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!


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.


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…



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?

Reflection Friday – working out loud

This morning was the first Lightbulb Moment Reflection Friday! Mike and I started it after attending the Modern Learning Leader workshop where there was a healthy dose of reflective practice.

That experience, and the conversation Mike and I had about communicating and working together, prompted us to set aside some time every Friday morning for reflection.

Today was our first one that we could schedule in some weeks after the workshop and we wanted to share our approach and reaction as part of working out loud, giving other people ideas if they are beginning this same journey and prompting the wider conversation.

Do as I say, not as I do…

Probably we all know that reflective practice is a good thing to do. A lot of people are really invested in it, perhaps writing journals, blog posts, drawing or other artistic endeavours, part of a conversation group, meditation or a myriad of other options.

I’ve done various reflective practices in the past, found them good and useful, but usually only stuck with them as part of a project or programme.

The reason I wanted us to start doing this at Lightbulb Moment was to improve the already good communication and working relationship between me and Mike, focus on our individual and joint creativity and positively impact our business.


Mike and I were both invested in finding time in our week to do this, as we’d been through the experience together on the workshop. Had that not been the case, one of us might have been more reticent and we wouldn’t have had a common language or experience to draw upon to get started.

This was the case with the workshop in the first place – Mike was very honest during the two days, saying that I’d basically signed him up as a “good thing” for his personal and professional development and he wasn’t as invested in the programme as I was. I had made the classic manager-training mistake of sending a direct report on training that they weren’t really interested in.

Luckily the workshop was really good and Mike soon became invested in the process and as the outcomes for our professional relationship were revealing and insightful it was an obvious thing to do to continue this.


We set aside 90 minutes mid-morning on a Friday to do this. I thought this would give us time to do some bits and pieces in the morning before coming together before lunch time.

Mike and I work geographically remote from each other and use Skype instant messaging and voice call a lot. We planned to use Skype video call in this instance to get the visual feedback and feeling from each other. In future weeks we’ll plan to be working in the same location to do this together.

Both of us had thought a little bit about what we should discuss but hadn’t put any rigid agenda in place. In another instance, with different people, this might be more appropriate.

We decided to continue the conversation and approach from the workshop, which was to reflect on our working week – what we had been working on and achieved – then move into focusing on our communication and working relationship, finishing with some wild writing.


Mike and I chatted through our working week in summary to update each other. This segued nicely into our communication and working relationship. It was a bit of a meta analysis really – revisiting some of the discussions we had and understanding what we thought the other person thought and how we handled it. In most instances we were spot on with what we were picking up and how we dealt with it. It was good to revisit though and make sure.

Mike comments on this part of the process that:

“It was very interesting to discuss the working week but with a mindset of the goal we had in place for the reflection; analysing working tasks and focusing on the aspect of our communication and relationship floated some thoughts to the surface. These were how we could improve – that otherwise would have remained out of sight”.

One of the elements we discussed during the workshop was our communication, bearing in mind we are working remotely from each other. We already had great communication, but there’s also always room for improvement. Certainly on my part I’d made much more effort to explain my thinking and give more detail to any tasks I’d asked Mike to do. We think very similarly and that strength can be taken advantage of and turn into a weakness.

The focus turned to more of the relationship and how we work together. Largely it was all fine and positive with no major issues. What was interesting is that it was an hour into the conversation of “this is fine, this is good, this worked well” that we actually got through some layers into a fundamental assumption that was manifesting in a certain way.

Virtual team communication

With regards more regular Skype instant messaging, and the type and tone of conversation there, Mike had made the assumption of “Jo is busy, so I won’t bother her” whereas had he been sitting next me, he would have seen I wasn’t on a call or a virtual classroom session and just said “hey, what do you think of this?”. It might have been a two minute conversation – this is something we were missing out on by working remotely.

