Is Creating Online Training Programs a Viable Business Model?

The need (and desire) for on-demand education has intensified, and will only continue into the future. But can you really make a living from it?

To further our ongoing discussion about online education as a viable career and business model for content creators and entrepreneurs, I brought in a special co-host today. It’s Sonia Simone, Chief Content Officer of Copyblogger Media and my long-time co-conspirator in all things content marketing and online education.

In this 24-minute episode Sonia Simone and I discuss:

  • The prediction about online education that came true
  • Sonia’s move from freelance copywriter to course creator
  • The improbable sports training program that’s killing it
  • Membership sites for kids? (It’s all about the parents)
  • Other examples of “non-meta” training programs
  • A free webinar for creating online courses

The Show Notes

Is Creating Online Training Programs a Viable Business Model?

Voiceover: This is Rainmaker.FM, the digital marketing podcast network. It’s built on the Rainmaker Platform, which empowers you to build your own digital marketing and sales platform. Start your free 14-day trial at Rainmaker.FM/Platform.

Brian Clark: Hey, everyone. Welcome to the show. I am Brian Clark, founder and CEO of Copyblogger Media. This week, instead of flying solo, I’ve decided to start at least a one-week tradition of having a rotating co-host. Today’s victim is Sonia Simone, chief content officer of Copyblogger Media, longtime co-conspirator way before we actually formed the company in 2010 — going back to Copyblogger, Teaching Sells, and all of that good stuff. Sonia, how are you doing today?

Sonia Simone: I am fantastic. Thank you for asking.

Brian Clark: It is wonderful to hear your velvety voice because you also have a great voice. That guy who also has a great voice …

Sonia Simone: That traitor.

Brian Clark: Yeah. I don’t know how many weeks I’m going to keep talking about him ditching me, but it could be quite a few.

Sonia Simone: I think you could milk it. I think you are not even close to saturating that.

Brian Clark: Yeah, I feel that way, too.

Sonia Simone: Yeah.

Brian Clark: It’s evergreen really.

Sonia Simone: It is.

Brian Clark: All right, so as you know, your Copyblogger post today linked to my last podcast. I was honored.

Sonia Simone: It did indeed. Yes, it did.

The Prediction about Online Education That Came True

Brian Clark: Online courses, online education and training — obviously, we always love to tell the story that how we met was you were one of the first people with your credit card in hand saying, “Go ahead and sell me something already,” back in 2007.

Sonia Simone: That’s right.

Brian Clark: That was Teaching Sells, our instructional design meets direct marketing uber course. Do you remember that it was actually that course where someone gave us a review and they said it was ‘Internet marketing for smart people.’

Sonia Simone: I do.

Brian Clark: Not as a compliment, but we took it as a compliment because we were like “Yeah! Smart people only, please.”

Sonia Simone: You know what? You’re right actually.

Brian Clark: Instead of feeling shame and dumbing it down, we actually co-opted that, created another course called Internet Marketing for Smart People, which I thought was so us.

Sonia Simone: It is us. It’s a little offensive, but not very offensive — snarky.

Brian Clark: If you’re playing the populous card, like a lot of the Internet marketing crowd does, because, of course, they’re going, “You can do it.”

Sonia Simone: Right, and we’re like, “You can do it … if you’re smart.”

Brian Clark: You ‘can’ do it — just like you can graduate from college — but maybe not if you can’t. It’s just amazing to revisit slightly to see the mainstreaming of this. I don’t like to sit there and say, “Hey, I called it.”

Sonia Simone: You did, though. You did call it, actually.

Brian Clark: It’s still one of those things where you’re right and you’re like, “Wow, I didn’t know I was going to be this right.”

Sonia Simone: I know. It’s true.

Brian Clark: It makes sense because on-demand — reacting to trends, to market, fluctuations, to disruptions — everything’s moving so quickly. I don’t think academia could keep up 10 years ago, much less now. That’s what’s really driving this, and it’s only going to accelerate. The whole concept in that Fast Company article — I don’t really like the terminology. I think it’s pretty weak. I think this futurist guy is dead on about this is a real gig. It is now, but only more so by the time we get to say 2020, 2025. The whole concept of the ‘freelance professor,’ how does that strike you?

Sonia Simone: I don’t love ‘freelance professor’ for a lot of reasons. I like your old term ‘entreproducer’ because I think you want to not forget that this is about a business. It is about teaching, but absolutely, equally, it is about business and about producing a result somebody else wants. Also, maybe because it’s just because too many people called me ‘Little Professor’ when I was a child. I have trauma from that, so that could be the source.

Brian Clark: Is that why you call me ‘Professor Clark’ when I get too esoteric?

