EP15: How Udemy Consistently Brings Value to the Company using Community

Udemy has over 24 million students and over 100,000 courses, James Dunbar who is the Senior Manager of Community Programs & Strategy at Udemy shared with us how they look at community and support their huge base of online instructors.

The instructors on Udemy are key to the company’s success, without incredible courses in areas where students want to learn students won’t use Udemy. That’s why they have focused a lot of their community efforts to support the instructors, that’s where James focuses his efforts.

What we’ve seen over all the episodes of The C2C Podcast is the most successful (and most funded) community programs do a great job of tying back to business goals. James shared a way of accomplishing this that we hadn’t heard of before which seemed like it could really be powerful. Most will find a way to tie back metrics like revenue, churn, customer support requests in whatever software is used to track those metrics. Of course, there are many variables that go into making those metrics improve so the needs of the sales, support and other departments aren’t always the same. James will get coffee with key people in those departments and ask them “What are some problems you are running into right now?” and see if the community can help.

What we’ve seen over all the episodes of The C2C Podcast is the most successful (and most funded) community programs do a great job of tying back to business goals. James shared a way of accomplishing this that we hadn’t heard of before which seemed like it could really be powerful. Most will find a way to tie back metrics like revenue, churn, customer support requests in whatever software is used to track those metrics. Of course, there are many variables that go into making those metrics improve so the needs of the sales, support and other departments aren’t always the same. James will get coffee with key people in those departments and ask them “What are some problems you are running into right now?” and see if the community can help.

He figured out after talking with the person who is running social that she needed help creating more content, James knew the community could help. He turned to the community to help create user generated content and it was a huge success. This method is pretty manual but the brilliant part about it is it allows you to change your focus if a larger area of opportunity arises for the community to impact the company.

Another tactic that we talked about that we don’t normally cover is appointment content. This is anything that is scheduled like a live webinar or Q&A that is a great way to constantly activate the community. If it was just a video or helpful piece of content there is no urgency, the fact that it’s scheduled makes the community activate. James is someone who has worked at a 2 person startup and a 500 person company, community helps at every stage.



[0:00:03.8] DA: Welcome to the C2C Podcast. I am your host, Derek Anderson. After holding my first event in 2010, I went on to create Startup Grind, a 400 chapter community based in over a 100 countries. Along the way, I discovered the greatest marketing tool of all time, your customers. Yet, I couldn’t find anyone sharing how to build a community where people could experience your brand in person or at scale.

On this show, we talk with the brightest minds and companies on the planet about how to build a customer to customer marketing strategies and create in person experiences for your brand and customer before your competitor does.


[0:00:43.8] JF: Ladies and gentlemen, welcome back to another episode of the C2C Podcast. Today, we will be talking with James Dunbar who is currently the Senior Manager of Community Programs over at Udemy. Udemy is an online learning and teaching marketplace with over 24 million students.

On today’s episode, he’s going to share an unorthodox way that the community can tie back into company goals. Something called appointment content that he uses to give value and activate the community on a regular basis and so much more and don’t forget, you can see the full episode shownotes at bevylabs.com/pod.

Without further ado, please enjoy the show!


[0:01:28.2] DA: James, what is Udemy?

[0:01:29.0] JD: Great, yeah. Happy to be here. Udemy is the leading global marketplace for learning and instruction. By that we mean the place where if you have something to teach, you can come online and create a course and if you have something you want to learn, you can take it and we have courses in just about everything, there is 30 million students, 100,000 courses and around 40,000 instructors.

[0:01:50.2] DA: Wow, okay. 40,000 instructors, 30 million students, all sorts of studying, all sorts of different things, getting knowledge and educated on all sorts of different things. How in the world do you build a community around something so big and so broad?

[0:02:04.3] JD: Yeah, I mean I think, it’s a good question. I mean, first of all, our general community is for instructors, that reduces the scope a little bit and when you're looking at what is the shared interest, what is the shared goal that people in the community can get behind, it’s to create really good courses and put them online and do a good job of selling them.

That just sort of unifying mission makes it a little bit easier to build a community because everyone’s kind of together. And one thing we actually see is that instructors are excited to participate because it’s the kind of marketplace where having lots of other people with lots of other good courses is good for your course.

