Why You Should Think Outside the Box About Online Courses

Are you struggling to figure out how to incorporate a course into your online business model? Maybe you’re being too rigid in how you think about online courses.


After a quick refresher about how online courses can accelerate your digital business model, we discuss the following:

  • The power of taking an outside-the-box view of online courses
  • How an online course framework can work for entertainment as well as education
  • Various ways we could incorporate courses into our side projects (which you’re welcome to steal for your own projects)
  • How to use free and paid courses together
  • What Jerod learned creating The Showrunner Podcasting Course (and what Demian learned by participating in it)
  • Why The Showrunner Podcasting Course is a living, breathing example of how a course can indirectly make a podcast profitable
  • Demian’s thoughts on the challenges of developing a responsive podcast audience
  • How courses can help you leverage old content that new audience members haven’t seen or heard


Show Notes:

If you’re interested in The Showrunner Podcasting Course, hop on our email list to get notified when we’re open to new registrants:

For further listening on the benefits of online courses, check out these episodes of New Rainmaker with Brian Clark:


Why You Should Think Outside the Box About Online Courses

Demian Farnworth: Was that a pun?

Jerod Morris: Was it a pun?

Demian Farnworth: Audiophiles. Audio file. Get it? Never mind.

Jerod Morris: Oh. I guess that was a pun. I didn’t think about that.

Hello there, and welcome to another episode of The Lede. I am your host, Jerod Morris, VP of Rainmaker.FM for Copyblogger Media. I will be joined, as always, by Demian Farnworth, fearless host of Rough Draft and Copyblogger’s Chief Content Writer.

In this episode of The Lede, Demian indulges me in topic that I’ve been wanting to discuss now for a couple of weeks, which is online courses. If you’ve listened to the New Rainmaker podcast with Brian Clark, you’ve seen Brian talking a lot about online courses and how online courses can really accelerate your business model.

I’ve also been talking to people who are struggling somewhat figuring out how they can implement a strategy of online courses into their overall digital marketing strategy. I think part of the reason for that is thinking a bit too rigidly about online courses, like that it actually has to specifically teach a specific skill. Actually, the format of an online course can just be another way to display content, to display information. Anyway, it will make sense.

We’re going to talk about this in this episode, and hopefully give you an even bigger, more well-rounded idea of what an online course can be and how it can fit in to your digital marketing strategy.

As always, The Lede is brought to you by the Rainmaker Platform. In this episode, you’ll actually get to hear me talking about how we use the Rainmaker Platform to develop The Showrunner Podcasting Course, so I won’t go into it too much now because we’re going to talk about it here in a little bit. With that said, thank you for being here. Thank you for lending us your ear, and here is my discussion with Demian Farnworth on this episode of The Lede.


Demian Farnworth: Yes, sir.

Jerod Morris: How are you?

Demian Farnworth: I’m doing well. How are you, man? How are you feeling?

Jerod Morris: I’m good.

Demian Farnworth: Are you healthy, wealthy, and wise?

Jerod Morris: Uh, I’m healthy and wise.

Demian Farnworth: Okay.

Jerod Morris: I’m working on the ‘wealthy’ part, which, I don’t even know if you know this, but that’s a good segue into what I want to talk with you about, which is courses. Online courses, specifically, which are actually a pretty good way to get wealthy online. What do you say we talk about that a little bit?

Demian Farnworth: I actually thought you were going to tell me the Powerball numbers, but I guess so.

Jerod Morris: If I knew the Powerball numbers I would not say them. I guess I could say them because …

Demian Farnworth: It wouldn’t matter, would it?

Jerod Morris: That’s true. Huh. I wish I knew the Powerball numbers.

Demian Farnworth: Okay, well for the sake of the show, why don’t we talk about what you want to talk about?

Jerod Morris: Yeah, let’s talk about online courses. I don’t necessarily want to get into selling the whole idea of why online courses work and why they are a great way to accelerate your business model and all of that, because it’s been talked about before.

I mean, Brian and Sonia have been talking about the great aspect of courses since they launched Teaching Sells for a while, and the rest of the Internet seems to have caught up now as you see Lynda getting purchased by LinkedIn. Whatever the number Brian’s been throwing around — it’s like a $15 billion industry. I’ll link in the show notes a bunch of episodes of New Rainmaker if people have missed them that outline the idea of why online courses are so big right now.

