Experiments in the economics of online courses and Pay Per Click

Formula SchoolOver the past month or so I have decided to dabble in the world of online learning. At the moment I have a Microsoft Office tutorials site which gets some pretty hefty traffic… and whilst it does generate some advertising revenue via Google Adsense, it certainly isn’t anything to write home about. I have been wondering how can I better monetise “how to” content and the idea of a structured, interactive online course came to mind. Something substantial that an individual can invest their own money in, but without the 300 pages of writing that goes with a “how to” or “dummies” book.

Over my Christmas holidays I decided to give it a try. In hindsight writing this about a month later I made a ton of mistakes! See if you can pick them J

Is there are market? Keyword traffic forecast analysis in Google Adwords

Keeping within my Microsoft Office training niche, I looked at different types of keyword phrases to understand how much traffic could be generated. In the world of Office, the product most people struggle with and seek help for is Excel… by an order of magnitude! Sorry Outlook and Word, but I am not wasting time producing any of that content! Excel it is! I further refined my keyword and traffic forecast searches and noticed that Excel Formulas and Functions in particular had some significant traffic spikes. That topic space was something I was comfortable building a course around… and within 5 minutes I had picked “my niche” – Formula School

And… running those numbers – for only $50 per day I could generate over 5000 clicks to my site! Converting at 1%?? Man this thing is going to smash my bank account and I can retire in a matter of weeks! As it turns out, nothing is that easy.

Over the course of two days I built my first course for Formula School using the CoursePress Pro WordPress plugin. Originally I called it the very boring… Formulas 101. I slapped a price on it. $47. The science behind the pricing? None… I purchased the SSL Certificate, set up the payment gateway (Stripe) I put the finishing touches on my online Excel video course and hit publish! Now to turn on that PPC advertising money making machine!

Going broad vs going very very very laser focused specific

My first mistake – thinking I would pick every low competition keyword there is so I can pay 1c per click and keep a huge margin on the course I build. 1000 keywords all related to Excel and Excel Formulas. Well, the lesson I learned here is that low competition is low competition generally for a reason – because the traffic doesn’t convert. Sure… I got lots of traffic. But I ended up paying a hefty price. With my budget set at $50 per day, and my maximise click bid strategy in place, very quickly I saw $150 simply disappear. And not a single PPC conversion. All traffic is not created equal!

I managed to offset that cost with a few signups generated from my email list over at The New Paperclip. But based on those numbers this was not going to be very self-sufficient.

So I decided to get very specific and look for exact query / key matches (instead of the broad matches which AdWords will do by default). All of a sudden the traffic stopped. All except for one keyword phrase which to be honest was the least transaction orientated keyword in the entire list.

I settled on a partial match strategy, with a bid price set low (but not too low) and a refined list of about 50 keywords. This resulted in a nice steady stream of traffic – 20-30 clicks per day. I thought the tortoise might win this race!

As it turns out, I was still using low competition keywords, and they just were not attracting the people with buying intention. This is a really important point. Using PPC I am wanting to shorten my sales cycle. To do that the folk jumping in the top of the funnel (doing the search on Google) need to be as qualified as possible before they get to my site. I can control that to some extent based on the keywords I include in the scope of the campaign.

So now I am running a campaign with online course transaction oriented keywords – most of which are high competition with suggested bids in excess of $9 or $10. I am bidding a number of cents. I am not interested in all traffic as quickly as possible – I am happy to ride this out a bit and see how things go as the right traffic trickles in. It is early days yet, but based on early figures this seems to be the winning strategy!

Improving the copy and conversion on the course “sales page”

Back to the name of the course – Formulas 101. How lame is that. 30 days on I am kicking myself I threw all that money away on PPC with the most uninspiring course title on the planet. I needed to look at some landing page optimisation. My PPC ads were pointing to the home page of my site – Formula School – and not the course page where they could sign up and pay for the course. Looking at my Google Analytics data – 80% of the traffic was stopping at that homepage and not event getting to the course page where the sign up button is. Ugh – first things first before we change the title of the course, how about we cut that unnecessary step out of the sales process by pointing all the PPC ads to the course signup page.

Next challenge – the course name. I went old school headline copywriting on this one… “Who else wants to know the secret to Excel Formulas“. Yep. A marketing angel died when I wrote that – but I am sure it will convert 1000x better than Formulas 101. Knowing the old Ogilvy quote that “80% of readers will engage only with the headline” – I think this is the most important optimisation I can make at the moment. Sure there is plenty more to do but I want to focus on the high impact changes at the moment.

Has the experiment been a success?

The jury is still out. I am pretty much at break even point at the moment thanks to the email sign ups – however in the long term that isn’t sustainable and the organic or PPC traffic needs to kick in. When it comes to organic traffic to be honest I have not don’t much off site SEO as yet which will play a factor in the future. But for PPC I have started to look at the data and refine my strategy over time which will pay dividends quickly.

