An online course is a lot like an office meeting.
If people feel like it could’ve been handled in an email, you’ve probably overthought it, cut into everyone’s lunch hour, and need to go back to your talking points.
If, on the other hand, people come away from it without half the answers they wanted, you probably needed to make it twice as long and include supplements -- in the case of an online course, things like workbooks and checklists -- to deliver the most value.
Unfortunately (if ironically), timing is the one thing that never gets easier, whether it’s your first foray or your second go-around with online courses, because every audience and subject has different needs.
But that doesn’t mean you have to fly blind. To make it easier, we’ve come up with four universal steps for narrowing down your optimal online course duration.
And the first one, as with anything in business, starts with your customers.
Step 1: Research your students
This step begins with a couple of questions, such as:
- What are your students’ goals for this course?
- What are your goals for your students?
- How much time do they have to watch your online course?
But all of them can be neatly distilled into an elegantly simple question:
- Who are your students?
Are they full-time workers with a busy family life to juggle? Are they recent graduates looking to supplement the skills their formal program didn’t adequately provide? Small business owners who want to generate more revenue?
What kind of constraints do those lifestyles put on their free time? And where does your product fit into those limits?
It does need to be in that order, by the way: if your product necessitates they reinvent their lifestyle to enjoy and benefit from it, it’s not a good fit.
(Unless the product is a lifestyle-changing online course, at which point, mission accomplished.)
For instance, consider the case of Ali Abdaal’s online course for the BioMedical Admissions Test (BMAT).
His audience is primarily comprised of students who are studying for or anticipating taking the exam already, which means they have:
- Other classes
- Social obligations
- Limited funds
And that equates to a limited amount of time to spend on supplementary materials like his online course. They don’t have the mental bandwidth to dedicate an hour or more to each lesson.
Brilliantly, his lesson plan reflects that time constraint, demonstrating his understanding of his audience’s lifestyle.
You see a similar approach with Coding is for Losers’ online course Data Analysis the Lazy Way.
The students who sign up for that course want a quick and easy play-by-play, not a five-hour seminar, so the fun-sized video lessons deliver that.
Knowing your audience -- and their time limits -- also plays a significant role in engaging them.
At least, if you take your audience’s word for it. Over half of consumers (both B2C and B2B) say engagement hinges on a business deeply understanding their needs.
The more engaged your students are with their education, the more willing they are to put in the extra elbow grease needed to reach their goals.
And it’s not a strictly one-sided benefit, either.
Synchronizing your online course with the people it's intended to serve also improves your engagement with your product and audience. That’s how it works for traditional classrooms, anyway.
There’s a reason customer personas and journey mapping are the top-shelf choices of professional marketers when it comes to generating and maintaining engagement.
(Which is, of course, because they work.)
You can learn more about journey mapping and how to set your own up in our previous article about launching a membership website, but here’s the quick recap about what they are:
- A visualization of a customer’s lifecycle with your product. I.e., from the moment when they’re considering signing up for your course to the moment they complete it.
- Journey maps track more than just behavior, as well. The emotional component of the student’s journey is just as important.
- It puts your customer and online course into a contextual narrative. Instead of viewing each as a separate entity, you get a bird’s-eye view of how they fit together (or don’t).
Notice how it includes a quotes section and emojis to demonstrate the customers’ emotional state at the different stages of the journey.
Bolstering your online course with audience research isn’t just a good way to figure out the best length of your videos or materials, by the way.
It’s also a significant edge over your competition and powerful lead-generation tactic.
Narrowing their product focus to the right kind of customers -- the kind they could best serve -- helped one business grow their leads by 166% month-to-month.
In other words, getting to know your audience’s day-to-day improves your bottom line and your customers’ learning outcomes.
It also makes your second step for optimizing course length much easier.
Step 2: Evaluate your subject as a beginner
A “learning curve” is more than just an idiom. It refers to the rate at which new knowledge is acquired and the expense of time in doing so.
I.e., how hard it is for a beginner and an expert to pick up new information, and more to the point, how long it takes for both.
This graph gives you a good idea of how steep the drop is in time-to-learning requirements.
But while the idea that a newcomer will need more time to get their bearings than an expert may be common sense, it’s worth reiterating just how stark the difference is.
Because if you’re an expert in your subject -- and you probably are -- you may not be able to judge how much time a process should take accurately.
Sure, it takes you two minutes to run through a standard deviation equation or create a double-stitch, but for your learner, they may need significantly longer to grasp the concepts.
It doesn’t mean you’re assuming your audience is less capable than you are — just less experienced.
You also need to consider the same subject from a consumer’s point of view.
In other words, how much time do they want to spend on your online course?
50% of consumers say an explainer video -- one that talks about a product -- should be one minute or less. That time limit is unlikely to be viable for your lessons, but it gives you a nice jumping-off point for answering that question.
Which is “in as little time as possible.”
Engagement steps down significantly once a video crosses the 2-minute-threshold, though interestingly, it stabilizes between the 6-12 minute mark.
That said, not every subject can be condensed into tiny snippets. Especially in the case of master courses, it’s more important that you deliver what the consumer needs -- actionable results from your online course -- than what they want.
If they need more time to understand the basics so they can save time later down the road with more advanced material, then that takes priority over haste.
The customer may always be right, but the learner requires guidance, and in online courses, you’re contending with both in the same individual.
Epic J Creations’ Octane Master Course is a good example of this philosophy. Some videos fall perfectly in the sweet spot engagement range, while others take significantly longer.
Why? Because the basics need more time than the advanced material.
Just take care to validate your estimates with your audience. If you get consistent feedback that a video was too long, heed that feedback and head back to the editing room like professional educator Reuven Lerner did.
Customers won’t talk about how long your course took to deliver the results it promised -- they’ll be too busy singing those results’ praises -- but they will remember if you took hours out of their life they can’t get back.