Can Digital Marketing Training Courses be a Commodity?

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I’ve been having a lot of discussions about our business model at 312 Digital lately, which I find to be a lot of fun. Talking about our upcoming course and future courses helps keep me focused on where we are headed, which is really exciting.

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a guy I really respect as a thinker and businessman. During the conversation, he said something that caught me off guard. He said:

Training is a commodity.

I was shocked. Quite a bit. I think he may have seen it in my reaction.

I don’t know about other types of training. Maybe they can easily be turned into commodities – one the same as another. I highly doubt it. Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about that conversation ever since it happened.

Now, to be fair, there are multiple definitions of the word commodity. Here a screen capture of the that links to the original source.

 Definition of Commodity

I’m fairly certain he was referring to definition 1(c) and 4 – something that has diminishing value and diminished profits. That’s certainly the way I took the meaning of his comment.

Can digital marketing training courses be considered a commodity?

I don’t think our classes here at 312 Digital can easily be replicated. Here’s why.

  • Instructors. We focused exclusively on finding and featuring expert practitioners; people who practice what they preach and are REALLY good at it. Andy Crestodina is one of the very best content marketers I’ve ever met, AND he’s an excellent teacher and speaker.
  • Content. Of the four sessions we are presenting on January 22d, none of the four presenters have even begun to build their slides yet. Not one. This educational experience will not be a re-worked presentation you’ve seen at other events.
  • Process. Maybe a 30 minute webinar can be a commodity. Our sessions last TWO HOURS. An hour and half of that two hours is devoted to lecture and discussion with the instructor. The last 30 minutes is reserved for small group breakouts where the students will have a discussion with each other about how they plan to apply what they just learned to their business. This last step is one of the most critical. It ensures students cement what they just learned by putting it into the context of their own business. It also helps students build relationships they can take with them beyond the class room.
  • Integrity. I’m not sure if “integrity” is the right label for this, but it is the way I think about it. I’ve talked about this in the past and written about it as well. One of the ways 312 Digital is going to be VERY different is we will never have sponsors. I want there to be an unfettered (maybe pure is a better word?) relationship between our business and our customers. Our customers pay us money. We deliver a day of learning. If they see value in that, they will come back. Or refer us to others. So simple. I do not want the purity of that relationship to EVER be tested or complicated by sponsorships or other third parties getting in the way.

I understand the point he was making. His business is focused on building a replicable product that can be introduced into organizations. Our model is quite a bit different, as you can see above. So can digital marketing training courses be turned into a commodity? I really don’t think so. At least not in our case. What do you think? What about other types of training? I have to be honest here – commodity is never a word I would use to describe training of any sort. Training. Education. Learning. No matter what you call it – it’s simply not an industry that is open to being a commodity.

Are all Universities the same? All public school systems? Of course not. And it’s silly to suggest otherwise. What say you?

Featured image courtesy of DavidDennisPhotos.com on flickr via creative commons.

Sean McGinnis

Sean McGinnis is founder of 312 Digital, full service digital agency based in Chicago, Illinois. 312 digital provides high performing websites, SEO, content marketing and other online marketing services to small and medium sized businesses across the US. He speaks and blogs about SEO, content creation, social media and a number of other digital topics. Sean has been involved in Internet Marketing since 1998. You can find him on .

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9 comments
ExtremelyAvg
ExtremelyAvg

This was a really interesting post. I had several reactions, then I had to read it again, and continue thinking before I commented.

 

My first thought was, no. I couldn't think of a single time I had bought a training course. Then I had to say, yes, because of the fact that I knew of training courses that could be purchased, so the mere fact that they exist means that it could be a commodity.

 

After the second time through, I remembered a very expensive video tape (It was 18 years ago) chess opening training course, that I had purchased. Then it made me think about Chess Master, which is both a chess computer game, but it also has a training component. Both of those I loved dearly at the time and felt they were of great value. I was surprised that I hadn't remembered them immediately.

 

So, I've obviously been all over the place. I started to wonder what I might think about your training.  Having read a number of your posts describing all the features, I feel I have a pretty good understanding of the extraordinary value the training provides. I know I'd love to take a course, if I weren't poor.

 

My first reaction was that you have made a good case that your course wouldn't be the same as a commodity. If one had access to videos of the presentations, via a subscription model or something like that, it wouldn't be nearly as valuable as being there in person and being able to ask questions. Then I had a second reaction.

 

There is the old adage about not letting perfect be the enemy of really good. If I had the money to be able to afford one of your courses, I'd spend it on one of the books I've yet to hire an editor for, so there are several things in line for my dollars ahead of the training, which is too bad, because it looks like good training.

 

I started to think that for people like me, who can't have the A+ version, a B+ version (subscription to videos), for a much lower price, would be awesome.

