EPISODE 178

How to Make an Online Course Website in 2018 with YouTube WordPress Tutorial Legend Adam Preiser of WPCrafter

Chris Badgett of LifterLMS talks about how to make an online course website in 2018 with YouTube WordPress tutorial legend Adam Preiser of WPCrafter. This LMScast is a gold mine of information. Adam shares his journey with creating WPCrafter, and he and Chris get into strategies you can use to build an audience for your online course.

WPCrafter is WordPress tutorials for non-techies, and it is soon to be the largest resource for WordPress tutorial videos online. You can find all of the WPCrafter tutorials on YouTube, and Adam also has a Facebook group and the WPCrafter.com site with an engaged community of WordPress users.

Adam started out the WPCrafter YouTube channel by creating a few tutorial videos on WordPress softwares that were new at the time. He didn’t have an audience or any subscribers, but people would watch his videos just because he was putting out good content on a software that was mainstream.

From there Adam started putting out tutorial videos where he walks non-techies through how they can do various things like build up the technical side of an online course site. When doing tutorial videos, Adam focuses on explaining to his audience why you need to do certain things on your site, which is something most tutorials seem to miss.

If you are a course creator, you could consider creating a YouTube channel where you put out content relating to your course for free. Chris and Adam talk about how putting yourself in a position where you are giving before receiving as a course builder is the key to conversions with information-based products.

Adam shares some excellent marketing tips for online course creators, such as putting out your free content in Facebook groups and getting the best audio quality possible for your videos. Chris and Adam also dive into some YouTube SEO tips and other strategies you can use to get course conversions from YouTube.

Another key to success with information products is engaging with your audience. Adam is constantly reading over all of the comments on his video and he responds to answer any questions his audience may have. You can learn a lot about your product by listening to the people who use it consistently.

Head over to WPCrafter.com and the WPCrafter YouTube channel to learn more about Adam and the efficient methods you can use to optimize how you use WordPress!

Also head to LifterLMS.com to find out more about how you can use LifterLMS to build your own online courses and membership sites. Subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us!

