New Startup Wants Brands To Educate Public
Don Smithmier was walking out of a meeting at General Mills in 2013 when he wondered: What if Betty Crocker taught a MOOC?
Institutions like Harvard, Yale, MIT and the University of California-Berkeley—not to mention online education powerhouse Coursera—already offer Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) that enroll millions eager to learn about everything from history to engineering to psychology. So why couldn’t brands do the same?
The Big Know, launching today, is a realization of that concept. After two years of planning, tinkering and testing, Smithmier, founder and CEO of digital agency GoKart Labs, is launching the platform with the intention of offering the knowledge cultivated by the world’s biggest companies to consumers eager to learn—and build an alternative outreach channel along the way.
The platform is partnering with several big names for its Monday launch, including UnitedHealthcare, AARP and Blue Zones.
Captivate, educate, activate
The Big Know is a combination of small classroom-style engagement with a go-at-your-own pace, asynchronous delivery model. Students are given a window of time to enroll in the class and complete the lessons. Courses are all released at a specific time and, not unlike a series on Netflix, students can binge-teach themselves through it in a quick period of time. But many are expected to follow along together at roughly the same pace, which will help facilitate discussion. This model was intentional by the designers at GoKart, as it allows flexibility but still puts some onus on the student to follow through with lessons.
“When we did research on higher education MOOCs, [we found] that if you have a set start date, people are much more likely to show up and much more likely to continue,” Smithmier said. “It’s not an ongoing, open-ended community where you show up at a forum and ask a question and hope someone’s there.”
Classes follow a platform of “captivate, educate, activate”: students are first given a quick video meant to “hook” them on the topic, followed by instructional learning and quizzes and a forum-style discussion led by “teaching assistants.” Every class includes an action-based project.
Some, such as UnitedHealthcare’s “Becoming Dr. You” have a project. UHC's involves creating a personalized health plan and includes material and checklists that can be saved, printed out and brought to a physician. In this way, The Big Know is helping brands better educate their consumers while boosting their image as the go-to source for that knowledge.
The platform will largely be offered for free, though brands that want to offer more engagement—like one-on-one coaching—could be allowed to charge a small fee. Classes can have as many or as few lessons as a brand would like, but The Big Know aims to limit them to around three or four weeks to make it a manageable commitment. The Dr. You course offered by UnitedHealthcare is intended to take just 15 minutes a day for four weeks.
“This isn’t something where someone is not going to go into work on a certain day so they can do their schoolwork,” Smithmier said. “If you’re not earning a degree, something like this is competing with your reading time, TV time or Facebook-surfing time.”
Ad block challenges traditional online outreach
In today’s media landscape, companies are increasingly turning to a buzzed-about form of outreach known as “content marketing,” where the brand owns the messaging and creates a platform where its values and depth of knowledge are as important—if not more important—than a hard sell.
They’re turning to this approach because finding ways to reach consumers, especially digitally, is becoming increasingly difficult. Online consumers are tuning out banners and other advertisements and can quickly click buttons to skip ads before watching online video.
“In the digital world, [a consumer says], ‘As soon as you start selling to me, I’m gone,’ ” Smithmier said.
And that’s if people see the advertisements in the first place. In an effort to avoid the intrusive auto-play videos and flashing pop-ups, consumers have downloaded ad-blocking software. A study by Adobe and PageFair, an organization that offers counter-measures to the rise of ad blocking, found that about 50 million Americans—and nearly 200 million worldwide—have done so, costing advertisers $10.7 billion in “unrealized revenue.”
What attracted Smithmier to the idea of a content marketing platform was its ability to offer consumers actual value beyond hawking a product. “We’re helping brands elevate engagement, but also doing something good for people too.”
The brands speak
While companies of just about any size can come to GoKart with a proposal, today’s launch involves big names with a focus on health and wellness: AARP is sponsoring a “Life Reimagined” course to help people “[live] your life on purpose” and Dan Buettner, an explorer and the author of “Blue Zones” is teaching about ways to improve longevity of life.
Perhaps no company is diving deeper into the project than UnitedHealthcare. The Minnetonka-based health insurer was able to enroll 13,000 students during a pilot of the “Becoming Dr. You” class. Its success was a green light to invest in courses at The Big Know as a way for the company to position itself as a champion of health.
The company has been using educational outreach to enhance its brand for a while. In 2007, it produced a booklet called “Medicare Made Clear” to help enrollees understand the often-complicated program. When the booklet’s impact exceeded the company’s expectations, they were able to roll it out across platforms to give information-hungry people the answers they needed.
“We’ve invested a lot of time through digital and traditional channels in education,” vice president of brand Bart Reed said. While much of their focus is on plan selection, they are also interested in promoting general health and wellness.
“Customers see UnitedHealthcare as a company that pays claims and writes checks, but we have a broader interest in the health and well-being of our members, so The Big Know was a natural extension.”
UHC said it wouldn’t focus on the courses as a sales pitch, as much of their initial marketing is to current members. Instead, Reed said the goal is deepening the relationship.
“Our goal is to help people live healthier lives.”
Doing good matters
GoKart pitches itself as a startup incubator of sorts. The North Loop creative agency has spawned or hosted four major projects, including Rumble (which makes many of the sounds and voiceovers for big-name brand commercials), Sophia (an online education platform), Rick Kupchella’s BringMeTheNews and now The Big Know. Smithmier, who has a hand in them all, sold Sophia to Capella University in 2012—where he once worked and watched the company grow from startup to major education player—and BringMeTheNews was acquired by the Pohlad family’s Go Media earlier this year.
The office is Smithmier’s brainchild and an extension of what he calls his “unrepeatable” life path. The energetic 45 year old—who at 39 suddenly struck it big in the country music scene as a member of the band Rocket Club—built the company starting with Rumble in the depths of the recession and just kept letting it grow.
Smithmier said that each time a new company emerges from within the lab, its intention, is always about more than profit.
“Everything we do at GoKart, we really try to focus on issues that we really think matter: Journalism matters, education matters, health care matters,” he said. “We find ways to disrupt the market for brands, but also do good for consumers.”