To be Free or Not to Be Free? That is the Question.
Free online courses abound. When you are thinking about creating an online course the option to price it for free is one of the first big decisions you’ll need to make. This is true whether you are new to course creation or launching a new course topic. On one hand, it seems everyone is creating courses “for free” – there must be a good reason for doing this, right? On the other hand, you will be putting a lot of time and effort into creating your course (a pre-requisite for success!). You will want to see a return on that investment.
So should you offer your online course for free? Why or why not?
In this article we lay out some arguments for creating and offering a free online course and offer reasons why you might or might not consider doing so. We’ve also crunched some numbers using our Teachinguide platform in an effort to validate or invalidate some of these arguments.
The “Rules” for Offering Free Online Courses
Before we discuss the pro’s and con’s of offering free online courses, let’s be clear about Udemy’s rules concerning these. They will come into play in your decision.
- No direct marketing to your students is allowed for free online courses.
- You can convert free online course to paid only once
Arguments “for” Offer a Free Online Course
There are several broad, overarching reasons for offering an online course for free that get thrown around by industry experts and instructors on blogs, forums and such.
Free courses create awareness of your course and you as an instructor
The main idea of offering a course for free is of course to generate traffic. Everybody wants something for free. The premise is that doing so generates traffic and leads that can be used for marketing and other purposes later on. But is this true?
On Udemy, it may not be. Free courses on Udemy are almost always at the bottom of search rankings for a given category. Why? Because rankings are based primarily on reviews, or “engagement”. Free courses typically have lower engagement.
Teachinguide’s analysis of “engagement” for free courses on Udemy shows that engagement for paid courses is nearly three times more than for free online courses. The average engagement for free courses is about 2.55% vs. 8.4% for paid.
In addition, ranking is based on the number of minutes that students take your course. Again, free courses fall short here. On average on Udemy, free courses are about 2.4 hours long, vs. 3.8 hours for paid courses. This should come as no surprise. Obviously if you are paying for something you expect more. However, the lack of minutes for free course will affect rankings.
Finally, in Udemy, free courses are unable to showcase attention grabbing “badges” such as “Hot and New”, “Best Seller” or “Highest Rated”. This will affect to a certain extent user interest in your free course.
Our point here is that it is important to remember that Udemy wants you to “sell” courses. That is how they make money. And as of 2017 Udemy began ranking free courses lower. Now they hardly ever appear on the Udemy home page and are no longer featured. Thus, we can assume that free courses drive less awareness than they used to.
Free courses drive enrollments for your course
Enrollment is of course the goal for any course creator. So it can be tempting to use the “free” option to rack up enrollments. As we mentioned, on Udemy you get one chance to switch your course from free to paid. Therefore, many online course creators treat a free course offering as a kind of lead magnet to attract enrollments. Then when critical mass is reached, they change to paid status.
We took a look at Udemy enrollment statistics in our Teachinguide database and here is what we found:
- Enroll on average 450 new students per month
- The highest enrollments are for the best Udemy instructor courses with about 20,000 enrollments per month.
- Enroll on average 65 new students per month.
- Hot topics enroll more. Python, a very hot topic averages over 200 new students per month, but some courses on Python reach as high as 15,000 new enrollments per month.
It follows that on average, free courses DO drive more enrollments – BUT as soon as you switch your course’s status to paid, you can expect a drop-in enrollment. Therefore, you really have to time your switch from free to paid correctly to maximize the contribution of those free enrollments. Because despite having 450 new students per month potentially, remember that you earn $0 on those students. There are however, other ways to monetize these free students and we will get to that later.
To try and further ascertain the impact of free courses on enrollments and overall course success, we looked at some of the most successful Udemy instructors to see what percent of their overall courses were free. Here are some results:
|Instructor /Category||Students||Number of Free Courses / Total Courses|
|Jose Portilla||1.2 million||No free courses – 0%|
|Bryan Guerra / Digital Marketing and eCommerce||142,000||4 free out of 39 – 10%|
|John Purcell||1.3 million||5 free out of 12 – 42%|
|Phil Ebiner||745,000||7 free out of 69 – 10%|
As you can see, the numbers are inconclusive. Ranging from 0% free courses to 42% for virtually the same number of enrollments. Yet all four of these instructors are earning a significant income from online courses. It goes to say that enrollment numbers, while important, do not necessarily validate the argument for or against offering your course for free.
Free online courses help convert students to paid users
We all understand the purpose of a lead magnet in today’s digital marketing world. Using free courses as a lead magnet is perhaps the most sensible argument in favor of offering your course for nothing.
Even though Udemy will not allow you to directly contact students enrolled in your free course, there are ways to circumvent this rule and obtain valuable leads and conversions from your free course. Here are a few:
- Sell other courses you have created, or follow on courses within the content of your free course. You can include coupon codes for future courses or other ones you have created in a “final bonus lecture” for example.
- Wait until you have enough enrollments to gain momentum, say, more than 2,000. Then switch your free course to paid status. At that point, you can begin sending promotional email announcements to all of your students.
- Make your free course a “minicourse”, or introduction to your more advanced courses. If the content in your free course is valuable enough and high quality, students are more likely to enroll in your follow on advanced course.
