How LinkedIn Learning Thinks About Online Courses and Subscriptions

You’re probably all familiar with LinkedIn Learning, formerly known as Lynda.com. It’s LinkedIn’s professional development platform. They offer more than 18,000 video courses available via subscription. There’s a huge range of educational topics covered — from how to use Adobe Aftereffects, to how to have difficult conversations, to the fundamentals of customer success.

Consumers can subscribe to LinkedIn Learning on their own, or access the platform through an enterprise license.

Jill Raines is the Director of Product Management at LinkedIn, where she leads the LinkedIn Learning Business.

I first got to know her when I was developing my own LinkedIn Learning courses for the platform. I was interested in the business model for the platform. I have learned so much through my discussions with Jill. It’s fascinating to get her perspective on the unique challenges and opportunities facing the world’s largest professional development and educational platform.

In this conversation, Jill and I discuss the LinkedIn ecosystem, and LinkedIn’s Forever Promise more generally, before diving into the role of LinkedIn Learning within that ecosystem. We also talk about the specific challenges of professional development subscriptions, how to balance the needs of consumers with the needs of enterprise customers, and whether to offer both pay per course and subscriptions as pricing options.

Robbie Baxter: Welcome to the show, Jill.

Jill Raines: Thank you so much for having me.

Robbie Baxter: I’m very excited to talk to you. We have a lot to cover. I wanted to start by asking you about the concept of a forever promise when the company promises the customer something in exchange for that customer or subscriber’s loyalty, trust, and membership for the long-term. When you think about your LinkedIn Learning member, what is that forever promise for you?

Jill Raines: At LinkedIn, we talk about a very similar concept. We call it a job to be done, which is similar to this forever promise framework. It’s, “Why does a learner hire us? What’s the pain point? What’s the outcome that we’re going to solve for a learner?” LinkedIn Learning exists to teach people the skills to be productive and successful in their careers. It could be that they need to obtain confidence and efficiency to do their job better, advance their skill sets to get a promotion, or perhaps get an entirely new or adjacent set of skills to land an entirely new gig altogether.

What I find so fascinating about this role is the reality of the world we’re in. Skills are changing so fast. It’s changing faster than we’ve ever seen them change before. Given this constant change in tools and technology, what we see in the data at LinkedIn is comprised of our 800 million-plus member profiles, 15 million job postings, and almost 38,000 unique skills on the platform. It’s this graph that is showing us that skillsets for jobs have changed about 25% since 2015. That number is expected to double once we hit 2027.

What that means from a learning concept is that to get a new job or to do your current job better, always means something different. It’s always changing and evolving. What members are turning to us for is to make sure we can match them to high-quality content to help them achieve that goal in this ever-evolving and ever-changing environment that we’re living in.

There is one last thing I’ll add that is related to this. I was talking with a learner. She was telling me how she works in customer service and that her job in customer service looks completely different than it did a few years ago. She was saying the skillsets she needs are all about social media. That’s her outlet to engage with the customer, which a few years ago was completely irrelevant. Our forever promise to this member was to be able to turn to LinkedIn Learning to be matched to content. We can also help her close that skill gap in this world where her job and what she needs to do to be successful are always changing.

Robbie Baxter: That’s so interesting. To summarize, it sounds like the LinkedIn Learning promise, the job to be done, is to be productive and successful in your career. Am I getting that right?

The reality of the world today is that skills are changing faster than ever before. — Jill Raines

Jill Raines: Yeah. The vision at LinkedIn is to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce. Where LinkedIn sits in that ecosystem as a means to create economic opportunity for every member of the global workforce is to teach members the skills they need to unlock that opportunity. LinkedIn Learning came out of an acquisition that we did a few years back. It’s a very nice bolted-on value proposition to the overarching vision we have as a company on LinkedIn.