Because you have someone who might come in to learn Spanish and then they’re going to come and take your course on like management or your course on Python.

[0:02:52.1] DA: Yeah, I mean, that was my next question I was going to ask because you would naturally think that these people compete or you know, if they’re taking your course, they’re not taking my course. So how do you get them to sort of collaborate and work together?

But I guess it’s the power of having a platform where all these things live and every probably know two courses is the same and everything’s – they’re sort of solving different problems, in that way they work together to just sort of cross promote and pollinate each other.

[0:03:21.4] JD: Yeah, that’s right, there are definitely some cases where people are in competition with each other but in general, it’s the kind of marketplace where with the growth that we’ve been having and the 10 years that Udemy has been around, there’s plenty of pie to go around as it works and in general, there is always like a new niche or a new corner opening up that students want to go on.

[0:03:41.6] DA: I mean, how do you work with these instructors? Tell us about some of the programs and things that you do with them?

[0:03:46.2] JD: Yeah, a lot of it is just helping them understand where they are. If you’re an instructor and you published your course, you’re essentially an entrepreneur and you’re almost looking in the beginning to say how do I find product market fit and like what are the pieces of information I need to get right now to understand whether or not my course is being successful on the marketplace.

And as you scale and as you grow, you start to face more interesting questions of how do I choose my next topic? Should I go deeper or should I go into something adjacent? Or how do I manage my course if I’m starting to get hundreds or thousands of students? Interesting questions and you’re looking for updates. What do I do there?

From our point of view with the community, the biggest thing we’re trying to is just help people understand where they are, help them understand what questions are most important for the stage that you’re at and then honestly, just connect them with other instructors you tend to know the answer better than any one person at Udemy.

[0:04:45.5] DA: Is the goal, I mean, a lot of people sort of look at this like 1 or 2% of their customers or their community or sort of driving 98% of the sort of education traffic for 98% of everybody else. Do you find that with you, like of those 40,000 people is the goal to get everyone highly engaged, just go to – take care of a small subset of that?

[0:05:10.9] JD: I mean, I think, the answer is kind of yes to everything but you can’t just assume that the same tactics or strategy is going to work for everybody. So one of the things we try and understand is you know, we have some people who are coming in and they’re just here to consume information.

I think in other communities, it may be called lurkers, we tend to call them learners because it’s a little more on brand with what we’re trying to do. Then you have some people who are going to interact infrequently, they may have a sharp question that they’re going to want to get help on or get resolved.

Yeah, we do see that like a small percentage drive the content and so a lot of what we do is try and encourage and empower those kinds of folks to share their knowledge with the rest of the community.

[0:05:49.9] DA: Have you found any common characteristics with the most active community members that you have?

[0:05:54.8] JD: I think people just generally enjoy sharing their knowledge. I think in one way, we’re sort of fortunate as community managers working with people who they’ve chosen to share a course online and they’re teaching, in some cases, I do certification or even just online marketing or digital marketing. So there are people who enjoy the idea of sharing their knowledge and it just translates very nicely into a community where you know, one of the things we’re asking them to do is share their knowledge.

I think when we see people who are successful, it’s people who really bought into that mission of improving lives through learning and they’re saying this is just another angle but I can take the spans on this identity that I’ve assumed of someone who teaches online.

[0:06:38.2] DA: What are the best ways you found to reengage people that have sort of disengaged or are less engaged? Do you have ways to reactivate or to just get people going that haven’t started yet?

[0:06:50.0] JD: Yeah, I mean, I think one of the things that we’ve tried to do with some success is create like appointment content. So as we’re thinking about what kind of content is going to be really helpful and really valuable, we’re thinking not just what’s going to help people become better teachers but it’s also what’s going to help us build the power and the sort of potential energy of the community.

One of the things we look at is saying okay, we’re going to have on this specific day, on a Tuesday at 2:00 GMT, we’re going to host like a live event or a live Q&A with either some instructors or like our CEO and really make it an event that brings people online and give them a reminder that the community exists and is there.

We’re actually pretty fortunate to have close ties with our product marketing team and that our platform is closely tied to our product. We can pretty easily drive that traffic by setting up like a banner or a smart bar on our site itself.

[0:07:46.4] DA: Are there any stories that have come out of the community that you could tell or successes that you’re overly proud of or stand out?