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and I’m joined by a special guest, Adam from WPCrafter. How are you doing, Adam?
Adam: I’m doing really good today. Just got over a cold these past couple of days, but perfect on time, in time to join you on this podcast episode.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. We’re going to get into a lot of stuff for the course creator, the membership site builder out there. Adam is over at wpcrafter.com. He is prolific on YouTube, you can find about youtube.com/wpcrafter. What is WPCrafter, Adam?
Adam: Well, WPCrafter is soon to be on the verge of being the internet’s largest resource of tutorial videos, WordPress-based tutorial videos, and they’re all freely available there on the YouTube channel. I also put them over on the website. The website also has a community forum, and we also have a very large Facebook group, but it’s WordPress people. WordPress for non-techies is the moniker that I use, WordPress for non-techies, meaning … I’m not going to burry you with acronyms and all these kind of text speak. It’s going to be stuff that you can understand and implement, and through that, get control over your website and everything you’re doing on the Internet.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Adam has a great Lifter LMS course, How To Build an Online Course in 2018. Check out that video on YouTube. He builds it with Lifter, Astra, and in Elementor, correct?
Adam: Yes, this year … Well, I’ve been doing it every year. I did it in 2016, 2017, and this is the 2018 version. I’ll make another one next year as new things come out to make the experience smoother. I’ve learned through the process of how to make it easier, and easier, and easier for someone to get the tech out of the way, so that someone can put these tools, match it up, and focus on their courses, and the content of their courses versus the technology of delivering them.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, we’re going to get into that in more detail, but first, how did you get into the WPCrafter project? What is the origin story here?
Adam: Well, let’s see. Back in, and you can actually find this, all my first, very first videos, anyone could go to YouTube, I leave them there. Everybody’s first videos are complete and utter disaster embarrassment to them personally. I threw up a video and it was about a product called OptimizePress when it was released in, I think 2013, or something like that.
Chris Badgett: That was cutting edge membership site theme technology at its time, at its time it was a great solution, especially for WordPress.
Adam: Yeah, and for … It became the first kind of page builder before an Elementor or Beaver Builder, and all of that. I released, it came out for sale, and I thought, “You know what? I’m going to make a couple of videos.” I made like five videos, and I was just standing there and I ordered the product in the video, and then, I installed it for the first time and all of that. People watched the video, and this was me putting a video on YouTube with no audience, no subscribers, no nothing. It was just that it was current. People were looking for info on this. I was putting it out, and then, they found me. Let me connect the dots there. That was actually on my personal YouTube channel, and then I thought, “Huh, maybe there could be something here. I enjoy doing this.” I do see the benefit of working from home, the time that is spent driving to an office, and driving back, and all the time that’s lost talking to co-workers. I saw, for me, a preference of working from home.
All the dots connected and I thought, “Let me just do something specific to WordPress.” I came up with WPCrafter, and that’s just really how it started, not much of a plan other than, “I’m going to make some videos.”
Chris Badgett: I think that’s fantastic. I started getting into WordPress in 2008, and I’m a non-technical user. I’m not a web developer. I actually learned WordPress by watching YouTube at that time, and that’s how I learned it. That’s how I got the skill that allowed me to build websites, and later, people started contacting me and wanted to pay me to build websites, and the story continues. Being able to find training videos on YouTube is the origin of how I got into this whole thing, because I was a non-techy. I find that really fascinating. Whenever I go to search for how to do something with technology, I may go to Google, but I’m more likely to just go to YouTube. Sometimes, especially with tools, like if I forgot how to do something in ScreenFlow, which is an editing software, video editing software for Mac, I’ll Google something and I’m always amazed.
I’ll find this video that some kid made somewhere with 70,000 views, and it’s not even that good, but there’s a pain point there, which it sounds like you found and you were just like, “Huh, there’s something here with my OptimizePress videos.” What is it about building a bridge to the non-technical technology user, which is a lot of what WordPress is all about. How did you develop that skillset to teach people without them getting frustrated, overwhelmed, or glossing over too many details so that they get stuck right away, and get into all of the techno bubble and then acronyms. How did you get good at that?
Adam: Well, I think I have … I am a technical person. I say WordPress for non-techies, obviously, some people have outed me that, yes, I say this, but I’m a technical person myself, and I am a technical person. My background, actually, no one really knows this, I never talked about this anywhere. I’ve done podcast interviews, and I’ve never said this, but prior, I did a lot of IT consulting. It’s a very technical thing, and for some reason, my clients probably didn’t like this about me, I would explain the problem that they had, what caused it, and how I fixed it. I think through doing that with everyone, and it was an unnecessary explanation, they didn’t actually need or want this explanation, but I know I would want to know what the heck went wrong. I think I honed in that skill. I think I honed in that skill, and I’ve always been a … I think I’ve been a … I’m not the most concise communicator, but I am a good communicator, and that I can think before I say the words.
I know people don’t need all the acronyms, they don’t want the acronyms, they don’t want the confusion. They want-
Chris Badgett: A website.
Adam: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. If you’ve seen any of my videos, for the audience, if you’ve seen any of my videos, you’ll know I tend to explain something really good. Sadly, I think where a lot of YouTube videos get it wrong, is they throw the explanation out of the window. They just say, “Click here, click here, click here.” I want to say, “Click here because, click here because, click here because.” I’m actually … It’s that old bible parable, you could feed a man and he’ll have that meal for the day, or you could teach him how to fish and he can be fed for his whole lifetime.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s really good stuff. Just to give the listener a little context. Your YouTube channel has grown quite a lot, and it’s big, and like you said, you’re about to take over the WordPress YouTube number one spot, or whatever. What are some of your stats? Like, as of today. Yeah.
Adam: Here, I got my iPhone here, there’s the Trust The Creator App, I don’t mind talking about this at all.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, we’re recording this, we’re recording this in March 2018.
Adam: Yes, well, my YouTube channel has been growing like wildfire this year, 2018, it has grown, and grown, and grown, so … Now, actually, part of the reason why I don’t mind, I don’t share all of my stats usually, but I don’t mind sharing these stats, you know why? Because it’s actually all public information. There are tools that can tell you how other channels are doing, and so I don’t mind sharing this at all. I think today I have almost 300 videos. The YouTube analytics only show you, the default shows you the last 28 days. I’m going to read off the last 28 days. The watch time in minutes for the last 28 days is 1.8 million, over 1.8 million, 1.812 million minutes of watched time. That’s pretty good. The views in the last 28 days alone are 302,000 views, so I just went over the 300,000 views per 28-day period. One of the stats that I’m most grateful and excited about is the subscriber change.
Today, I have 47,816 subscribers. I’m sure by the end of this, that will go up, but what’s most important is the subscriber growth. For the last 28 days, the channel has added a net of 4,245 new subscribers, which is pretty close to 10% growth. Actually, I’ve been very consistent in getting about 9% to 10% growth, about 9% growth in subscribers per month. It’s just a growing, growing thing. Every video I put up now is, within the first 24 hours, is already getting thousand of views. Of course, I do have some dud, everyone’s going to have some duds, by the way. I’ve had many duds. If you’re the audience, listening in the audience, you’re thinking, “I want to do a YouTube channel.” You put a video up, and it got five views, just know that’s how I started, too.
Chris Badgett: That’s cool. Well, thank you for sharing that. For the listener out there, you, that’s listening, these course creators, these membership site builders have a unique skill of, they’re probably pretty good at creating video content, because they’re doing it for their course and their membership. Then, if they’re hearing your numbers and just all that growth, and those are people finding out about you, and you’re multiplying your effectiveness, you’re talking literally a million lifetimes in a month or whatever it is, that can be good marketing for a course or a membership site. What advice, if somebody wants to get into YouTube, let’s say a course creator, they spend all of their time focusing on their membership site, and on their course content, and they think they want to use YouTube as a marketing channel, and they’re just starting, what would you recommend? What are some tips and strategies for getting into YouTube for the course creator?
Adam: Absolutely. I think everybody should strongly consider having a YouTube channel, first of all. It’s something you definitely want to consider. There’s actually a lot of things that go into it on succeeding at it, and not succeeding at it. Just because I read off those stats, I don’t want anyone to think, or when they look at other people as well, that they can’t jump in and have a piece of this as well, and make connections with people through YouTube. It’s totally something that anyone can jump in and there’s tons of stories of people having explosive growth. I want to set that out there. Everybody starts at zero, right? Zero means you just start your channel. You give it a name. You upload a video. You have no subscribers. No one’s probably going to see that video, but that’s how everybody starts, and that’s how I started.
I didn’t have some big email list when I started. I started by just putting a video up there. Now, you really want to consider having a YouTube channel. It’s the way, especially if you’re a course creator, right? Essentially, if you’re creating and selling courses, you need to let people know about this course. You need to grow an audience or a following. You need to put yourself in a position where you’re giving before you’re getting. YouTube is perfect for that. It’s perfect for building a connection with people. What I would suggest is if you want to start a YouTube channel, number one, figure out how to get the best audio possible. Through having affordable but … Actually, me and Chris used the same mic. It’s an Audio-Technica-
Chris Badgett: It’s $70.
Adam: Yeah, it’s so cheap, right? I think I got it for 56 on sale on Amazon, so there’s … It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. You could see Chris has this, if you’re watching, if you’re listening, there’s a mic arm boom, that’s where it attaches to your desk, and so it’s just this arm that the mic’s connected to. Those things are $15, so this isn’t an expensive proposition at all. Even the webcam I use, and I actually use for all of my videos, is $70 and it’s on sale for 60 bucks all the time as well. It doesn’t have to be an expensive venture. What you should focus on is creating content that people are going to be able to search for and find. Now, that sounds obvious, right? Here’s one thing you don’t want to do, and people make this mistake. I don’t know if anyone in the audience has heard of Casey Neistat. Casey Neistat is one of the most prolific vloggers.
If you look at a video title of any of his videos, it’s the weather was cold, or, I had this for lunch. People think, “Oh, I need to be like Casey Neistat, so I’m going to make a video and make a website.” Or, something like that. You have to have a title that is going to be what someone would actually search for. If you don’t have an audience, you can’t make videos like a Casey Neistat. If you look at all the video titles on my videos, I’m not saying, “This is new.” There’s no context. You have to be deep with putting your keywords in there. Then, the next thing you want to do with your videos is find online communities that will be sponges for your content. A perfect example of that is Facebook groups. Facebook groups are fantastic. They’re hungry communities of people about specific topics. If you have a course about something, and you find communities where people that would be interested in your course are gathering, if you’re creating quality, valuable, free content, that’s what you can … is very welcomed in those groups, you put that in there.
Now, they’re getting to know you, and like you, and trust you. That’s really how I started this thing. Obviously, if you’re in any kind of Facebook group related to WordPress, you’re probably going to come across me. That’s where I’ll make videos. I’ll listen to what people are going through, and I’ll make a video for it. I’ll just put it in that group and see what happens.
Chris Badgett: What do you do [inaudible 00:16:29] like a call to action? If you do a video and you don’t tell them to go to your website, or to subscribe to your channel, what’s your approach to that? You said to give before you get, so you’re giving, but you still want to like give them a call to action, right?
Adam: Absolutely. You have to, and this is a big mistake people make, is … I do it, I don’t have a problem asking someone to do something. I don’t have a problem. Some people really have a hard time doing this, but you shouldn’t have a hard time doing this. If you see any of my current videos, the format of how I do things, is I’ll give a little bit of information to spark some intrigue early in the video. Then, I’ll say, my introduction, “Hi, my name is Adam from WPCrafter.” I say what I do and what someone can expect if they were a subscriber. Then, I say, “Why don’t you consider subscribing to the channel?” I don’t ask, I ask them to think about consider doing it. That’s the first call to action that I have. Then, a lot of times I will make reference to links in the video. You know one thing I don’t actually do? I never ask anyone to give my video a thumb up. I always forget to do that.
I’m more interested in getting them to subscribe and click on the notification bell, but you absolutely want to have a call to action. If you are someone that is selling courses, I would encourage you to look at your course material, look at the content that you want to create for YouTube and figure out how you can have course, paid course level quality of content, and wrap that into a free starter course. At the end of your video say, “Hey, if you’re interested in this topic more, I have a free video course … ” No, I don’t like to say I have a free video course, because that makes a … I don’t like to say it like that. I say, “I have a course that I created for you on my website, and I’d like to give this away for free to my subscribers.” Then, you can have a link to it, or you can say the link to it through some kind of a link shortener.
Chris Badgett: That’s cool.
Adam: A quick tip there for YouTube. Have Pretty Links pro, or a link shortener, and verbally say your link, because people might take your video and embed them elsewhere. If you say, “Oh, I’ve got the link in the video description.” Well, if they took your video, there isn’t a video description, and they’re never going to have this, nowhere to go. Anyways, that’s one of the things I really like about Lifter LMS, is it’s very easy to just plug that sucker right into your website, create a quality free course that you can give to someone. Then, they know what to expect. You’re accomplishing two things. Number one, you’ve got their email address. Number two, they’re getting to know you in how you create content in the valuable … the value in it, the quality in it. Then, they’re more likely to either, A, continue watching your videos on YouTube, and at a certain point make that jump into a paid course.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. One more YouTube tip before we talk a little more about courses. You do very well at ranking videos, so optimizing your videos so that people can find it. You mentioned titling is very important, like people aren’t always looking for the solution. They might be searching for a problem, or whatever. You have good optimized titles. It also appears as though you do … you spend some time on the [inaudible 00:20:16] holder image [crosstalk 00:20:18]-
Adam: Thumbnail?
Chris Badgett: Thumbnail, and then, there’s a description and tags that go with the video. Can you speak to how you use those tools to optimize the view count?
Adam: Absolutely. Well, for anyone listening that has a YouTube channel, or wants to have a YouTube channel, at some point, well, there’s really no reason to not start upfront. You’re going to want to leverage some tools that are out there for YouTube. The one that I use, there’s three main ones, that one that I use, and I’ve always used is called TubeBuddy. What TubeBuddy does is it connects into your YouTube channel, and it’s going to help you with certain things. One of the things that I use that to help me with is generating tags. Tags are what you add to your video. It’s just like tags on a WordPress website, actually, where it’s another way of categorizing and organizing your content. Well, YouTube actually uses these tags to figure out what the heck your video is about in the first place. Yes, I was … I follow a simple formula. Nothing that I do is actually secret.
With my titles, I try to write them in a conversational way, “How do I do this? How do I do that?” Then, I try to put some keywords in there. How do I do this with Elementor? If you are familiar with that video that we were talking about in the beginning of the video, it’s titled, How to Create An Online Learning, or Online Course Website. Then, I sneak in the word-
Chris Badgett: In 2018.
Adam: What’s that?
Chris Badgett: In 2018, too, you’re doing [crosstalk 00:22:01].
Adam: In 2018, oh, yeah.
Chris Badgett: Because people, when they look for tutorials, they don’t want an outdated video, because they know technology changes fast.
Adam: Exactly. I will put on certain pieces of content that I will put the year in, because people will search whatever, and then, they’ll enter the year. For Elementor, they’ll say, “Elementor tutorials 2018.” That’s actually one of my tags, when I have a video about Elementor. If you’re wanting to know more about optimizing for YouTube, there’s a wonderful YouTube channel by a guy named Brian Dean, you could just search Brian Dean. He talks about SEO and YouTube SEO. He actually recently put out … It’s so funny, he has so much impact, check this out, he’s recently released a video two weeks ago, maybe three weeks ago. The video was how to grow your YouTube subscribers 2018. He goes through his video and the first thing is, on every YouTube video, there’s an option, or channel, there’s an option to have what’s called a watermark, a branded image on the bottom right of the video.
I’ve had one always. A lot of people have had them always. What he was saying is make a button that says subscribe, and put that in there, and so now, for that watermark, will be this button that says subscribe. After he made that video, every channel I was going to, I was seeing that exact thing on all of their channels, because they’re listening to this guy who has valuable input. He talks about the titles, the tags, all of that. You’re going to hear this over and over again, the most important thing is that thumbnail, one of the most important things is that thumbnail, you have to have beautiful thumbnails. I didn’t start with beautiful thumbnails, but overtime, I hired a graphic designer to make them look a little nicer, but you definitely want to have a … It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. You can hire the designer for 10 bucks to make you your core template, and all you’re changing is the text each time.
Chris Badgett: What makes a good thumbnail?
Adam: Well, I have opinion on that, that is probably contrary to some of the people that are doing something similar. For me, one of the things that’s always been the most important to me is to put my face in everything, because that’s the brand, is my face. I don’t do that out of some kind of a vanity. I’m not a vain person in that way. I probably have other vanity traits, but that’s not one of my vanity traits. I put my face in everything. I put it on every thumbnail. We’ll have my face in it, and my videos have my face in it. I find that’s very important for making that connection with me. I think it’s very important to have your face, and if you’re willing to do that. If you’re not willing to do that, you’re going to want to have a thumbnail that doesn’t have the same words as your title, but it would be maybe a few words that would spark some kind of intrigue.
It’s like the phrase is, what’s the value proposition of this video, and how are you going to encapsulate that into a thumbnail image to create some curiosity to get someone to click. It’s going to be different for every niche. You’re going to have people in your niche, probably, so you want to look at what they’re doing, and you want to … If someone’s looking at the last 10 videos, and your video is one out of those 10 videos, and they’re just looking at the thumbnail, which one stands out? You want yours to stand out. You don’t want to necessarily do what everybody else is doing.
Chris Badgett: That’s just like a book cover. If you’re browsing, everybody can think of a bookstore, it’s the same concept. Look at the way book covers jump out and do something like that.
Adam: Great analogy, actually. I never even thought of it that way, but that’s a fantastic analogy.
Chris Badgett: You mentioned potentially using videos to drag to the site, to get them into a free course, so how do you use Lifter LMS on your site?
Adam: Okay, so I think I might be one of the largest Lifter LMS based websites. I’m sure you know what the top might be, or have some kind of an indication. I know Lifter LMS, you can opt in or opt out of anonymous statistics. Today, I have 8,000 students in my Lifter LMS based courses. Tell me, is that one of the bigger ones?
Chris Badgett: The bigger ones are like around 40,000 and stuff, but you’re definitely there, you’re definitely big. Having more than a thousand is a big category.
Adam: Now, I know where I need to get to, because I always want to be the best. I need to make more free courses, or just make them all free. The way that I use Lifter LMS, and if you’re listening and you’re looking for a learning management system to use, I will say, and I have some content coming out on this, that in my opinion, and I will document why I have this opinion, Lifter LMS is the most complete plug and play click system for having an online course based website. I was actually using a different learning management system, initially, and then, I switched over to Lifter LMS. I’m just laying the groundwork for that video, which will be coming soon, so make sure you subscribe. Now, to answer that question, on my website, actually, you know what? What I do, I could only do it with Lifter LMS. On my website, I have individual courses, and I have them structured into different tiers. I have a free course, and that’s what I tell people is a great start.
They can go, and it’s really good information in there. It’s going to make someone’s experience with WordPress a lot smoother. It’s a free course, a very top quality. Then, I have some maintenance, these are my more affordable courses, and they’re $99 each, and there’s three of them. Then, I have a whole section of courses based around page builders. Actually, the first couple modules of each of those courses is exactly the same, because I talk about what goes into building a beautiful website, and then the specifics of their page build. Then, I have higher priced courses that are 299 each. What I do is, I bundle them up, which is one of the really nice things about Lifter LMS, is you can bundle courses up into memberships. Even though it might be to buy them individually at $800, I can bundle them up and sell it for $300. I’m able to pack more value in there for people. That is actually how I use it and if anyone’s familiar with my content, I just try to give everything away.
I give so much, so a lot of times, if you maybe purchased a page … a perfect example, if you purchased a page builder through my referral link, and then, you send me a copy of your receipt, I’ll email you, Lifter LMS is the only one that has this, a voucher code. You could take this voucher code, go back to my website, and Lifter LMS will automatically enroll you in that $200 course. It’s a great value exchange, right? I’m earning a little money in the referral fee, but someone is not having to pay this $200 for the course, they’re getting it for free. It works out really, really well, and a lot of people have really appreciated that. That’s really how I’m using Lifter LMS, and I got to say, I just couldn’t do it. I’ve look at all the systems, they don’t have these voucher codes, these membership bundles, these things just aren’t there.
Chris Badgett: I appreciate that. It’s great to hear you using so much of the features. You’re not just like a one-course site, nothing wrong with that, but you’re flexing the system for … you’re the type of person it’s built for. That’s awesome that you’re using 80% of it. How would you describe, for those of you listening or watching this, who is the perfect fit for wpcrafter.com to take your courses and all of that, and being your audience? Who gets the most value from you?
Adam: Well, there is a misnomer out there that I try to squash, and that misnomer is that WPCrafter is for new people to WordPress or beginners. That’s actually not true at all, because when I look at the audience, these are people running agencies, these are people that, yeah, a lot of them are starting new as well, or they’ve had a website, a WordPress-based website for a while, but it’s not newbies. Now, it’s not ideal for the super involved developer, hardcore developer and all of that. Those people-
Chris Badgett: They’re not non-techies.
Adam: Yeah, they’re not non-techies, or they can’t appreciate something being explained in a way that 99% of the world can understand. They want the techy, they want … It’s not that there’s not details in it, there’s tons of details, but there’s also explanation that go with these details. However, I will say that typically, those people have a certain skillset, but there’s this other skillset they need, and this other skillset they need as well, and they can value. I have a course on WordPress SEO. A lot of it revolves around on page SEO, strategies and things that you could be using and leveraging the tools for it. A lot of times, those hardcore developers have no idea anything about SEO and what they should be doing about to improve the search ratings of their website, or some of the covert strategies that I’ve developed over the years that I reveal in the courses. You definitely want to keep some of your secrets back, I gave everything on YouTube. You definitely want to keep some of your secrets back for the courses.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. You do so much education, I want to ask you what’s a basic question to somebody who’s already in the industry, or building websites a lot. When you’re working with somebody, or explaining for the first time the difference between like the theme, and where do page builders sit, and plug-ins, when you’re introducing the concept how do you describe it to people? Mostly, I’m asking because of page builders, because some people, I don’t know what the percentages are. I like to use page builders, but I know a lot of people still just use regular WordPress themes. How do you explain theme page builder plug-in?
Adam: Absolutely. That’s a fantastic question, because it does cause some confusion and it’s not helped out of the fact that the lines are getting blurred every three to four months with new features coming out, those lines are getting blurred. I’ll tell you the exact way that I do it. On one of my lessons, when I talk about this, I take my homepage, and I took a screenshot of my homepage. Then, I sliced it up into sections. I have my header section, and then, I have the part beneath it, which is your hero kind of area. Then, I took each little section and I broke it up all the way to the bottom. I say, “Okay, this is your header. Your theme basically does everything below this, and above this thing called the footer.” Then, I start slicing it all up, and I got into an explanation of basically every single website that you visit is a series of sections or, Beaver Builder calls them rows, that’s it.
Then, in those sections and rows, you have columns. That’s all there is. You can have one column, you can have four columns, as many columns as you want. If you look at any websites, this is exactly how it’s broken down. Then, you put things in these columns, you put texts, or you put an image, or you put a video, or you put some kind of other thingy, and that is every single website. You can go to any website and literally just break it down this way, and figure out how you can actually build the same exact thing, as long as you know how the page builder actually works. I actually go into that in detail in my courses, and I do break it down a little bit, actually, in those free videos, like the one on how to create an online course website. That’s basically how I do it, to have a visual portion to it like that.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Your How To Make An Online Course in 2018 video, if somebody says, “Adam, that is a long video, it’s several hours.” What would you say to that? How do you pitch that?
Adam: That’s a good question. Actually, here, I’m pulling it up right now to see how many views that video has right now. I will say that there’s two reasons why the video is long, and I’m going to say this not answering that question, okay? Let me scroll down here. All right, 6,270 views in the last 15 days. That’s pretty good. There’s a lot of people watching it despite the length of the video. YouTube tip, most important metric on YouTube is watch time. If I made that video two minutes, and then, I made it five hours, it benefits me to make the five-hour one, because a lot of people will just push play and watch the whole thing straight through. I get more watch time. You want watch time. You want longer videos. That’s what YouTube says. To answer that question, I didn’t want to cut any corners with the information. You could look at that and say, “Oh my gosh, that’s five hours.”
I’m not cutting any corners, and one of the really nice things about YouTube is they have this thing called the video description. When you expand this video description, you could put timestamps. I’ve literally broken it down into 20 different timestamps. You can just click on that timestamp and it’s going to jump you straight to the part of the video that interest you. It’s also a good tool if you’re coming back to the video. For example, there’s a portion of the video where I talk about hosting. Well, if you already have hosting, just skip it. You can go in there and just skip to the next section. I make that very convenient for you. Number two, and I actually, I think I say this in the beginning of the video, the way I speak in my videos, I’m trying to be methodical. I’m trying to use the right words. I could talk a little slower sometimes.
Not that it’s slow like, “What’s wrong with this guy? What’s he on?” Slow in a normal way, but YouTube has a playback speed feature, so you can actually increase it to 1.25, or 1.5, or twice as fast. There’s a lot of people on my YouTube channel that listen to me twice as fast. I think it’s perfect at 1.25 though, but there’s all these ways of actually getting through and a lot faster. I think if you click play, you can appreciate the fact that I don’t just say, “Click here, click here, click here.” Then, you don’t even know why the heck you’re clicking there. I’m giving you all the tools so that-
Chris Badgett: Explain.
Adam: I explain things. I’m an explainer. As you could tell through this podcast, I can be a little chatty, but it’s a fun thing. Anyways.
Chris Badgett: I think that’s brilliant, to use the timestamp table of content strategy. It’s almost like a course within one video, with all these different lessons, basically. That’s really cool.
Adam: Actually, let me talk about that. If you watch … Anyone that saw the 2017 version, someone said, “You know what? I don’t like these long videos. You should actually just make it a series of videos and add it up to a playlist.” I did that last year, what I noticed was there was confusion people were having making it to the next video. That ended up being 23 videos, so people could just jump to the video. Then, if I watch the views would diminish as the playlist-
Chris Badgett: On the playlist?
Adam: Yeah, and so, it just made more sense to make it easier for people to just pack it all into one, but you’re absolutely right in that it’s really an entire course. Because of those timestamps put into this video, I could have separated it out and actually made it a paid course on the website, but I really want to help as much people … I think my goals and the Lifter LMS goals are in alignment, in that I want to help as many people as possible, even people … Especially the people that maybe don’t have the resources, like financial and knowledge base resources. I’m doing that and it’s the same thing as Lifter LMS where they’re giving this away, literally, it’s free, literally. You can sell, you could be a little creative, you could sell your courses until you have enough money to buy a payment giveaway.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. I’m just thinking about the teacher out there, the teacher who’s maybe hasn’t gone into WordPress yet, doesn’t know what Lifter is, but they see your video thumbnail, or they’re listening to this podcast episode, or watching the video version, what is the learning objective of your course, your five-hour video? What do they learn how to do? What is the result they get if they commit and then they take action, and follow along with you, and build what you’re building, what do they get?
Adam: Yeah, so what the outcome is going to be, and it’s as painless as possible, is a website that you control, that you know how to change things, that you know how to put your image here, your text here, your course description here, your logo here. You’re going to know how to do all of that. It’s going to be a website that has your preferences and personality put into it. That’s number one, but number two, it will be ready to go with Lifter LMS so that all you have to do is put your video or audio file, link it in there, and structure out your course, and you’re literally … You can focus on … You don’t have to focus on the technical sides of things. You could focus on the course content, and how you’re going to spread your message versus all the little technical things that go into having a website. It’s so painless.
The prior years, 2017, 2016, there was more steps, more complication. For 2018, I wanted to do something very special. I looked at this and I said, “Man, how can I make sure people are successful?” I don’t want anyone to get overwhelmed. I want to make this as point and click easy as possible. What I did is I reached out to friend of mine who just, maybe eight months ago came out with a WordPress theme, and I said, “Hey, I want someone to use your theme and plug in Lifter LMS, and out of the box have it look really, really good. Better than Teachable, better than all of these other options out there. Can you do this? Can you help me do this?” They said, “Yes, we’ll do that.” I do wanted to speak one more thing about the five hours.
Chris Badgett: Okay.
Adam: Actually, I could reduce this to a 20-minute video.
Chris Badgett: That’s the problem with a lot of the videos, though. What are you skipping? What are you not explaining?
Adam: Exactly, exactly. The five hours isn’t work. It’s not work. I’ve got to plug this in here. I’ve got to do this, and I’m clicking things for five hours. That’s not what the five hours is. Actually, I could reduce this to a 20-minute video, and you probably have a similar outcome, but you wouldn’t know what the heck to do next. Without the explanation in there, you wouldn’t be ready to go on your own.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, that’s a super solid point. I also, just to contextualize the five hours, not too long ago, you might have had to higher, like a web design development company. You spent $30,000, maybe more, $10,000, whatever, to build a custom course sight for you, and it would take like five months. The fact that you can do this in five hours with a few free unpaid tools is like amazing, really. That’s why 2018 is really special, with the intersection of page builders, the Astra theme you were mentioning, Lifter, it’s like, the page builders, hosting, Lifter LMS, themes, like Astra, and then, with your teaching, all of that just removed a ton of friction from getting your course site up, which is pretty amazing.
Adam: Yeah, if you’re like me, I don’t know what is middle age, I’m 40 something. I guess I’m middle aged. If I don’t have the time, or the interest, but I want the website, well, I’ve got a kid. I could say, “Hey, kid, here’s 20 bucks, so sit there and knock this sucker out for me.” I just turned that kid into a web developer, or a cousin, or a nephew, or something like that. There’s lots of options here. There’s lots of options here, but the end goal is that this is a set of tools and the training that goes with it that can really impact people’s lives. It could really impact people’s lives to give people a platform that they could take all that knowledge and specialty that they have, put it into a course and get that out there. Not only have it change their life, but the people who actually enroll in the courses have changed their lives as well.
Chris Badgett: Yeah, it’s definitely online education is having a moment in time right now. What you’re doing with your course is really empowering a lot of do it yourself first. It’s never been easier, but also just like you mentioned, in terms of paying somebody to have build the site for you, there’s a whole industry. There’s a lot of experts out there, busy authors, teachers, whatever, the speakers that want a course site. If you specialize in building course sites, you could literally launch that career by following Adam’s video and going through the process of building one of those yourself. Now, you’ve got the base skillset to build courses for others, which is really cool.
Adam: Actually, a lot of people have done that. They go through this video, and then, they learn how it’s done, and you can easily specialize in that. There’s a lot of people that would … There’s always going to be some portion that wants to do it this way, or just wants to pay someone to do it. You absolutely could do that. In there, there’s a lot of … the design is already done for you, but I show you how to make it, how you want it, if you don’t want to use the designs that I put together. There’s this misnomer, let’s talk about some of the other options. What’s one of the other options, Teachable, or Coursera, I don’t know. There’s all these other options. People think, “I can go there. It’s going to be easier. I just pay $100 a month or whatever, and they take 2% or 3%, or 5%, it’s just going to be easier.” It ain’t going to be easier. You’re going to have a learning curve no matter what platform you choose, there’s going to be a learning curve. The only thing is, you go with the Teachable, who’s going to hold your hand for five hours, show you how to use this thing and dig?
There’s paid courses, I’m sure, for that, but here, you’re getting it all in the training that’s free, and in-depth. You’re going to have a learning curve no matter which platform you choose, but this is a way of having everything built on the foundation that you own and control. It’s like in the United States we have these mobile home parks, right? What a mobile home park is, there’s a home that you own sitting on a land that you don’t own. You know what happens? You sign a 99-year lease, then, what happens after 99 years, you’re probably not getting it at the beginning of it, you might be getting it in the last 10 years. 99 years comes up, say, they just kicked you off, and they build a row house there, and they turn it into a community. That’s what happens when you’re building all of these on land that someone else owns. You can built it on land that you own, you control, and let me say one more thing, this is a pet peeve of mine with Teachable, specifically.
Not only do you pay all these money, when someone goes to see your course page, it’s the most butt-ugly page on planet earth, inflexible, you can’t even do anything with it. Here’s a solution that you can have the most beautiful page to actually sell your course, and then, your course looks beautiful. You can’t do that with Teachable. I think you can with the $500 a month plan, and then, maybe a couple of thousand to a developer who’s hand coding it, and it will still be okay. Here’s a way of … It’s like the full thing. There’s nothing held back here.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, I’ve always said that the best training videos are almost never made by the company that makes the tools. I’m grateful to you, Adam, and WPCrafter, the brand, for teaching people and showing them how to use our tools, and other people’s tools to build online course sites and just websites in general. It’s a real service to the community. Thank you for doing what you do. I encourage our listener to check out wpcrafter.com. Also, go check out his five-hour video on How To Build An Online Course Website in 2018. We’ll have a link to that below in the description. Adam, thank you so much for coming on the show.
Adam: Thank you for having me. I want to say one more thing to that. This actually, maybe it ties everything together. We were talking about YouTube. One of the most important keys, I think, to my success, I want to share this, is that if you leave a comment in one of my videos, a question, I’m going to actually respond to that. My eyeballs are going to see it. I’m going to give you a reply. That’s how you connect with people. A strategy and how it ties into this video. If you’re struggling with something, or you have a question that I didn’t address, you can actually ask me a question in the comment section, and I will spend my time and respond to you because that’s how much I want you to be successful.
Chris Badgett: Awesome. Well, thank you, Adam. We’re going to have to do this again sometime. Yeah, thank you so much.
Adam: Thank you.

