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December 15, 2021

Julia Saxena, Online Course Design Expert on the Disco Creator Series

Creator sessions are a weekly, sometimes bi-weekly series where we gather the best of the best in the course creation world, share their learnings, insights and have a really great community-driven conversation. 


Julia Saxena is a master of the online learning world who has worked with countless creators to help launch, run, and scale their online courses. In this live session, we learned about Julia’s journey into the online learning space, the key lessons she's learned about course design, and her thoughts around go-to-market strategy for course creators.

How did you go from a decade of corporate experience to transitioning into what you do now?

I started my career as a project manager working in different multinational companies around Europe and in the Pacific. My last job was actually in Papua New Guinea as a project manager, helping to build the first Hilton hotel there. To be honest, I got quite burned out in that last job and I was looking for something that I could do remotely. I came across copywriting and because writing always somewhat came naturally to me, I thought I could just give that a try. That's where I really went down the rabbit hole around the online courses, self-paced and cohort-based. I took a lot of courses really to uplevel my skills and to learn more about marketing and copywriting. 


What I found that was really most really useful and actually doable. I loved what I learned. And I found that it was often much more useful than what I took away from my bachelor’s degree or my MBA. That's where I started to question the traditional education model. 


In those communities, I got to meet people from all over the world. It felt like a place where I belonged, and where people were lifting each other up, and where we were eager to learn. I really saw how powerful and life-changing online learning can be. I felt like not enough people know about it yet. More people should know about it and use those opportunities online. They can really like follow their niche interests. That's when I focus completely on working with online course creators.


What are some of the main learnings that you've had in this space?

I was really lucky enough to work on all things on the spectrum. I found that one challenge that everyone has, no matter where they are on that journey, is really audience building. And that's such a key component of launching a course whether self-paced or cohort-based. It's a need to consistently expand your audience to reach new people because when you just start out with the notion of just 'build it and they will come', that really doesn't work anymore, because we're all kind of like battling for attention online. And even when you're running a lot of cohorts already, there's still no guarantee that you'll continue to see the same sizes of cohorts or even the same growth that you've been experiencing so far. Audience building is the one main habit that creators need to need to develop. And that means consistently putting out content, it means also being okay with repeating yourself, and finding different ways to communicate the one core message that you want people to take away. I think this is really just one thing that a lot of aspiring course creators get stuck on and even sometimes give up around the audience-building piece.


What advice do you have to course creators?

Up until the last year of working as a copywriter, I always realized that I should be putting myself out there. I should be producing content on social media. I always felt like oh, what can I add to that space that already so many more experienced people out there who are putting out great content? How can I compete with that? I felt like I have nothing really to add. But one course really changed that for me was a rite of passage, which was quite transformative in that way. That's where I learned that you're just like your unique experiences and your unique point of view, your lens, and how you see the world is inherently valuable. And just putting your ideas out through your lens and how you see things. That's all you need to do. 


There will be people who connect with that and who resonate with how you communicate. There's really a part of that place for everyone online. Just really focusing on your own experiences and communicating through those would be my advice.


How do you see audience building shifting as you get more reps in with your cohorts? 

The difference is when you're a bit further along the path and you already have a base audience, you have this supergroup of superfans who really love you and really love the stuff you're you're doing. If you're just starting out and you don't have that yet, you kind of have to build your way up to building that fan base. But once you get to that point, I think then audience building also becomes more user-generated content, where you can really leverage what other people put out when they use your methodology and techniques, and you can encourage them to talk about it actively online, to share blog posts or share videos about it. Then you can rope that into your own content engine and help promote that type of content. So you're not the only one producing content, your fans, your students are producing content for you that you can use. And they become great case studies again that show other people how this person succeeded. That kind of brings other people into your world.


What inspired you to create the Course Creator Lab? And where would you point people to start?

I found that to build a successful course, a creator has to wear three hats. Basically, one hat is a marketer, then there's being a teacher, and then you also need to be in a manager role, an operations person. I structured course creators around those three pillars. So my suggestion, on the website, is to pick the pillar where you might feel least comfortable in to pick that one and then choose the essays there that I flagged as a must-read. Those are the ones that I think are great starting points to dive into those areas. All of the Ss are really, really super short. I mostly around 250, mostly under 500 words. You can consume them really quickly and pull out what works for you. After that, I would suggest checking out the templates that I put together, especially if you're looking to build a cohort-based course. I've put together a comprehensive checklist on everything you need to do and think about when you launch and run your course, and documented the decisions that you need to think about when launching and the assets that you typically need to get your course off the ground. Check out the templates.


What have you learned about copywriting and messaging to make it really sticky for learners?