Sonia Simone: It is. That’s right.

Brian Clark: That’s not a compliment, either — just in case there’s any confusion.

Sonia Simone: No, you have my story. That’s my story.

Brian Clark: Yeah, it is a business, and I did like that he said you need course materials, a plan, and a marketing plan. That’s what really set me off on this. You’re not going to get away from understanding the marketing component of it. The big thing about Teaching Sells, which was amazing to me when I was creating it, was that the intersection of direct marketing principles — which everything you sell online is direct marketing. Don’t think about junk mail. That’s not what it means. It means direct to the consumer, or customer, or client.

The principles, especially of copywriting, are applied in instructional design because that’s what gets adult learners to pay attention, to retain information, to stick with it — all of these things. Even if you say, “I don’t want to be a marketer,” or “I don’t care about selling,” creating great training is a component of exactly the same elements of retaining an audience and their attention in order to actually get some value out of it. It really is doing a great job of teaching people that builds your business in the long-term.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, most, maybe all smart marketers and salespeople have known for a long, long time, well over 100 years, that in order to have something that is marketable or sellable, you need to have a transformation that you can offer the person you’re selling to, while teaching has the transformation baked into it. The whole point of teaching is to create a transformation. That’s one of the reasons it’s such a strong model. It’s very easy to explain to somebody, “I am going to teach you to do something you want to know how to do.”

Brian Clark: Also something we talk about a lot, ‘baking in’ — it’s not just knowledge. It’s the benefits.

Sonia Simone: The benefits of knowledge, yeah.

Brian Clark: Guess what? Those are the same benefits that go on a sales page.

Sonia Simone: Yeah.

Brian Clark: You really can’t separate the two. I always was proud of Teaching Sells and how well it integrated it together because humans just naturally compartmentalize things. “This is that, and this is the other.” No, it’s really one thing, and it’s all related anyway.

Sonia Simone: Yeah.

Brian Clark: You and I have created many courses together. I still remember that time we created that freelance X Factor course, and I had to rent a room in Durango, Colorado, because I was there for the summer. My kids were little maniacs running around the place we actually were staying in, so in order to have quiet …

Sonia Simone: You were in a closet in an office building or something crazy.

Brian Clark: I know. But, hey, we got it done.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, that was a good course.

Sonia’s Move from Freelance Copywriter to Course Creator

Brian Clark: Many years of education courses and all that. I want to talk to you a little bit, because you created in the time that we’ve known each other — this was before Copyblogger Media, though — you created your own course called Remarkable Marketing Blueprint. Is that correct?

Sonia Simone: That’s right.

Brian Clark: Oh I got it. You did that all by yourself. I remember you just went off, and then a long time later it was done.

Sonia Simone: I did, yes.

Brian Clark: Talk about that process as tackling what was a really big project. That was a good-sized course.

Sonia Simone: It was. What I wanted to do when I left the corporate world — and I have talked to other places about my serious post-corporate traumatic syndrome — I left the corporate world. I needed to make money. My husband stays at home full-time with my son, so it was all on me. My idea was I was going to be a freelance writer. That was okay.

I did moderately well at being a freelance writer, but I hated the ‘you don’t kill, you don’t eat’ mentality. It was not emotionally a great fit for me where I had to close all these new clients, and I was always prospecting. It wasn’t well-suited to me, so I did take Teaching Sells. I was one of those people who messes up your server by refreshing the order page two times a minute trying to wait for it to open — don’t do that, guys. It’s annoying.

I put this course together to teach people some of the things that I had, had to teach myself in order to be a good marketing writer — how to market stuff, how to sell things if you’re not the $10 million marketing budget company. It was revolutionary for me. It completely transformed who I was as an independent professional. Instead of constantly prospecting and talking to people who weren’t ready to move forward and closing people and all this stuff, I said, “Here’s a thing. Here’s what it will do for you. Here’s what to do next.” A bunch of people bought it, and then they gave me whatever it was, $27 a month.

It was a great deal. It really changed my business. It really changed my relationship with my customers. They created this whole identity. They called themselves the ‘Remarkables,’ and the first group were the ‘Remarkable and Originals.’ That was an identity that they had that many of them carry.

There will be people listening to this podcast who’ll say, “I’m a Remarkable.” It was really a great experience professionally and personally in terms of satisfaction, in terms of my ability to help people. It was just cool, and fun, and awesome.

Brian Clark: I remember the community you built there …

Sonia Simone: It was intense.

Brian Clark: … was rapidly pro-Sonia.

Sonia Simone: As they should be.