EPISODE 177

Professional Web Design for Course Creators, Page Builders, Website Speed, and a WordPress Theme for LifterLMS with Sujay Pawar of Brainstorm Force and Astra

Welcome to this episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS! Today we get into professional web design for course creators, page builders, website speed, and a WordPress theme for LifterLMS with Sujay Pawar of Brainstorm Force and Astra.

Sujay and the Brainstorm Force team created the amazing Astra theme for WordPress, as well as a suite of other products that optimize the way you can use WordPress. Sujay shares his journey into the WordPress space. He also highlights his experiences with creating a product company that now employs 30 people.

In college Sujay started offering SEO and intellect partnering services to some clients in his free time. Most of Sujay’s clients were WordPress users, so he teamed up with his current business partner to offer both SEO and WordPress customization services. The duo started building some plugins for WordPress and then picked up developers as time went on, and Brainstorm Force was created.

Front line obsession is where you are very engaged with your customers and your community. This trait is very common among good service providers and product company owners. Building your courses and services around your ideal customer is what is key to seeing success with your product.

Themes on a website do the heavy lifting of design, plugins are predominantly focused on functionality, and page builders help you create more fancy layouts and do some even more detailed customization. Add-ons are an even newer branch of web development that is becoming popular.

Chris and Sujay dive deep into how important it is to keep your finger on the pulse of what your clients are needing. The goal of the Astra theme is to take a very modular approach to web development with the heavy influence of page builders. Astra now integrates with LifterLMS! So you can do a lot of customizations with sidebars, checkout pages, and student dashboard pages.

Brainstorm Force also has the Schema plugin that makes you appear better in search results. It allows Google to understand your website better and gain a higher level of confidence in your site. Schema makes websites, especially course websites, easier for search engines to analyze.

Go to BrainstormForce.com to check out the Astra theme and all of the other revolutionary products they offer. You can get the Astra theme for free, and you can purchase Astra Pro if you want more control over styling customizations.

Head over to LifterLMS.com and check out all of the things we have going on and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us!