[0:07:55.4] JD: Yeah, one that came to mind was. One of the things that instructors have when they create a course is they can create like a short promotional video. Most of the courses are video based, where they’re either just talking to a camera or doing a screen share and so unlike a course page that a student could find and think about taking that course, the instructor is able to generate a promotional wide which is basically like one or two minute video of the instructors saying who they are and what you’ll be able to learn in this particular course that they’ve created.

And so we had a post where one instructor basically said, 'Hey, I was playing around with my promo video and I made the following changes. I saw that conversion from my course jumped by, I forget what it was, like 10 or 20%,' or something pretty meaningful month over month. Another instructor came in and said, 'Hey, this is really awesome, this is something I did six months ago and I saw that it was also successful. It’s really cool that you were able to have similar success.'

The first instructor said that, 'Honestly, I saw your post about it in the community six months ago and that’s what inspired me to do this even from the beginning.' It’s kind of like a nice little cycle of people kind of seeing what works and learning from each other’s best practices and it just really encapsulated everything we’re trying to do which is connecting instructors to each other and helping them get better about sharing your knowledge online.

[0:09:17.9] DA: What — ultimately, you know, the business part of this, ends up what probably fuels more funding, more resources, what goals do you all look at, what impact does it have on customer service or revenue or just how do you track, you know, what’s important for the greater organization?

[0:09:37.2] JD: Yeah, actually, it’s kind of an interesting question and it reminds me of something that I heard at your conference last year which is that community is a solution in search of a problem. I see that as a very specific mission for myself, as someone who is responsible for the community to go and find people within Udemy who have problems or opportunities that could be solved by the community. And playing around, having coffee with people and talking with them, saying, 'What are you trying to do, how is that going and if you had like 10 instructors who were like motivated to help you, could they do anything to help you?'

What I’m able to do through that is kind of create a handful of people here, handful of people there and really get together like a constellation of stories where the community has delivered sharp value for certain people who have pretty specific business needs of their own.

It’s not like a macro ROI model where you’re trying to say that everyone in the community is 2X affected, everyone out of the community, that’s like a hard causality to prove and it’s hard to kind of get it kind of factual there. But if you're able to say like these 12 initiatives in the quarter were more successful and like very obviously directly more successful because of the work that the community members put in, that’s pretty good.

The other benefit of this is like, it’s people, you know, community managers understand the importance of people in a people centered world and if you take that lens internal to your company, you’d work the same way and you say, “I have solved problems for real people,' and it is a different kind of story to tell than some model that may or may not have holes that can be poked into it.

[0:11:13.7] DA: That is really thoughtful and cool approach. So you hear about the priorities of the company and you see what people are focused on, what some of their problems are and then you go to them. That could be the product team, that could be the marketing team, that could be –

[0:11:27.0] JD: Yeah, the sharp example of it is like our PR team. So we got a pretty good social following on Instagram and Facebook and things like that and I was talking with the woman responsible for that, her name is Maggie and she said, “I need content like I am just generating all the content and it’s hard to continuously come up with content,” and I said, “Hey, I’ve got a community of thousands of instructors who’s literal job is to create content for the internet. So let us connect one hand to the other here.”

And we were actually able get a bunch of instructors from our community to generate content that performs well online. The instructors are happy because they are marketing their forces. So anything they can do to get their name or face out there is great. We’re happy because it is the community delivering value and the client in this case is our internal partner with the company is happy because they have a very specific problem solved.

[0:12:12.6] DA: That’s really cool. Yeah I haven’t heard of many people doing it that way. I think it’s a unique and really thoughtful way to approach solving real problems with the community. And is that something new you’ve done or is that how you got the program funded or -

[0:12:27.9] JD: So my background, I actually only have been in the community world for a year. I am more of a generalist in my background. I have actually started my own company and I have done a couple of different things and operations and sales and business development along the way and when I joined Udemy, I was broadly on instructor engagement and instructor programs and community is something that the company had always believed in and have always had pretty heavy investment in it.

From the very top level down there is strong by in to what community is about and what community is for. So one of the conversations that comes up with community managers is sort of this existential thing of like how do I improve my value and I had the privilege and benefit of not really having to worry about that. But at the same time, I think it is the Rich Millington from FeverBee says something like the conversation is always coming

It may come tomorrow, it may come in six months but someone eventually is going to ask what is this community doing for me and so that thought has been in the back of my mind and it’s been something where I’ve been like, “All right, let me start to collect these stories and these things that we have done that have been helpful.”

