Why Do We Pay To Learn?

Old Cash Register We choose how we spend our time and money. Even if learning is free, plenty of people would rather watch Honey Boo Boo than check out a free and open course from MIT or Stanford. Other times, we will pay to attend a conference and skip the sessions to hang out in the hallways. Several people get hung up on the price of ebooks, wondering why a digital file should command a dollar value when it’s not made of paper and not shipped, as if the “value” of a book is in the construction of the product itself.

At the bottom of this post is an invite to a FREE fun project for the coming year.

We are faced with choices all the time around whether we should spend money or not. Should you buy a $5 latte or just make coffee at home? Should you pay for Cable TV or just use Netflix and Hulu? Should you get a new outfit or make do with what’s in the closet? Do you have the time to learn all this?

So why do we pay to learn? Here are some thoughts to help you clarify your own answers.

“You Can Figure This Out For Yourself.”

Last year, I charged for a course on how to get more out of Google+. Some people were outraged that I wanted money to walk you through a class on something you could learn yourself, if you wanted to take the time. Just let those sentences percolate for a moment. I could learn Spanish if I hung out around more Spanish speaking people, or I could pay for the Rosetta Stone courses and then put them to use (boy, I really should do this, by the way).

Most everything in life is figure-outable. I could figure out yoga, if I spent a lot of time finding snippets of free classes on YouTube, or I could go to the class and get instruction. I could learn to be a better writer strictly by practicing more instead of committing to a 16-week course.

So, if you could figure it out, why do you choose to go to yoga classes or pay for a course? Because you want the guidance, and because someone’s done some of the assembly work for you.

You Already Know This

Most of the books we buy and the classes we take cover ground we already know. When you buy a book about a diet or weight loss, it’s not like you’re going to be surprised most times. “Wait, Devil Dogs aren’t on this list of acceptable foods either! What?”

We buy sometimes to reinforce what we already know. I just bought a book about bodyweight exercises (you can read about which one here), and I know all the exercises in there. In this case, I’m paying for the author’s sequencing, the way he assembles the advice. I paid for a webinar the other day on email list building techniques. Though I didn’t get much out of it, I did find one very simple piece of advice that I implemented almost immediately. Time will tell whether the money spent was worth it, but I suspect it was.

In my project with S. Anthony Iannarino, Finding the Superpower of Flight, Claudio Alegre said, The “2 asks” alone was worth the price of admission … count on my support for your next webinars. He paid $97 and felt he’d received his money’s worth for that.

I would feel that’s a strange response if it hadn’t happened to me. I spent thousands of dollars on a speaking coach myself, and learned something so major in the first 20 minutes of the all-day session with him that I could have walked out and felt that I’d received my money’s worth. To me, and probably Claudio, there was something said, finally, in a way I hadn’t thought of it before, that took a fairly simple idea and made it mine.

And What Should You Pay?

Don’t expect simple answers here. Ebooks are around $9.99 on Amazon, unless they’re self-published and then you can see prices ranging from free to $199. Yes, someone has an ebook priced the same as the Kindle Fire HD you could read it on. Does that shock or bother me? Not at all. If the information is worth $199, that’s what it’s worth.

My own writing class costs $497 for 16 weeks. In looking around at community college adult education non-credit programs, I’m somewhere in the middle. Only, my information comes with a lot of bonus information like video interviews with writing professionals, and an online forum, blah blah blah. Is it worth $497? I say absolutely. But not if you think you should buy a $4.95 magazine and learn from that. Not if you think there’s enough written about how to write to keep someone going.

Price is the most difficult part of the equation for most people to swallow. It’s also the hardest to understand (on either side: if you’ve ever had to price your own products or services, you know this).

How did I come up with my pricing?

I price almost entirely on my perception of the value of the course based on what I, myself, would be willing to pay for after having experienced similar products. Meaning, I don’t care what the market price rates are; I care what I think the exchange of value is worth. That’s my style. Your mileage may vary.

My Little Guide to What I Pay (vs What I Charge)

How I value information that I’m buying is different. I have a simple question:

If I pay _X_ for this, will I be able to make _X_ plus ___ from what I learn?

That’s it. Think about if. If I wanted to learn how to close $500,000 deals, it would probably be worth it to pay as much as $100,000 to learn. Hell, if you think about it, it’s probably worth it to pay $500,000 to learn it, seeing as how you’d have that skill and could close far more than one deal like that.

That’s how I tend to value information most times. The only other part of my equation: “Will I really do something with this information?” If I answer no, it doesn’t matter how much the course is worth.