Robbie Baxter: That’s an interesting side point, this question of business development or acquisition to continue layering in value to support that forever promise. It’s interesting to think about the role that LinkedIn Learning, formerly known as Lynda, plays in that broader promise around global economic opportunity. Something that I try to teach the companies that I work with is if you focus on that promise or on that job to be done, the product and features that you offer are going to change over time because you’re always looking for the best and most efficient way to deliver on that. I’m a little bit of a fan girl of LinkedIn. I’ve written a lot about the organization in my books and articles. I think that you’re an organization that is focused on that. The successful employee is the North Star. You’re always layering in stuff that is designed to help people thrive in their careers.

Jill Raines: I couldn’t agree more.

Robbie Baxter: We were talking about this promise. I’m curious. Sometimes, that kind of a promise of helping people thrive in having economic opportunity globally, even something narrower like being productive and successful in your career, or having the skills to match the need for your current job or the job that you aspire to are great things to say, but hard to measure. I’m curious. As a product person, how do you think about measuring whether you’re on track for those bigger goals?

Jill Raines: The way we look at LinkedIn Learning to measure that forever promise is engagement. We’re like, “Are people coming to our platform and watching content? Are they coming back to the platform and watching content?” Engagement is the number one leading indicator of churn on both sides of our business. We have an online subscription side of our business where you’re coming in monthly or annually and you’re renewing or our enterprise side of the business. In both, engagement is the leading indicator of account churn. Engagement is our North Star.

Robbie Baxter: With engagement, I’ve always defined that as frequency, recency, depth, and breadth of usage. Frequency is how often they are coming back. Recency is when the last time they came back was. Depth is often how long they spent when they were there. Breadth is how broadly they went in terms of the features and benefits that they’re entitled to.

In the world of streaming entertainment content, that breadth is, “Do you watch documentaries, or do you sometimes watch a rom-com?” In your world, it’s more about, “Are you developing technical skills? Are you developing softer personal skills? Are you developing industry skills?” What do you think about engagement? Is it all of those things or is there one number or one way of looking at it that you think is the most important.

Jill Raines: We look at that whole host of things. Frequency of engagement is the number one leading indicator of their ability to stay with us and build that loyal relationship. Frequency is what we’ll look at very closely, but depth is also extremely important from a learning perspective. How we help our learners be more productive and successful is by delivering career outcomes to them. You don’t get a new job or a promotion by watching ten minutes of a course on leadership. It takes depth. You got to dive into the Python course, practice, or take many courses, perhaps. We have long series of learning paths.

Jill Raines: Depth is also an indicator of being able to connect someone to those outcomes that we can map right across our ecosystem. We can see our members are able to retain longer in jobs because of learning. We’re like, “Are they more successful in obtaining a hiring outcome and getting that job they applied to on LinkedIn because of the coursework they were watching on LinkedIn Learning?”

Robbie Baxter: A lot of those metrics that you talked about are at the learner level. They’re like, “Did I take the course? Did I complete the course? Did I get the job I wanted? Am I staying in the job I wanted? All of those are very personal and consumer-y kinds of metrics. You mentioned that you also think about it from an enterprise perspective, meaning that organizations might have a license for their employee base.

When you were talking about the metrics, a lot of the metrics and a lot of the things that you track are, “Did I get the job I want? Did I keep the job I want? Did I spend time taking these courses and complete them and report back that they were helpful?” Those are all metrics at the individual level or at the consumer level.

I know that you also have an enterprise business. Enterprise organizations are an important part of the broader LinkedIn Learning ecosystem. I wonder if there are trade-offs on the two sides, like a feature that might be better for one group or the other or how to prioritize. I’m also curious about how the two parts work in harmony or with synergies that form between the two groups for your broader ecosystem. Can you talk a little bit about the interplay between your consumer business and the consumer relationships and your enterprise business?

Jill Raines: Yeah. How we measure that forever promise is engagement. Our priority holds true that it’s always building for the learner and their needs in mind first, with the philosophy being, “When we make the learner successful, we make an organization successful. When we drive member value, it translates directly into customer value.” With that said, there are nuances. There are things that we’ll see that make a learner successful on the consumer side but maybe not as successful or relevant on the enterprise side. We have to be intentional about that prioritization across.

