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Media companies have failed in the education business—but there’s still hope

September 14, 2013
September 14, 2013

Soon, you’ll be able to learn zombie apocalypse survival skills from AMC’s “The Walking Dead.” The University of California at Irvine is offering an eight-week online course in partnership with the series. AMC isn’t the first media company to push into education. At least two dozen others have tried before. They won’t be the last, either. Forbes and Atlantic Media, which owns Quartz, are also gearing-up to launch online learning programs.

Most media companies getting into education wind up learning some hard lessons themselves: Education is a very different business from media. And succeeding takes a lot more than having a well-known brand, built-in audience and high-quality content.

Two ways to do the same thing

It’s no secret that “traditional” publishers and broadcasters are scrambling to find new ways to make money beyond subscriptions and advertising. One increasingly common (yet largely unnoticed) way that many of the biggest, best-known, most-respected media owners are doing that is by launching educational programs featuring their brands, content and talent.

The list is a who’s who in entertainment (Discovery, Disney, PBS, Condé Nast, Elle and Angry Birds), business information (Bloomberg, Businessweek, CFO Publishing, UBM, F+W Media, The Financial Times and Harvard Business Publishing) and the news media (NBC News, the New York Times, the Washington Post, BBC, the Economist, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Die Zeit and News Corp.). Even “new media” brands like travel blog Matador and millennial careers site the Muse are doing it.

It’s not hard to understand why media executives think education is a logical extension of their brands. As news industry analyst, Ken Doctor, puts it, the media and schools are “just two ways to do the same thing: Gain knowledge. Media may be well suited to new educational roles,” he believes, because “it’s what we produce—information and perspective, building blocks of learning.”

It’s also easy to see why this looks like a compelling opportunity. “The education space is massive, very broken, barely touched by technology and has been largely underserved by entrepreneurs and investors,” says Andrew D’Souza, chief operating officer of education technology start-up, Top Hat. And that, he adds, means that “the opportunity for disruption, significant value creation and outsized returns is huge.”

Meanwhile, high-quality, proprietary content and respected, recognized brands are big advantages. Chris Tiné, director of product solutions at Macmillan Higher Ed, who also co-founded and helped run NBC Learn, says “teachers have been looking for ways to bring real-world media and examples into the classroom. Many students don’t respond to traditional instructional materials, but they get engaged when different forms of media like video, interactives and games are used.”

So as long as media companies have brands and content that engage learners (along with their readers or viewers), you should expect to see more of this kind of thing.

A pretty big leap

One caveat: It’s a pretty big leap from informing or entertaining people to educating them. Only a handful of these initiatives (most notably News Corp.’s Amplify) have turned into meaningful, lasting businesses, but usually only after substantial investments or acquisitions.

More commonly, they end up shut down after their corporate parents lose patience—such as Disney’s K-12 education business, Bloomberg Businessweek EDGE and the New York Times Knowledge Network, for instance. A handful, such as Bloomberg’s and the Economist’s, get a second chance to pivot and look for firmer footing. Most, however, just plod along.

Their difficulties are partly due to bad timing. According to Stephen Hirsch, one of the founders of the New York Times’ education unit, many of these programs began “at the exact moment the media industry was undergoing tumultuous disruption and economic pressure. And these companies urgently needed to make something happen at a time when both capital and patience were in short supply, for understandable reasons.”

The real lesson here, though, is the obvious one: Education and media may look similar, but they are not actually the same thing. In fact, there are three critical differences:

Different customers

For starters, even though the target audiences for media companies’ educational programs are often existing readers or viewers, those same people have different motivations when it comes to learning. They need more than just news, information or entertainment. They want tangible, in-demand, career-enhancing skills. That isn’t really what most newspapers, magazines or TV shows provide, though.

Meanwhile, massive open online courses (“MOOCs”) have signed-up 5 million people so far, at least half of them working professionals, not students. And career-focused education start-ups that most people have probably never heard of—PluralSight, Lynda, SkillShare, Treehouse, Grovo and General Assembly, to name just a few—are generating real revenues and growing fast.

Different capabilities

Meeting those different customer needs is a problem for media companies because creating and delivering compelling, effective learning is not the same thing as producing engaging articles or entertaining videos. It demands new capabilities outside traditional, media-oriented editorial, production or design skills, such as lesson planning, instructional design and assessment along with complicated, unfamiliar new technologies.

Those things aren’t easy to put together well, even for experienced educators with plenty of money. They’re especially hard because people’s behaviors are evolving just as fast as the technology. But the challenge of figuring out that alchemy is compounded even further for media people because education also requires some new and very different ways of thinking and working.

Learning, for example, depends on deep, thoughtful interactions like coaching, collaboration and debates. But to publishers and broadcasters, meaningful social engagement is defined by simple likes, sharing or comments. It might be the golden age of social media, but education requires both capabilities and mindsets rarely found in organizations built for much wider broadcast and distribution.

Different businesses

The big struggle for most media executives, though, is the business side of education.

So far, for one thing, the non-accredited, direct-to-consumer education market (where most of them play) just isn’t very big. MOOC platform, Coursera, for example, may have attracted more than 4.5 million students, but it only generates $200,000 a month in revenues. Granted, that is growing quickly, but for now, outside of technology and design courses, the real money is still in selling to companies, schools and other organizations.

The problem is, marketing lessons, courses and certificate programs is not like selling advertising or subscriptions. It requires developing relationships and credibility with new customers, such as human resources, school officials, professors and government bureaucracies. The sales cycles are longer and the adoption processes more convoluted and political. And the price points are not only much more expensive than subscriptions, they’re usually much smaller than the six or seven-figure ad deals big media companies aim for.

Advertisers to the rescue?

Ironically, advertisers might help sort this business model issue out for the publishers and broadcasters. So-called content marketing now accounts for at least 25% of big-company marketing budgets. And education, as Joe Pulizzi, founder of the Content Marketing Institute, says, “is a powerful content marketing strategy.”

The good news is he’s not the only one who thinks so. Several big, global brands—including AT&T, Bank of America, Cisco, GE, Google, HSBC and IBM—are now sponsoring educational content. The bad news is many of these experiments are being done in partnerships with universities and new-era education and technology startups like Khan Academy, Instructure, Udacity and Betaworks, not media companies.

That might change if sponsored education does pick up momentum (although that’s a big if). Either way, though, the media companies need to borrow a page from their advertisers and get some extra help from partners of their own. Partners, like those same schools and technology startups, who can offer the access and capabilities they need.

Whatever the right formula might be, media companies are going to keep trying. But there’s a steep learning curve and the future of education is still very uncertain. So if they want to play it smart (like AMC, Forbes and the Atlantic have been about reinventing their core businesses), they’ll need to adapt their mindsets and business models, not just their content.

Todd tweets @toddtauber and @nomadicFM. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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