Demian Farnworth: Let me just interrupt you just for the sake of assuming nothing. What is an online course? Just a brief definition.

The Power of Taking an Outside-the-Box View of Online Courses

Jerod Morris: Well, here’s the thing. It’s interesting that you asked that question, because that’s one of the elements of online courses that I want to talk about in this episode. I think an issue that people have with online courses — and I know this because I had this issue, so I know there have to be other people who have it too — is having a bit of a rigid definition for what an online course is, which can sometimes lead you to paralysis by analysis about how you are going to add online courses into your business.

For example, a clear, obvious example of an online course is The Showrunner Podcasting course, which I want to talk with you about in a minute.

I’ve been trying to think, for example, “How do I add a course element to The Assembly Call, my IU basketball site?” Because I’ve got the site built on Rainmaker. Rainmaker has a learning management system in it. It’s what we use to build The Showrunner Podcasting Course. It lays the course out really nicely. It integrates perfectly. It’s got all these great features. But I’m thinking, “Okay, unless I’m going to teach people about basketball, or have some coaching lessons in basketball, which isn’t a bad idea, how do I add a course element to this?”

Demian Farnworth: But why would you do it to begin with?

Jerod Morris: What do you mean?

Demian Farnworth: Why would you build a course to begin with for The Assembly Call?

Jerod Morris: Because here’s the thing: having a course on your site is a great way to build a membership site. Having a membership site is a great way to then use marketing automation and adaptive content to give your audience a better experience. That’s the idea, and that’s where courses come in so huge.

So number one, I think people think all courses have to be paid, and they don’t. I think that’s one rigid line of thinking to step out of, because you can use a free course to entice people to register for your site. Here’s the other thing: you don’t have to create new ideas for a course. You can repurpose old ideas, but you’re putting them out in a new way. For instance, if we were going to create a course for The Lede — do you remember that series that we did on the essential ingredients of a blog post?

Demian Farnworth: I do indeed.

Jerod Morris: Which started out as an infographic, right?

Demian Farnworth: Mmm-hmm.

Jerod Morris: We did episodes. We could very easily turn that into a course. Now, would everybody who listens be enticed by that course? No, because some of them have already heard that material, but a lot of people who haven’t would be enticed. And people who have heard about it already might like to see it in a new way.

Demian Farnworth: Would we just take — I think it’s 11 shows we did — those 11 shows and say, “Here’s your course?”

Jerod Morris: No, I wouldn’t do it just like that. You want to maximize the medium. Maybe we would break it up into 11 different lessons like that so that we’d have the structure all ready to go. We could certainly use the audio file from the episode. We could put that in there so that people can have it, but maybe you and I would record videos that would go along with the course. Or we’d add worksheets to go with the audio. So, we’d use the strengths of a course, but it would be built on the ideas that are already there.

How an Online Course Framework Can Work for Entertainment As Well As Education

Jerod Morris: Here’s the other thing that I’ve started thinking about courses: a course doesn’t necessarily have to teach people anything, which is going to sound very strange. Now, a course probably should teach something, right? That’s what we think of when we think of a course. But you can use the structure of a course, and you can use a learning management system in ways, if you think outside the box, that will still work. Here’s why I thought of this: for The Assembly Call, I’m trying to think of, “What kind of enticing pieces of content can I have that would motivate people to register for this site?”

One of the things that I thought of that a lot of people have asked for is an archive section of our greatest hits, the best shows after the most exciting games. Basically, organizing those in a year-by-year format, it’s the same as doing lessons underneath modules. It’s still using a learning management system. It’s creating a course, per se, that’s going to have all of the same benefits to get people into this membership site, but it doesn’t necessarily teach people anything. It’s more of just a way to structure the content.

I got really excited when I was thinking about this. I guess I want to share this.

Various Ways We Could Incorporate Courses into Our Side Projects (Which You’re Welcome to Steal for Your Own Projects)

Demian Farnworth: Well, here’s an idea for you, and tell me if this works. I’m thinking that we inform, we educate, or we entertain. So for you, for The Assembly Call, your course could be — and this would be a little more work — the history of Hoosier basketball, eleven short shows on Hoosier basketball to help bone up on the history for any basketball fan. Or maybe you do 11 players or something like that, where you dig deep into the historical players, and you say, “Here are the top 10 historically best Hoosier players.” Would that work?