I have a couple of examples that come to mind. Where most of our enterprise learners are learning is on their desktops. They’re at work. They’re learning and training maybe in a team meeting or through onboarding. They’re usually engaging in the hours of their working hours on their desktop. On the consumer side, it is a completely different landscape. They’re on their mobile phones. Our mobile usage is much higher on the consumer side. They’re learning on nights. They’re learning on weekends.

Our email optimization playbook might need to look a little bit different on the consumer side. When the right time and the appropriate time that is helpful to meet a learn who is trying to learn as their second job on nights and weekends is different than someone who is trying to onboard at their new company during their 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM hours and doesn’t want that Saturday onboarding email. We have to be intentional about some of those differences.

The other one that comes to mind mostly is the dynamic we see in job-seeking behavior when we look across consumers and enterprises. Sixty percent of our consumer learners have viewed or saved a job on LinkedIn in the past couple of months. Job-seeking activity in the consumer space is super high. That’s why they’re turning to LinkedIn Learning to be able to upscale to land that new job. On the enterprise side, it looks different. They’re coming and turning to LinkedIn Learning or forever promise to get better and more efficient in the job they’re in. We have to think about and be intentional about the ability to prioritize across some of those different integrations.

You don’t get a new job or get promoted just by watching a 10-minute course on leadership. It takes depth, practice, and a lot of courses. — Jill Raines

Robbie Baxter: It’s interesting. I’ve thought about this a lot with professional development as a category. There are two different reasons that people do professional development. One of them is to get better at their current job, which is often subsidized by their organization. The other is to get out of that job and go somewhere else. I’m glad you called that out as one difference. I appreciate the difference between mobile in the evenings versus desktop during the day. That’s also a good example.

A third one that I wanted to explore with you is what the outcomes are. We’ve talked about what the desired outcomes are for the learner. Can you talk a little bit about some of the desired outcomes for an enterprise? Why would an organization pay the big bucks to give all of their learners subscriptions or access to LinkedIn Learning? Also, how do they determine whether they’re getting the value that they hoped for?

Jill Raines: They’re looking at outcomes like retention. They’re like, “Am I able to help an employee at the company upskill their skillsets so that they are more productive and successful in their jobs and, therefore, likely to stay at my organization longer?” It’s much more expensive when you talk about needing to go out and acquire new talent than being able to grow talent from within. We see that among the learning and development professionals. The members we work with on the customer-facing side are a top priority.

The other one that’s growing in the space is internal mobility. It’s this idea to maybe take a frontline worker that has all of the skills or a very high overlap to be able to move into that corporate-facing role within their organization and give this opportunity. To move someone internally and close skill gaps is another priority we see increasing across our customer segment.

Robbie Baxter: It’s interesting. You use this language of skills development and skill gap, which is a little different than the concept of certification or taking a course. I’m interested in how you think about professional development or professional education and how it’s evolving, especially digital learning and how it’s changing the way that people learn. I’m interested in how you’re thinking differently about what that means in terms of how you design and serve up your content.

Jill Raines: COVID will probably have forever changed the landscape of what online learning means. We went through this massive expedited digitalization that online learning saw such a crazy boom. You hear that across the entire competitive landscape. A couple of areas that are top of mind are there’s a finite amount of time across these products to use. They’re like, “Do I go watch another episode of Squid Games, or do I finish that Python course I started last week?” There’s probably a right answer in there, but it’s not always the easy one. At LinkedIn Learning, we talk a lot about how we’re meeting them in their day-to-day lives and putting it in the context of their professional lives to make engagement easier. Being part of the world’s largest professional network, we’re in a unique position where we can meet learners in that flow of work.

Even with integrations into products like Microsoft Viva and LinkedIn Learning, it becomes a much more seamless interaction for how we can reach someone and not necessarily need to go into LinkedIn Learning itself, type something into the search bar, and be able to watch a course. You can seamlessly scroll through your feed and be able to watch a two-minute tip on business development from Robbie or be able to see a job posting. Alongside that job posting, you’re able to see courses that can close skill gaps so that you’re better qualified and better positioned to apply for that job. That’s one area.

