Why our clients charge for their courses — why ‘free’ doesn’t work, and never will

Edward Druce
Jun 19, 2018 · 4 min read

Many people believe the internet should be free. But, as a friend once put to me, ‘it’s only free if your time is worthless’.

We live today in the ‘age of abundance’ — an age of too much information — as put by Eric Schmidt. This he considers necessitates a forthcoming ‘age of intelligence’ (a more discerning approach to information).

For consumers, this is certainly true. Fraser Nelson, editor of The Spectator, writes, ‘in the era of fake news, where you get your analysis from has never been more important… the discerning reader who doesn’t have time to waste will pay for consistent quality.’

Those in educational publishing have been slower to catch on, but it’s time now they do. Advertising revenue on platforms like YouTube is drying up — the impending ‘adpocalypse’. Sponsors are being more demanding. And because a paid-for resource is ultimately better for the consumer.

In the transition to digital, a great error media companies have made is trying to emulate technology companies’ business model. If you’re Google or Facebook, advertising works. You’ve got the scale to make sense of keeping a product free (hopefully better protecting user data from here on). But not so for dedicated media companies. Unless buoyed by reach of billions of users, those who don’t charge for at least part of what they do are doomed.

Has anybody gotten to the bottom of a Guardian article recently? Haemorrhaging tens of millions of pounds a year, its calls to action for donations aren’t subtle. And this is what happens to those who commit to everything-free. As well as being overtly aggressive, they’ve irreparably damaged their paper, having been forced to switch to a tabloid format last year (as well as make a round of redundancies). One commenter noted, ‘I find the switch of the Guardian to tabloid format curiously upsetting. It makes me realise how good the paper was, and is now ceasing to be.’

There’s more than sufficient demand for a metered paywall, but certain media companies are squeamish about charging for their work. They’d rather have ‘forever free’ run them off a cliff than adjust their position. If you stand by the principle of not charging for anything, sooner or later it’ll make you compromise on everything.

Paying for things is in the consumer’s immediate interest. In the late 1930s, in his seminal Think and Grow Rich, writing on the (then) free school system of America, Napoleon Hill wrote: ‘there is one astounding weakness to this marvelous system — IT IS FREE! One of the strange things about human beings is that they value only that which has a price.’ This is equally true for online education today.

For content producers, publishing a video every week on YouTube (or several times a day on Instagram) has made many feel a slave to their platform. Chasing economics of an algorithm isn’t just exhausting, but enforces confines (production time being one) that aren’t conducive to depth.

At Course Concierge, we look to free clients from such shackles and relieve ‘grinding’ with a pause for thought. We liberate clients from the pursuit of subscribes, views and likes and get them back to what matters most; to stop serving a platform and back serving their audience.

Steve Ramsey, a client of ours who we helped publish his first online course last year, The Weekend Woodworker, has said, ‘having my own product has allowed me to make 8–10X the income I was making with all of my other revenue sources before’. (And this with a YouTube subscriber base of nearly 1M people, and someone who’s been at it for 10 years — with all the partnerships and promotional spots a content producer could wish for.)

Steve had initially been trepidatious about the price we’d suggested he charge for his course. Having not sold anything like it direct to his audience before, justifiably so. (One era Eric skipped over is the ‘age of entitlement’. It’s arguably a transitionary step. In the peculiarly narrow band it applies — nobody calls Leonardo DiCaprio a ‘sell-out’ for making movies or cinemas for coming with a fee — on the internet perceived expectations of free still reign supreme.)

Steve’s advice having now gone through the release of his course? ‘Don’t be afraid that your audience is going to call you a sell-out, because it just isn’t the case — it’s the opposite.’

(Credit to Video Creators for the profile — everything up until 7.43 relating to our work.)

Steve slowed down a bit on YouTube to work on his course, and he’s now back to it with a more balanced approach. He’s still producing plenty for his audience to enjoy for free, but at the same time servicing those who’d like to go deeper (now well underway on production of his second course).

Our clients typically aren’t natural born marketers. We partner with subject matter experts and take care of that so they can focus on what they’re best at.

We help steer content producers from a reliance on ad spots and get them instead featuring something they’ve poured themselves into. We’re not simply ‘curating the internet’, we lay out an incentive structure that vastly improves it.

For both the discerning producer and consumer, having a paid-for component to what you do is the only long-term model that works. It’s time those with big ideas to share get put back in the driver’s seat.

Co-founder of Course Concierge, the online course publishing company for those with something to say. http://edwarddruce.com

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