Inc. and Reader’s Digest go back to school with e-learning courses

Class is in session for Inc. magazine.

The magazine, known for going deep on business and startups, is bringing its brand to online learning. Its new five-week class, dubbed The Inc. Startup Accelerator, will offer would-be entrepreneurs lessons on how to start and structure their own businesses. The program leans heavily on star power: The sessions will be led by big-name business luminaries, including former Disney head Susan Lyne, Palo Alto Software CEO Sabrina Parsons, and I Can Has Cheezburger founder Ben Huh.

“We see this as a logical extension of the mission we’ve had since the beginning,” said Inc. president and editor-in-chief Eric Schurenberg, who will host the course. “We’ve been in the media business, but our relationship with readers has always been focused on education and connection.”

This isn’t just an exercise in brand building, however. Inc. will charge a $395 price of admission for the five-week course, which, thanks to the beauty of online learning, has no cap on the number of students it can admit. The move makes sense for the magazine, which already runs multiple conferences and smaller events focused on local businesses. The business is accelerating. Inc. plans to run seven conferences this year, double last year’s output. The publishers’ investment in online learning and events comes amid publishers’ ongoing search for alternate revenue streams beyond advertising revenue.

“This sounds right to me,” said Kreisky Media Consulting founder Peter Kreisky of Inc.’s online course. “It’s right in their wheelhouse and is very consistent with their value proposition and their audience.”

Inc. isn’t alone. In July, Reader’s Digest Association launched its own online learning platform, EnrichU, which features courses on cooking (“Taste of Home Online Cooking School”), home repair (“The Family Handyman DIY University”), and eventually health, crafts and gardening. Reader’s Digest offers all-access memberships, which run for $9.95 a month or $99 per year, or a la carte pricing for individual courses.

With the moves, both Inc. and Reader’s Digest hope to grab their share of the ever-widening online learning space, which is set to be a $27 billion industry in North America alone next year, according to forecasts from Docebo research. pulled $150 million last year before LinkedIn acquired it for $1.5 billion in April.

Publishers, however, might face issues when it comes to scale, according to Kreisky. Pricing online courses to be affordable to most people means that publishers have to attract a lot of people so that the economics work. It’s hard enough getting people to pay for things online as it is.

“We’re very aware that our biggest challenge here is scale,” said Reader’s Digest CEO Bonnie Kintzer. “Readers are going to be constantly asking, ‘Why would I pay for something like this when there is so much free stuff online?’”

The key, she said, is for publishers to leverage the strength of their brands, and readers’ relationship with them. “People trust us for our expertise, so that’s the thing that will make us special,” she said.

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