Without having this Reflection Friday we might not have had this conversation or got to this point of detail. It allowed me to understand why there was a very small but pertinent barrier in our communications. It gave me the opportunity to update Mike’s thinking to explain how I like to work and then we discussed trying a different way of working in the future.

This is the reason this reflective practice is so important, virtual team or not. 

Wild writing

We got to the point where we had talked about doing some Wild Writing – where you just keep writing and see what comes out. We’d done some in the workshop and I thought it was a technique we should continue.

Mike had suggested he felt that we’d had “wild conversation” and that we’d pretty much covered what we needed and didn’t feel that the activity would be of great benefit. All well reasoned and very reasonable.

I made the suggestion that this time was for building reflective practice, trying new things, that we’d gotten benefit from it on the workshop and we should try it. If we decided it wasn’t working, we didn’t have to continue.

So we did! We mute ourselves but left webcams on and tried it out.

Mike wrote on paper, I used Notepad on the computer and typed (no spelling or grammar mistakes would be highlighted with red squiggles to distract me!). I found I was typing a lot of “and now what else shall I say”.

I also found it interesting to do this typing whereas last time I was writing with a pen. This was part of my wild writing: “it’s almost like I want to think of it before I write it maybe it’s because I’m typing… that I can type quicker than when I think and write with a pen”.

We had some discussion after the writing. Mike had reiterated the conversation we’d already had, which I saw as good confirmation that he was happy and there wasn’t a lot else going on.

I had some things I reflected on personally, plus focusing on the work I say yes to and how I focus on the best work and projects for the business moving forwards.

I found it useful to go through a short version of this activity – just maybe five minutes writing and five minutes debrief between us. It’s taken me longer to blog about it than do it!

Mike’s thoughts on it:

“After initially thinking I had already covered everything in the conversation I was dubious what extra value would come from the wild writing. Once done it quickly highlighted the main points and stressed the need to move through with them. It was also interesting that Jo had come up with some personal reflections that also helped my understanding from her side.”

Next steps

We’ll share more as our practice develops. So far, it’s been a nice way to start rounding off the week. It’s been personally insightful, as well as for the working relationship with Mike.

I’d love to read your thoughts and comments on what you can take away from what we’ve shared, and also perhaps what you are doing too!

Delivery virtual classroom training – baby steps to confident strides

“Would you be interested in delivering virtuals?”

I shuddered.

I wanted to do something different and here was a relatively new client offering something. Virtuals? I was concerned about me vs technology and thought it might be boring, talking to a void, changing slides every couple of minutes.

Then it dawned on me. It could be fun. I can do this from home. We live in the Scottish Highlands. I enjoy the travelling and love face-to-face delivery and here was an opportunity to augment it with some home working. “OK, I’ll give it a go.”

Getting prepared for the virtual classroom

Three tutorials to get me up to speed. Remember your first driving lesson? All those things to do at once, just to get the car to move, never mind driving it safely. That is how it felt. I had two great tutors, who gave me confidence before I felt it. Then it was time for practice on my own and with trusted partners. It felt like spinning plates and juggling wearing boxing gloves!

The day came for my assessment. I figured if I wrote everything down that I had to do with the technology in sequence, that would be a start. Then remembered that I have a webcam and they can see my face when I fumble with the controls.

Oh, and delivering some training at the same time, with the added extras of speaking even more clearly and calmly, sounding assured enough to inspire confidence in participants. Finally, remembering to find out how they are going to use the learning at the end of the session.

Building on the skills

I passed the assessment. Since then I have had plenty of practice. Just like driving, the many individual acts have become habitual, with a large slice of consciousness.

What I have learned is that getting to grips with the technology increases your confidence and helps you transfer that confidence to the delegates, some of whom may be wary of virtual learning. Learning to make the odd unnoticed mistake and deal with it seamlessly has helped me.

Knowing that if anything technical goes wrong, there is almost always a solution at your fingertips. For the webcam, I make sure your light is good for the delegate view. Keep a crib guide close to hand.