Jerod Morris: Dude, are you hacking my email? These are ideas that we’ve talked about, basically doing a top-20 Hoosiers of all time, structuring in that same way — because Indiana fans are very proud of their tradition — so basically doing a course educating people on all the IU traditions. “Why does the team wear candy stripe pants?” “What’s up with the script ‘Indiana’ on the shooting shirt?”

Again, you think, “For some sports blog, how are you going to be able to use courses?” Well, we have just come up with three or four of these ways. Now you’ve got this kind of ‘behind that velvet rope’ idea to get people to sign up for the membership site, whether it’s a free membership or a paid membership. But you’re leveraging the power of courses to give your audience another way to self-select, to get into a more inner circle of belief with you, to take the relationship to the next level, whether that’s simply for more engagement or whether there’s a business reason behind it.

The big idea that I want people to take away from this episode is, however you’ve thought about courses in the past, expand it. Step outside of that line of thinking, and come up with something different, something out of the box, a way that you can use courses that you didn’t think of before. Maybe it’s re-purposing old content that you hadn’t thought of before or a way to structure entertainment content within this education framework of a course.

Whatever it is, I want to challenge people to think outside the box. For those of you who are on the Rainmaker Platform, the learning management system is so powerful, and it’s going to keep getting more powerful. Like I said, I got really excited.

Demian Farnworth: When you say ‘powerful,’ do you mean it’s robust and it can do a lot of stuff, but you have to have some sort of extended education in coding? Is that what you mean by ‘powerful?’

Jerod Morris: It’s powerful because of the way that it allows you to lay out the information for the user. It’s not terribly complicated to learn, and it’s going to be much less complicated with all of the walkthrough features that we’re going to have in there now. There are a few different coding things that you want to do, and actually, you can ask support for the custom CSS that we used for The Showrunner Podcasting Course that will help you. But that’s the thing, Demian — you’ve used The Showrunner Podcasting Course.

Demian Farnworth: Mmm-hmm.

Jerod Morris: Maybe I shouldn’t admit this publicly on a Copyblogger podcast, but I’ve never taken Teaching Sells. All right?

Demian Farnworth: Right.

Jerod Morris: I had never used a learning management system before we set that up. When I say how powerful the learning management system is, it took a total newb at organizing a course and building a course and allowed me to build that course. Clearly there are improvements that we want to make, but for the most part, people are really happy with it.

The experience I had doing that, and the experience I’ve had now coming up with ideas for how to incorporate courses into my other projects — both paid and free courses — I’ve just gotten so excited and have so much enthusiasm with it. That’s why I wanted to issue those calls to action to people who are listening to this, because I think that people may hear Brian talking about courses and think, “Well, I can’t really use a course for my site because this, that, or the other reason.” I say, “Bupkis.” Challenge yourself, and I bet you can figure out a way to use a course to help accelerate whatever model you’re following.

Demian Farnworth: Ultimately, what you’re talking about, though, is building this community, right?

Jerod Morris: Exactly.

Demian Farnworth: A community built around a business idea or not even a business idea, but whatever it is that brings you together, whether it’s Indiana Hoosier basketball, or it’s Sudoku playing, or copywriting or something like that.

Jerod Morris: Yeah, exactly.

How to Use Free and Paid Courses Together

Demian Farnworth: These courses, whether free or paid — though, ultimately, the free I guess is the lead-gen piece — where you get them inside, and even that community there, you can build that community. Say you have the free and paid courses and the memberships — wouldn’t you have two siloed communities going on?

Jerod Morris: I don’t think so. I think this idea of community is interesting with a course, because we have a community attached to The Showrunner Podcasting Course, for example, right? Actually, we have a Facebook group over there, but not every course necessarily needs to be a community. You can create a course simply to improve your individual engagement with your audience.

Take The Copybot, for example. Let’s say that you wanted to create a copywriting course over there. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Copybot community, but say you go back in your archives. You pick out 10 topics. You create a course around them.

