Course Marketing and the Future of E-Learning with John Bura

In the previous section of this interview, John Bura was kind enough to offer insight into how he marketed his courses. One key aspect he focused on was how he gave away some free courses as samples and that eventually earned him subscriptions organically.

In this section of the interview, John Bura touches a little bit more on the marketing, on a possible Udemy IPO and also a look into the future of e-learning and how you can position yourself to be a part of that future.

John Bura | Course Marketing and the Future of E-Learning.

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John Bura

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You may like to read the previous section of this interview with John Bura: John Bura | Quality vs Quantity Within Financial Limits.

Here is the next section of the John Bura interview.

Jerry Banfield: Wow. That’s valuable information. You had a big list that you sent to Udemy and it didn’t seem to improve the organic traffic on the Udemy courses themselves. Meanwhile, you had to sell two things, like you said.

You had to sell them on Udemy itself and then on the site itself. That’s a good message for people. Don’t bother trying to send all your traffic over to Udemy when you could send it to your own site instead.

John Bura: In addition, some marketplaces work differently and it would be awesome if, Kickstarter for instance, if you get a good project and you put marketing dollars, you will raise yourself in search rankings.

I think Amazon’s the same way and then the App Store will work like that too. The top free apps or the top paid apps are literally the apps that sold the most in that day. I’m not sure if Udemy works like that.

If I were to spend $500,000 on marketing a Udemy course, I would like to see a return on that. That would be the one thing that if I was an investor in Udemy, as a company if I could spend $500,000 that means that I’ve consciously thought to spend my hard-earned dollars on your platform, so I want to see some kind of return.

Now, there are ups and downs to it.

Like on Amazon, sometimes there will be a bunch of, let’s just say bad products, that would just somehow rise to the top, but Amazon has gotten rid of that. The same thing should be happening with all marketplaces.

If you can spend and invest the money then the marketplace itself is going to do a lot better.

Jerry Banfield: Yes. At least a few years ago on Udemy I’d spent a bunch marketing Udemy instead of courses on my own website. The students I brought in seem to have a big impact on the course ranking on Udemy but it very rarely resulted in them being actually featured in any kind of situations I saw.

Which to me, there’s some delicate balance then.

If you can get some initial traffic there when you’ve just started out. You do want to get some of that initial ball rolling but once that’s happened, from what you’re saying, it’s kind of good to know that you can just let go.

Once you’ve got an established audience on Udemy, you can just promote your courses to your existing students and that’s all you really need to do to make sales going forward and give you, of course, a good shot to rank.

The ones that do well that you’ve sold to your existing students, from what you’re saying, should have a chance to rank on their own without needing to market them.

John Bura: Yes. Absolutely.

I started at Udemy in 2011 and I’ve been there ever since. It was superb and I’m really thankful to be one of the top sellers on Udemy and to have been there that long.

Over the years there’s been some hiccups in income. Like there was a price change in 2016. Speaking of stress, it was really stressful for me. If there was any time in my career that I was the most stressed was probably that price change.

My wife was pregnant, I just hired a bunch of employees and my income on Udemy went down like 80%.

Now, they’re going through another price change now and it doesn’t look like it’s impacting income that much, which is good. At the same time, I’d like to see more year-over-year growth there.

The scalability from a company’s point of view will actually make Udemy the learning place to go. That’s just my personal opinion on it. One of the things that I always do is, I always look at what companies are getting funding.

I have a CrunchBase Pro subscription.

I found out that Udemy got some more funding and I went to the website and it said pre-IPO companies.

Where I’m going on with this is that I just went to the investor’s website, it said pre-IPO companies and there were a few lists on there and Udemy was one. Udemy might do an IPO.

John Bura

Jerry Banfield: Which is big news!

John Bura: That is huge news and, of course, I’m super excited about that because I started with Udemy. I’ve been at Udemy longer than some CEOs have been at Udemy.

Because a few people that I worked with like way back in 2011 or 2012, and they’re still there. But like a lot of people have come and gone. I always have a different person here and there talking to them.