Chris: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and I am joined by a special guest, Sujay Pawar from the Astra Theme and the company that makes that Brainstorm Force. Sujay’s company makes a lot of other products that we’re gonna get into, and Sujay and I first connected at Chris Lema’s CaboPress. We connected online before but we actually met in person there, and it was really great to meet you in person.
What you’re doing with the Astra Theme for the course building community is really awesome. I can’t wait to dig into it, but first can you tell us a little bit about how your journey into WordPress and becoming a product company, that you now have 30 people, 30-ish people, as a cofounder, how did that happen for you?
Sujay: First of all, thank you for having me on the show, Chris. This is my first podcast. So very happy to join you on the show. As you said, I am the cofounder of Brainstorm Force, which makes Astra Theme and various other products.
I started this company about nine years ago when I was in college. The journey started, I did not have any intention of starting a company or business, but I was just in college, trying to finish my college project, and I had some spare time. I had learned a couple of things while completing my college project. It was about a SEO world rankings and stuff like that, so I though why not make some money by offering SEO and intellect partnering services to some clients. That’s how I started and met my business partner, who was in the same business offering similar services. So, we joined teams, we started providing the services together and we started as an SEO company and most of the work we were doing was on now WordPress websites. Many of our customers were WordPress users. That’s how we started offering WordPress customization services as well.
Then we started playing with WordPress. We built up some plugins, submitted them on WordPress depository, and that’s how we got in the WordPress business too. Along the way we built our team of people who wanted to join us, who were happy to join our team, develop plugins and stuff like that. That’s how we built our team as well, and so here we are for nine years a team of 30 people who co-fund us. We still provide services, which include WordPress enterprise level services, many brands in India are our customers, I mean universities, [Indian 00:03:06] newspaper agencies and publication houses, and we have a products business too. I personally take care of the products business, while my partner takes care of the service side of the business.
Chris: Very cool, very cool, and for those of you listening, I just want to read off some of the products made by Brainstorm Force. The Astra Theme we’re going to talk about today, there’s also Ultimate Addons for Beaver Builder, Convert Pro, Schema Pro, which I’m sure came out of your roots in SEO, WP Portfolio and you’re working on an addon for Elementor coming soon. So, that’s a really nice suite of products, and we’re going to talk about those in a little bit, but when I first connected or noticed you online, I originally noticed you around the Ultimate Addons for Beaver Builder. Then, as I’ve gotten to know you, one of the things I’ve really noticed about you is we share, number one, a skill and a desire and a passion for strategy, which is great, but also you have this, from my observation, thing, I call it a front line obsession, where you’re very engaged with your customers and your community and you’re very professional about how you conduct yourself when you’re in your communities.
I’ve noticed with great companies, especially in technology and software, it’s very important, especially for one of the co-founders or founder or leadership people in leadership positions to really interact directly with the customers or the prospects, so that they really understand the need of what people want, and try to solve those problems with technology, and really just invest in those relationships. Where does that come from for you? Why do you do that? How did you make it such an important part of what you do, to interact with your community?
Sujay: Many of our ideas, the best ideas, come from interaction with the customers and I believe this is an integral part of our culture. We just like to go out, speak to our customers, try to interact with them, understand their needs, and that’s how we get general feedback for our products, seeing what people are doing with our products, how they use our products, what kinds of challenges they face interacting with our communities and forums. So, this is just a cultural thing for us. We just like to go out, speak with them, hang out with them. I believe that is the source of our main inspiration and ideas.
Chris: That’s very cool, and like you, we have a background in the service business. We’re pretty much a product company now, but I think out of those roots of working with clients you develop a… It’s different than just starting with the product business. I’m sure that having a service business serves you well too in terms of really keeping your finger on the pulse of what businesses are wanting and needing. I have one more question for you just around you. One of the other things I’ve noticed about your company and your products, and really your skill set, is you have this magical combination of design, development and business skills. A lot of times companies are strong in one or two of those, but not all three in the software space and in the WordPress community. How did you get such a well-rounded balance across those disciplines?
Sujay: To be honest, I was very good at code in college, but it’s been a while, I haven’t coded. I am, myself, a very design obsessed person, so I pay very good attention on all our products and see if they are designed well, if they have good user experience and stuff like that. As for the code, that just comes from my personal background in computer science. I can understand how things work and how things should work, but I’m not the one who codes. I’m very lucky to have a good team who have great skills in software development and code writing. So, it’s just my team who writes code, and I’m the one who takes code of our designs, I’m the one who still approves our designs and [inaudible 00:08:02] very good eye on the designs. That’s a good combination, thanks to my team who write good code, and I can take care of the other things.
Chris: Very cool, very cool, well I want to talk about page builders a little bit, before we get into courses and memberships. We’ve noticed at LifterLMS that not everybody, but there’s a percentage, a good, significant percentage of people who use page builders. So, the way I describe it in general is that themes do the heavy lifting of design, plugins like LifterLMS are predominantly focused on functionality and then page builders help you create more fancy layouts, is how I’d describe it to somebody who’s not in the industry and goes into more detail about how it all works. I noticed you came in with Ultimate Addons for Beaver Builder, which is really cool. I actually go to your page there on Ultimate Addons for Beaver Builder and look at the different things that you can do that adds to Beaver Builder to make it fancier. I get so much inspiration and design ideas from there. It’s just so cool. How did you decide to… I mean, themes used to do all the design, and then page builders came in, and then it’s almost like you’re part of this new category that takes page builders even further with all these templates.
Even in your Astra theme you have Astra sites, you have these prebuilt things. Where did this, how did this evolve so that you take things that are already existing and then extend them further, making it easier for the customer? How did that happen?
Sujay: To be honest, Ultimate Addons for Beaver Builder is not our first addon for page builders. The one before, our first commercial product, was Ultimate Addons for Visual Composer. We developed that in 2014, and that was our first commercial product. Like I said, our roots are in WordPress. We provide services to our customers, so many of customers who wanted flexibility, who often came to use asking for tiny, little, small-small changes, and we at that time were product developing our own page builder around 2013 when we had just started building WordPress plugins. So we even designed our own page builder, but it wasn’t very good, so we saw which are the existing good page builders in the market, and Visual Composer was one of them. It had good APIs as well, so we just decided to extend that, because it was very basic back in 2013. It did not have any good modules, good designs or good [inaudible 00:11:05]. So on top of the Visual Composer’s APIs we built new models, and we just thought, “Hey, why shouldn’t we offer these new models and new components to other people.”
So the starting point was we just submitted the new plugin that we had developed on [inaudible 00:11:27], which is an automatic plus, and it instantly went popular. We realized many people wanted similar functionality, similar extendability, so that somewhere in our addon for Visual Composer the very old page builder got in the market, so it was out of necessity. We wanted to provide more control to our clients. We started developing our own page builder, but it did not go well, so we just took and extended another one. So, Ultimate Addons for Visual Composer was very popular, being used by more than 30-40,000 people back then, before we started developing Beaver Builder addon. Beaver Builder was new, many people were jumping on the Beaver Builder ship, and many people always reached out to us, “[inaudible 00:12:16] you have a very good extension for Visual Composer. Without your extension we can’t even think of using Visual Composer, and why don’t you develop a similar extension for Beaver Builder as well? You have a very good set of modules, which you can develop in Beaver Builder as well, and we would be very happy to purchase your plugin.”
So, that’s how we got in Beaver Builder’s space as well, and along the way we had developed a theme for our customers for serving in our clients business. Rather than starting every time with a very, very blank and scratch theme like [inaudible 00:12:56], we had developed a theme that we called ‘Theme’ back then, which we just installed on our clients’ website. We extended that theme further. We improved it, optimized it and re released it in the WordPress depository, which is now known as Astra.
Chris: Very cool.
Sujay: That’s how we got in the page builder and themes market, and to answer your question how themes have evolved, I still remember like themes were digitized, all the designs used to come from [rejects 00:13:30] and WordPress pages were just for the static pages where you had an EMC and you just had to direct things. That’s how the content of your pages came from, but that has been changing. Themes are becoming very, very flexible. Themes are mostly responsible for controlling the basic structure and the basic layout typography, color set of your website, while the custom pages are being designed from the plugin nowadays, from the page builder nowadays, while plugins like LifterLMS do the heavy lifting for essential functionality. I believe that is the way it should be, even with [inaudible 00:14:14] coming, this idea is, I believe, being proved that page builders are a necessity, so that people can design unique layouts. So, I believe page builders are a good way for users to provide good control over the design and the flexibility.
Chris: That’s awesome. I think back when I started freelancing and building sites for clients, and this would have been around… I started building sites on my own around 2008, and then charging for it around 2010. If I had had page builders and themes like Astra and addons like modules and templates I could use it would have been… It’s just amazing how far things have come and it opens up the whole world of building websites, and not just any websites, great looking websites to more and more people. It’s very cool. I like where we’re heading here. Let’s talk a little bit more about Astra. So, you have an angle on it about speed, which I think is fascinating, because when people are selecting themes sometimes you hear folks say things like, “Don’t go with this one over here because it’s “bloated” and it’s slow.” How did you decide to focus on the speed problem? Why did you choose that to focus on?
Sujay: Like we just talked, nowadays the borderline between themes and page builders has become very thin. Themes are necessary to be very flexible and most of the designs are coming from page builders, so we decided to make a theme that works with all page builders, and keep it really very, very lightweight so that it works and it performs very fast in all browsers. So that’s how we decided to make a theme that is very flexible and performance focused. Performances are a very essential thing nowadays, because many themes that you see in the market today are bloated, but very few themes focus on the performance and we just decided to tackle that problem and that is speed and performance is the core of Astra.
Chris: Well, as I can see with the very fast growth of Astra I think you made a good strategic decision there, and also acknowledging that the function of the themes are changing and page builders do what they do, and so therefore the role of the theme is different. How did you decide to get into or focus on the course building memberships site market? Why is that market of interest to you?
Sujay: With Astra, what we want to do is we are taking a very modular approach. The first thing that we wanted to do was… I mean, modularity is at the core of Astra. We are making things very, very modular, so first our initial focus was page builders. I believe we did a good job at the page builders market. Many, I mean, for [brochure 00:17:51] sites, Astra is popular now, as people are using Astra in combination of any page builder of their choice for building [brochure 00:18:00] websites, but the next step for us was to integrate with LMS and plugins like LifterLMS, so that’s our strategic decision to integrate with more plugs in a modular way, in a way that it doesn’t become bloated, and it is possible, because of our modular structure. So, LifterLMS is an awesome LMS, and it was a strategic move to come in the LMS market and integrate with LifterLMS to offer LMS solutions to WordPress users.
Chris: That’s awesome, and I noticed that you guys also support Woo Commerce.
Sujay: Yes, we released our Woo Commerce integration last year, very late last year in December, and I believe it is one of the best integrations you can find on the internet with Woo Commerce. We have provided many good things, whilst still remaining performance focused, conversion focused without any load at all. We have tried our best to provide best Woo Commerce support. It is possible because we still do client projects and we understand clients’ needs, so that’s a benefit for us since we still do client projects.
Chris: Very cool. I have some more questions I’m going to come to related to that, but before I do, can you just describe, and we do the same thing at LifterLMS, we have a freemium model where there’s a free LifterLMS core plugin and then we have addons. With the Astra theme you have a free theme, and then you have paid stuff you can add to it. Can you describe for the people that have perhaps never heard of Astra what do they get with the free and what do they get with the paid?
Sujay: Sure. So, Astra free theme is kind of a framework. This is a very good base for your website. You get a solid structure and architecture for your website. On top of that you can install the plugins and build your WordPress website. It’s a blank canvas theme that you can start your project with, and with Astra Pro it’s an addon for the Astra theme. It’s not another theme, extended version of the theme, it’s a plugin that sits on top of the Astra and accents things. So, basic styling and design comes from the Astra theme, whereas if you need more controls or styling, or the appearance of your website, if you need more options in the customizer, these options are provided from the Astra pro theme.
Chris: Very cool, and in terms of LifterLMS, what does that mean? Are there things that you can get in the free theme for Lifter, or it’s all in the addon, or how does that work?
Sujay: When you install the Astra theme with the LifterLMS plugin, you instantly get a beautiful looking website for courses. Your courses look amazing, just by installing the Astra theme LifterLMS, but if you need more control over styling, for example more control over your checkout pages, more control over the [grids 00:21:28] or more control over your membership plans, or even more control over your courses and lessons pages, Astra Pro provides options in the customizer so you can customize the appearance, you can turn on and off some options. You can control how things appear on your website. So, the styling and the design comes from the Astra theme, whereas if you need more options you can get them from Astra Pro plugin.
Chris: That is very cool, and I wanted to focus on that point a little bit in terms of integrating with a tool, like you were saying Woo Commerce and now we’re talking about LifterLMS, LifterLMS is a plugin and there are addons, and if a theme wants to integrate, I mean, Lifter can work with any [inaudible 00:22:16] well-coded WordPress theme, and I’ve noticed some companies build… They may advertise Lifter compatibility and do a few things, but what I noticed when you came on the scene is you started doing a lot of things, and you started solving a lot of interesting problems like [inaudible 00:22:39] into the customizer, which is the way people with WordPress can toggle different options and adjust things and see them change in real time, which is very cool. You started almost, to me as a product guy, it looked like you were attacking very key, important problems or opportunities. So, to give an example of what some of those are, is you gave a bunch of different layout options that looked great out of the box, like box layout, full width, a bunch of neat options that were very easy to play around with and see which one you like.
As we all know, people have very different design preferences. Some people like the box thing, some people like the wide thing, so that was very cool. Then two of the features that really caught my attention, and this is where it’s obvious that you understand the customer, but also the customer’s customer, which is actually, in my opinion, the most important thing, you integrated two features called distraction-free checkout and distraction-free Learning. I’m really glad you did both, because course creators or education entrepreneurs, they need to build a business, they’re trying to make money, conversion is important, having distraction-free checkout is important. Keeping them focused while they’re checking out and eliminating distraction makes sense, but also you took the time to create distraction-free learning, so that as they get into a lesson there are fewer things going on, really focusing on the lesson content, which I thought that’s a feature that comes from a place, from somebody that really understands course creators and their students. Could you talk a little bit about those features and where the genesis of where those ideas came from? You didn’t ask me for that or anything. You just created it. I was like, “Wow, that is really cool.”
Sujay: Sure, so on this, I mean, we believe the devil is in the details. I personally believe the devil is in the details and when we integrate with some plugins like LifterLMS, I believe it is the job of our team to provide the necessary styling for the plugin. The integration, I mean just integrating and saying [inaudible 00:25:09] is not necessary. It’s not enough. We’ve got two move upgrades ahead, and insure that everything looks great and functions seamlessly on the theme. Besides that, from Astra Pro we provide some options, so users can do very near and amazing things and get better control over the design aspect of their website. So, that’s our thinking on integrating with plugins like LifterLMS. We like to design small, small things and on the nitty gritty stuff, ensure that everything works perfectly. While trying to do all these integrations, we try to understand who our customers are, what are the challenges that they face, what are the things that we can do to help them and we do a lot of research while doing any kind of integration anywhere.
At that time I personally noticed that the problem that course creators have is engagement. Many people, many students by courses, but very few of them complete their courses, and course creators often go out of their way to engage their students through various methods, like with certificates, badges and through many [gimmifiation 00:26:38] things. So, I thought from the theme we can provide them some controls, and help students focus very well on the courses, so the idea that popped in our mind was we can remove some distractions from the theme, like the menu, the unnecessary [inaudible 00:26:58], unnecessary widgets and just in one place help students focus on the course itself and remove the distractions. Anyway, e-learning it’s not classroom learning. They already have enough distractions, and one more distraction on the website is bad for students, to the idea came from a lot of research, understanding users’ problems and just seeing what we can do to attack this further and help our customers.
It just comes from a lot of research, a lot of reading and trying to understand the problems of our customers.
Chris: Well done. I wanted to touch on a little bit on you have something called Schema Pro. Can you talk about what that does? By the way, I got access to that through the… I got the agency license for Astra, which came with… Maybe you could describe, what comes with the agency license?
Sujay: Sure. Let’s first of all talk about the Schema plugin. Schema was our first plugin, first free plugin in the WordPress space. As our mentioned, our company comes from an SEO background and we wanted to get in the WordPress… We just wanted to see how [inaudible 00:28:25] WordPress plugins, and Schema was a very, very new concept back then. So, we developed a free plugin for Schema, launched it on WordPress [inaudible 00:28:33], and it is still the best, most popular plugin for Schema. It is mentioned on many websites and it is still very popular plugin, it has more than 70,000 active installs. So, we had developed that plugin, it was a free plugin, and we knew that we could still improve that because it was our first plugin, and it wasn’t a perfect plugin. We knew that we could improve that, so we decided to apply all our learnings that we had learned throughout the journey of the last few years, and Schema Pro I believe is still one of our best products. It is one of the best tools and it is the most easy plugin to use.
Schema is a very, very complex topic. First of all, users have a challenge to understand Schema, how to integrate that, whether Schema comes from the SEO plugin, whether Schema comes from their theme, because many themes claim that they have Schema integrated, or do I need to integrate another plugin to implement Schema. So there are a lot of challenges that we needed to solve, and the education part, we could solve that from trying to put articles on our website, educating people what is the difference between Schema and stuff like that, and how themes are different, how your SEO plugins are different, and how Schema is different. So, Schema, for anyone who doesn’t know Schema, it is something that makes you appear better in search results. You might have seen some websites appear differently in search results, and some appear very normally.
So, Schema is something that makes Google understand your website better, get better confidence of your website, that this page and this particular [inaudible 00:30:36] so that they can confidently display better information of your website in search engines. That is Schema.
Chris: What does Schema mean for course creators? What’s an example of how they might use it?
Sujay: If somebody is searching for a particular course, Google might just show random results that it has in the [inaudible 00:31:01], but if your website has Schema implemented for courses Google can show more detailed information for your website. For example, who is the author of your course, how much does this course cost, how many modules does it have, what is the title of that course, the duration of the course and stuff like that.
Chris: Which is much more useful if you’re looking at a search results page to see that information instead of just the headline and the first words on the page.
Sujay: Exactly, exactly. So, even though you not rank on the first result of Google, if you are a little below your search results look much better, so it is basically free traffic. If you’re doing Schema you might not rank as high as other websites, you can stand out in search results and get free traffic from Google.
Chris: That is awesome. Yes, I always respect quality SEO advice from a respectable source like yourself. That’s really cool that you have that going on. Sujay, I just want to say thank you, and just let you know how much I appreciate what you’re doing with Astra. Thank you for making it integrate so well with LifterLMS. It’s great to be a technology partner with you and service to course creators and membership site builders. Thank you for bringing good design and making [inaudible 00:32:39] cheaper and faster to build, especially for course creators. For those of you listening, I’d encourage you to head on over to the Astra site, which is wpAstra.com, and you can find out more about Sujay and his company at Brainstorm Force. What’s the URL for that one?
Sujay: Sure. It is brainstormforce.com. B-R-A-I-N-S-T-O-R-M-F-O-R-C-E dot com.
Chris: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for sharing your story with us and geeking out together with me about your products and how you built it and the evolution of your business. For those of you listening, check out Astra, check out Sujay, and yes, just thank you so much for coming on the show and doing what you do.
Sujay: Thank you, Chris. Thank you for inviting me. It’s a pleasure.

EPISODE 176

Professional Security and Backups for Course Creators with Akshat Choudhary of BlogVault and MalCare

Welcome to another episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS. Today we discuss professional security and backups for course creators with Akshat Choudhary of BlogVault and MalCare. Chris and Akshat talk about security, backups, and taking proper care of your online business.

Security and backups for your website are like purchasing an insurance plan to protect your online assets. Many people underestimate the importance of website security and don’t take enough precautionary measures. Having backups for your site is important, because if your site is attacked and you don’t have backups, you could lose all of your site data and have to start over from scratch.

BlogVault is one of the companies Akshat founded, and they work to back up your site and encrypt the site’s sensitive details. They have backed up sites up to 800GB in size, so they do some serious security work. They have some great features, like daily automatic backups and one-click migration where you can make changes to your backup on a staging site and then migrate the pieces you want to your current site.

It is important to understand that there is no such thing as absolute security. Akshat makes the analogy that online security is just like real life. To protect your house, you can build a fence, install security cameras, and install door locks. But it is still possible for thieves to break in, although much less likely.

MalCare is a complete WordPress security solution. The most important piece of MalCare is its ability to identify malware that no other company can. MalCare has learning algorithms that analyze data from over 250,000 sites and detect if any are hacked or vulnerable. Not only can MalCare detect hacks, but it has a built-in auto-cleaner to clean up your site with the click of a button.

Identifying the needs of the customer is key to developing products that suit their needs. This is why Akshat and Chris like to spend a lot of time in customer support within their businesses. Good course creators and membership site owners engage with their students, so they can continuously improve as educators.