Brian Clark: You have that effect on lots of people. You come across so nice, but behind the scenes …

Sonia Simone: Brian knows how evil I really am, but I do get [inaudible 0:11:22] very nice.

Brian Clark: When Sonia goes on a rant, just duck. What was the hard part about it? Again, it seems to me the content was so right up your alley. Was producing it the biggest challenge?

Sonia Simone: Producing it was great. I had to get my act together, but that was fine. That was all good. The site was really tough. I’m still so grateful to this day for the wonderful developer who was able to help me out with it. But even so, I think it took us about two months to get the site together before I could make any money. I was spending money.

Brian Clark: This was WordPress plus plugins?

Sonia Simone: WordPress plus proprietary membership plugins was what this was.

Brian Clark: Yeah, we won’t name which one.

Sonia Simone: No, we won’t name. There were a couple at the time. They all had issues, and I encountered the issues. It took a long time to get it together. During that time, I was spending money developing the site, but I wasn’t getting any revenue. We had security issues. Some kind of creepy Russian hackers were putting porn into my member library. I don’t know why. To this day, I’m not sure why — “Why are you doing that?” — but they did. That was great. We were playing whack-a-mole with security.

It didn’t work the way I wanted it to work. There was a lot of manual work to make sure that, if people left the course, like stopped paying for it, that we would stop giving them access to it. Just things like that, that today we have some tools — you know, cough, Rainmaker Platform — that make that really easy. It was not easy.

Brian Clark: That’s such a familiar story. When it was just me and Tony — and then later you joined us with Teaching Sells — Tony was gluing together, duct taping. No one would ever tell me just how fragile these sites were. They looked pretty, but they were built out of all these different parts. Also, in the original version of Teaching Sells, remember how Tony had to try to teach people to build an LMS out of what was it, Joomla and Moodle?

Sonia Simone: Moodle, right.

Brian Clark: Later we could finally get it done with WordPress, pretty much with the stuff you use, but of course, there were issues. People were always asking us, “Oh my gosh, you’ve taught me things that I didn’t even imagine I could know about creating instructional content and about marketing it. Just give me the technology platform.”

Sonia Simone: Right.

Brian Clark: That’s going to take a while. In fact, it took, oh, I can’t even do the math, seven years.

Sonia Simone: Yeah. There have been platforms, and those platforms had issues because it’s hard. It turns out when we set out to build it, it’s like, “Oh, this is actually really hard.”

Brian Clark: It took a while. It either takes a ton of money or it takes time. We were bootstrapped, so it took some time. Anyway, I mentioned that last week. At least, at this point, Rainmaker takes care of those headaches, and now it’s become essentially a part of the Teaching Sells experience that we’ll be doing next month.

Sonia Simone: Yes.

Brian Clark: Anyway, I think one objection people have when they hear us talk about creating the marketing blueprint, or a Copyblogger course, or even the New Rainmaker training course that is a lead generator for Rainmaker.FM. Like, “Yeah, that’s fine. You’re selling courses, marketing about marketing, blogging about blogging, content marketing about … ” — you know, very meta.

That is something we’ve been dealing with for a long time. Sometimes it’s frustrating to always feel you’re being self-referential, but the real opportunities, business is going to remain a very big on-demand training realm.

I remember back in 2007 when we talked about the three big areas. They were business, personal development, and technology. I think that remains the case today. There’s so many other topical areas that people are making not only money, but a living, a good living.

Sonia Simone: A good living, yeah.

Brian Clark: Yeah. You’re like the curator of online education and membership sites that shouldn’t work — or at least that they’re real topics for real people that don’t involve this meta aspect to it. Give us a few of your favorite examples.

The Improbable Sports Training Program That’s Killing It

Sonia Simone: One of my favorites, he was a member of one of our early communities, The Third Tribe. That was the first marketing thing he ever bought, so I claim all credit for his success. That’s not fair or reasonable. I’m just making a joke. His name is Will Hamilton, and he has a site called

The thing I love about this site is it was a long-time truism in direct response that you could sell all kinds of things to golfers, but there was no money in tennis. You could not do tennis education. You couldn’t do tennis direct response because tennis players didn’t spend money. Will’s doing unbelievable things with this site. It’s opened all kinds of doors. He makes a great living off this business.

Brian Clark: It’s always the one that I’m like really? Tennis?

Sonia Simone: Yeah. Since Will showed it could be done, I think that other people have come up as well in tennis, but really remarkable story with that.

Other Examples of ‘Non-Meta’ Training Programs

Sonia Simone: Another one was one of my Remarkables, a woman named Wardee Harmon. She put together a natural cooking site. She had a real interest in — very on-trend today, she was ahead of the curve at that time — organic food and respecting the dignity of the food.

