Minneapolis-Based Startup Nabs $3 Million To Offer Brand-Sponsored Online Courses

Launched late last year, The Big Know is providing expert-created courses about happiness, stress, diabetes and other topics for thousands of students at a time.

The Big Know

Content marketing startup The Big Know announced this week it has scored its first investment funding — $3 million — to help brands create courses that consumers want to take.

Founded last year and based in Minneapolis, the company says about 40,000 people have signed up for courses since it launched in late October. Current and upcoming courses include:

      • “Be Happy: How To Bring More Joy To Your Life,” taught by psychologist Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky
      • “Discover What’s Next: Living Your Life on Purpose,” taught by author Richard Leider
      • “Living Well With Diabetes: Creating Your Diabetes Action Plan,” taught by Dr. Reed Tuckson
      • “Good at Stress: How to Transform the Stress In Our Lives,” by health psychologist Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.

      Those courses are sponsored jointly by AARP and UnitedHealthcare, or just UnitedHealthcare. About a dozen others are in the planning stage.

      The project-based courses are designed for thousands of simultaneous students, and they include text, video, animation, quizzes and discussions in small forum groups moderated by paid assistants.

      “Be Happy,” for instance, currently shows about 8,800 people registered, each of whom is expected to end up with a written life plan. All courses are free and non-credit, running from two to four weeks.

      Founder and CEO Don Smithmier told me that branded online courses are “a superior form of marketing” because of the high degree of user engagement and the associated glow that attaches to the sponsoring brand. The company has no stats yet about how well the effort is working for brands.

      He said The Big Know provides the instructional design and works with brands to do the research and produce the content. “The brand is always in control,” he said, adding that the sponsored content “has nothing to do with the brand.”

      “Brands That Have Earned Trust”

      Given the controversy around native ads — where consumers sometimes can’t tell what’s editorial content and what’s an ad — and the Federal Trade Commission’s notification requirement for bloggers who are paid for influencer marketing, I asked what the company’s policy was about sponsors promoting their products or point of view in a course.

      Smithmier said his company doesn’t yet have a written policy on the subject, but he pointed to the credibility of the subject matter experts in creating content that sticks to the subject. He noted that The Big Know is “intentionally working with brands that have earned trust” and that understand that the courses need to be “something people want to do.”

      It can’t be a “repurposed commercial,” he said.

      But could a course sponsored by AARP about how to plan for retirement, for instance, pitch membership in seniors’ organizations that offer travel discounts, as AARP does?

      He said he “wouldn’t want anyone thinking we’re building up the sponsor,” but added that a future course about designing a bedroom could offer a lamp that is sold by the sponsor.

      Obviously still figuring out the right balance, Smithmier agreed with my suggestion that the content was somewhere between the church-and-state separation of sponsored TV programs, on the one hand, and content marketing on the other.

      The bottom line, he said, is that “organizations understand that if they jump into sales mode, consumers will exit the experience.”

      The Series A round was led by LFE Capital and includes Steve Shank, founder of Capella Education Company. Previously, The Big Know had been backed by digital innovation firm GoKart Labs, from which it spun off. Smithmier is also the CEO and co-founder of GoKart Labs and had been a vice president at Capella.

      (Some images used under license from Shutterstock.com.)


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