Four Reasons Why We Pay to Learn

I believe that for most of us, there are four reasons why we pay to learn something.

  1. We have moved to a new level or a new role and need more knowledge than we had before.
  2. We would rather spend money than time getting our knowledge delivered to us in a fashion that we feel will help us succeed.
  3. We need a refresher in something we already know, or reinforcement to our own commitments.
  4. We haven’t yet owned and mastered the information and so we need more perspectives and more potential ways to absorb it until it can become our own knowledge.

You could scrape together some other reasons, but they won’t be as good. Those are the four that drive most of us.

We need to know more because we’ve grown.
We need to know more faster.
We need to know more because we are still accepting our ownership of the information.
We need to know more for mastery.

Do you agree? Is that how you evaluate what you buy and don’t buy? What did I miss in describing your choices and decisions? What do you do to determine the correlation between price and value? Would love your thoughts.



Announcing the 3 Book Diet Project

Starting on November 1st, I’m committing myself to read only the same three books for an entire year, and I want to encourage you to join me in this mission. What am I talking about? Learn more here (it’s FREE).

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  • http://www.blazewebstudio.co.za/ geoffreygordon

    Chris this is an excellent post. I started out as many have before and after me with the attitude that “the internet has an answer to any question so why pay for it ?” Over time and you tend to migrate to the better resources on the web as you become more familiar with whats available and realize an important fundamental truth…

    The guys that keep looking for freebies don’t get anywhere, the one’s willing to pay to learn get somewhere.

    Its is… and is not… that the information you learn is something that you already know. I think it is more about learning that the person that is teaching you have an audience, generate income and they do it well.

    I hope that makes sense… So for me in essence what you learn from them is the essence that makes them tick and ultimately what makes them successful. And that knowledge is worth its weight in gold.

    You want to be better, stop being a cheap skate and pay for the good stuff, you wont regret it. Every course i have bought has blown me away, made more people interested in what i have to say and increased sales.

    Great post Chris…

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      When I don’t have the money or I’m not yet ready to commit to invest in something, I might still seek out the free option, but then barring that, I usually pay to learn if it’s of value to me.

      • http://www.facebook.com/thewritersinkhorn Deborah’s Inkhorn

        I pay to learn because it helps to position me for the goals I am seeking to accomplish in the future. Paying to learn is investing in my future and myself!

  • http://www.marcensign.com/blog Marc Ensign

    Knowledge is power. if you can pick up even one litte nugget that makes your life better, makes you happier, makes you more successful, makes you healthier, makes you richer, etc. Then it is worth whatever you paid. Because it’s not the nugget in that one book that makes the difference. It’s the combination of every book you read, every seminar you went to, every blog post you read, every program you bought, every person you talked to that makes the difference.

    Great post as usual…nice way to start off my week. Now off to start learning (and of course teaching).

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      Definitely true. It’s the blend.

  • http://everydayemstips.com Greg Friese

    This is especially timely as I am at decision point on my first coursera experience. Do I actually complete the assignment (due in a couple of hours) or do I continue to take the course simply to learn more about the topic (learning to computer program) but not receive a certificate of completion. I am fairly sure if I had paid something for the course I would be more motivated to earn the certificate.

    • http://rickmanelius.com Rick Manelius

      If you’re mere hours away from the certification, knock that one out :)

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      I’d totally get the cert. Why not? You’re right there.

      • http://everydayemstips.com Greg Friese

        Sorry I was not more clear. This is assignment one of a 6 week course with more assignments to come.

        • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

          Do people value this cert? Do you need it to do the work? Or is it an excuse?

          • http://everydayemstips.com Greg Friese

            I just want to learn how to computer program. Seems like a skill for this century. Not likely I will use the skill, but perhaps the knowledge will help me assist my kids as they eventually will need to learn computer programming.

  • http://twitter.com/FitOldDog Kevin Morgan

    Hi Chris, great post. The pricing issue is fascinating. I bought a rough e-book for $97 (Desperate Buyers Only) and the insights concerning keyword research were justification enough for the purchase. I have put two e-books (white papers) on the market since I started trying to sell, about three months ago – this was four months ahead in my three-year plan, but I have a conversion rate for one of about 0.1% after 3 months, and the other of 0% after two weeks. I played with the price, and then gave up and settled for $19.95 for either, while I work on number three. In the meantime I’m learning about learning from advertising and construction of landing pages in relation to the emotions behind sales. I read your stuff regularly, but I don’t know enough yet to ask intelligent questions, so I’ll keep on reading (and tweeting out your articles). I train on Sunday mornings, so can’t make chat sessions right now, what with the NYC marathon coming up. Thanks for your insights, and I’ll look a little more closely at your products as it seems that you know ‘of that about which you speak.’ Cheers, Kevin Morgan aka FitOldDog