 

Now, this doesn't mean that I think you should create a commodity, because I have no idea of the costs involved, (both time and  money), or do I know if there is a market for such a commodity beyond me, but I think that there are circumstances where your training would make a fine commodity.

 

Sorry I rambled on for so long. I do love posts that make me think, though. Thanks for that.

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rdopping
rdopping

Isn't commodity reserved for widgets?

 

My industry, Architecture and Design, consistently complains about our consulting services being commoditized in that the competition through bidding services devalues our ability to offer quality. Does a commodity generally hold that much of a negative sentiment? Based on its meaning in context of consulting I would certainly think so.

 

Intellectual property and people are unique and individual thereby can never [should never] been seen as a commodity. Is this type of thinking legacy from the annals of the industrial revolution? Hmmmm.......

barrettrossie
barrettrossie

At some level, I think training can be a commodity. You can get accredited safety training online from a number of sources. But is Stanford training or MIT training a commodity? Only in a strained and imprecise sense.

 

There's a radio spot that's running here locally, and God bless them, they have good intentions. "Hire a veteran. They're a proven commodity."  NO, NO, NO, a thousand times, NO!  They're an ASSET!  I don't want to hire a commodity, and get (as you point out Sean) diminishing returns. I want an asset. What a shame to refer to our returning veterans as a commodity. They're freakin' heroes. 

 

So Sean... I fully expect 312 to provide heroic training. :-) 

phillipskim18
phillipskim18

There are people who think everything is a commodity. I spent 16 years in the printing business, something that is often thought of as a commodity even though  1) every job we did was custom,  2) print production involves multiple variables affected by both physics and human judgement, and  3) the experience and knowledge of the print salesperson can greatly change the customer's experience. People who think everything is a commodity get, well, commodities...not good work.

Sean McGinnis
Sean McGinnis moderator

 @ExtremelyAvg Thanks for this wonderful comment Brian. You know, the more I think about this the more the answer sort of comes into focus for me.

 

I think the real issue is in how one defines "commodity." I had a knee-jerk reaction to the comment my friend made, primarily because I knew what he meant when he said it. I think a number of comments I've heard both here and off-line have more to do with our understanding of the word commodity.

 

I interpret it to mean something with slight margins that is easily reproduced.

 

Creating a lower priced version of our training via online video doesn't necessarily mean to me that it would automatically enter the realm of a commodity. I think a lot of the value would still be there, even if we allowed people to watch the videos over and over again.

 

That said, it's still not something I'm interested in doing. And the reasons are not necessarily tied up in a cost/benefit analysis, but more in taking a stand and having a clear identity as a business. I truly believe in the benefits that in-person training provide. In order to reach a market that can't afford our classes, I'd rather offer scholarships or steeper discounts that create a version of our training that was not in-person.

 

Of course, that might change over time. I doubt it, but anything's possible. Since we're still at the very beginning of what this thing can become, I'm very aware of the need to be flexible and learn from our customers and from our mistakes.

 

Thanks again for the awesome comment. I hope to see you at one of our training classes very soon!

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Sean McGinnis
Sean McGinnis moderator

 @rdopping I agree with you about the widget comparison. I looked long and hard for a picture of widgets to accompany the post and fell short (alas).

 

Consulting services can (or should) NEVER be thought of as being commoditized. If you're allowing that to happen, you're doing it wrong. That's much more of a sales process breakdown than being turned into a commodity (IMHO).

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Sean McGinnis
Sean McGinnis moderator

 @barrettrossie Thanks Barrett.

 

I realize my reaction was pretty tightly tied into my emotional investment in our training course. I'm hardly an unbiased observer in this discussion - it just seemed sort of a random thing to say. The other party was clearly trying to diminish training as an entire industry as one where there is a downward push on pricing and value. My experience and intuition tells me quite the opposite.

 

Within days of announcing the 312 Digital training classes I had friends and colleagues inquiring about hiring us to train their staff and to train their customers. We're still working out the details on those deals, but I have every confidence they will come to fruition.

 

Maybe it's the way I think about the word "commodity" that inflames my thinking about his comment. I envision something that is highly repeatable, something that's built in a factory - which is flawed thinking on my part. After all, Lego's are produced that way and they're hardly a "commodity."

Sean McGinnis
Sean McGinnis moderator

 @phillipskim18 Great point Kim. Your story helps me further put into context the way I think about that word - commodity - and whether it accurately describes what we are building with  312 Digital. I don't think so. No at all.

ExtremelyAvg
ExtremelyAvg

 @Sean McGinnis I have to admit that I didn't know that definition of commodity. My first thought is always the commodities markets, because I traded silver futures for a while, which isn't the same thing either.

 

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