And make sure you breathe, relax and enjoy it! People keep asking me about running virtuals, often with the wariness I had two years ago. It is fun, challenging in different ways and a great way to make learning more accessible.


About our guest blogger

Paul Tran is Director of PT Performance Solutions Ltd. He designs and delivers face-to-face and virtual training in communication, change and management and personal development.

Based in the Scottish Highlands, Paul works throughout the UK & Ireland. Client feedback describes Paul’s training as interactive, informative, engaging and practical. Paul is a qualified coach, Master Practitioner of NLP and Licensed Facilitator of SDI.


What is it like to facilitate a live video broadcast?

I’ve worked with the Charity Learning Consortium for a little while and whilst chatting with CEO and Founder Martin Baker, we somehow came up with the mad idea to live broadcast the presentations from a members meeting in London, up to the members in Scotland, so that everyone is included without the time and cost of travel.

You can read here about some plans we had before the day.

Fast forward a lot of work from a lot of people, and we were D-day!

The live streaming broadcast was TV quality and provided by Colin Steed of Learning Now TV.

I flew to Edinburgh to be the local facilitator. This is an important role to make sure that both geographies were connected. In an ideal world, we would get the full experience of the speakers in London. If all failed, it was my job to make sure that the Scottish members still had a great learning day. No pressure!

It’s not just me and the CLC that were excited, the Scottish members were too!


Setting up the technology

It’s a separate blog post to focus on the specifics of the technology we used, how it worked together (or didn’t!) and the various plans we went through before it was working.

Whilst we had planned, discussed, researched and tested, obviously when you are at the venues with all the variables, things are different. There were also bits of technology we weren’t able to test before hand as well as assumptions made that we didn’t realise about – as always!

It took about 90 minutes or more to get both London and Scotland events set up ready for the live stream. This included Colin recording and the live stream, the communication between Scotland and London, and the connection Scotland to London.

In London we had the CLC’s Harri Le Claire on to be our Scotland voice. In Scotland there was me to facilitate with everyone as well as setup all of the technology. Louise Houston was the CLC representative as well as supporting me in the facilitation and communication with Harri. Complicated? A bit. The important part was the right communication all round.

Long story short – whilst the live streaming from London to Edinburgh was working, we couldn’t get decent video and audio the other way round. As I say, that’s another blog post on what we tried, learned and what we could do next time.


The streaming experience for attendees

I think I meant a “quick” brain quiz!


Facilitating the streaming experience

Again it’s the topic of another blog to go into the detailed nuts and bolts of how I facilitated the day. At it’s best, I was there to smooth the ride between the live streamed sessions and make sure that the technology kept working.

However we all know that technology doesn’t necessarily behave!

When there was enough bandwidth at the London venue the streaming worked brilliantly – the LNTV broadcast visual and audio were excellent. The audio we had in the Scotland room was set up really well so it was good quality.

I had local copies of the slides and a second computer/screen setup to display those for the local attendees. When Colin was first filming the speakers he was focusing on their upper body and face, so we got a got quality picture of them, which was great. However as we didn’t have any technology that allowed mirrored slides (so that when the speaker clicked next in London, we saw the same in Scotland) I had to do that locally. And I couldn’t always see when they changed slide!

Once we realised this, we got Colin to zoom out. The attendees in Scotland really appreciated seeing a bit more of the context and I could follow on better too. There are technical options where we could have done this. However what we decided to do, knowing this was a huge first, was to focus on doing a couple of things well and not over-complicating the use of technology.

There were some other challenges with the slides – such as speakers changing them last minute and me not having the right slides. I also had some local problems in showing them, which was entirely due to me trying to do two or three things on one laptop. Eventually I dedicated one to just slides and it worked much better.

When the live stream failed, which it did, it was my job to keep things going in Scotland. As I jumped up I joked the first time, “this is where I earn my money”.