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      Congrats on the NYC marathon! @jcqly has run that a few times. I haven’t. I did one trail marathon. : )

  • http://ifoundmymoney.com/ Adam Hathaway

    Completely agree. I think what most people need is structure and a way to fit learning into their life. If they pay for a structured course they now will get more than if they just looked for info themselves. We are inundated with distractions so self researched learning is very hard for many outside the super disciplined.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      How would you do it, Adam? How do YOU fit it into your life?

      • http://ifoundmymoney.com/ Adam Hathaway

        I like the web based training courses that offers a blend of incentives to keep pushing through the program and the ability to be self paced as well. This way if something comes up you dont lose out but you also have a reason to continue the course. I am working on the self discipline.

  • Sidney McGaffigan

    Great post and perfect timing for me. I’ve paid for several courses in 2012 and each one taught me something new. But, I’ve discovered that isn’t the single criteria for me any longer. I have to “do” something with my learning. While I won’t be joining you in only reading 3 books the next year, I am going to invest in only 3 learning opportunities – and then practice/implement what I learn over and over to learn it more deeply. I have one course selected and will have to think carefully about the other two. It’s like only getting three desserts for the year – choose wisely!

    • http://rickmanelius.com Rick Manelius

      I’ve had to make the same discovery in life. I used to confuse knowledge (e.g. gathering of facts) with know-how (e.g. real world experience). While the former is very important, it’s the latter that makes the real impact!

      I’ve slowed down on the number of conferences I attend and books I read for this exact reason… choosing to spend more time trying to embody the important things I’ve already learned before adding more to the mix!

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      I think that makes a great deal of sense, Sidney. Any idea which ones you’re looking to pick?

    • http://milaspage.com/ Mila Araujo

      Awesome point – don’t waste knowledge – it must be applied. :) love it.

    • http://www.CharlesSpecht.com/ Charles Specht

      That’s a great idea, Sidney. Quantity certainly doesn’t mean quality. And we can suffer from information overload. I like your idea.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      Exactly so. In my case, what i’ve done with the courses I create is that I’ve built in accountability and requirements to keep following on.

  • http://twitter.com/eileen53 Aprille Byam

    For me, there is one more reason to pay – and that’s community. If I’m considering a conference or webinar, I’m as interested in who else is attending as I am the course topics. I know that I can learn from the other people in the room, so if a course has the capability of talking to them, I’m more likely to pay.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      Very interesting. So the content is no longer as interesting as the guest list. That’s very interesting. : )

  • http://rickmanelius.com Rick Manelius

    Given my history with information products, seminars, and programs; I’m more likely to pay for information that helps me save time on a process I’m already doing versus one I’m exploring. The former is more of a sure bet while the latter is speculative. But in the end, saved time does open the opportunity for more exploration, so the two are not mutually exclusive.

    Basically, I’m much more interested at this stage in my life if something can make what I’m doing more efficient. Making more money, that’s a little more speculative because the person buying the information may not have the skills or infrastructure in place to execute against it.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      Interesting. So you’re paying for learning something on the path you’re already on, but have given up a bit on exploring new roads? That makes a lot of sense to me, actually. Too many rabbit holes to go down otherwise.

      • http://rickmanelius.com Rick Manelius

        Correct. I’ve easily spent a couple grand on some things that I could have been really good at IF I made the time to see them through to completion. And while I’m a jack of all trades sortof guy that likes to explore it all, I’ve been finding that focusing on my 1-2 main revenue generators has been extremely successful.

        My goal is to keep focusing on those to the point where I can either generate enough revenue or automate some other aspects that I can THEN make time for the rabbit holes… but not depend on said rabbit holes if they don’t pan out.

        • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

          Sounds perfectly sensible. : )

      • http://rickmanelius.com Rick Manelius

        BTW, a first your comment ‘stung’ a little bit… not because of what you said or how you said it, but because I know I sometimes fear ‘giving up’ on what feels like a truer passion or higher calling. It’s that fear that kept me chasing the various rabbit holes. The fear of missing out, not being able to do everything at the same time, etc.

        It’s taken me a lot of time to build my discipline to say no and block things out… but it has proven to be more rewarding, for sure!

        • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

          Ahhhh, but we ALL feel that. You and me and lots of creative types. YOU are an explorer. Sorry for the sting. Wasn’t meant in a bad way. It’s the mirror, in my case.