I’ve been there like a really long time and to see a Udemy IPO that I could invest my own dollars into the stock market would be huge. I think it’s awesome but I don’t know if that’s actually going to happen. All I know is that it got some funding and it says pre-IPO. That’s interesting.

Jerry Banfield: That’s very exciting. From what you said and the data I’ve seen like on Google Trends, Udemy relative to the other marketplaces is taking off. It’s continuing to just go up and up whereas with other companies which I won’t name to make them feel bad, they’ve just kind of grown a little bit but compared to Udemy, Udemy is just viral. It just keeps growing and growing.

They’ve got a great marketing strategy with coupons. I think they just made a wonderful change with the coupons, so you get all the back links but then you don’t get all those free students just constantly.

You maintain the integrity of sales in your marketplace while getting all the back links to guarantee your search position. Imagine a bunch more money in from an IPO, it would mean a lot of good things for creating on Udemy. 

The challenge with that as the course creator, when I started Udemy in 2014, I mean, there was no good Facebook Ads course. Not one good Facebook Ads course, and I thought well, I could make one. You go on there now and there’s just awesome courses on almost every topic you can think of and things you wouldn’t have thought to think of.

How do you stay relevant and how do you find a spot to make a course when there are so many people and companies like yours creating courses all the time?

John Bura: Absolutely. Obviously, the competition’s getting higher and that’s kind of the production creep that I was talking about earlier. We’ve unpublished a lot of our older course.

Jerry Banfield: I thought you must have. I looked at some on your Udemy profile and I’m like, didn’t he have 300 and something courses on there before when I looked?

John Bura: Yes. What cut it in 2014 doesn’t cut it today.

You can go five years in the future, maybe, when Udemy had a super successful IPO and you can invest in the stock or whatever. The courses today aren’t going to be able to cut it as well and that’s why I think that if it was investable on the course side, then I really think the IPO and the stock would do really well.

Because for me, I want the investors to 10x their income. I want the Udemy staff to be happy. I want the students to be happy first of all, and then I want my employees, my family, and all other course creators to be happy as well. I’ve always said this and it would be great if the Udemy marketplace was like the App Store.

Again, pretty much everyone’s happy on the App Store. The App Store makes it so I can release like a million or billion dollar company on it.

Speaking of investors, I can go to an investor and say, “Hey look, I’ve got this really cool app. Give me some money and we’ll make it a success.

Like, “Sure let’s do it.

Because the App Store is investable.

But if I go to an investor and say, “Hey, I want to make some Udemy courses.

They’re like, “Uh, I’ve never heard of Udemy. What is this?

I’ve heard of Udemy but is it investable? I don’t even know.

There’s one company, Cloud Guru, that has received 7 million in funding and they got some more money. It’s up to 40 million. I think they’re the only company on Udemy that’s received funding and it would be great if there was more.

There could be more money made not only in the marketplace but that gray area around it like I was talking before, where I can hire a marketing company – the best marketing company out there – and say, “Hey, look, we just have this course. It’s called the Wall Street Coder. Bring me to number one. How much is it going to cost?” 

They’ll say, “Okay, you need to do one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, and then we’ll do this.”

Great. Let’s do it and we can make the next big course.

That’s kind of where I think that if the investors want to 10x their income and if Udemy stock wants to continue to perform, money has to be put in on the content side. Not just like the administrative side or the ad side, but the content side.

Because Pluralsight and all these other companies are putting money into the content side. The pricing changed that they recently did. They spent millions of dollars on that pricing change in terms of employees. Pluralsight is spending millions of dollars on the content and eventually some people are going to say, “Hey, look, the content on Udemy just isn’t good because it’s people making the course by themselves in their spare time.

You can only do so much there than if you have like a 30-person team working on a course. The production creep is going to be there and it’s going to be real because it happens in movies all the time.

Occasionally you get some independent movie, like the Joker’s probably a good example. I think it only cost like 80 million to make or something and it’s made like a ton of money and it’s a fantastic movie. Those big budget blockbusters, that’s 300 million to make a movie now? I guess it’s a lot.

