How a famous YouTuber monetized his audience with online courses

Antonio Centeno didn’t start blogging about men’s style to fulfill some dream he had of becoming a writer. In fact, he found the process of writing painful and unenjoyable. But in 2007 he’d launched a Wisconsin-based online custom clothier and he wanted his website to rank well with Google. “I just figured search engines would find and index my content,” he told me in an interview. “In the worst case scenario, I would just become more knowledgeable on the items I was trying to sell.”

Though he found the writing process excruciating, Centeno eschewed the 400-word blog posts that were typical in the style blogosphere and instead went long; it wouldn’t be uncommon for a style guide blog post of his to run into the thousands of words. For instance, an article on how to choose suits if you’re both tall and slender runs to almost 2,000 words and includes several diagrams. It didn’t take long for more established lifestyle bloggers to notice his work, and he started getting invitations to guest blog at these well-trafficked sites. One of those was The Art of Manliness, which, according to Quantcast, sees over 800,000 unique U.S. visitors a month. “Because of the quality of my content it did get indexed by the search engines,” he said. “All of a sudden we were getting good traffic, about 100,000 visitors per month, which in 2009 was pretty good for a little custom clothier that wasn’t paying for any traffic.”

Given his antipathy for writing, Centeno thought about how to convey all this information in a medium that would be easier to work in: online video. In 2011, he launched the Real Men Real Style YouTube channel and began uploading 10 to 15 minute long videos of himself speaking into the camera and giving tips on a variety of style issues. At the time, there weren’t many channels devoted specifically to men’s style, and he found success by creating videos that were each targeted toward a very specific demographic. “I could always stand out if I got ultra specific,” he said. “So, for instance, let’s say there’s a man who has dark hair and dark skin; what colors are going to look best on him for a professional interview? That’s ultra specific, but what it did was by creating a lot of deep content like that, all of a sudden I could give a definite answer to a question and there turned out to be hundreds of thousands of people who fit that demographic, and of that, 5,000 to 10,000 would find my video relatively quickly.”

The strategy worked. Over the past six years, Centeno has shot hundreds of videos that have amassed over 100 million views. More than a dozen of them have generated over a million views each, and his channel now boasts 1.3 million subscribers.

But though Centeno was quickly becoming an online celebrity within the style and fashion world, it just wasn’t converting to much revenue for his online clothier business, and sometime around 2011 he shut it down. He began casting around for a new business model, and the first thing he did was take several articles he’d written, packaged them together as an ebook, and sold it for $17. “It was kind of scary, because I thought, why would anyone buy something they could get for free?” he recalled. “In my mind there wasn’t anything unique about it. It was just my best articles bound together in one book. But people bought it.”

This produced a key insight: people would be willing to open up their wallets if the information you provided was valuable to them and helped them achieve some type of goal. In his case, that goal was to look more stylish and professional. “I just dropped a whole lot of money on an MBA at the University of Texas when I started my first business,” he said. “I realized people pay for information all the time. What I needed to do was teach people why this was useful, how it would actually bring value to their lives, and then they’ll buy it.”

Centeno started piecing together an online men’s style course that his followers could enroll in. He’d never taught a course before, so he simply turned to other information products he’d purchased and would model his syllabus on them. Once launched, these courses were completely automated, meaning someone could purchase the course and go through it without any additional help from Centeno. Currently, he offers two main courses on his website: A Man’s Guide to Style, a 30-day email course that includes video and PDFs, costs $197. Personal Image Blueprint, which provides additional course materials and access to a private Facebook group, costs $495. “I was able to take six months and travel around the world,” he said. “I just got back like two weeks ago. And I have a family of four and I spend a lot of time with my kids. This has enabled me to do this.”

While many media companies and news organizations have focused on selling low-price monthly subscriptions to their content, some content creators have instead put much of their energy into selling high-end, more expensive online courses. Using online teaching platforms like Udemy to distribute and sell the courses, these bloggers, journalists, and broadcasters aim to convert their most devoted followers into customers, and, because the courses are priced in the hundreds or even thousands of dollars, they’re able to generate great returns by selling to only a small percentage of their total audience.

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Sarah Peck sold her first course for $500. She’s spent the better part of a decade blogging on topics ranging from becoming a better writer to how to introduce minimalism to one’s life, and a few years ago she agreed to teach an in-person writing course for General Assembly, the business-focused education organization. After seeing a positive response, she decided to launch a course through her own website. “It was a small group writing program for 30 people,” she told me. “It sold out, which surprised me. I didn’t think I had a big enough email list to do that.”