The other one I would call out evolving is around modalities. Live events, for example, are a very common way. We see learners and experts on the other side of the marketplace, like yourself, wanting to engage with each other. It’s not necessarily needing to be the on-demand 18,000-course library that we have available at any time, but it’s this ability to come onto LinkedIn and jump on a live event. I know I’ve even done one with you in the past before. It’s this hunger to do it in real-time and be able to jump in a Q&A and interact with other learners. There is the interactivity that we see come across in this absence of in-person learning and in-person interaction in this world that we’re still in.

Jill Raines: The last one I’d call out is this increase toward short-form content. Relevant to my first point, we all have a finite amount of time. How are we getting the highest return for that time with learning? It’s hard to dedicate and set that time for that Python course. We see this gravitation for our learners to the ability to get that learning in a shorter, more succinct period of time.

Robbie Baxter: It’s a good point. I’ve taught a bunch of LinkedIn Learning courses myself over a period of five years. First of all, with the first course I did, I was surprised that my producer didn’t want any chapters or any episodes to be more than three and a half minutes or maybe four minutes. They were short, little bursts. Over time, what I noticed is it was getting more sophisticated about what to call those. It’s almost the way I think about the books that I’ve written, especially the second book that I wrote. It was influenced by this that any chapter can stand by itself.

I have a course called B2B selling. You might say, “I’m trying to get a job in B2B selling. I’m in retail selling now. I’m trying to figure out what the delta is so that I can get a better-paying job with full benefits.” You might also say, “I’m going to take this three-minute snippet on closing the deal or objection handling.” That’s interesting that you can look and take the whole course in a linear fashion or you can grab the just-in-time how to have a difficult conversation. Those two minutes are helpful before you walk into a tough meeting. That’s interesting.

The way that you’re talking about layering in modalities or ways of interacting with the content is interesting. I feel like it’s on the cutting edge of how people engage with most forms of content. That community can be a tremendous multiplier of the impact of the content, especially when it comes to learning. It’s great to talk to your instructor, but sometimes, it’s even more valuable, honestly, to talk to your peers who are dealing with the same challenges.

I find the office hours and LinkedIn Live interesting, which allows you to present on the fly. It’s interesting to think about what’s possible and how to use technology in the service of adult learning. It’s different.

I have one other thought that came to mind. I’ve worked with a lot of professional development organizations that are used to doing classroom learning that have some kind of expertise. We’ve all had those experiences where someone comes into your office and they’re doing leadership training or DEIB training. They come in and it’s 45 minutes or all day. Those organizations are thinking about the same things you mentioned. They’re like, “What does it mean if we’re online?” A lot of them are starting by taking that entire darn course that might be six hours and plopping it. They’re taking the whole recording and putting it out there, and it’s not Squid Games.

Probably some of the people reading this have their own expert content that they want to develop for learners. An important thing is to think about how people learn, how they learn digitally, and how we can make it as engaging, useful, and timely as possible. There are things we lose by going online. There is something special about being in a classroom with other students where you’re completely focused and the instructor is right there. There are also things that we gain, like the sources of flexibility that we have. That’s your world as the person who’s creating the member experience for learning. It’s fascinating to hear your thoughts on the different ways that you can engage people in content that may not feel as fun and relaxing as watching a romcom at the end of the day.

Jill Raines: There is something powerful when we can get those quick videos down. It’s that ability for learners to feel that sense of progress that they’re making and these short milestones. The quicker time we can get them to that a-ha moment, the better. They’re not needing to sit through the eight-hour DEI course before they’re like, “I get this. I understand the value.” We’re like, “What are those a-ha checkpoint moments along the way for our learners that we’re creating so that they continue to learn?”

It is much more expensive when you talk about acquiring new talent from the outside than growing them from within. — Jill Raines

Robbie Baxter: It’s good for the instructor, too, because it forces you to say, “What is their state of mind when they’re coming here? Are they about to go into a difficult meeting or are they onboarding and trying to put their best foot forward in a brand new job that they’ve never done before?” You get to design the content accordingly but also design the experience in such a way that it engages the learner and helps to surface whatever’s next as well at the right time. It sounds like COVID has accelerated this running of a complex online learning platform at scale.