I’ve noticed that’s happened in the course space too because it’s just physics. I get a guy to make courses. I get another person to do the marketing, another person to do the video editing. That guy did the whole thing it wouldn’t be as good. You get tired and I call it like production burnout. If you do everything you might not be good at anything and that is the standard business practice.

That’s what I would expect to really make a Udemy IPO like amazing and not like the current IPOs that have been going on this year. Make it investable, make it so people like me, who have this energy and this drive to help the world learn to really profit from it, which is another thing by the way.

Some companies that have started up on Udemy, they’ve gone and done something else and this is really apparent as programmers.

I got an offer from a big coding company – a big, big company – and it was really good and I’m like, “Oh, I don’t know if I should take it.” I’d have to move and basically I don’t want to do that because I’m really good at this. It would be great if this was really skilled because I’m really good at this. So I’ll keep doing this.

Some other people would say, “Hey, look, why would I deal with all this marketing, the bad reviews on Udemy?

Someone’s going to give you a one-star review, and for me it doesn’t matter that much but for some people it’ll keep them up all night. Someone gave me a one-star review without an answer and it’s tough. I think it was the 2008 recession that just beat every single thing out of me.

Some of these companies, the creator has gone and gotten another job. If the App Store wasn’t scalable I don’t think anyone would estimate. If Amazon wasn’t investable on the content side people wouldn’t use it. Kickstarter, same thing. People spend millions of dollars in Kickstarter marketing and it works. So that’s my two cents on the Udemy IPO.

Jerry Banfield: What you’ve projected for the future, I’m wondering if you could suggest where’s a good place for people to position themselves in terms of how to be ready to, as course creators, be in a position to get a job with an e-learning company, or start their own e-learning company?

What are some of the opportunities you see or are seeing arise now? That if people will take certain steps, if you learn this type of programming or you start setting up your home studio, what are some of the opportunities you’re seeing that are only obvious if you’re kind of looking at where this is going?

Where it looks like it’s going is investable content creation companies and the question becomes well, how do I get a job? How do I start thinking about getting a job with a content creation company that’s maybe just getting started? Or how do I learn some skills that I can get in with a content creation company? Or how do I turn my business into more of a business instead of a one-man job?

John Bura: That’s always hard because if you’re making so much, if you scale up then you make less. So you always have to ask yourself, are you going to make more of that?

Sometimes it’s a frustration thing. Like, I’m done with video editing.

I could do it but it’s worth X amount of dollars for me to hire someone so you can do that. There’s a lot of money being put into not only the content but the marketplaces as well. There’s lots of money in e-learning and what I would really like to see the industry do is, I think Netflix is spending $12 billion on content.

No one is really spending that kind of money on these courses and it’s not the same thing. I know that like a movie costs a lot more to make than just the tutorial on JavaScript or something but there are costs and it could be really good.

Treehouse probably does really good tutorials. They have a whole set up, they have again a team of people. As far as I know they’re doing decently. At the same time, I’d like to see again more investment on the content side.

Your original question was, how do I position myself?

Well, what I would ideally like this industry to be is, let’s say you make a course, and then you get a job making a course for a company. People do this all the time in other industries specifically software industries. They’ll go work at a startup for a while then they go back to Google or something, and then they’ll maybe make their own project, and then they’ll do that, and they’ll do a whole bunch of things on the side. I think that would be awesome if you made a course on something like Python or something.

If it was more investable I would say, “Hey look, I like your course on Python.

Hey, can we make this course? I’ll pay you X amount of dollars.

I love to pay people. Like even my employees, I’d say, “Look, I’d like to pay you way more.” I’d like to pay myself way more too. It’s about that gray area around the marketplace as well. If that’s really healthy then the marketplace itself is going to be really healthy and frankly it’s free advertising.

If I go on to Upwork and say, “Hey I’d like to make Udemy courses.” There are pages and pages of these companies making Udemy courses. That’s free advertising for the platform just like the App Store. You can go on Upwork and find a ton of people to market your app, make your app, do the graphic design for your app. There’s a whole bunch of things.

Go on Upwork and say Udemy, there’s nothing. If that gray area around the marketplace is healthy then I bet you everyone; the students, the investors, the people who work at these companies, and most importantly the creators they’re all going to be happier.