Head over to BlogVault.net and MalCare.com to learn about some of the best WordPress security systems, and you can find Akshat Choudhary on Twitter at @AkshatC.

Head over to LifterLMS.com and check out all of the awesome things we have going on over there, and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us!

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and in this episode we have a special guest, Akshat Choudhary of BlogVault and MalCare. And we’re gonna be talking about security, backups, taking proper care and insuring your business is really secure. And for the education entrepreneur out there, these are issues that some people overlook and sometimes find out the hard way that they should have had a plan in place or had better security and backup, things of that nature.
But first, Akshat, thanks for coming on the show.
Akshat Choudhary: Hi Chris. Thanks for having me. I’m happy to be here.
Chris Badgett: It’s great to reconnect with you. For the listener out there who hasn’t met you yet, how did you get into security? Why is this an important issue for you?
Akshat Choudhary: As you mentioned, we have two products. BlogVault and MalCare. BlogVault is our WordPress backup service, and MalCare is our security service. We started with BlogVault about seven years ago. And we realized that one of the big reasons why people restore their sites is when their sites would get hacked. So they would be like, “Okay, my site’s hacked. Helped me restore and that will get rid of the hack.”
Now there are many things wrong with restoring when your site gets hacked, because that’s not the right answer. But that’s a separate discussion. What we would realize is that sites would get hacked for months before customers would realize that their sites had been hacked. And they would use a plethora of systems and plugins out there. Everything that we can think of and would realize that they just were not doing the job that was needed to inform the customer and help the customer recover and protect the sites. That’s what got us into taking up the problem.
We knew that it was a tough problem, and being a small team, a lot of us WordPress entrepreneurs, we had very limited resources. But nonetheless we thought, “Let’s take up this problem.” And little did we realize that it’s gonna take us three years to really figure out how to solve the problem correctly because dealing with hackers and finding malware is a tough nut to crack. So that’s how we got into security, just to help our customers … Like our customers told us they were having a problem, and it is a difficult market to get into. But nonetheless we are here, with security.
Chris Badgett: That’s fantastic. And just for the listener out there, what is the difference between backups and security? How do you see those as different things in your mind?
Akshat Choudhary: If you think about it, backups is a very, very important piece of security. You can think of security in terms of layers, and backup is the most important piece of it. Why is it the most important piece of security? Because when shit hits the fan and everything blows up, you can rely on the backups. That’s the worst case situation. Does it mean you should recover from a backup when things go bad and you get hacked? That’s not necessarily the true answer. But backups are very related to security, backups serve other purposes even when it is not dealing with security. Because, again as the primary audience here, we are running businesses essentially on WordPress. We are creating a lot of important content, and we need that safety. Suppose we have a server crash. Suppose …
If you ask me, one of the things is, “How often would you need backups? Maybe once in blue moon when things really go wrong.” And when we started the service we thought the same, but that’s not really true. We see that people really need backups a lot more often than I would have ever guessed. And things do go wrong. We have seen storms and hurricanes hit and take down data centers, and that is one of our busiest weekends. I think that was a hurricane a few years back in New York, I don’t remember which one, and it took down quite a few data centers. So even hurricanes will take down your site, and you will require a backup in that case. You’ll forget to renew your hosting and require a backup in that case and all of these happen. Your hosting will shut you down one fine day, for whatever stupid reason. And I think we can have a separate talk when it comes to using hosting providers, but …
Chris Badgett: Those are really good points, and … If you have a house and it burns down or gets torn apart by a hurricane, you’re gonna want your house back. You can’t really have a backup of a house, I mean you can have an insurance policy, and you can get your house rebuild, which is kind of like a backup. But when it comes to digital properties, the backup is some ways a lot easier than rebuilding a house, but you have to have that system in place.
Akshat Choudhary: I agree. That’s one of the advantages we have. We are selling insurance, but fortunately we don’t have to deal with rebuilding a house.
Chris Badgett: So it’s a backup and then the restore, that’s the rebuilding. And luckily in the online space, restoring is not that big of a deal as long as you have the backup.
Akshat Choudhary: True. To a great extent that’s true. Restoring is a lot easier when you have a good backup in place. There are some challenges associated with it, but overall we think having backups is key. And I would advise it even if I was not running BlogVault.
Chris Badgett: You said backups are a layer, and a very important layer, in security. But what do you see security as? Help people understand what security is all about. What does that mean? Is that strong passwords? Is that … What is it?
Akshat Choudhary: Security … and again, I’ll try and keep it in context of WordPress. And WordPress really does unfortunately have a really poor reputation around security. Some of it is unfounded, but there is some truth to it at some level. Software security is … WordPress security is one aspect of it, software security also in the recent past has gotten a lot more visibility with big systems blowing up, it’s appearing in news big time. People fortunately have started taking security … Giving it more … spending more time and effort looking into it.
So when it comes to WordPress security, strong passwords is definitely a very, very important piece of it. It’s not only for WordPress, but anywhere. Any computer, any system you are using, there are malicious people trying to get into that system. From your phone to your desktop, laptop, to your WordPress site. Each of these systems people are trying to get in because you have precious information in there. Your website can be exploited in many, many ways by hackers. So people are always trying to get in. And you need to protect yourself. If you are a regular store owner or a site owner you have to understand that security cannot … There’s no such thing as absolute security. You just need to take steps one step at … You need to just keep adding layers of security. I think some of you might have heard that term too, right? Security is … You need to add layers of security. Which is why I said that backups is the most important core of security. On top of this you just keep adding layers to make … Add more protection to yourself.
It’s like having a house, building a fence, putting a lock, putting a door, having a video camera, a surveillance camera, having a dog, staying awake all night in a paranoid manner, it’s just different levels of security you have. In a similar manner, for your website also you need to add different layers of security. And even then, you might still get robbed. So you’ll still have an insurance policy in place. Because all things said and done, no one can guarantee that you’re not going to get robbed. You’re only going to put in-
Chris Badgett: So if you have an online course or a membership site, these are important considerations. And before we get into more details of backup and security, let’s talk about some of the hacks that are out there. I want to know what you’re seeing as the most popular hacks that people have to deal with, or malware or whatever. And before you go I just want to tell a story.
Several years ago for one of my online course websites I got hacked by something, it was putting ads with links to pharmaceuticals on my site. And it was actually smart in that if I was logged in as a WordPress administrator, I would never see it. So it actually existed for a long time before I became aware of it. And not only would it not show itself if the WordPress admin was logged in, it also [inaudible 00:10:36] on desktop or laptops. It only showed itself on mobile phones. It was a very sneaky hack, and then I was able to get it cleaned up. But that was a hack that I had to deal with, and that was several years ago.
What are the popular hacks or malware that you see happening here in 2017, 2018?
Akshat Choudhary: What you went though, the pharma-hack, that’s still quite prominent. We do still see quite a bit of that. And hackers are very sneaky. And they’re getting sneakier by the day. So you will see hacks being disguised as fully functioning plugins. And you will be like, “Okay, that looks fine. The filenames look like plugin filenames,” and you might even think that you might have installed the plugin yourself in your … It might be one of your ten regular plugins. They do stuff like that. They will modify … One of the core things when it comes to hacks, that we have seen, is the first thing the hacker tries and does is installs a backdoor. This is something that we have seen consistently across all the hacks that we see. And these backdoors come in different shapes and forms. They can come in forms of a plugin, a fully functioning plugin, to something which is more obvious where they modify a core WordPress file, which is now much, much easier to spot. It can go from one extreme to the other.
Recently we saw another customer getting hacked, and … their site got fully encrypted by the hackers. They had to pay a ransom. And again you think, “Okay, this cannot happen to me.” But a perfectly normal person running a decently popular blog, and it got hacked. Fortunately he had a backup and he could recover from it. But it was ransomware hack an then entire site got encrypted. You have hacks where you’re talking about … Not of dirty malware like just showing popups to visitors on phones where they’re just advertising that your site … phone might be compromised, and there are enough visitors who fall for stuff like that. Especially if it comes from a trusted website. So we are seeing a lot of those thing happening.
The newest one that is getting a lot of noise recently is your bitcoin or cryptocurrency mining hacks. We do see a few of it, but I think it sounds a lot more newsworthy today, so you’ll hear a lot more about it than you’ll see it in practice. A lot of malware we see is in the form of backdoors, where people use your site to attack other sites and to send out spam emails. Those are the two most prominent ones that we see. While these other ones sound … They make news … These two are actually quite common. And they’re the ones who will really cause your site to get suspended by your web host. Obviously SEO spam related hacks will get you suspended by google, so those are again quite common. These are the top three categories I would say: email spam, attacks toward the websites, and SEO spam.
Chris Badgett: Can you talk to the online course entrepreneurs out there, the membership site owners … What is the difference between a human doing a hack live, versus a bot or some kind of a program that’s hacking your site? How much of hacking is an actual person behind another computer somewhere, versus some computer program that’s cut loose on the internet?
Akshat Choudhary: If you ask me, almost the majority, for 99.99% of us, it’s all automated. People are scanning nonstop, all the time. They are looking on top 10 million, 100 million sites, and it doesn’t take very much … It sounds like a very large number, but if you think about it, it does not take any resources whatsoever. A couple of computers running, and they will map out the internet, with all the plugins and themes running on your WordPress site, with the exact version of plugins and themes running. They might run the scan once a month, and then it’s very easy to attack the sites that they want to attack. It’s not a human being going after it, they’re just running automated bots attacking sites which they know are running WordPress. So it’s actually a lot, lot easier to do this today. And they are not targeting a specific person.
Most often it is being done in an automated manner, which I why we say that you should never think that you are too insignificant on the internet that somebody will take their time to attack you. You’re just getting attacked automatically by bots running 24/7. And possibly another computer which has been compromised is one of the bots which is attacking you.
Chris Badgett: Thanks for clearing that up. I think that there’s this popular image that there’s somebody wearing a ski mask behind another computer that’s going against you directly. But that’s not really how it usually works. It’s way more large scale and automated like you’re talking about. And I find in my experience, it’s kind of hard and almost a waste of time to try and figure out why are they doing this to me. It’s confusing, it’s not worth getting into it. It’s more worthy focusing your efforts on hardening your security, having your backup system in place, and just accepting that the world and the internet is … That’s just part of the internet. There are hackers out there, and they’re looking for vulnerabilities, so just focus on hardening thins up, and having backups.
Akshat Choudhary: That’s true. Just imagine your home. If you did not have police and government, etc. and if you did not have a fence in place, or a door, people are always looking in. Even with all this in place, there are people always looking into your home. So there are passersby, there are windows, always looking into your home. If they see an opening … Fortunately you have government etc. keeping a check, but nonetheless they will get in. It’s just the nature of how if you have something valuable, and especially if you have a valuable site, with good ranking on the internet or good server resources, then you are valuable to somebody.
Chris Badgett: And I also just to make the point on value there, that as an online course creator, entrepreneur, membership site owner, websites are important. But if your website is the business, or an important part of the business, where you’re actually making money with the site, it’s not just a brochure website for your other business, your website is the business so you need to give it the respect it deserves, and invest in the security of it and it’s a big deal if you lose it. The internet and WordPress and using plugins like [inaudible 00:18:47] or Commerce and building a real business on the internet, it’s amazing what’s at your fingertips, but you also need to protect that asset.
It’s become so easy to build websites, we forget sometimes … And it’s kind of intangible, it’s just behind a computer screen somewhere, but we need to protect that asset we’ve created. Sometimes having invested many years and a lot of money into it.
Akshat Choudhary: Absolutely. Protecting the asset is the best way to look at it because a lot of sweat has gone into it and we are talking about significant amounts of money over here. Sometimes the value of the website to you is a lot, lot higher than the value to a miscreant-
Chris Badgett: That’s a good point. Can you tell us about BlogVault and Malcare? What do they do to help people who want to level up their security and their backups and just protect the asset?
Akshat Choudhary: BlogVault is a WordPress backup service. As any website owner fortunately in the WordPress ecosystem, we have spent a lot of energies to … The ecosystem itself has ensured that people are aware of backups to a great extent. There are situations where people do take it lightly, but overall I think the education level for backups is definitely very high. We are a complete WordPress backup service. So what we do is, we are a one-stop solution so you do not need to go to ten different places to ensure that you have perfect backups. Backups, all WordPress backups, it involves doing a lot of things correctly.
The simplest one, for example, is doing daily automated backups. At least for a course creator this might not be sufficient, you might want something more regular, maybe even to the extent of real-time backups. But that’s a separate thing. But at least daily automated backups is one mechanism. And there are a lot of plugins that let you do that. Obviously this is one of those. You’re talking about offsite backups, you never want to store your backups on your own server. With a lot of plugins out there, you have to configure this and use a lot of additional services like Dropbox or maybe your own Amazon S3 account, and there are challenges with setting those up and running them and using them. What we do is, [inaudible 00:21:31] one stop service, so you install our plugin and we take care of everything else automatically. We will do the best practice that you have, the best things you can do for your backup.
We’ll ensure that it’s encrypted. We’ll ensure that it’s safe. We’ll ensure that it’s running all the time. Also, because our technology lets you backup a site of any size … So we have backed up a site of 800GB in size … If you’re running a site even a couple of GB in size, you’ll start seeing that the backups fail. We are able to ensure that the backups are always working. And all of this comes in a single package.
Chris Badgett: And for those of you listening, check this out at BlogVault.net. And I was just looking over your site there and I was looking at the daily automatic backups, the on-demand backups … If you’re just getting ready to update a bunch of stuff, or for whatever reason you want to do a backup when you choose in addition to the on-demand … One-click auto restore, one-click staging setup. [inaudible 00:22:42] These are amazing features, you know it’s a complete backup package.
Akshat Choudhary: Right. Staging are one of those things we are very, very proud of. I think it’s one of our unique selling propositions. And I think especially for course content creators it can be quite interesting because we are able to … When we do the back up, we let you restore the backup onto our own test service, our staging service with a click of a button. So you don’t have to go running around trying to figure out how to create a separate domain for staging. I really recommend never putting your staging server on another WordPress install in your same hosting environment, in the same … If you have a shared hosting environment, putting another one. It’s a terrible security stance. So all of this is happening with a click on our systems. We’ll give you a safety key access you can access WP admin. So if you want you can update plugins and themes and test it. You can even change PHP version for example.
[crosstalk 00:23:53]
Or hand it over to your developer. And then with the click of a button you can migrate it back to your live environment.
Chris Badgett: You also have One-click migrate. Am I understanding you correctly, the backups are happening automatically or when I tell it to, and if I wanna restore backup I can check out the restore in staging, and then when I’m happy with it … If I’m happy with it or I do some things to it and then I’m happy with it, I can then migrate it back to my main site.
Akshat Choudhary: That’s correct.
Chris Badgett: Awesome.
Akshat Choudhary: And we’ll actually show you the difference between your main site and your staging environment.
Chris Badgett: What do you mean by difference?
Akshat Choudhary: Suppose you update a plugin. We’ll show you that this plugin was updated from this version to this version. Or if you added a new file, or if you’d given it to a developer. Because your other site might be moving forwards. This is a perfect example of how a course creator needs to think about it, if you’re running an [inaudible 00:24:58] system. You want to make some changes to your site, right? And if it’s a five-minutes work, maybe you test it on a staging environment and replicate it and do it again. But it might be something more complex. Maybe you’re tweaking your theme in a way. Now, when you are ready, after a week’s work, if you want to bring it back to your live environment you might have gotten new subscribers, you might have gotten new content in there. So we will show you the difference between the live and the staging environment. We’ll let you select the tables and the files that you want to move. So you might have updated a plugin on your live environment, so you don’t want to overwrite that. And we let you select, and we show you the changes that have been made.
Chris Badgett: I just want to emphasize how cool this is because you could use five different plugins to achieve this, but to have a unified solution, to have this staging environment happen, migrate only the pieces you want, because while you were messing with your side or testing things or fixing something you don’t want the orders that came in, and the new users to lose that data when you bring your staging over. So you only move over what you want, the parts that you wanna move over, which makes complete sense. As you describe how it all works, it’s really amazing to me. One of my favorite terms, or words, is integration.
There’s a lot of pieces here that I’ve seen other plugins do individually, or hosting companies and stuff. But you’ve actually integrated the full picture of what that person who wants to have a backup system and staging and be able to migrate and restore and all this … You’ve rolled that into one solution. That’s beautiful.
Akshat Choudhary: Thank you. And integration is actually one of the things which is very important, especially when you’re offering a service like ours. Because there’s so much complexity you’re dealing with. And-
Chris Badgett: I just wanna add a note there, too. A lot of the people using [inaudible 00:27:09] for example, they may not be highly technical users. So they’re counting on the tools to handle that. So, keep going!
Akshat Choudhary: Thanks. And that’s our goal. It’s again, always everything is a work in progress, and basically we are doing … A lot of what we are building is what our customers are asking us for.
Chris Badgett: You’re in good company in terms of having customers involved in the conversation of what they need, and completing the loop of the solution they’re looking for, the problem that they’re dealing with. Let’s talk about security a little bit. Thank you for painting the picture on what’s possible with BlogVault. And again, that’s at BlogVault.net.
Tell us more about what you offer in terms of security? What’s Malcare All about?
Akshat Choudhary: Malcare is a complete WordPress security solution. What it lets you do is … I think the most important piece of Malcare is it’s able to identify malware which no one else can. So we are able to scan your site every day automatically with very, very complex algorithms. And we have data from over 250,000 sites. So we are learning from over 250,000 sites that we have backed up. And we use that learning to tell you whether your site is hacked or not.
Chris Badgett: I just wanna say how beautiful that is. Because like in my story that I told earlier, I was probably hacked for months before I realized I had a problem. I didn’t even believe my customers when they first told me about it. I thought they were on the wrong website or something. But to have it running in the background, and have that kind of machine learning, having it get smarter as time goes on is so cool.
Akshat Choudhary: Right. I think again we are very uniquely positioned to solve some problems like this because of the amount of data we see normally. And we can use the learnings from all sites that we have to improve security stance. And all of this is happening on our servers. So without putting any load on your server. So everything happens, all the scanning, all these algorithms are run on our servers to figure out hacks, to figure out if your site is hacked.
If your site is hacked, we’ll inform you with, at least what we believe is very high accuracy. And for us, one of the biggest challenges was false positives, which we have fought a lot. Having false positives is one of the biggest problems when it comes to security. Because we can go tone deaf very, very soon. You’ll cry wolf once, you’ll cry wolf second time, and the third time you’re like, “Okay, this guy’s just bothering me for no reason.” So we’ve spent a lot-
Chris Badgett: Can you describe a false positive in more detail?
Akshat Choudhary: Again, I don’t want to shit on other plugins out there, I think that some of them are great. But a lot of them tend to create this noise, saying that something is wrong with your site, that something is going on, some file has been modified. And if you’re a content creator, if you’re a store owner, the first time you’ll be like, “Okay, something is really going on.” You’ll contact your developer to figure out what the hell happened. And your developer will come back, “No, nothing really happened. It’s a normal plugin update.”
Or like I said, there are people always looking into your site, trying to attack it. They’re always peeking in. So getting alarm for minor issues is … I think your security solution should just take care of it. The other part about false positives is, because of the technology of the ways many of these plugins work, these create a false alarm. They are unable to identify when a site is really hacked and when it is not. So they look for certain keywords, if that keyword is present they’ll send you an alarm. But those keywords are present in many normal cases.
The other way also works. Malware is so complex that they just are not able to find that kind of malware. Because hackers are trying to keep one step ahead of … And when you have your code out in the open, the hackers know exactly how you work. So they will know how a popular security plugin works and they can very easily circumvent that system.
So a combination of these things leads to false positives, which basically you’ll pay attention to it once, you’ll pay attention to it twice, but the third time you are just going to ignore it. The crying wolf story really holds true in this case. I’ve seen this enough number of times. So we have paid an extreme attention to making sure that we only alarm you when we are very certain that there is malware on your site.
Beyond that, suppose we find malware on your site. That’s only part of the job. You can clean it with a click of a button. We have built an auto-cleaner, which you click on a button and your site gets cleaned automatically. So you do not have to wait for hours to get it clean, or figure out how the hell to get it cleaned, share credentials and going back and forth. None of that you have to do, everything happens automatically.
Chris Badgett: You know what I love about entrepreneurs, is I have done or experimented with a lot of backups and malware and firewall security stuff, and you’re talking directly to pain points that I have experienced when I have used tools before in terms of false positives, or I have to do a bunch of work before I can get the malware cleaned up. Or notifications that aren’t helpful, or it says something happening but nothing’s really actually wrong. I love how you have kept your ear to the ground and paid attention to what the customers need and are just evolving. Tools get better over time, and like you said, you’re pulling data from all these different sites and it’s just getting smarter and evolving with the attackers. It’s not something you can ever rest. It’s a mission that you have to stay on forever, and you’re inspiring a lot of confidence there. So thank you for your leadership.
Akshat Choudhary: No, thank you. And frankly like you said, it’s just about paying attention to what your customers are saying. So even today a lot of my time goes into customer support. In fact, I find it very difficult to understand if you think about it … If a seasoned entrepreneur were to talk to me, they’d be like, “Okay, stop doing customer support so much.” But that’s the only way we are able to understand exactly what is going on. So I’m quite conflicted about it, because you want to grow your business and spending so much time doing customer support is not productive, but at the same time that’s the only way we are really understanding what’s going on, what the customers need.
Chris Badgett: I 100% relate to you, and have felt the same way, and get comments sometimes about how much time I spend in support or taking presales calls and things. But I think it’s actually one of my biggest strengths, because I have my finger on the pulse. And some people call that a frontline obsession, I’m obsessed with our customers, or I’m just obsessed with being in touch with what they need, and what they’re looking for and what their problems are. And that’s how we innovate. It’s actually really simple.
Akshat Choudhary: Yeah, I can totally relate to what you are saying there. There’s no right answer. You’re always feel guilty about it at the end of it, if you ask me. I can totally imagine a course creator also, how much time do you spend marketing the course, versus creating it, to listening to your … Hanging out in your forums.
Chris Badgett: Good course creators and membership site people, they engage with their students. If you just automate everything, and delegate everything and walk away, that’s not the best strategy for continuous improvement.
Akshat, I want to thank you very much for coming on the show. For those of you who are interested in MalCare, that’s at MalCare.com. Where else can people find out about you?
Akshat Choudhary: I am on Twitter, though I don’t really … I’m too much of a developer to be on Twitter. I don’t know, I don’t think that’s fair, because a lot of good developers are … I’m too antisocial to be on Twitter I would say. Let’s put it that way. And-
Chris Badgett: You’re too busy helping your customers at BlogVault and MalCare and your team, I’m sure.
Akshat Choudhary: Yeah, so I’m not the most social. But I do attend a few WordCamps, so I think WordCamp US and WordCamp Europe, those are the two big WordCamps I definitely try and attend.
Chris Badgett: That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show, and I just wanna just thank you for sharing so much insight into the situation with backups, security, what hacking really is, what malware is, and your mission to protect against those things with your products BlogVault and MalCare. Thank you so much, we really appreciate it.
Akshat Choudhary: Thank you Chris. Thank you again for having me, and thank you everyone for your time.