Jill Raines: I will never forget some of those, as I’m sure many of us in all the roles we were in at the time. Everyone’s work was changing. Suddenly, we would come in and look at the dashboards and there were courses on, “How do I use zoom? How do I get Teams up and running or through the roof?” When people were turning to LinkedIn Learning, we suddenly had this new job to be done to be able to equip the world on how to work in a way they’d never had to work before. It was a pretty fascinating time. Making sure we were matching people to the right sets of content and getting the right experts in the door to teach content as this world was turning on its head was pretty fascinating.

Robbie Baxter: I want to change gears a little bit. Everybody loves to hear about pricing. One of the ongoing debates in the world of subscriptions is whether they have to be a subscription purist or you can have a blended business model that includes transactions and maybe even advertising. What I see with subscriptions is there is advertising-supported content and pay-per-use content. In your case, it’s paying by the course. There’s also a subscription to a catalog. What has been your experience with pricing both within the larger organization of LinkedIn and as you think about what’s in the best interest of your learners?

Jill Raines: I have so many learnings here on this. When I came into this team, we only had an all-you-can-eat subscription model. You’d subscribe monthly or annually and you could access any of the 18,000-plus courses we have at any point in time. We did a lot of analysis and looked rightfully across the competitive landscape. We saw a clear learner need for the transactional use case of the person that wanted that one Python course or had this just-in-time need for a piece of learning content. They want to be able to transact that single piece of content.

A few years back, we made the decision to introduce an ala carte or a pay-per-course model, which is still available. You can come in and buy a single piece of content. I came into it thinking, “This is a feature we’re introducing this other feature alongside our subscription business.” I had this moment in transformation with the team in that we launched an entirely new business. These were two businesses we were running and had to manage. We needed a different set of tactics at coms plans, go-to markets, or life cycle management. There’s that competing overhead for priority and resourcing when you make that decision to have two businesses.

Being part of the broader LinkedIn set, it’s a membership economy. It’s bringing value week after week to you, Jill, and Robbie as a member. It wasn’t a place where eCommerce was our sweet spot where we were seasoned in how to do retargeting, promos, discounts, and that playbook you need in this ala carte transactional market to thrive.

It, for sure, had its challenges where it wasn’t a playbook with subscriptions that you could take, copy, and paste over to the ala carte model. You had to rethink the playbook and what worked. When that was a bit foreign to the macro parent company we were a part of, we were writing the playbook there. We were putting a lot of the functionality into the system that was table stakes to survive in a pay-per-course environment that we didn’t have yet. We were playing a bit of catch-up there.

Robbie Baxter: It’s interesting. On the one hand, you were playing catch-up because many of the other players were selling on a per-course basis. You wanted to have a similar offering to expand your market. That requires a whole different set of eCommerce skills, direct commerce skills, email marketing, retargeting, and all of that. You’re like, “Do we have those skills? Can we do it? Can we deliver?” There’s also that bigger question of whether it supports the promise you’re making. It’s back to your point earlier about the way you design courses and that you want them to be bite-sized. You want to give people exactly what they need at the moment and help them identify what they need next.

Robbie Baxter: Even going back to this example of the B2B sales, you come in and you’re looking for objection handling. You can take a whole course on that, but there are several different instructors who have 1 or 2 modules within a larger course that are focused on that topic. How to give people the best experience is to give them access to everything that might be relevant to them. When you have one course, almost by design, they have to choose the one course that is perfect for them instead of building themselves exactly what they need at the moment.

Jill Raines: That is well said. When you break down the DNA of a role to get to an outcome to be able to get that promotion, it’s not always as straightforward as one skill checkbox. Maybe there is that use case for some learners where they’re like, “I had this one gap to close.” That’s where the ala carte model is super powerful. It’s there for learners that need that quick 30-minute Excel pivot table refresh and we can meet their needs. For many, it’s a little bit of leadership, meeting prep, or business development. It’s this flavor that makes us the professionals that are most productive and successful. That is where that subscription offering thrives and meets the needs of our members.