Jerry Banfield: What you’ve said is to position yourself. It sounds like to be in that gray area especially where things are not very clearly formed yet and if you can be ready for some of those opportunities, you can be right on top of them?

John Bura: Absolutely. It’s all about adding to your portfolio. One time I didn’t know how to do graphic design very well and there was a $2,000 contract. I just said no, because I couldn’t do it. In retrospect I should have said yes, and just learn how to do it like immediately. If you learned how to produce courses, if you produce something you can add that to your resume. You will definitely be in a better place if you do something if you produce it.

Jerry Banfield: To define it, you said the gray area are the things like the services related to, for example, if you take Udemy. Services related to Udemy like selling Udemy courses, how to find people to produce Udemy courses if you’re a company. All those support services that people need, like course creators on Udemy need to make their courses successful or even things the students might need like, how do I choose which Udemy courses to learn? There’s so many.

Which ones are really worth buying? Especially for people that can’t be bothered to look through hundreds and thousands of reviews and try to pick which course is the best. Even making an email list. Here’s the newest Udemy courses that you want to take. Those are kind of like gray area things.

John Bura: Absolutely. That’s one thing I’d really like to see. Let’s say you’re a marketer and if you can make a course move to the top spot on Udemy that’s valuable. That’s really valuable. You can charge money for it.

For instance, if I’ve got a pile of money, I’ve got a brilliant idea for an app, I can go get someone to make that app for me. If I have that same pile of money and I want someone to make a Udemy course or course for it there aren’t really many that companies out there that can do that. I think that’s where the huge opportunity is.

We also make courses for other people too but I would love to have twenty other people to help do that. It can be something as basic as I have this awesome idea for X course and I need someone to do it so, “Can you do it for me?”

I’m like, “Yeah, sure I can.” I got the people to do it.

Jerry Banfield: Well, I’m in perfect position for the next question because when you’ve got some of these gray area things down how do you make the most of them?

For example, based on my results both for myself and others I’ve done very good at helping people get their courses in the top-ranking spots on Udemy, but that’s something I’ve struggled to sell. I got a bunch of my courses on different topics with different instructors all in the top spots, and then I’ve had a couple of instructors hire me for coaching and they’ve been able to do the same thing.

I literally walked one instructor from a few hundred a month to ten thousand a month bestsellers in several categories, and he literally just followed my direction of update your existing course instead of making a new one. Make the best course on this topic instead of making five small ones.

How do I sell that?

I’m very good at helping Udemy courses ranking but I’ve struggled to sell that and to know how much to charge for. If I can help you go from a 1,000 to 10,000 a month that’s worth a lot. But how do I feel good about saying, “Well, it’s $5,000 or 500 a month.” How do I make something out of that?

John Bura: Pricing as we know is a very interesting and hard topic to do frankly.

Again, you got to look at the clients. Most of the people, they’re doing this in their spare time. They probably don’t want to spend a ton of money on it. Since you have those success things then you can probably do more of it. You can point to your successes.

The thing is that when it comes to price you have to sell it in such a way that if you do what they say and then the course is good then you will make that money back, but if it was more investable, like the gray area was more investable and the marketplace was more investable, If you did that for the App Store you could absolutely charge like five, ten grand for that. 100%.

If there’s more money being put into the content side then you’ll be able to sell those services more.

It’s one of those things that will absolutely make Udemy a really awesome company, is if more money gets put into the content side so you can differentiate the courses.

It happens all the time.

I’m an amazing programmer but I’m terrible at graphic design and marketing, so I hire someone to do it. My marketing skills could tank my project but I hired somebody to do it. That could be the same thing too. I am really good at making screen casts but I’m terrible at video editing, and I’m terrible at marketing, so I’m going to hire a video editor to do it, and I’m also going to hire a marketing team to do it.

That will do that. It’s very standard in business and that’s what I would really like to see just like the other marketplaces do. These people will make money off of helping other people make money and I think that’s something that could be explored a lot more.

Read the fifth part of this interview in our next post.


Jerry Banfield