[0:13:35.7] DA: So you have started your own company. You have also worked in large companies and do you think community having somebody that has been on the outside is now on the inside, is it something that you think works in all company sizes or is it something that you should do if you are starting a company or you shouldn’t do but you should do if the company is established, product is established? What is your take on that?

[0:13:54.1] JD: Yeah, I mean I think it has real obvious value and I think one of the things that is interesting is it has to be done for a specific purpose and I think where it goes wrong is people being like, “Oh yeah, community that is a good idea. Let’s spin that up.” And they don’t really give it a full thinking of what is a strategy here, what are the resources that we’re going to need or what are we going to try and get out of it.

So I think that for many companies, it’s definitely a hugely valuable thing. I think it just gives you just incredible insight into what your customers are up to, what they want and you know they are going to let you know how things work and it is just a really powerful thing that you can cultivate but it is not easy. You need to be thoughtful about how you do it. It is not free. You definitely need to dedicate at least some resources to it and have some allotment and buy in across functionally into what is happening there and you got to know what it’s for.

And I think that this is one area where if you don’t have a very specific thing that the community is trying to do or is like obviously for you are going to run into problems but I mean broadly yes but with caveats, I guess, to give a direct answer to your question.

[0:14:58.9] DA: How do you look at online community versus the C2C or offline or event sort of community building, in person community building do you see again to your point of going to different business units inside the company helping solve different problems? Do you attack different problems with the different community solutions or do you stick to one way or how do you look at that?

[0:15:22.7] JD: Yeah, it is actually an interesting and I think somewhat unique area for Udemy in that like the members of our instructor community spend a lot of time in the digital world by definition, like they are doing digital marketing. They are creating digital content for consumption and for the majority of them, they are doing it sort of by themselves and the running gag of Udemy instructors who’s got their home studio is like literally them with a microphone set up and they are talking in their closet because it is the most sound proof area of their house or their apartment or whatever there is and the moral of that, the story is that it is a very lonely journey and it is something that people spend a lot of time solo in front of their computer.

So I think a lot of what we look at is that first we have to create a way if you are in that environment, how do we create that connection and how do we create a space for that connection to happen. And that is where the online community comes in and then I think the extension from that is how do we get the real life connection and start to foster the in person stuff.

So we do have our annual instructor event that’s going to be live. You know once a year we got a few hundred of our instructors together to both talk through what is new at Udemy, what is new with the industry of online teaching but also just to have them go over the nuts and bolts of course creation and course marketing.

And bring some of the online conversations that we’re seeing into the real world given that like depth and nuance that you can always get in a forum.

[0:16:53.2] DA: Talk to me about the communities you admire. Who do you look up to? Who do you think is doing a good job at this kind of work?

[0:17:00.1] JD: Yeah, actually I am a pretty big sports fan. One of the communities I really admire is the American Outlaws and this is the fan group for fans of the US National Team. So I think these guys do an amazing job and one of the things I really like is their federated approach. So they have local chapters like hundreds of local chapters and each local chapter has its own logo, has its own home bar that they go and eat at.

And what will happen is as the teams both the women’s and then national teams travel around the country and play games is whenever they get to, all right like the women’s national team is playing a game in Columbus, basically the chapter, the Columbus chapter of the American Outlaws will host anyone that’s coming in for the game and create this unique experience for their location that is also somewhat consistent across every other sort of tailgate or night before party that you might imagine.

So I think these guys have just done a really, really cool job of building sort of a nationwide community for people who are nuts about soccer in the US.

[0:17:59.7] DA: That is really cool and I wasn’t familiar with this until you mentioned it. I was just checking it out and yeah, it seems like a very hyper local and sort of jump in and get involved anywhere you go and very involved. Very sort of from a cadence standpoint, it seems like it’s on constantly wherever you are. It’s really cool.

[0:18:18.0] JD: Yeah, they’re fun.


[0:18:20.6] DA: Thank you so much for listening. If you like the show, please leave a review wherever you listen to this. If you like to see more about how to create your own event community, go to bevylabs.com/pod.


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