Unlike the courses offered by Centeno, this one was completely hands-on and required that Peck constantly interact with enrollees. “I sent out new material every day, five days a week,” she said. “They did writing assignments, and I read them and reviewed one of their assignments every week.” She wrote over 35,000 words of materials for the course, conducted live Google Hangouts, shot pre-recorded videos, and answered emails. “The overwhelming feedback I got was that it was great, but it was too fast. So I slowed it down and did a second one that was six weeks long.”

Like other content creators I spoke to for this piece, Peck would conduct a live interactive course and then sell the recorded version at a slightly lower price point. That first course she taught, for instance, now serves as a passive income source and sells for $300. I asked her if the main goal for offering these courses is to eventually reach a point where 100 percent of her income is passive. “Would I like to have $1 million in passive income that supports my family and supports me writing books for the rest of my life? A thousand percent. That is a dream that I’m pursuing. But I’m not going to do it on the backs of people by just taking their money. I’m not interested in selling products to people that don’t work. If I have a program that sells well but doesn’t work, I would kill it.”

Often times, the content creators who offer these courses will set the prices and sell them completely on their own, taking in all the revenue minus the service fee for whatever platform they use. In Mignon Fogarty’s case, however, she decided to go with Ragan Communications — a company that produces information materials for the communications and PR industry — to sell, produce, and distribute her courses. Fogarty is known by many under the moniker Grammar Girl, a brand that spans across a popular website, bestselling books, and a podcast that receives hundreds of thousands of downloads each month.  

Fogarty started out by speaking at live events put on by Ragan, and then the company approached her about producing online courses on grammar and writing. In some cases, this involves simply creating a slide presentation and recording a voiceover. For one course, she appeared in front of a camera. “I went into a studio and it was me behind a desk,” she told me. “They did my hair and makeup, and I did a Powerpoint that was projected on the screen next to me. It was incredibly formal and choreographed.”

Fogarty has a combined social media and email newsletter following in the hundreds of thousands, and so I asked her how she went about selling the course to her audience. While she did promote it through her email newsletter and social channels, she said Ragan probably had more success in marketing the course simply because its audience is primed to purchase these higher-priced information products. “Ragan’s audience is much more of a corporate audience than mine,” she said. “In the past I’ve gotten pushback from my audience because they thought it seemed too expensive. Over time I’ve believed it’s because my audience is more of a consumer audience. People who hear about it through Ragan are more likely to have a training budget from their companies they can spend on things like this.”

I asked all the content creators I interviewed for this article why they chose to produce a product that was beyond the price range for most of their audience. “I think for any business, it’s important to be diversified,” said Fogarty. “I have all my books, and they’re about $10. If you want that you can have that. If you want to spend two hours with me live where you can ask me questions online, then that costs more. You have the free stuff on social media, we have the podcast that’s free but ad supported, the books and the games, which are relatively low priced, and then the high-end webinars.”

Centeno said his audience probably wouldn’t derive a lot of value out of a lower-priced product, and that for those who couldn’t afford his courses, they still had access to hundreds of hours of video, podcasts, and written material. “I’m not sure lower cost would bring more users,” he said. “A lot of times price has an effect on people’s mindset and whether they commit. When you have people pay more they’re better customers. They show up on time, they take it seriously.” Peck echoed this point. “There are so many things that go into a decision to make a small purchase,” she said. “Sometimes it can be easier to make a big purchase, and it reflects a certain behavior in a person, who is saying, Jesus, I spent $5,000 on this, I better do it, versus, meh, I spent $10 on a book, I don’t have to read it.”

Recently, Centeno has been thinking about how he can scale his courses business even more by bringing on additional instructors. “Now I’ve got people who work for me who actually can be that presenter and do that better than me because they’re not trying to do all these other things at the same time. And I of course can pop in at different points more as — this sounds kind of funny — but as the VIP.”

With over a million subscribers across Centeno’s social media and YouTube channels, only a tiny fraction of them need to convert into paying customers to fuel what’s become a thriving business. When you have that kind of audience, then yes, you get to call yourself a VIP.

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Simon Owens is a tech and media journalist living in Washington, DC. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Email him at simonowens@gmail.com