Free online courses – actual content or blatant sales?

ecommerce-2140604_960_720I recently signed up for a live online webinar-based free course. It’s delivered over twelve sessions and boasted plenty of interaction. It states that you would walk away an expert after finishing. I’m not going to name and shame here, but I do want to walk you through the experience I had and some of the learning points with regards offering free content marketing.

I have completed the first session and the divide between content and sales was shocking!

Shameless plug webinar?

If a company or anyone is doing something for “free”, there is likely some motive behind it. That is obvious and I was expecting some parts of this course to do just that. I was interested to see how it would be done, some presenters and webinars are more sophisticated than others.

I’m perhaps the type of person who would look a gift horse in the mouth and wonder what the real motives are. Others might have a more optimistic view of these things than I do – after signing up they would see more positively the information in the emails that the course will be focused on learning, content with high interaction and that you will get great value from it.

Timings and breakdown

A webinar or live online session is often planned and created like writing a story. You need to split it into different areas of focus: welcome; introduction and expectations; learning content one then discussion; learning content two then discussion – as an example.

From being a producer on webinars and courses I am normally the one keeping a close eye on the time and ready to let the host or facilitator know to speed up or slow down. It’s now a curse that when I attend a session I am time focused and trying to reverse engineer the timings and layout the host has in their mind! This is what I did for this first session.

The sessions are one hour long, which I know from experience is tight for time when delivering great content and having quality interaction. Of course with my pessimistic view I knew there would need to be some time for a sales plug or direction towards some form of marketing outlet, it is a free course after all!

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Bait and hook

Warning signs right from the start! There was a twenty second introduction from the presenter, then over nine and half minutes devoted to try and bait you into sticking around for the rest of the course: “On session X you get a chance at winning course books, on session Y you get a chance at winning a premium course.”

There was also a mention along the lines of: “Sessions eight, nine and ten are amazing and we really made sure these session names had all the buzz words and the main part of your reason for signing up for this course.”

The way I approach content design and delivery is to captivate people from the first few minutes with the content and experience that they want and have signed up for. If you are having to wave the carrot at such an early stage I would question how pedagogically sound this really is.

The free webinar sessions that we offer at Lightbulb Moment… shameless plug I know, but…  We always focus on the compelling content and quality interaction. As I said before, when something is free there’s always a reason for it and we’re honest, it’s our marketing. But we try to take the approach of marketing the very same quality you’ll get in the paid-for product.

Where has the interaction gone?

After putting up with being told what I could win just by sticking around it got to the part which was the reason I was there, the content!

The presenter said she had crammed a ton of content into each session so that we could get real value from it. Session one had four main areas to go over and each area was quite a large discussion point. There were 50 minutes left and, factoring in interaction, meant this was going to surely be tight?

The “interaction” as they called it was the fact you could post a question to the presenter and they could respond. You could not see anyone else in the session or the questions they asked as there was no attendee chat available, a shame as I feel open chat normally makes for a better experience. Jo has blogged about it here.

The Q&A system was very rarely used to answer a question about the content. Instead it was used as a way to get people to agree with yes statements, using the “Yes Set Close” sales technique.

“Do you want a chance to get a course for free?” the presenter would ask. She would then mention names from the people who used the Q&A pod, “I can see Bob, Jane, Steve, Alice oh wow your all saying yes!” This was building up hype and getting people in the habit of saying “yes”. It’s a technique I have seen used often on free webinars.

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Finally some content

Each of the four main points of content could have had hour long sessions themselves, but the content section only had 30 minutes. That is seven and a bit minutes to go over large topic areas. As you can imagine, unless you had lived in a cave all your life, even the most complicated sections of content were dumbed down and it was reduced to just being made aware of their existence rather than learning anything substantial.

There was a real shameless example using a “real world” business model to help explain one of the content areas. The business they chose for this example from was their own business. It consisted of how great they are to their customers, how the customers love their “premium service” and so on.

Bits of the content briefly highlighted what you would get from the premium service, such as spending a minute explaining how a technique for doing a certain thing is great. They said that in this course it is not covered but, you guessed it, it is covered in the premium course. Some of that is fine and to be expected as you do want to promote the difference between a free option and something that people will get if they invest more.

More sales

With twenty minutes left and only half an hour of actual content, of which at least half was highlighting their premium service, it then moved on to the real sales part. They explained the premium service, signing up to the website and the like.

I felt there had been passive sales all the way through and this was now just a kick in the teeth!

Q&A… well… Q!

The last ten minutes was devoted to answering questions and the presenter said people could log off if they wanted. Not many people had questions about the actual content because it was so light – or because I could not see other people’s questions!

As I couldn’t see the questions there was an opportunity for the presenter to only answer the questions about the sales part and not content related. I did ask a genuine content question that was not answered. We were advised that, of course, anyone who still had questions as the hour was rounding out could email the sales team…

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Thoughts

I would have had less or no issues at all if the session and course had been titled correctly. It was really an “Introduction to X and what you can gain from COMPANY NAME sessions”. They marketed the course as learning events. Whilst I reiterate that I understand about using free as a marketing tool, this course is not what they promised. It’s a flashy sales brochure.

I stick with my thoughts from before: as a company if you are offering something for free there is a need to get something from it. If you are attending something for free you still want some value from it and are expecting the quid pro quo at some point.

When delivering free content, you need to deliver excellent value. Then people will believe in your approach and more likely to actually listen when you do sales and marketing that is genuine rather than based on questionable techniques.

What are your thoughts?

2 thoughts on “Free online courses – actual content or blatant sales?

  1. Thanks Mike, really insightful and great to see the link about the sales technique. I’ve seen this kind of thing on a lot of free sessions. As you say, it’s a challenge that is part of the dance between free offerings and marketing.

    The challenge I see with this is that I attend something because I want to learn something new, have a new experience. If that is great, it’s the bit that ‘sells’ me on wanting to do more with that organisation.

    Sadly, these experiences are just a big turn off for me. But it obviously works for some people, as we keep seeing webinars doing it!?

  2. It is a difficult balance and one that people on both sides will find hard to see if they are doing it well or getting what they want.

    If you are providing free content you want to get something out of it, if you provide amazing content for free all the time then people might think why pay anything?

    I believe we will see this balance shift towards better free content as more people start to use courses, webinars and general live online sessions for marketing and competition heats up.

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