Brian Clark: I wouldn’t be surprised if my wife was a member.

Sonia Simone: Yeah, and if she’s not, she should be because it is so up her alley. But she did this natural cooking class online, and we all thought, “Well that’s a good idea.” From the beginning, we were all a little startled at how well it did. People were waiting for it. She was an early presence, and she just destroyed it with that.

My friend Ruth heads an institute called the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine, so straight-up, hardcore Internet marketing, right? They do extremely well with courses, and Ruth — I know Ruth, she’s a friend of mine — has a very businesslike approach to teaching courses in behavioral medicine. She just did a course on meditation with Tara Brach, who’s a wonderful meditation practitioner.

They just do really, really well with these courses with a businesslike approach to teaching. It’s a combination, in their case, of professional development for therapists, but also, a lot of non-medical professionals like me will take these courses because we want to know more about trauma or the science of the brain or meditation.

Membership Sites for Kids? (It’s All About the Parents)

Sonia Simone: I’ll wrap up with one that my son encountered that was very cool, which is a company called Youth Digital. They teach kids my son’s age — my son’s almost 10 — how to code in Java in order to make Minecraft modifications.

Brian Clark: Yeah, my kids, I don’t know if it’s the same course, it may be. But both of my kids all of a sudden have figured out that you can make the stuff that is Minecraft.

Sonia Simone: Right.

Brian Clark: They’re just fascinated by it. It’s like Legos in digital world.

Sonia Simone: Yeah. That’s a real case where people would tell you, “Oh, you can’t make any money with Minecraft education because there’s so many YouTube videos.” These guys, I don’t have any connection to them other than my kid is a junky for this course. He can’t wait to get home and start learning Java, but it’s very well done. It’s done for kids. It’s got great sense of humor. It’s comprehensive. They have good support, and they’re just selling the heck out of this course. I think it’s $200 a pop for something for kids, so kids can play with a toy.

Brian Clark: It’s educational and that type of purchase — this is valid actually because learning to code is awesome — but we all bought Baby Einstein CDs to make us feel better about parking the kids somewhere. You’re selling to the parents.

Sonia Simone: Yes, exactly. You’re saying, “No, it’s a good thing that they spend all day every day on Minecraft. It’s education.”

Brian Clark: I will say that out of all the games my kids try to play, Minecraft is actually probably the best for them.

Sonia Simone: Yeah.

Brian Clark: I’m telling myself that story.

Sonia Simone: Yes, I am, too. I’m right there with you.

Brian Clark: Alright, I don’t know, Sonia. You being on here made this very easy. In fact, easier than Robert. Now I’m going to just change my story and say good riddance to Mr. Bruce. I may just hit up Sonia Simone. You’re like, “Wait, what?! You’re giving me more work to do?”

Sonia Simone: Bring it, bring it.

Brian Clark: We’ll see. If I can’t find other victims, though, you’re going to be my default.

Sonia Simone: I’ll be the default victim. That seems congruent with my general role in the company.

A Free Webinar for Creating Online Courses

Brian Clark: So you and Chris Garrett have a webinar coming up. Is that related to …

Sonia Simone: Yeah, the webinar, it is an educational webinar designed to give you what you need to know to become a customer. I’m not going to hide that. That would be silly. It’s a webinar about the things that we have seen — Chris also was an early Teaching Sells customer — but we have been teaching people for quite a few years now how to do this.

It’s a webinar-based on some of the things we’ve seen people do that slow them down — so mistakes people make when they’re trying to build an online product or an online service. The things people do that make it very unlikely that they’re going to be able to have this popular, successful, easy, fun, sustainable business. We’re going to be talking about the mistakes people make when creating products online. It’s going to be, well, it’s coming up, so it’ll be June 16th at noon Eastern.

Brian Clark: Well, we’ve got still a couple of weeks, but we will put a link to that in the show notes, so you can sign up from there. That sounds pretty interesting because the webinar, of course, is going to give you a lot of high-value content with respect to things to avoid, especially if this is your first rodeo in this arena.

Sonia Simone: Right, right.

Brian Clark: Whether you decide to go with Teaching Sells or not, it’s going to be solid, but of course, I’m sure that the benefits of the whole course will be demonstrated at some point.

Sonia Simone: Exactly.

Brian Clark: All right, Sonia, thank you so much for coming. Enjoy the rest of your day, and to all of you out there, thanks for tuning in. If you have a chance to drop by iTunes and give me a review or a rating, you can even talk about how much cooler Sonia is than me. I will take it as long as it’s on this show. Thank you very much, Sonia.

Sonia Simone: Thanks. It was fun. Thank you.