There are two points that I want to want to make here. The first one is a mindset shift that as creators we need to make. Generally, we're all surrounded by a zillion sales messages every day. There are businesses out there that scream at us to just to buy whatever they're selling. And for many, at least for me, it feels like icky thinking about having to be one of those people who really like just rely on ads to get people through the door. We have an advantage that many other people don't have. We are inherently teachers and educators and we can use that as our advantage in marketing medium. I like to adopt the mindset of becoming your audience. Because everything you put out there, even your sales messages, is an opportunity for you to teach. People can be really better off consuming your marketing. This is the first most important mindset shift, becoming your audience's trusted guide. It's so important to craft messages that that stick with your audiences. To do that you have to find language-market fit. 


It’s about finding the right words to describe what you're what you offer. And really finding the words that resonate with your audience that speak to the challenges and goals that they already have in their mind. That will make everything much easier in finding this language market fit. And to do that, one option is to really get on calls with your students or with prospective students, if you haven't run one course yet, ask them about what their challenges and goals are. Where are they stuck? What do they want to achieve? Really listen to them, transcribe the calls and see what words they use to describe their situation. Once you start speaking to a few people, then you usually see some patterns emerge. And can really use that language and test that language in your content. Usually, those calls are also full of great ideas for new content that you can create.


What's been the most transformational experience for you? Or what are some experiences from your, from you being a student that have really stuck with you and influenced your work now as a course creator? And as someone who supports course creators?

Two things come to mind here. As instructors, we usually want to dive right into the content and want to deliver what students are asked for. But for me, and also other students, we need something else first. And that's psychological safety. We need to feel like we are in a safe space where we can really open up and share our struggles and problems openly without fear of repercussions or being made fun of, where we can be vulnerable, and then be able to accept help from others. So creating this psychological safety, I think is so important in online courses. 


And once that kind of magic can happen, that's when the cohort really comes together as a group, and when a cohort can become a community that lasts way beyond when the course ends. I found that what I've seen in courses that have helped me feel safe is when the instructor was also kind of like model that behavior that they wanted to see from the students so when they actually were really open about their struggles when they shared stories and experiences from their past and were really also vulnerable on showing kind of like really private stuff that's when I felt safe to open up.


What is the ideal length of a live course that you recommend?

That's a hard question because it really depends on so many factors. It depends on what kind of transformation you're looking for people to people to make. Maybe that transformation could be done in two weeks, but maybe it takes longer. I don't think there is one ideal length. 


What I found though, is that the longer cohort-based courses run, often the more sometimes exhausted students get and the more of a drop-off rate, you might have because being in a cohort is also a really intense experience like you're committing to it, you often have to add another extra, a couple of hours a week to go through the material to interact really participate actively. If this type of intensity continues over several weeks, then often for students life takes over. We all have other responsibilities. 


That's where you see often a lot of students drop off and are not able to sustain this level of intensity. I'm actually now more moving towards making it shorter, but then having opportunities to follow up afterward. Having continued support after the quarter ends.


Do you recommend using ads for marketing?

Everyone I've worked with has really grown their audience organically. I don't think ads are completely a no-go, they definitely work. They can work to really accelerate the growth. It's just kind of like making the ads using them in the right way, in a thoughtful way. 


I don't think it's a good idea to create ads. For example, let's say Facebook or LinkedIn ads link directly to your course’s sales page. If the first thing that people basically hear from you is, hey, buy my course, that won’t work. What I think will work better is having an ad that leads to free content offerings, for example, that leads to a free workshop, a lead magnet, a free email course, or an ebook or guide or a template that you've created. And that way the ad can bring new people into your network, where you can then start nurturing them and where they can start finding out more about you and where they can then discover if this is right for them or not. 


What do you recommend for price-setting when launching a new cohort-based course?

Pricing is always a big elephant in the room, how should you price how to devise a cohort? Yeah, there's also no really right or wrong here. Pricing is often something where people can get really stuck and like, over, like, overthink it. So my first advice is always to just pick a price and move forward. Instead of making this the thing that keeps you keeps you stuck. 


Pricing is always something that is not fixed, you can always change it. Pricing is more of a journey, actually. So for example, if you're launching your very first chord, then like pick a price that might be lower what you ultimately want to charge for it, just really to connect, test it out, maybe you're still kind of like in a beta version. So you also expecting more feedback from from from the students. You want to test things out, you know, things won't be as polished. So charging a lower price here could be a good idea. And then from there, you can always like move it up for the next cohort to come around. Up to a point where you feel like this is a good price. This is a good price for you. It seems sustainable. And this is a good price that people are also willing to willing to pay for. Yeah, so really treating, I think pricing is a journey and not the thing that you have to decide once and then you can't touch it anymore.