I had the slides locally and had prepared beforehand, so I knew what was being covered. Also we planned ahead on all the activities so not only did we have the right materials in Scotland, but I also knew how to facilitate them and we could feed back to London too.

The local facilitation model we used worked really well. The delegates said that, had they been at home/work and just watching the live stream, after a certain number of problems they would have logged out. By having me and Louise from the CLC all in a room together, not only could I continue delivering the content, but also we could have conversation together.

This was a significant challenge for me as a facilitator. We had speakers covering topics on engagement, internal communications and neuroscience, as well as shorter lightening talks on a variety of subjects, and some CLC member specific updates. I had to be prepared to step in on any or all of these and deliver value. I couldn’t have done that without Louise, as she knew the CLC-specific material, whereas I focused on the L&D elements.

There was only one presentation I felt I didn’t cover well when we had more serious streaming issues in the afternoon. Whilst I had prepared and looked at the slides, I hadn’t done the extra research that meant I was super confidant.

We got through it fine, it certainly wasn’t a failure, but it highlighted how important this role is to be prepared in depth and breadth. Louise and I thought that, next time, the CLC staff member would concentrate more on the shorter presentations and the facilitator on the larger L&D topics, so both played to their strengths.

Several of the delegates said a version of, “we’re all trainers; none of us wanted to be standing where you were!”. That made me feel better.

Whilst the day as a whole was a stressful one and I had to keep many plates spinning, all of which were wobbling, there was only one moment where I truly started to hyperventilate. The live stream of the neuroscience session failed, so I had to start that off. I knew the speaker, Gary Luffman, so I could do him a certain amount of justice as an introduction. Whilst I’m no brain expert, I know enough to facilitate a session.

The hyperventilating started when even my local slides failed on me and I had nothing to refer to and nothing for the delegates to see. Whilst PowerPoint slides aren’t everything, in the moment, it was one fail too many! Luckily breathing kicked in, I made light of it, realised what the technical issue was and got that fixed very quickly, and then the live stream started working again. And I sat down and relaxed!

All my webinar, live event hosting, technical knowledge and facilitation experience was drawn upon that day!

At the end of the day we did a short Periscope live video broadcast with some of the Scottish attendees on what they thought:



Were there technical issues? Yes, of course. The live streaming from the London venue was troublesome due to bandwidth and other technical issues, despite our work with the venues ahead of time.

Were there local technical issues in Scotland? Again, yes of course! You can plan and prep all you like, but then in a different venue and doing it live, it’s always different.

Was it stressful? Hell yes! But, it was also fun and a great learning experience and I enjoyed the challenge of bringing it all together.

Did people learn something and get value from the day? Also yes. There was an acceptance of the experimental nature of the live broadcasting we were doing. People were just happy that they didn’t have to travel from Scotland down to London. Not only did that save people effort and time (I basically had most of the day before getting to Scotland and got home very late the night we delivered), but it saved the cost and time out of work/life too.

Delegate feedback from the Scottish attendees about yours truly:

  • Having Jo and Louise available
  • Having Jo and Louise here to fill in when IT was an issue. Still felt part of London event
  • Jo was great to make the conference more ‘real’ and keep us engaged
  • Jo was fabulous as always – both as a facilitator and managing the tech
  • Jo’s facilitation was fab x2
  • Jo the facilitator was fantastic, kept the event lively + discussion going despite the tech glitches – well done!
  • Good but IT failed 🙁 Jo was great 🙂
  • Jo the facilitator was fantastic, kept the event lively + discussion going despite the tech glitches – well done!

And lastly, Louise Houston and I had an exhausted but happy journey back down south!

Reflections on modern learning

I’ve written a few blog posts about being a modern learning leader (links at the end).

This one is some reflections on what a modern learning leader is, which has been prompted by attending the Modern Learning Leader workshop, hosted by Sukh Pabial.

Humour – your superpower?