EPISODE 175

How Thomas Levy and Chris Badgett Solve Technology Problems for Course Builders in Partnership with WordPress and the LifterLMS Community

Welcome back to another episode of LMScast! Today we discuss how Thomas Levy and Chris Badgett solve technology problems for course builders in partnership with WordPress and the LifterLMS community. Chris and Thomas talk about how we approach development at codeBOX, and what problems LifterLMS is here to solve.

One of the key visions for LifterLMS is to remove friction in the course creation process. The core of LifterLMS is to create technology that facilitates your students education through your course or membership. Designing for scale is another big aspect of LifterLMS, and Chris and Thomas dive into that in this episode.

The course builder in LifterLMS is really great in that it is versatile and flexible to your teaching style, instructional design layout, and post-launch modifications. Thomas highlights the evolution of the course builder and dives into the origin of the LifterLMS software.

Chris and Thomas talk about how they work to reduce friction with the process of course building on both the front end and from a developer’s standpoint. The new Advanced Quizzes update to LifterLMS brought a lot of upgrades to efficiency when building your online course with quizzes.

A lot of people underestimate the power of quizzes and tests when it comes to building online courses. Now with the LifterLMS Advanced Quizzes add-on, you can incorporate these elements into your online course, and it is easier than ever. Chris and Thomas also dive into how they are working to make LifterLMS align better with how WordPress likes to function.

LifterLMS is built around the community’s best interest, so we are always looking for feedback from the community to drive the platform’s development. In our VIP Facebook group we are constantly running surveys and soliciting feedback.

Extendibility is a key factor of success with the plugins and themes of WordPress, because most sites use many plugins that do different things, and some sites have add-ons for specific plugins. The LifterLMS team focuses a lot on extendability of the platform so you can use other plugins and add-ons to form it to your vision for your site.

Head over to LifterLMS.com and check out all of the awesome things we have going on over there, and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us!