Robbie Baxter: That’s an important point. It’s this idea of who your best members are or who are the ones that are getting the most value. It’s the ones that are making a habit of learning, which is a different way than saying, “Our best customers are the ones that swoop in once a year and take four courses.” It’s knowing who you’re designing for and building an ongoing relationship with them. You have this long-term goal with them about, “I’m helping you thrive in your career. I’m not helping you get a job, although that may be one element. I’m helping you get that job, thrive in that job, find the next job, build a community, and build a network.” It’s a different way of designing a product.

You’ve been with LinkedIn for a long time. You were there through the acquisition of Lynda. You were there through being acquired by Microsoft. I’m very interested in business development, partnerships, and acquisition. How do you provide and deliver on that forever promise through partnerships? You talked about how LinkedIn acquired Lynda to fill a gap in how they were serving their professionals. You also acquired EduBrite to offer professional certifications. I’m curious. What do you see is the role of a partnership or an acquisition as a means to rounding out a forever promise?

Jill Raines: It comes back to the top of our conversation of what we were saying. We are living in this world where the skills needed and the way we prove, demonstrate, and signal those skills are ever-evolving and ever-changing. Making sure we have the technology, solutions, and offerings to our learners to be able to do that in the best way possible means we are always evaluating. We are always evaluating partnerships that could potentially add more value to our offering to be able to help more learners and match more learners to experts. That’s ultimately how we can deliver more forever promises. The more learners we can match to experts and the more skills we can teach, the more forever promises we can create.

One gap we saw in being able to do that matching effectively was in the professional certification space. For those that are reading that are not familiar with this, this is a space where you can earn an industry-recognized credential offer oftentimes from a company like Google, IBM, and Salesforce. Many of these companies offer these to signal that you know the skillsets of a specific piece of software or a specific role within that company. You are able to validate that through an assessment to be able to earn this professional certification. This is an increasing way that we’re seeing. Learners want to signal their skillset and also, hirers want to make hiring decisions based on these verified credentials.

With that gap, we set our sights on one of the strongest technology platforms out there we could find, EduBrite, which deploys and hosts these professional certifications. That acquisition closed not too long ago. I am super excited to bring on this team of experts that’s going to help us pave the way to bring this completely step-function value add to the LinkedIn Learning product.

With the vision being LinkedIn is a place where you can come and earn a professional certification, you could add that professional certification to your LinkedIn profile. You can then be found for an opportunity because you have the skillsets through that professional certification. We are further democratizing access to learning by putting learning and skill development on a level-playing field in a way we haven’t been able to do before. I’m excited about what this acquisition is going to bring for us.

Short-form content can help learners feel a sense of progress rapidly. The quicker they can get to that a-ha moment, the more they do not need hours-long content to deliver value. — Jill Raines

Robbie Baxter: Another good example of using your promises or North Star is by saying, “What else do we need to deliver on economic access for all?” You’re thriving in your professional career. Also, looking around and saying, “Do we need to build that, or is there a place we can partner or an organization we can acquire?” is often a good strategy to deepen the relationship with the customer. I love that. I want to close out if you’ve got another minute or two with a speed round. Would that be okay?

Jill Raines: Sure. The pressure feels on.

Robbie Baxter: What’s the first subscription you ever had?

Jill Raines: It was probably Apple Music.

Robbie Baxter: What is a subscription that you find particularly useful at this point in your life?

Jill Raines: My diaper subscription for my son. Without fail, the new diapers show up on my doorstep when I need them.

Robbie Baxter: Is that a subscribe-and-save type of thing or is that a special diaper service?

Jill Raines: It is a special compostable diaper service that we use.

Robbie Baxter: What was your favorite college class?

Jill Raines: It speaks to the roots of my learning interest, which is film production.

Robbie Baxter: What was the last LinkedIn Learning course you took?

Jill Raines: I took a great course on how to create an equitable design.

Robbie Baxter: That’s it. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us on the show. It was a real pleasure.

Jill Raines: Thank you so much for having me. It was a pleasure. Likewise.

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Robbie K Baxter

Author of THE FOREVER TRANSACTION & THE MEMBERSHIP ECONOMY; Leading expert on membership models and subscription pricing. http://www.robbiekellmanbaxter.com