Podcast: My Top 10 non-Excel Microsoft Office tips for Managers

I had the pleasure this week of being a guest on one of the most popular Microsoft Office podcasts in the world – Chandoo.org’s Excel PodCast. (click here to go to episode 17 where I am featured)

Chandoo and I crossed paths online a few weeks ago and as it turns out I have basically found my clone from both a professional, and personal point of view. We spent about 90 minutes on the phone – first discussing how our paths crossed, and then I shared my top 10 no-Excel MS Office tips for Managers and Analysts.

The first 22 minutes is all about:

Then for the last hour we get into the meat of the podcast for – my list of the Top 10 non-Excel MS Office tips for managers or analysts

I would love to hear your feedback (in the comments below) – this is the first time I have appeared as a guest on a podcast (and… um… I like… um realise that I aaagh and um a lot!). If you like Chandoo’s style – make sure you subscribe to his podcast and check out some of his earlier episodes.

Other options to subscribe

Follow Eric Lefkofsky for more info.

Sick leave 101: Online housekeeping in 2 hours or less

Today I have spent most of the day trying to get over a horrible man-flu – given to me by my wonderful children!  Unfortunately when I am on sick leave the boredom kicks in pretty quickly and I tend to gravitate online to to keep occupied.  Here is what I did today…

Step 1 – look for inspiration

This step is pretty easy… since I missed out on my usual feed of podcast content whilst commuting to work, I had a quick scout around the web looking at some inspirational content from some of my favourite authors like Steve Sammartino, Tom Peters, Seth Godin.… and listening to a few podcasts from the likes James Altucher, and the crew at Beers, Blokes, Business

Lots of good content there to knock a chesty cough for six!

Step 2 – inspiration into actions

A consistent theme across all of those authors/channels was that it is really important to take control of your work online.  Now you can unpack that a number of different ways – but the things that I took away from it were:

  1. You should own your name online.
    Not LinkedIn, not Twitter, not Facebook.  At the moment in my part of the world this blog which sits at http://www.paul-woods.com is on the second page of results for Paul Woods – yep – I am a NOBODY!  My Linkedin profile, Twitter feed and Facebook timeline all rank higher.   This needs to change!
  2. You should own the content you produce online. 
    I have a few blogs around the place – some lie very dormant (like this one has for a while), some are quite low maintenance – like my Microsoft Office tips and tricks blog – whilst some a quite fresh like my new site where I am documenting the things I learn about my new Zoom H4n Handy Recorder.  Across just the three blogs mentioned above, I have written over 400 pieces of content in the past 8 or 9 years – a small back catalog of good (and not so good) content.  But according to Google, you couldn’t really attribute that content to me.  This needs to change!
  3. You should own your future
    Today, I have a great job where I have developed over time and had the opportunity to do some truly amazing things, and learn from some amazing people.  For example over the past four years I have been given enough rope and support to create a business inside the larger corporate machine – and have experienced the good and the bad of raw intrapreneurship – where I transformed what was simply a hobby – my Office tips and tricks blog into a “7 figure, profitable, employing a team of people” business.  But I know for sure that I will not still working at the same place when I retire at 40/50/65/70/80.   To survive/be comfortable in the future, where businesses are redefining what work is for the middle class… you can’t pretend to rely on employment forever.  I have been pretty comfortable to date.  This needs to change!

Step 3 – actions into execution

Yep… all of that needs to change.  But what is the first step?  Good question.  I thought I would share what I have done in the past 2 hours to kick start “turning the ship around”

  1. Wrote this article!  And committed to myself (and you) to write more articles like it which are more focused on where I want to be tomorrow.
  2. Ensured that I had some basic Search Engine Optimisation occurring on my WordPress blogs.  In this case I simply used the All-in-one SEO Pack for WordPress and London SEO Agency which does some pretty nifty things out of the box, but one thing in particular that I like is that it made it really easy for me to set up…
  3. Google Authorship.  Clearly identifying Paul Woods as the author of stuff that Paul Woods has created online.  This meant getting familiar with something that (to be honest) I had disregarded in the past – Google+.  Whilst there is little value for me in circles at the moment (as not many of my friends or family are there) – the fact that my Google profile acts as the glue between all my content – both text and video – is a good thing.
  4. 30 minutes Exploring other ways to raise / curate my profile and learn at the same time.   Top of the list was becoming a “author” – well as close to an author you can be without a publisher behind you.  I am thinking about taking some of the best content from my Office tips and tricks blog and turning it into a easy to consume Amazon Kindle title.  It will take some work, but a “as traditional as you can almost get” book published via Amazon.com is a great artifact that adds credibility to your story, what ever it is.  You can help me craft the first title by filling in this quick survey

So there you have it – 120 minutes of time that I let my body and mind rest from work, and applied some creative thought to the world I live in.  A little bit of future proofing for the years ahead.  You should give it a go too next time you are unwell and trying to stop the spread man flu and your addiction to a regular salary.

Paul W

Nigel Marsh on Work-life Balance

One of my favourite videos from TED… this presentation by Nigel Marsh at TEDx Sydney is an interesting perspective on the idea of practical work-life balance.  Managing your boundary between work and home, and how small changes in your approach to your day can positively influence your relationship with your family, and yourself.


What small changes are you planning to make today to swing the balance back in your favour?