It can be simply for you to get these people into a membership site. Now, based on actions that they take, you can tailor the experience. Maybe you have different auto-responders for people who click on these links than for those links because they show you they’re interested in different elements of copywriting. Whatever it is, it doesn’t need to be about community. It can be, but it’s more you as the content creator and as the person who’s running this website and — whatever your business model or goal is — giving people another reason to get closer to you so you can learn more and then give them a better experience to whatever end you have in mind.

Demian Farnworth: Okay, so speaking of courses, your course is The Showrunner with Jon ‘The Nasty’ Nastor, right?

What Jerod Learned Creating The Showrunner Podcasting Course (and What Demian Learned by Participating in It)

Jerod Morris: Yes, and let me preface really quick why I wanted to speak about this specifically. We did the initial launch, the pilot launch, five or six weeks ago. We’re getting ready to do another one, but we’re only launching the course to the people who are on our Showrunner email list, because we wanted to give those people the chance to get it at the best price before it goes up. So, I really wanted to do this episode — this timing — on The Lede because a lot of what we talk about on The Showrunner are lessons I’ve learned hosting this show.

For all the audience members who have listened to us and gone through us on this journey with The Lede, it seemed unfair to me to not give people here the opportunity to jump on the course when we re-release it. It’s opening back up on Thursday, June 25th. It will close July 2nd. To get in on that, all you need to do is join the Showrunner email list. If you go to Showrunner.FM, there’s a big call to action right there. Put your email address in. You’ll be in there. If you’re listening to this after June 25th, still go add your email address, and then you’ll get the auto-responder with the instructions for how to get in the course.

That’s why I wanted to talk about this, and then you actually went through it. I wanted to get some of your ideas about that course specifically, but also, again, more on this topic of courses in general, and how we can use them in our business modules.

Demian Farnworth: My first question is — and actually, you kind of explained that — is why should people listen to you? Because this is a show about podcasting, a course about how to podcast, right? You explained your own experience with The Lede, but naturally you have a lot of experience with The Assembly Call, which you’ve been doing for four years, right?

Jerod Morris: Yep, this will be our fifth season coming up.

Demian Farnworth: Okay. Who’s this Jon Nastor guy?

Jerod Morris: Jon Nastor is a serial entrepreneur and a serial hacker of entrepreneurs, because he hosts the show Hack the Entrepreneur, which really went from ‘zero’ to ‘huge success’ in a very short period of time. I think Jon was smart about how he launched his show, about the format that he has for it, and his consistency, and he shares a lot of that experience with folks.

Here’s the other thing. You say it’s a course about podcasting. It is by name, but our big idea is for podcasters to see themselves as something more, to see themselves as showrunners. You have a show, you don’t just have a podcast. Like, with Rough Draft, you’re not creating episodes for listeners. You’re creating a remarkable experience for an audience.

That’s the big idea of our course. These elements of authenticity and usefulness and sustainability and profitability — what do they mean, and how will they help you create this remarkable experience for your audience? We break them down and go through 10 different modules, and we really want people to see themselves as doing something bigger than just putting out these episodes of audio.

Demian Farnworth: So, the ‘showrunner,’ that’s a TV term, right? It comes from TV?

Jerod Morris: It was. We’re trying to make it a lot bigger. Yeah, that’s what it came from.

Demian Farnworth: Oh. Look at you. Look at you guys. Who exactly should be taking this course, then?

Jerod Morris: I think anybody who has an interest in creating an audio experience for an audience. This can be someone who hasn’t started a podcast yet and wants to understand some of the basics and then how to launch. But it can also be someone who’s been doing it, but wants to understand format and audience engagement and maybe even consider re-launching their show. That’s a concept that we talk about.

Why The Showrunner Podcasting Course Is a Living, Breathing Example of How a Course Can Indirectly Make a Podcast Profitable

Jerod Morris: Then, even people who want to get into the realm of making money from their podcast — not just sponsorships, but seeing it in the bigger picture of both direct and indirect profitability. It’s similar to how The Showrunner podcast itself doesn’t make money, but it leads to a course that makes money. The New Rainmaker podcast doesn’t make money, but it led to the Rainmaker Platform, which does. So, it’s about how a show fits into the overall content marketing formula.

I think anybody who wants to learn about those two things are going to find what they’re looking for in the course.

Demian Farnworth: Are you going to tell people what microphone to buy?

Jerod Morris: We have a few suggestions for that in there, but this is not the course for audiophiles. I think you can find that information out there.

