Talent   //   May 7, 2021

Influencers are creating million-dollar incomes selling their expertise via online courses

Online learning has entered a new era, and it has higher production values. More and more digital creatives with large audiences — from YouTubers to bloggers to podcasters — are launching cohort-based group courses.

Intensive and influencer-led, the cohorts usually last four to six weeks. A place costs between $200 and $6,000 per person, and each new edition attracts 200+ learners from all over the world. They cover subjects like writing online, research and knowledge management, and getting started on YouTube. The most successful cohorts sell out in less than 24 hours, generating millions of dollars for the course creator.

David Perell teaches people how to write online and expand their professional network in his Write of Passage course. He markets primarily through Twitter, where he has an audience of 183,000 — built by sharing writing advice every day on the platform for years. Tiago Forte attracted his audience by blogging about personal knowledge management, leading to his cohort course Building a Second Brain. More than 40,000 people subscribe to each of these creators’ weekly newsletters.

There are no sponsorships or brand partnerships involved, and the courses aren’t hosted on intermediary platforms like Skillshare or Masterclass — though some creators use these subscription platforms for visibility and reach among online learners. Instead, creators use a stack of software products they own and control. Without a middleman, the creator shoulders more responsibility but also reaps more of the rewards.

Ali Abdaal is a productivity YouTuber with 1.5 million followers. His Part-Time YouTuber Academy cohort course teaches learners how to launch a YouTube channel as a side project, as he did. Delivery blends live lectures, Q&As, online communities and self-paced video content. He’s built a team to help him manage the courses and, together, they iterate relentlessly between cohorts to improve the product.

Last year, Abdaal’s maker business generated over $1.3 million in revenue. “If 400 people join a cohort, I can make a million dollars in just a few days. That’s a flabbergasting level of revenue compared to every other part of my business,” he said. “The course makes significantly more money than anything. I think that’s a marker of its value and impact.” 

Influencers are, of course, masters of content creation. With many classes now online, university lectures exist just one browser tab away from them. “I studied medicine at Cambridge. Everybody I know used digital content to study for their degree,” said Abdaal. “Online learning through platforms like YouTube was already a big part of how students, even at prestigious universities, learned their course material and revised for exams before the pandemic.”

Online university courses had already risen in popularity before the pandemic. In its aftermath, a range of elite institutions from Princeton to Spelman College have created fully online offerings and slashed tuition fees. Following this disruption, could new cohort courses soon pose a challenge in preparing learners for the world of work and business? 

Universities may struggle to compete with the production quality of creators’ content and the FOMO effect of joining an influencer’s cohort, but they enjoy other advantages: their brand name, history and alumni list. The prestige still sways people, but institutions must consider what learners value in their educational experience and evolve their online content to align with it.

“Cohort-based online courses are exploding and creating a diverse ecosystem of nontraditional learning opportunities. The last decade has created alternatives for individuals to upskill and reskill that aren’t so dependent on colleges and universities,” says Michael Horn, senior strategist at Guild Education, an education consultancy working with Fortune 1000 companies. “The explosion of choices makes for a much more dynamic and fast-changing market that is creating more opportunities for learners to learn almost anything in new ways.”

Anne-Laure Le Cunff is founder of Ness Labs, an online community focused on mindfulness productivity. She shares neuroscience-based strategies for self-improvement to an audience of 29,000 in her Maker Mind newsletter each week. Le Cunff has run her own cohort-based courses in the past, and she’s currently a student in Abdaal’s YouTuber Academy.

The influencer running a cohort course may be what convinces learners to buy in, but Le Cunff believes a large audience isn’t the only factor people consider. “It’s about expertise more than being an influencer with a big following,” she says. “What Ali is doing works because he’s a genuine expert in what he’s teaching. People are looking for that credibility from an online teacher.”

Learning outcomes are also important. Most cohort course landing pages emphasize past students’ success with testimonials and endorsements. “This allows you to investigate what others have achieved through the program before buying,” Le Cunff adds. “You aren’t just learning the ideas, but using a framework to put everything into action. I’ve already seen good progress myself: I have 2,400 YouTube subscribers after just a few weeks.”

Brands and universities can take a variety of lessons from the influencer approach to online education, especially from emerging names in the space. Dickie Bush launched his first cohort course, Ship 30 For 30 priced at $250 per learner, as a side project last year. Since then, he’s built a Twitter following of 23,000 from scratch, following David Perell’s same model of sharing advice for aspiring writers on the platform.

“My focus is on helping people address common pain points as they build a writing habit and start publishing. These areas are rarely talked about in most courses,” Bush explains. “The biggest value-add, though, is the community. Learners support each other through continuous feedback, accountability and collaboration. We try to create a culture of action and iteration, the same values that power the course itself.”

People once followed influencers for their lifestyle. In today’s world of online learning, they are following them for their knowledge instead. And it seems that digestible, internet-ready expertise is a much more lucrative path.