The two day workshop was a lot of collaboration, sharing and supporting each other. It actually got quite deep, personal and meaningful. An excellent balance for this was humour, so there were lots of laughs too.

This started well in the day, as you can see these tweets:


There were a range of topics that the cohort looked at in webinars ahead of the workshop. What we remembered were added to post-it notes and formed a great place to look back and prompt conversations over the two day workshop.

The discussions

What we covered and how we covered was fascinating. We started with what Sukh referred to as a “contracting piece” on how we wanted to work during the day. This wasn’t a simple “rules for how we communicate”, but was actually a conversation over an hour, relating to some of the things we read in the books as part of the programme, about how we can help each other.

As Sukh commented, this was two days and we had the time do this, in other programmes that might not be appropriate. We also had a very small group of four people, all experienced professionals.

The conversations were broad and wide-ranging, sometimes focusing on the topics from the knowledge webinars, sometimes on questions we had where we wanted to understand or learn more knowledge either from Sukh or each other in our respective specialist areas and with our experiences.

Above shows one of the questions I offered to other people to think about when discussing with their stakeholders about learning solutions.

Another powerful question that came up at the end of day two was “is there actually a problem?” and from that things like “who is it a problem for?” and more.


Sukh built reflection into the programme, including this flip chart as a starting prompt for us:

People thought and made their notes in their own way. I did mine as a blog – a pretty raw one at that. I gave myself the liberty not to read it back nor worry too much about the technical issues of blogging. You can read it here if you want.

This is a Periscope live video broadcast reviewing the end of day one:

Go wild

On day two we began with another reflection piece, utilising the technique of wild writing.

This was a great technique, where you just keep writing without stopping, to see what comes out. Not worrying about spelling, grammar or even making sense. It’s useful to get out what’s in your head, sometimes without even realising what you knew or where thinking.

Green space

Part of the programme was to work on some projects that were top of mind for us, different for each person.

Michael and I work together at Lightbulb Moment, so we worked together on this. We started with one project, that was a specific part of the business we are building and working on. After working through some discomfort, I soon realised our project should be something different and that focusing our discussion elsewhere was, actually, more or less what we had done most of the time.

A Periscope live video broadcast of Michael and I discussing our thoughts:

Kevin has his own revelations, including see some things in the space where we are which resonated with him:

At the end of the day, after more in-depth discussions around what we were working on, we highlighted what we had got out of such an in-depth discursive programme:

And a group Persicope rounding it up:

Sukh ran a light-touch programme in terms of his design and facilitation, which gave us the room to use the time as was right for all of us.

The things I’m taking away for Lightbulb Moment is more focus on my own self-development, and that of anyone associated with the business, and time for creative thinking and reflection.

Let’s see how it goes!

Modern learning leader programme reflctive practice

This was an “in the moment” reflective blog. Read more about the workshop here. Please note, I didn’t re-read this, just published raw thoughts!

It’s after lunch and Sukh Pabial is giving us quit tim to reflect, which I’m making noises in with my typing.

Sukh has provided this flip chart to help us think about our thoughts, ask these questions, if they arre relevant, then then decide if there is an action from that thought.

What I have experinced in the workshop so far this morning is actually the list of som of those words. An environment, with other professionals, that is interesting, helpful, challenging, supportive an more.

Before lunch we needed to think about what we wanted for the rest of the day. So many of us are so indoctrinated into the school classroom modality of sitting and listening to the expert, or being told which activity to do, that we expect that. Whilst I didn’t expect that approach from Sukh, I know him too well for that, it did leave me at a loss for what I epected from the programme. What is the tangible thing I want.

What struck me was how much I’m enjoying the challenging and supportive conversations we are all having. Me helping someone else is helping me. Sukh reflecting back my language allows me to expriment with something else. Me dominating the conversation allows me to get what I need, as it does when someone else does.

So, reflection. Time. That’s what I have experienced and that’s what I want more of.