Brand U: Marketers Offer Courses as Content

UnitedHealthcare and AARP Among First to Try GoKart Labs' Education-Based Platform

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Credit: Courtesy The Big Know

Can brands teach consumers a thing or two? That's what GoKart Labs, a Minneapolis ad agency, is betting on with the upcoming launch of The Big Know, an educational course-based platform with content provided by brands.

"When you think about the best organizations out there and how much knowledge they possess and the kind of experts they have access to, it's incredible what can be done," said Don Smithmier, co-founder of GoKart Labs and CEO of The Big Know. "There's an opportunity to create a whole new source of knowledge and education that's being either provided completely free from the brand or at greatly reduced subsidized rates for consumers' benefit."

The Big Know launches this month with three courses from brands including UnitedHealthcare and AARP. Brands build their custom courses using The Big Know's instructional and course-design services and are then supported on the back end with hosting, help desks and teaching assistants. The plan is to spend the first year learning from the probably few dozen courses that will emerge, with the eventual aspiration to host "all the best brands on this platform."

The Big Know was born inside the GoKart agency in its in-house digital incubator, which to date has raised $13 million in venture funding and created five new start-ups, already selling two of them. The Big Know also reflects Mr. Smithmier's personal passions; he joined online higher ed promoter Capella Education Co. in its first year of business and spent 14 years there, rising to VP-general manager of one of its three divisions.

Virtual education, called massive open online courses or MOOCs, is already big business. More than 29 million people took online courses last year. That's almost twice as many as the total 18 million enrolled college students in the country. The category leader is Coursera, followed by Udacity and edX. MOOCs will generate revenue of about $1.5 billion worldwide this year, according to researcher Visiongain.

The idea behind the courses is another form of content that reinforces brand strategy and getting consumers engaged with the issues or ideas that the brands are built around.

UnitedHealthcare's first course, for example, is called "Becoming Dr. You." Taught by its former chief of medical affairs Dr. Reed Tuckson, the four-week course teaches people how to take better control of their health and healthcare relationships. So far, 1,112 consumers have signed up for the course.

Terry Clark, chief marketing officer and senior VP-marketing and brand for the company, said the courses are a way to show consumers how to influence their own health and well-being with everyday decisions. "Online courses like 'Becoming Dr. You' represent the future: tailored digital engagement that helps people prevent and manage health challenges while building happier, healthier lives," he said. The AARP course "Life Reimagined" follows the senior organization's mission of living life fully after age 50. It's already enrolled 1,040 students.

Branding inside The Big Know courses will be subtle by design, Mr. Smithmier said, with discreet logo placements and contextual mentions such as in related resources lists. GoKart will market the courses themselves and it's expected that each brand will do the same through its own media channels. In a pilot for its course, UnitedHealthcare registered 13,000 people after promotions to its members.

GoKart and The Big Know envision that the content inside the courses -- interactive videos, animations, lessons and quizzes -- can also be repurposed by brands for use on web sites or in social domains.

"I think brands are going to use this as part of their regular content flow out to their social media audience. It could also be part of a special promotion or awareness building campaign. Depending on the brand, it could also be used as a reward or a loyalty play for some of their customers as well," said GoKart CEO Jim Cuene.

Brands have already shown some interest in MOOCs. Google and AT&T partnered with Udacity to give input on its certificate-generating nanodegree programs, while edX has a few courses from brand partners like Microsoft, which offers free developer courses, and the New York Institute of Finance, which teaches an M&A professional certificate course.

Individual brands have also created online courses. At Procter & Gamble's, for instance, dental professionals can choose from 150 free accredited continuing education courses. UPS partners with online as well as brick-and-mortar colleges to offer courses in supply-chain or operations management to help shape quality candidates for their company.

Mr. Smithmier said, "We're excited about this both in terms of what it can do to help consumers learn, but also in what it can do to help organizations engage with people in a more meaningful extended way … We all know you can find anything on the internet, but most of us won't because it's overwhelming and confusing. There is something about somebody who is an expert taking the time to distill it all down to a syllabus and saying 'Just pay attention to this and you're going to learn something.' That's what we think is the power of the course model."

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