatting his course was to focus on curriculum over what type of high-tech equipment to buy. It’s a trap many first time online course creators fall into by spending top dollar on the best equipment and marketing tools before testing the waters to see if the audience for their online course is even out there.
“I’ve been focusing more on the curriculum now,” Brandon says. “At the start I was a little too obsessed with video quality”. He began teaching his courses on iMovie, which worked will, but eventually upgraded to Final Cut Pro once his courses were seeing success. Brandon saw great value in starting small within his budget, and upgrading later once he saw the demand for his course.
Marketing tips for promoting your first online course
With his online courses created, the next step for Brandon was to start promoting them. Fortunately for Brandon, he was already an experienced digital marketer, so he already had a toolbox of marketing strategies that he could use to spread the word about his courses. Here are a few of his preferred methods for marketing his courses:
1. Answer questions about your topic on Quora
Answering questions about your course topic on Quora, the popular Q&A website, is a great way to build a platform as a thought leader and find those interested parties who are already searching for the information you’re teaching. Brandon underlined how powerful Quora was during our chat. “The ROI in Quora is insane. It’s one of our biggest lead sources. So you’ve definitely got to be on there to promote your courses and just provide value…Just make sure you’re answering the question”. By being available to the masses who have questions around your expert topic, you’re already building a potential course audience and community.
2. Set up Google Alerts for your keywords
Google Alerts are a great way to always be monitoring the conversation going on around the internet on your topic without having to search through hundreds of websites every day. In using Google Alerts in combination with Quora, Brandon recommends, “I have it set up so that I do a ‘site colon’ Quora.com and then include phrases like marketing and digital marketing. So everyday when I wake up, I just have a single email with all of the questions around marketing. And I go through really quickly and pick and choose. In that way, you’re not having to remember to go on Quora everyday and search”.
3. Ask your LinkedIn connections for course feedback (and they may become customers)
Brandon spoke a lot about the importance of validating your course topic before investing too much time and money into your idea. A great way to validate, he told us, is to ask your LinkedIn contacts to quickly go through your course. “A lot of people don’t realize that you can export emails on LinkedIn. So if you’re connected to 700 people…you can get the email address of every single person that you’re connected with”.
Brandon said he originally composed non-spammy emails to his contacts asking them to poke around his course and give feedback. “I would email all these people and say, ‘Hey, we’re LinkedIn connections…Can we schedule a 15 minute call so I can get your feedback on my course?’ And then I would email them a login to one of my Thinkific courses and let them check it out. That was super valuable because…they were helping an entrepreneur out. And that’s how I posed it. And on the call, I was never salesy, but many of them turned into customers because they saw the value”.
4. Hang out in Facebook Groups & startup communities and avoid ‘expert rooms’
Brandon spoke a lot about the value in helping others succeed by answering questions in Facebook Groups and hanging out in startup community groups online. He warned first time course creators from pushing their courses and promoting their topic amongst expert groups or niche groups online.
“The mistake I don’t want people to make is hanging out in communities where other people are experts as well. If I’m selling marketing courses, you might think that I should go join marketing communities. But those are full of other marketers who either know or think they know everything about marketing, so they can’t become customers says Brandon. “Hang out in startup communities with people who are learning how to start a business. These are not professional marketers. These are people that could actually become customers.”
Advice for first time course creators
Brandon has now been creating courses on Thinkific for awhile, and he’s learned a lot of things along the way on his quest to master online learning, as he thinks no one has nailed the formula yet. “I think we’re progressing each year,” he said. “As an overall industry, we’re getting better. But there are still elements about and in-person class that haven’t been replicated”. Online course creation has helped him meet tons of new people and become a part of many interesting communities. (He recommends Thinkific’s Facebook Group as a great community to start with!) In terms of overall advice and parting words for people who may be unsure about starting online courses, this is what Brandon had to say:
1. The best teachers are also the best learners
Brandon touched on the fact that learning makes for great teaching. “Always be in learning mode. Don’t get sucked into the illusion that if you ask for help, that means you don’t know what you’re doing. The smart ones know that the greatest teachers are also the greatest learners. And so put yourself out there. Expect to get criticism, but you’re never going to grow if you don’t. I wish I knew that early on because I would’ve avoided so much wasted money on ads going to pages that were just worthless”.
2. Don’t be scared to ask for feedback from your students
Throughout our conversation, Brandon kept referring back to how important feedback is for validating a course topic, altering your course format, and ultimately seeing success. He talked about how a course creator’s students is an audience that not many people take advantage of.
“Ask your students what their favourite elements are”, says Brandon. “It’s been surprising that whiteboard videos are still so popular, so we’ve been doing a lot more of those. And I wouldn’t have known that if I just didn’t simply ask my students, ‘hey, help us out. We want to make this better. What are the elements that you hate and you don’t hate?’ I don’t think a lot of course creators take the time to actually engage with their audience to see what they can improve.”
3. Make YouTube videos, and use YouTube analytics
Brandon thinks any new course creator needs to get started with YouTube videos, since YouTube is a great platform to not only publish and get your message out there, but also to see how your videos are performing. “Anyone who’s in course development should be doing YouTube videos. I know sometimes the concern for some people is, ‘I’m giving all my stuff away for free.’ But the bottom line is, everything that everybody is teaching is already out there in the web. People are paying you because you’ve organized the information in an easy to learn way.”
When it comes to utilizing YouTube analytics, Brandon said, “Once you publish a video, wait about 3 weeks and then go into the analytics. Look at where the average retention rate is. So if you have an 11-minute video, you might find that the average person drops at 4 minutes and 20 seconds. Identify where the drop was, and add an annotation there rather than just at the end of the video. And it has increased traffic big time from YouTube.”
4. Sell the solution, not the product
We asked Brandon if there was anything he knows now that wished he knew early on in the course creation process. He told us, “The lesson I wish I knew early on was that you need to be selling the solution—not the product…Look at your message. Look at your homepage as well as your course pages and ask yourself: Am I selling the solution? Am I selling what they’re going to get or am I talking more about the bells and whistles of the course?…With every product that we buy, we buy it because we’re buying into the solution, not for what it does specifically. And I think that very much applies to course creation.”
5. Just hit ‘publish’
You’ll never know if course creation will work for you until you try it. Publishing your first online course is a great accomplishment that we try to celebrate with each one of our customers at Thinkific (that’s why we started Flaunt it Fridays on our Facebook Group!).
“You’re never going to know if it will work for you or not if you just sit there and make excuses” says Brandon. “So for those people who are on the fence, just hit publish. I love looking in the Thinkific community where people say, ‘I finally hit publish!’…you can feel good about what you’re doing, and at the same time you’re giving valuable information to other people. And you’re never going to experience that if you don’t go and create a course. So to just about every business out there, even if you’re just using it for lead generation to your main product, online courses are a no-brainer, for me at least. And tools like Thinkific make it insanely easy to collect the money and set up the course.”
Thanks for sharing your insights with us Brandon!How @BrandonHassler Used Online Courses to Scale his Business @MarketCampus Click To Tweet