Free online courses can be monetized in other ways
Following on the lead magnet argument, free online courses can in fact provide you with other income opportunities besides selling the course for a price.
Some instructors use free courses to do affiliate marketing. In their free course they will recommend products or services that they have an affiliation with. For example, in a standardized test prep course, the instructor could offer coupons codes for other test prep products and services.
New job gigs and customers
Some professionals use online course to attract attention and generate leads for actual work and contracts or to sell products. A writer might create a free course on writing in order to generate inquiries for writing gigs, to promote a blog, or to promote a book. A subject matter expert might use free courses to generate more speaker and training gigs. And so forth.
Promote your paid online courses and website located elsewhere
If you have paid courses or other products and services on your own platform, you can publish a portion of those on Udemy for free. Again in a bonus lecture, simply invite students to take the next step and check out your platform, subscribe to your blog, etc.
Free online courses serve as your MVP – minimum viable product
In competitive arenas such as technology where competition is steep and things move quickly, it is common to develop a product to a minimally accepted level and then put it on the market. The intent is to generate real user feedback which is then used to improve the product and subsequently charge more for the new, improved version.
The same argument can be made for offering your online course for free. Doing so will allow you to quickly generate users and feedback, which you can use to improve the course content and structure before charging a more serious price for it.
The only issue with this strategy is that quite often, people enrolled in free courses either never finish the course or don’t leave feedback. Nevertheless it is a reason to consider offering your course for free, particularly if you are new to course creation or the topic that you are presenting.
Arguments Against Offering Your Course for Free
We’ve mentioned previously a few counter arguments to offering your course for free, such as low rankings. Following are a few more key arguments against offering free courses:
You’ll leave money on the table or lose It
Obviously free courses in general don’t generate any money initially. The main argument is that later on you will see a return on this investment of time and money. But is this true?
In our previous example, Jose Portilla, one of the most successful Udemy instructors with over 500,000 students, has never offered a course for free. Why? Because his courses are high on content and value. His topic is one of the most in demand topics on Udemy.
So offering a course for free may not be necessary when there is such high demand and the quality is good. Doing so is simply not necessary to generate future sales, and in the process you might forego some income.
People will perceive the content as low value
We’ve covered this concept in our previous article on 5 Strategies for Making Your Online Course Competitive. People believe that you get what you pay for. So from a branding perspective, offering your course free of charge may not be the best tactic. By pricing your course for free, you risk sending the message to students that you don’t have confidence in the value of your course content.
A potential student may thus decide to pay $50 for a similar course, or wait for a coupon promotion on a premium priced course that is perceived to have value, rather than take a perceived risk or waste time on your course that they perceive to provide less valuable content. Therefore many argue that a better strategy would be to price your course relatively high. Then use free coupons to give your course away.
This argument is particularly relevant to high value content courses – think of LSAT preparation courses for example. It would be hard to trust a course to prepare you for the LSAT in any meaningful way if it is offered for free. When the stakes are high, users will gravitate to quality content, that is to say paid content.
Free online courses promote lazy and ineffective marketing
For many the whole point of offering a free course is to generate awareness and interest for future courses. It’s a valid marketing tactic to be sure. However, there are two issues with this strategy to consider.
First, it can make you lazy as a marketer. Why and how would you invest a significant amount of time and money marketing your course if it generates no income? The temptation is to put the course on Udemy and hope for the best, not putting any more time or effort into promotion and content improvement. Remember it takes just about as much effort to promote a free online course as a paid one.
Secondly, you may not be able to afford to promote your online course. And even if you decide to invest in advertising on Facebook for example, you have no guarantee of a positive return. You could lose money doing so. So again, the temptation is not to promote the course at all and take your chances.
To Be Free or Not to Be Free? Teachinguide’s Answer.
Given all the above factors, our research shows the general consensus to be that offering free online courses will work best as a strategy when these courses lead smoothly and clearly to your other paid courses and other income streams. To do this, your free courses must provide enough value to leave the student wanting more and they must be part of a larger marketing and entrepreneurial strategy.
In summary, offering free online courses CAN be beneficial to your bottom line when:
- Your goal is lead generation and you have a strategy to convert those leads profitably
- You are looking to attract new customers for your revenue generating products or services
- You need a “beta” for your course due to lack of experience or knowledge.
However, the risks and concerns we mentioned should be actively monitored and considered when offering your free online course. The old saying “build it and they will come” is not enough to ensure your success as an online course instructor.
A Final Observation..
We were curious about the extent to which free online courses figured into the total number of online courses on Udemy. Here are the results of our findings (note: english language courses only):
|Category||Total courses||% Free Courses|
|Health & Fitness||2990||7.5%|
|IT & Software||7362||6.7%|
|Online Course Platform||% of all courses that are free|
|Udemy – all courses||8.2%|
|Udemy – English language only||8%|
The takeaway here is that on average, for a platform or topic, roughly 7-8% of courses are given away for free. This is a surprisingly low percentage, for such a popular marketing tactic. We wonder why this is…the answer may be after all that “paid pays” …