Demian Farnworth: Was that a pun?

Jerod Morris: Was it a pun?

Demian Farnworth: Audiophiles, audio file, get it? Never mind.

Jerod Morris: Oh, I guess that was a pun. I didn’t think about that.

You know, there’s a lot of courses out there that cover those topics in great detail, but our basic thought on that is that there’s a minimum level of audio quality that you need to reach. It’s simpler to reach it than people think. So, once you reach it, then it’s got to be a lot more about the content, and the audience, and the engagement, and the bigger-picture topics. Like, how are you using an email list to advance your engagement to lead to a bigger goal? Those are more the topics that we are really focusing on.

Demian Farnworth: Are you going to tell people how to edit the raw file?

Jerod Morris: Yes, we do have a lesson in there about that, for both GarageBand and for Audacity. People who need some of the basics like that, we definitely have that in there.

Demian Farnworth: Are you and The Nasty going to tell people how to game iTunes?

Jerod Morris: We do have lessons in there about iTunes as well, yes, especially how to leverage ‘New and Noteworthy’ for your launch.

I’m curious, Demian, because you’ve been podcasting for a while. Now you’re running your own show with Rough Draft. I’m curious what kind of questions you’ve had as you’ve gone along that process and as you went through the course. What helped out the most?

Demian Farnworth: You’re talking about The Showrunner?

Jerod Morris: Yeah.

Demian’s Thoughts on the Challenges of Developing a Responsive Podcast Audience

Demian Farnworth: Okay. That’s a good question. I think the interviews. I didn’t do interviews. I chose the monologue pattern of Rough Draft, but I have done four interviews total. I think you have an entire module there of interviews, which I found interesting. Because you think that it is simple — you just sit down and you just start talking. But there’s an art to it. That was extremely helpful.

Building the audience, too. That’s the thing that I find probably the most intriguing with running a podcast. We’ve talked about this before on past podcasts, or past shows, that it’s this nebulous idea, because you have to take an extra step in order to get audience interaction from a podcast. If they listen to the show, they don’t actually leave a comment like they would on a blog post if you published an article. So I’m always intrigued on how to develop the audience. You guys I know spend quite a bit of time talking about that and how to elevate that relationship there.

Jerod Morris: Yeah. Those are ideas that we’ve talked about on here, too. How do you take someone from a listener or a reader to that next level of engagement? How do you start with someone who’s a social media follower, get them to a listener, then get them to a reader or someone who really engages, and then continue to take them forward?

To kind of tie a bow on this episode, that’s really where courses come in. You’ve got audience members. They’re really consuming your content, whether it’s blog posts, whether it’s a podcast. How do you take them to that next level? Courses are such a great way to do it. Just because big numbers get thrown out — like $15 billion industry — doesn’t mean that you have to put out $500 course.

The great thing is there is potential. The Showrunner, obviously there’s an unfair advantage built in to working for Copyblogger and having Rainmaker.FM, but we launched that course after five or six episodes of the show, which just goes to show you the potential that’s there for courses, but it doesn’t have to be some big thing that you’re charging your audience a lot of money for.

If you’re smart about what the business model is, what the goal is, even a free course, a simple free course made out of re-purposed material, can be really valuable for the audience. It can give you the ability to take the next step of the engagement of a membership site and then everything that you can do from there, whether it’s adaptive content or just deepening that relationship.

Demian Farnworth: I was thinking about this for Rough Draft. Say you have a lot of shows. In a couple months, I’ll have 100 shows, and some people ask me, “Where should I start? What’s the best shows?” I finally got around to creating the top 10 of what I’ve considered my favorites. In that sense, that could be an introduction.

Because that’s the thing, too. When I look at some of these people who have hundreds of shows and listeners are always coming on board, nobody really goes back and listens to all the other shows. Sometimes you have the process of republishing them to bring the old shows back, but I was just thinking of ways to get people into old content and creating a course around your best content. Again, it’s not necessarily a course, it’s just like an introduction to your top 10 best — “These are the shows you should listen to. All I need is your email address, and I’ll send it to you.”

How Courses Can Help You Leverage Old Content That New Audience Members Haven’t Seen or Heard

Jerod Morris: Yep, and that’s where you’ve really got some options with that, especially with a show like yours where you’re publishing four times a week. That’s a tough schedule. At some point, you’re going to want to take a vacation, you know?