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and today I’m joined by a special guest, the co-founder of LifterLMS, Thomas Levy. Today this episode is going to be a little bit different. We’re going to be talking actually about software in the context of LifterLMS and how we approach the development in it, and what problems it’s there to solve, and just talk a little bit about the vision of where we’re going. First, Thomas, thanks for coming on the show.
Thomas Levy: Thanks for having me.
Chris Badgett: One of the big things with the vision for LifterLMS is we see ourselves in the friction removal business. We’re trying to remove friction between the would-be course creator and the results they’re trying to get for the student or the learner. Now, they need software to create courses. The student needs to interact on the other side of that software in terms of taking the course.
Our job at LifterLMS is to create technology that facilitates that exchange and ultimately the transformation that occurs and the results that occur through the education. I wanted to bring Thomas on and share with you guys more on the technical side our philosophy of development and how we approach where to put things in the software and how it works, and where we’re going, because sometimes change happens gradually, sometimes it happens fast.
Specifically, I wanted to get in to the concept of the course builder. Thomas, could you talk a little bit about where the evolution of the course builder came from, moving to its own interface, and what the origin story of the new and improved course builder that rolled out, which later we’ve added the quiz builder, but how did all this start?
Thomas Levy: Yeah, so if you go back to the very first version of LifterLMS, back October 2014 I guess, somewhere around there, we built, if anybody has been with us for that long or was using LifterLMS prior to six months ago, there was a meta box inside the course, the traditional WordPress course edit screen, meta box being all those little boxes you can drag around and move them, things like that. You can close them and open them, and they have all kinds of custom content for that course.
Chris Badgett: And settings.
Thomas Levy: Yeah, settings and all that kind of stuff. We had a meta box where you can kind of drag and drop courses or lessons around create sections. When we first released that, it was I think pretty novel. A lot of our users really, really liked it. It was something I’d never seen inside WordPress before, was an interface like that where you can create other posts from inside one post.
To understand why that really matters, I suppose you need to understand a little bit of how LifterLMS actually works, and even maybe more so how WordPress works is that everything in WordPress is essentially a blog post. It’s stored in one database table. It basically all has the same core content, which is the content in that what you see is what you get editor, WYSIWYG editor. You get a title. You get a URL. You get a published status, all that kind of stuff. That’s a blog post, but a page is also that with the type of a page. LifterLMS courses are a custom post type called the course lesson sections, all that stuff, our quizzes, questions, all custom post type.
Essentially we’re looking at blog posts that we put at different UI on the front of. They all share the same core API. LifterLMS does something that WordPress doesn’t do, which is relates different types of content together through custom relationships and the database and things like that. I don’t think it’s the most unique or inventive thing in the world, but it’s something that WordPress doesn’t do natively.
When we created that first version of the course builder, our goal was to allow you to quickly create a skeleton of your course, and then after you create that outline, you need to jump into other areas of WordPress. You need to go to the lesson editor. At one point you had to go to the section page to edit your sections or your section content after initially creating it.
Chris Badgett: All these different custom post types, they’re all different.
Thomas Levy: These are all different, yeah exactly. They’re all custom post types. Again, essentially blog posts just with a different user interface and a different strategy or goal of what it actually accomplishes on the front end of your website. What we realized, and then as LifterLMS grew, we added engagements, emails, achievements, badges, all those things.
Chris Badgett: More custom post types.
Thomas Levy: More custom post types. What we found both while we used our own product, because we do use our own product, Chris a lot more than I do. I use it for testing purposes. Chris actually uses it. Then through user feedback, which we see a ton of. You guys let us know what you like and you dislike.
But the other thing about this is that we never actually receive very many complaints about the interface itself. Now going back to what we originally built in version 1.0 of LifterLMS, which did not change at all, up until six months ago. Maybe it was three or four months ago. We didn’t get very many complaints about that. However, in support, what I saw day in and day out, what Chris would see day in and day out is people creating issues that they didn’t realize they created as a result of a bad user interface.
What we built originally was wonderful. We loved it. A lot of people said, “Oh, I love the way you can build courses in LifterLMS. It’s great. We love it.” But then there was all these issues that happened as a result of this interface, and nobody was saying, “Oh, if you fix this interface, this problem would go away.”
Chris Badgett: It’s one thing to understand a problem. It’s a very different thing to understand the solution.
Thomas Levy: Right, right, or the reason that problem even exists, do you know what I mean?
Chris Badgett: Yeah.
Thomas Levy: Over time, and I mean this started for Chris and I over a year ago when we started talking about where the course builder was going to go, and ways we can revamp this. As Chris said at the very beginning, let’s remove friction. One of the biggest issues I see with that old interface was that you’re always bouncing around. There’s a lot of page loads. There’s a lot of page loads to build your course, because yeah you could build a skeleton really quickly, but then if you want to edit settings on a lesson.
Prerequisites are a really great example of how many page loads you need to go through to set up prerequisites. If you have a course with even 10 lessons and you want each previous lesson to have a prerequisite of the lesson before it, you need to load each page, and not oh shoot, I want to move one of those around. Now you need to load up two lessons in order to change the prerequisite structure, at least two lessons, you know.
It gets really time consuming. Maybe what’s initially really, really wonderful gets really tiresome, as your course grows, as your platform matures, as you add more courses. We started to see these issues and we started to figure out, started to theorize what could we do differently? As Chris said, remove friction. We had this vision to bring everything, condense everything, shrink everything down onto a single screen, where previously you could create the outline from one screen.
Our vision is to allow you to create essentially, with some exception, almost your entire course from one screen. That’s what we started working on, I think it was in 313 I believe, 3.13 was the original, the initial update to the course builder. Now we’ve moved quizzes in there as … Again, quizzes, the quiz building interface is something we built in LifterLMS 1.0, and almost did not touch up until two weeks ago.
Chris Badgett: I just want to park on that for a little bit. As someone who’s built a lot of quizzes with LifterLMS, it was painful. I would have to create a quiz over here. I would have to create a unique question over here. I would have to attach answers to it. Then I would have to jump over to a lesson to attach the quiz, questions to the quiz and then the quiz to the lesson.
I had to go like five places per question. It was a lot. When the new course builder rolled out, oh my God, not only did you get all these new question types, I mean it’s easy to get distracted and look at that, but the fundamental architecture just accelerated my speed to create the course by a factor of 10.
Thomas Levy: I’m very much anti-propaganda. Actually I was talking to Chris yesterday, and he’s like, “Let’s do a podcast about this,” and I don’t want this to come off as propaganda for our newest feature, because it’s not. I 100% understand that people dislike this. People dislike users, and it bums me out a lot. I get really bummed out when I see negative feedback about what we’ve done.
I understand that we’re actually building this for you. We’re not building it … I mean, we are building it for us to a certain extent, and yes we make money off this. We’re not as generous as … We are generous, but we’re not doing this for free. We’re a business. We’re trying to make money.
But I want everybody to like this, but I understand that not everybody is going to like this. I understand that, and there are things we lose as a result of doing this, this way. I think one of the biggest concerns maybe that I’ve started to see come across the brow is that we’re not doing things the WordPress way. I understand that, and you’re 100% correct. We are not doing things the WordPress way. We’ve eliminated elements of the core WordPress user interface when you’re in the course builder. Selfishly, because we want more space for what we want to do.
That sidebar in WordPress takes up a lot of real estate, and it was something that we arguably were like, “Let’s just get rid of and see what happens.” If you’ve been with LifterLMS since 1.0, you know that once in a while, we do something and we say, “Oh, you guys are right. We made a mistake here. This was not the right way to do it.” So we made an assumption that removing that sidebar was a good idea, and time will tell if that actually was a good idea.
If you don’t like it, keep letting us know and maybe we’ll put it back. But there’s other things we lose too. One of the things is that you don’t have the whole post editor that you used to have on quizzes, which means you will never be able to use the page builder or the forthcoming Gutenberg with your quiz description. That’s something you’re never going to be able to do. We’re not going to give you the capability to do that, I don’t think. I don’t know. Things might change. Two years from now we might undo this decision and make quizzes work some other way.
But again, this is something that we’re weighing the pros and cons of what we ultimately want LifterLMS to be capable of. By moving that into this new interface, we do realize that we’ve sacrificed some things. We’re justifying it. We think it’s a good decision, and it might not be a good decision, but ultimately the goal here is let’s reduce friction and let’s make it as easy as possible for you, the course creator, to create your courses, that includes every aspect.
If we look forward, what we want to be able to do is you set up your whole course, you set up all your prerequisites, and you’ve never left the screen. Now when you want to start adding content to your lessons and adding content to your courses, you jump out back to the familiar WordPress editor where you can use page builders, where you can use Gutenberg when Gutenberg is fully a part of the core. For today, you can use your regular WYSIWYG content editor.
Chris Badgett: Let’s just [inaudible 00:11:59] parking lot for a second. I mean, WordPress has always done content very well. It is originally a content management system, a publishing platform. What we’re talking about sacrificing is we’re making a sacrifice for the user experience around settings, and architecture and building a skeleton and configuring a bunch of little details that aren’t really the content. I mean, the quizzes do contain content, but it’s a unique type of content that is actually positioned inside your greater website. It’s where it runs.
I think it’s also just very important to note that we are very pro-WordPress. We’re all about it. We have no plans to turn LifterLMS into a SaaS and get outside of WordPress software as a service. We’re committed to the WordPress community. We love WordPress. Thomas is currently the organizer of WordCamp Los Angeles. We attend these. We sponsor him. We work with other people who develop products in the WordPress ecosystem and try to figure out how to help remove friction and solve teaching needs together.
We’re very much pro-WordPress, and we’re very much getting ready for Gutenberg and we do want to find solutions to optimize the page builders. Just on the note of the page builders, which are growing really quickly, there was a time when those first came out and I remember myself included, I did not trust them. I’m like, “This is not the WordPress way.” Whether it was the back end page builder or a front end page builder, and now these are the fast and growing systems on the WordPress platform. We’ve kind of seen this narrative before. I just want to highlight that.
Thomas Levy: Yeah.
Chris Badgett: But also mostly just talk about our commitment to the WordPress ecosystem. We’re not anti-WordPress. We’re just anti-friction.
Thomas Levy: Yeah. That’s actually a really good point. I guess I get distracted and lost in my mind sometimes, but essentially what I wanted to emphasize was that this is not an attempt to build a code base that’s portable to something like Drupal or to a SaaS platform. I don’t have any problem with those other things, but I mean Chris and I both have a long history in WordPress, and maybe almost to a fault. I don’t really want to start exploring other platforms, because to me that just means more headaches and more compatibility problems.
I just don’t want to deal with those personally as a developer. I’d rather just have my one stack and we just move on. When I say we’re sacrificing parts of WordPress, I mean we’re sacrificing the parts of WordPress that for a quiz, or for a lesson, or for a course don’t really matter, because these aren’t concepts that exist in WordPress. These are things that exist in LifterLMS, and we’re trying to make those parts make more sense within the framework of WordPress. What do you want …
Chris Badgett: [crosstalk 00:15:04]. A custom post type is not for everything, right?
Thomas Levy: Right. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly, exactly. There’s reasons to use them and there’s reasons not to use them. Yeah, yeah 100% we’re doing away with areas that it makes it more difficult to do it the WordPress way. We’re getting rid of that stuff. Then other things where it makes the most amount of sense to do it the WordPress way and use the WordPress core UIs. They’re going to stick around. As far as settings are concerned, like Chris just said, we want to move more and more settings into the course builder so that you can set up your restrictions, your prerequisites, your engagements, and all those kinds of things from one …
Chris Badgett: Start dates, launch dates.
Thomas Levy: Start dates, yeah, yeah. But then when you actually want to write your content, put your video in, that sort of thing, you’ll go over to your WordPress editor. That allows you to continue doing things like use SEO plugins, to use page builders like we’re talking about, any other plugins, your theme to adjust the layout and maybe custom theme settings that let you customize the header and footer per page or per course or something like that.
All those kind of things are going to stay. We felt it was okay, and I feel really strongly that it’s okay to remove quizzes from that because quizzes are very much a contained element that sits what’s inside your quiz, but LifterLMS is going to do that for you and you can skin it with custom CSS. Your theme could support quizzes and add their own CSS to quizzes, but the quiz infrastructure itself is something that’s self-contained, and we just want to control 100% of LifterLMS.
You don’t need to add SEO to your quiz, because your SEOs aren’t public. You don’t need to page build the quiz, because I’m just not going to make that possible. There’s too many variables inside quizzes for me to build a short code for every quiz. Although that’s not actually entirely true, and you may see quiz short codes down the road. I’ve already had a couple of requests for areas of quizzes that might make sense to actually create short codes for.
Chris Badgett: I just want to highlight that what you’re hearing there is we are listening. We’re openly … This is an active conversation with you, the listener. We have hypothesis, we test them. You see us doing a lot of surveys, soliciting feedback, we take feature requests. We’re doing this together with you. We do have a culture of feedback and trust and valuing community, and I think this podcast episode is really important for …
I just want you guys to kind of see some of the backstory and the conversation and how Thomas and I work together and how we make decisions to move forward. Really at the end of the day, we have your best interest at heart, but even almost more importantly, your students’ best interest at heart. What’s in your students’ best interest is that you can build a course. You don’t get lost in the technology when you’re trying to build the course. You have enough other things to do to teach and build the content, and that your student experience needs to be optimized and frictionless as can be as well. I just want to throw that out there.
The other thing that we’re always aware of is, and we’re always trying to get better at, is designing for scale. LifterLMS is a flexible platform, but when you look at some things in the course builder, like for example, the sections are closed by default. The reason for that is with all the lessons inside, somebody comes in with what we call a giant course and everything is all expanded and loaded up, it’s unmanageable. You may have one course or you may have 100 courses on your site, and interfaces are designed to grow with you. I don’t know if you want to speak to that, anything else that we’ve come across in terms of designing for scale.
Thomas Levy: Sure. There’s actually a lot of things under the hood in this latest quiz update that had to do with scalability and just working towards being able to support 100,000 member courses and things like that. Scalability is always a question where there’s a lot of factors that go into that. It’s not just your code base. It’s not just the plugin. It’s also your server and your host.
If you come to me and say, “LifterLMS doesn’t scale well,” but you’re on a $3.99 a month shared hosting plan, you’re pointing your finger at the wrong person. You might be right if you point to a particular area of the code base that doesn’t scale well, but that could sometimes be overcome by just having the appropriate amount of firepower behind your code base.
Actually one of the motivations for the course builder was there was no way to collapse anything in the old version 1.0 of the course builder in the meta box. If you had 30 lessons in a course and you wanted to move lesson number one down to the bottom, you had some issues with trying to drag and scroll at the same time. It’s 100% possible, but it was just complicated.
There are a couple of other scalability issues with the way all of that stuff worked as well that just didn’t work well for larger courses. That’s one of the issues we’re trying to combat here. There are still some things that need to be worked out there. I’m not going to come and say we’re finished here. If you’ve been with us for a while, we iterate, we improve. We’re always improving and there’s more improvements that need to be made on the current iteration of the course builder around scalability, but I think we’ve got a lot of those issues dialed in.
On this update, there was actually a lot of scalability concerns with how quiz data was saved. Not only scalability, but also extendability. That’s something that if you come back to the WordPress way, if you’re a developer, you understand what actions and filters are. If you’re not, actions and filters are essentially the part of the WordPress core that allows us to build something like LifterLMS.
We can hook into all these different things. A great example of that is when the page loads, we have the opportunity to tell our plugin to do something. The WordPress core loads your page, and there’s different points where we can fire in our own content or data or information or functions. Actions and filters are one of the core parts of the WordPress ecosystem that allow us to do what we do, that allow page builders to do what they do, that allow SEO plugins to do what they do, et cetera, et cetera. Without that, there’s nothing.
Then plugins themselves, really good ones, follow suit with this kind of development philosophy of extendability, which means if there are some … If you’ve ever had a custom request in support and talked to me, you’ve probably seen me say something along the lines of, “No, it’s not possible through a LifterLMS feature, but it is possible.” That’s the kind of thing where it’s like almost anything is possible in WordPress. You just need to know how to write the code to do it.
LifterLMS itself uses a ton of actions and filters in order to allow you to extend our core functionality to add whatever you want. I’ll use WooCommerce as a really great example of the way this works. WooCommerce is an eCommerce platform designed initially, I believe, to sell like t-shirts. Then the guys from Prospress came along, their development company, and they built WooCommerce subscriptions, which is an add-on to WooCommerce. It’s not the WooCommerce core. It’s something that you can add to WooCommerce.
Chris Badgett: It’s made by a different company.
Thomas Levy: Yeah, it’s made by a different company than the team that originally started WooCommerce, which I believe was actually just one guy who originally started Woo. But yeah, it was a completely different company, and they were just like we want to do recurring subscriptions. The WooCommerce core doesn’t do recurring subscriptions because WooCommerce subscriptions, this other team does that for them, so now you can do recurring payments that happen on a monthly schedule, on a yearly schedule, whatever.
That is possible because of the extendability of WooCommerce, which is possible because of the extendability of WordPress. This is like an overarching developmental philosophy that permeates everything in WordPress, or it should permeate everything in WordPress. That was one of the things that quizzes were this black hole that was just like people would ask me, “Oh, I want to do something with quiz data,” and I’d be like, “Oh, it’s going to be really difficult for me to explain how this works, because it doesn’t make any sense.”
That’s like one of those dirty little secrets that developers like you code something sometimes and you’re like that wasn’t the right way to do it. Now you need to spend six months undoing that mistake so that people can now gain access to that data. That was one of the big updates in quizzes, which you didn’t notice because you don’t have to, but if you’re a developer that wanted access to that data, it’s a really, really big deal.
What does that mean for the average user that doesn’t care about a black hole, that just wants to interface the work? It means that other developers can come in and if there’s a question type, for example, that we haven’t thought of yet, or we haven’t built yet, or that you want to custom for some very niche thing, I can’t think of any example off my head, and even if I did, I might not share them, because I think I want to build them myself. That’s not entirely true though. Reader did have issues, and if there’s anything you want to do, go build it.
You can go build that in a custom plugin and add it to yourself. That was one of the big, big things was extending LifterLMS. Then also scaling the quiz data around LifterLMS. The way the data was previously stored, not only was it not accessible, but thankfully we haven’t run into a lot of issues with it, but it was one of those things where I just knew if we keep going the way we’re going, we’re going to run into scalability issues for those of our users who have much larger courses.
So we moved all that stuff into a custom table that’s more easily searchable, and sortable, and scalable, so that it’s just easier to use that data and that data will be more performant as the website grows and more people take quizzes, more students take quizzes on your website. I think you asked me about scalability. I don’t know. I rambled [crosstalk 00:25:27].
Chris Badgett: No, that was good. I just want to highlight Jack over at WP Fusion, that’s an example of someone who’s building a product, then hooks into certain things like LifterLMS, enrollments, and courses and memberships or whatever, but this is part of a bigger conversation about when someone comes to LifterLMS or they’re thinking about doing a course on a membership site, the very first question they need to ask themselves, in terms of platform selection, is do I want a self-hosted or a hosted LMS?
WordPress is self-hosted. Like Thomas mentioned, you buy a hosting account, you get your domain name, you install WordPress or it’s already installed there for you. You start adding the Lifter plugins. You can add plugins like he was mentioning in the Prospress example in WooCommerce. You can add other plugins from other companies to build a really custom solution where you get to benefit from the whole WordPress ecosystem and the flexibility of all the WordPress options, the openness of it, the opensource nature of it all. You can hire a developer to build a custom feature for just your site.
You can’t do those things on a hosted platform. They may have a place to upload your logo, change the color scheme, but it’s just kind of like their way and you’re paying for monthly access. If you’re going to do a self-hosted LMS and you’re going to do it on WordPress, this is where LifterLMS lives, and you can see as we innovate and move forward, we’re building off of what the best WordPress has to offer. We’re open to the community and trying to make it to be a good citizen, if other people are trying to serve education, and entrepreneurs out there need to get access to certain pieces of data or connect, this is what we’re all about. But yeah, I just wanted to highlight that.
Thomas Levy: If I could jump in on that point, kind of calling back to earlier about the course builder not being the WordPress way, one thing that I’ll rant a little bit, it bothers me to hear that kind of thing sometimes, because I think if all we ever do is look at the way we do things currently and we never look outside of our ecosystem or our space or our sphere or our circle of friends or competitors or colleagues or whatever. There’s absolutely no growth that will ever take place. This isn’t me. I haven’t figured this out. We’ve all heard this before.
But in the context of doing things the WordPress way, a great example is what’s going on with Gutenberg right now. Some people are very, very excited about Gutenberg, and some people are very, very scared of Gutenberg, and others think it’s the worst idea in the world. What Gutenberg is, is the WordPress core team, perhaps specifically Matt Mullenweg, looking outside of WordPress and saying, “How can we do better to solve problems that WordPress wants to solve?”
It’s different. It’s not the way WordPress is done. It’s not the way page builders are done. It’s its own thing. They’re looking outside of WordPress to figure out how to improve WordPress. When Chris talks about self-hosted versus hosted LMS, do not think for a second that we’re not looking at what the hosted LMS platforms are doing, or what other things are doing outside of LMS altogether. We don’t just sit here and think, “Oh, this is a great idea.”
We draw off sketches and we come up with interfaces, but we’re drawing inspiration from outside of our own space to figure out how are other people doing similar things? How are other applications doing similar things and being successful at it? What can we draw from them? What can we steal from them? Not in terms of lifting code bases, but like how can we …
Chris Badgett: In an opensource way.
Thomas Levy: Yeah. How can we use that as a source of inspiration to improve and solve the problems and these friction problems that we’re talking about. I spend a ton of time sharing, and I’ve shared all this information with Chris, looking at different places like how do other people build questions, quizzes, questionnaires, things like that? What do those interfaces look like, and what can we drop into WordPress that’s similar to that, but still kind of feels like WordPress to a certain extent?
If we only ever do things in meta boxes and the WordPress way, we’re kind of stuck. I know that’s a little bit of a side and a little bit of me ranting, but change is hard. We don’t like it when we upgrade our phones. We don’t like it when we upgrade everything. But at a certain point, you need to look back and think, we didn’t have cellphones.
You know what I mean? So, changes are changes. I’m really excited about the changes we’ve added to this course builder and improvements we’ve made to quizzes. Again, I will acknowledge that there’s things that we’ve done wrong, and there’s improvements that still need to be made, but yeah so …
Chris Badgett: Yeah. Sometimes a vision takes a long time to execute on. Like Thomas mentioned earlier, like engagements are also a custom post type. It would be nice to kind of manage some engagement settings or certificates. Unifying the course building experience from 50 different places to one is a really … I mean, that’s the overarching vision. That takes a long time to execute, because there’s a lot of moving parts into building an online course or a membership site.
I think sometimes the path doesn’t really make sense or it makes more sense the further you get along down the path. But the hope for this episode is just to kind of take you behind the scenes and look a little bit at this vision about removing friction. Thank you to Peter Fallenius who helped me with that concept of friction removal. I heard that from him, and then it really started influencing how I looked at things. So, thank you, Peter, for that.
But yeah, the vision takes time. There’s always like a why behind the what. That’s why things are happening. Not every decision is mutually exclusive, which means we’re not going against WordPress. We’re actually taking the best of WordPress and then taking the best that we’ve got from outside and what our users need, and their students, and combining that all together and moving forward. It’s more of a question of integrating what’s working, and continuing on the path in service to the end user. That’s what it’s all about.
Thomas, I want to thank you for coming on the show, and that was a lot of fun to take people back behind the scenes and look at the high level. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on that, and I feel really lucky to work with Thomas. When we come together around a problem, it’s a lot of fun.
I know a lot of people out there who this is your business. It might be a side project or it might be your main business, so we take this very seriously and value your trust and value your feedback. So, thank you for being with us in the journey. Thanks, Thomas, for coming on the show, and we’ll catch you guys on the next one.
Thomas Levy: See you.

EPISODE 174

How to add Quizzes and Surveys to Your Online Course

We discuss how to add quizzes and surveys to your online course in this episode of LMScast with Chris Badgett of LifterLMS. Chris gets into the value behind having examinations in your online courses, and how you can do that with the recently released Advanced Quizzes add-on for LifterLMS.

Integrating assessments into your online course or membership site can bring a lot of versatility to your online platform. Quizzes and tests allow you to check to make sure your students are retaining the information you are teaching. This can be very handy if you are giving students the opportunity to earn certifications through your course.

Online courses can be used for certification purposes to show competency in a particular skill, such as digital marketing. Earning certifications from online courses is one reason that many people take an online course. When offering certifications it is important to have some kind of test or examination to guarantee somebody has an acceptable understanding of the subject matter.

We talk a lot at LifterLMS about the power and importance of engagement, and a big part of that is feedback loops in online courses or membership sites. Quizzes and tests open up that feedback loop and allow you to teach in a more effective manner so your students will be able to apply what they are learning in the real world.

One of the things that is so innovative about LifterLMS is the instructional design aspect of the course builder. It allows you to lay out your course however you want to, and now you can have different types of questions in your quizzes, such as upload questions where your students upload a picture of themselves doing a yoga position or something else for your course.

Another new option is that you can rate the importance of a question on a scale of one to ten, and if you want to have a question that has no weight on the grade you can enter a zero point value in, and it will not be counted in the score.

LifterLMS also has different roles for your site such as the LMS manager, student, and instructor’s assistant, and these roles have different permissions for what they can do on the website. You can also add more instructors to your platform so your site can scale with your business.

Let us know how you are using LifterLMS quizzes and if you want to come on the LMScast Podcast and do a case study interview about your online certification program. Let us know and we would love to have you on!

You can subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

Chris Badgett: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My name is Chris Badgett, and today we’re going to be talking about using quizzes, assessments, and surveys in your online course or membership site. In this particular episode, we’re going to be focusing in on the release of the LifterLMS new quiz builder system and also the Advanced Quizzes add-on and what you can do with it. But at a high level, it’s one thing to have an online course. It’s another thing to have quizzes and tests and examinations.

So what are some of the main reasons why you might have quizzes or tests inside your online course? Probably the most popular reason is for certification purposes. So if you are creating a course that helps somebody fulfill mandatory continuing education requirements or they’re trying to get a certificate that will display some kind of competency in a particular skill, like digital marketing or how to use a certain piece of software, that they can then use to help them get a job or get more clients and that sort of thing.

But in order to guarantee that somebody has a minimum level or acceptable level of competency, you have to have a test or some kind of examination, not just the fact that they purchased the course or went through the course and watched the videos. But did they actually understand? Are they actually able to implement and do the things that the course promised it would teach them how to do? Examinations or quizzes or tests are a way to help do that.

And for some of us out there, I know quizzes and tests historically may have somewhat of a negative connotation of sitting in a cold, hard, uncomfortable chair, filling out bubbles on a piece of paper. But quizzes don’t have to be that boring. You don’t even have to call it a quiz. You can call it a challenge. You can call kinds of other things. So I’d encourage you that, if you kind of have a negative reaction to the word quiz and test for your online course, then perhaps you don’t have … you’re not really testing for a certificate or whatever. You can still use quizzes to reinforce learning, to challenge people.
But also, importantly, open up a feedback loop. We talk a lot at LifterLMS about the power and the importance of engagement, and part of that is feedback loops. And if you want students to actually complete and finish the course, it’s very important that they understand the material and are able to get the results with the material. And what we’ve found is, and as you know intuitively, is not every person is the same in your online course.
So when you have a quiz and a test, especially with a situation where some of the questions require manual grading, you are opening up a feedback loop that allows you to teach more effectively, make sure that what you’re trying to teach is landing well with the student, they’re retaining it, and, more importantly, they’re able to apply that out there in the real world to get the results that your course promise. And you can test all that through quizzes.
So the LifterLMS … the learning management system, online course, and membership site software behind this podcast, that sponsors this podcast, is … it’s exploding in growth in terms of adoption. People are moving in from other tools, or they’re building their first course with Lifter because it makes it approachable and it has a good model where you can get going essentially for free, validate your idea, and then start adding add-ons for various other features or integrations and things of that nature. It’s really growing very fast right now.
And as this new quiz system rolls out, I’m seeing more and more people coming in to Lifter to use its quiz system. I want to talk about it a little bit. So the first thing is, one of the innovative things about LifterLMS is our course builder. So you can essentially build out the curriculum, the outline, the skeleton … whatever you want to call it for your course very quickly. So instructional design is a real skillset, so I don’t mean to understate it. I recommend spending a lot of a time, especially if you’re not a classically trained teacher or instructor of any kind, mapping out your knowledge.
You could use mind maps. You can make lists. You could use post-it notes, but once you’ve kind of got it in a … at least conceptually in an outline format sort of like the chapters in a book or the table of contents, once you have that penciled down or in a spreadsheet or whatever, now, you’re ready to create the course itself with the learning software. So you can basically … with the one-screen course builder, you can lay out your course, your sections, your lessons. And then, at the lesson level, you can start attaching quizzes and start building those out.
So we’ve added the ability to use the quiz builder on the course builder, which means it just furthers the vision and the mission we have to make course building and having your own learning platform without getting locked into renting space on somebody else’s platform. You get to own it. You get to control it, and we want to make it easy for you to build and drive and create and be creative with your course.
So you can now open up the quiz builder. You can add … you can create a short mini-quiz or a long exam, whatever you want to call it. You can do that now from the course builder, so you can add different question types like multiple choice, picture choice, true/false. In our advanced add-on, you can bring in all kinds of other stuff like fill in the blank. You can do long answer requiring manual grading, short answer … we even have an upload question type. So if you want to kind of test somebody or ask them to upload a picture of themselves doing something, like a yoga pose or working out in a certain way or a spreadsheet about their business metrics or whatever it is, you can do that with the upload question type.
We’ve also got a code question type and more. There’s just a lot of new question types in LifterLMS advanced quizzes. So basically, what that allows you to do is when you get to that point where you’ve got your outline and you’ve got, hopefully, some of your content together … but let’s say you’re kind of really ready to start bringing form to this curriculum to actually put it inside the website, to start building it out and polishing it, potentially piloting early students through it, getting some feedback on how it’s working, starting to grade some people and collect feedback from them. You can start doing that with LifterLMS and the new quiz builder and advanced quizzes.
Also, at Lifter, we’re super focused on our community and our user base and our customer base and even people who aren’t Lifter customers yet and they’re trying to do things. We’re always listening, and one of the things we heard was that some people wanted to use the quiz tool, but not as a test or exam tool. They wanted to use it in a different way. So we heard that, and what they wanted to do was basically use it as a tool to collect information from people where it’s not graded, but you can use some of those same question types I just described to do things like collect a testimonial, collect feedback on how effective was the course, either in qualitatively or quantitatively. Like, on a scale of 1 to 10. The scale, that’s another question type.
You could have people rating your course so that you’re getting that feedback. It doesn’t count against their grade, but you’re using a certain question within a quiz or just kind of creating its own assessment that comes towards the end of the course where you get that kind of feedback. Or perhaps you’re just checking in with your students along the way about how their results are coming along and so on. That’s a way to use that hidden feature inside the quiz system, which basically works like this.
You can have a question that has a certain point value. That’s kind of how you come up with a grade. The classic example is 9 multiple choice questions, and then the 10th question is a long answer essay that’s worth, let’s say, half the grade. So each one of those other questions are one point each, and then the essay at the end is worth nine points. So that’s how you would come up with that scenario. But if you put a zero point value on a particular question’s weight, what you’re doing there is you are making it so that that question happens, but it doesn’t count against the grade. So that’s how you collect that assessment or survey data and potentially open up a feedback loop if you want to add remarks. So that’s just a secret feature we snuck into the LifterLMS quiz system based on the feedback of the community.
So quizzing is … it’s an interesting thing. Not everybody uses it. You don’t have to use quizzes, but maybe even just that little piece I said there at the end, about why not collect a testimonial or honest review or whatever you want to call it at the end of the last lesson in order for them to complete the course. That’s just an idea that you could use the quiz system for, but maybe you want to do a deep dive, and you’re doing lots of deep assessments and really personalizing the experience. And just the ability for a teacher or an instructor’s assistant to leave remarks can be very helpful.
So that’s also important to note. In LifterLMS, there are these various different roles that instructors … or that you have on your site. We’ve got the instructor. We’ve got the instructor’s assistant. We’ve got the student. We’ve got the LMS manager. All these different roles have different permissions and can do different things, so when you design your course, it doesn’t always have to be just you. If you’re building a team or you’re doing a multi-instructor platform, you can kind of scale all this that we’re talking about and move from the online course to the online school. So LifterLMS can scale with you, if that’s where you’re headed. Or you could just be a one course show, or you could be a membership site that has several courses in it and other premium content or benefits. LifterLMS is completely flexible and scalable in that way.
So I’d love to hear from you and how you’re using LifterLMS quizzes. If anybody would like to come on this podcast and do a case study interview about your online certification program and how you use quizzes, I’d love to do it. I’d love to really get into how it’s working for you, what you’re doing with it, how you add value, how you personalize so that the community here can learn from a case study.
So that’s it for this episode. This is a … I haven’t done a solo episode in a while, but I just wanted to share the good news about the new LifterLMS quiz system and the advanced add-on called advanced quizzes. If you’re at all interested in that, head on over to lifterlms.com. You can find out more about that, and yeah. Check out LifterLMS advanced quizzes and see what you can do with all those different question types. So thank you everybody for listening, and I hope you have a great rest of your day.