So you could rebroadcast old shows. You could bring it back — and Freakonomics does this — and you clearly label them as rebroadcasts so that your consistent listeners know, “Okay I don’t have to re-listen to this,” or “I can re-listen if I want to,” but you’re letting people know. You could also create an email list for Rough Draft, which is what we did for The Showrunner. You can make that top 10 list an auto-responder. It incentivizes people to sign up: “Hey, new to Rough Draft? Sign up for the email list. Not only will you get show updates, but we’ll also send you an auto-responder with the 10 foundational episodes of Rough Draft.”

Then the third option is, like you said, you create a free course that basically says, “Hey, take the next step. Sign up for this free course. Get the 10 foundational episodes of Rough Draft” — whatever it is. You’ve got all these different ideas, options for what you could do, and what will ultimately determine that is what’s the goal for Rough Draft. That goal’s going to be different if Rough Draft was just the personal project of Demian Farnworth. That might be different than Rough Draft as a part of Rainmaker.FM and part of this bigger goal.

There’s a lot of options, and there’s also a lot of variables that go into what decision to make. But just like you did right there, kind of that outside-the-box thinking of, “Okay, top 10 episodes. Shoot, this can be a free course. Boom.” There are so many benefits to that.

I want to make sure that people, when they hear numbers like ‘$15 billion’ tossed around, and they see The Showrunner Podcasting Course that was $395 at the pilot launch, it doesn’t have to be that. There are so many different ways to incorporate courses into what you’re doing. I think it’s about, again, finding that intersection of what you’ve done, what you know, and what you can create, and then what the audience needs, and then, of course, what the medium is. You find the intersection of those three in terms of courses, and it can really take you to the next level for what you’re doing.

Demian Farnworth: All right. Remind the listeners what they need to do for The Showrunner.

Jerod Morris: Go to Showrunner.FM, and sign up for the email list. The call-to-action box is right there. You can’t miss it when you go to Showrunner.FM. Then, we’ll be able to let you know about show updates if you want them, but for sure, you’ll be able to be updated on the course and get the best price. We’re going to raise the price once we launch to everybody this summer. So, we want to give the people who are the closest to us and to the show and to the course the chance to get that best price before we do that.

Demian Farnworth: I want to tell people that there are great videos of Jerod in vests and you can see all of his Hoosier paraphernalia. So, that’s a definite not-miss.

Jerod Morris: Yeah. That’s definitely a reason to do it.

Demian Farnworth: Exactly man. You’re hot in a vest, buddy.

Jerod Morris: Hey, thank you, Demian.

Demian Farnworth: Well, hey!

Jerod Morris: On that awkward note …

Demian Farnworth: How about them Bears?

Jerod Morris: All right.

Demian Farnworth: I think that’s it, buddy. Good one.

Jerod Morris: I think that’s it.

Demian Farnworth: No way to recover from that, man.

Jerod Morris: No, we just need to sign off.

Demian Farnworth: Yeah, none of that edamame stuff.

Jerod Morris: Yeah.

Demian Farnworth: All right, buddy. Well, good talking to you, and see you next week.

Jerod Morris: Sounds good.

Demian Farnworth: All right. Bye, bye.

Jerod Morris: Thank you very much for listening to this episode of The Lede. We always appreciate your attention. If you’ve been enjoying these episodes, if you like what Demian and I are doing, we would appreciate a rating or a review on iTunes. If you go to TheLede.FM, the link for the iTunes page is right there. Pop in, and let us know what you think. We would appreciate it.

Those of you who have been following this show for the past several weeks may have been wondering if we’re ever going to record that song that Demian wrote lyrics for back when he was using the Jerod and the Sponge Bags example for the content syndication series. Well, the songs were recorded. As of me recording this outro, I don’t think we’ve decided yet if we’re actually going to publish them for public consumption. If we do they will come in a special episode, so just be on the lookout. That episode might pop up, and if it does … I don’t know. I apologize in advance.

Anyway, we thank you for listening. Thank you for being a member of our audience here at The Lede. There may be a special episode coming, but for sure, we will be back next Tuesday with a brand-new episode. Have a great day, everybody.