          • http://rickmanelius.com Rick Manelius

            No need to apologize and I know it wasn’t your intention. And I’m actually glad that it happened because I didn’t realize that was one of my sticking points, so I’m at least consciously aware that this is an issue for me.

            I like the explorer idea… and we don’t always have to wear that hat all the time. We can be in “getting down to business” mode and then switch to “let’s explore everything!” :)

  • http://twitter.com/Marcie_Hill Marcie Hill

    This is very timely, Chris, as I am writing a post on blog about the value of my forthcoming self-published book, 62 Blog Posts to Overcome Blogger’s Block. I am always asked why it costs $99. It’s not about the content; it’s about the value.

    Two of the benefits of investing in education, return on the investment and
    relationship. One testimonial from a big name far outweighs several testimonials from lesser known names.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      Sounds awesome! I bet people will really find value in it, too. : )

  • Jennifer Cheatham

    I am taking my first class in Social Media and am paying to learn because I did not know where to start! I agree, in particular, with your reasoning #4 on why we pay to learn – more perspective and direction. As for me, the face-to face interaction is the best method to help me get started so the “value” is exceptional.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      That’s interesting. So a face-to-face class works best for you?

      • Jennifer Cheatham

        Yes, that’s true. I also love blogger Mila’s point that time is money. The longer it takes you to figure something out on your own . . .

  • http://milaspage.com/ Mila Araujo

    This is a great post, I have another very strong reason smart people pay to learn: your time is money. Trying to figure things out on your own takes significantly more time than having a trusted expert guide you. You have to ask yourself what is my time worth and if you value your time at all you will realize having the privilege of getting expert coaching, or even reading a focused book will save you time and it will save you money and finally will give you what you need to keep being successful. It’s about education and resourcefulness. The same people who don’t have or take the time are the same people who keep asking themselves how I get further

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      Great point, Mila. I’m a big fan of this. I pay a wonderful person to do my laundry so that I can have more time to do work. That’s one of MANY ways that I pay for the time/money equation.

      • http://milaspage.com/ Mila Araujo

        That’s another great use of money/time. I read your post about her and I wish she did work in Canada!
        The best use of our time is focusing on our strengths and using our resources to find people around us who can compliment what we need with their strengths. That’s a win / win. :)

  • http://twitter.com/LeadingEveryday Juan Cruz Jr

    They key thing to paying for learning is because we are paying for that person who has already learned it before us. So we value that persons time to teach us much quicker what took longer for that person to learn. Many times we also pay because we believe there is a mystery to be revealed. Sometimes there is, but I have found out that for the most part there isn’t. I can learn about any subject just be Googling. Actually, that’s my favorite saying to my girls when they ask me a question: “Did you Google it?”

  • OBVAVirtualAssistant

    We all want the dream,
    Chris, and many of us simply don’t know/want to know enough about online
    marketing to realize what costs it is about. We just want to keep comparing the
    amount of money and forget about the time and effort which will be needed to compensate
    the money which sometimes we are unwilling to pay. Chris this is actually a
    very eye opening article for all the reader who are stuck with the choice of
    free or chargeable courses.

    We all want the dream,
    Chris, and many of us simply don’t know/want to know enough about online
    marketing to realize what costs it is about. We just want to keep comparing the
    amount of money and forget about the time and effort which will be needed to compensate
    the money which sometimes we are unwilling to pay. Chris this is actually a
    very eye opening article for all the reader who are stuck with the choice of
    free or chargeable courses.

  • http://www.whiteboardbusiness.com/ Dallon Christensen

    Another big reason for pricing is people will commit to it more. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve signed up for a free course or webinar and never attended. It wasn’t a priority, because I had no “skin in the game”. When I pay for something, I’ve invested something up front. I will definitely take advantage of what I’ve paid for unless and until I don’t learn anything from it.

    You really do get what you pay for in a lot of cases.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      Commitment is most definitely a strong part of how people view a purchase. I just heard about this last night from @jcqly about a project of hers. So yeah.

  • http://allmarketingsolutions.co.uk/social-media-marketing-services Ayaz

    Excellent post and I certainly agree with you Chris on the four points you mention why we pay to learn and I feel we learn after paying that benefited us in shape of getting cleared some confusions or get some great tips in that particular field the teacher doing work in that particular field for some time than us.

    Thanks for sharing valuable information :-)

  • Ed Shahzade (@Ed)

    I agree with your list of 4 reasons we pay to learn.
    For me [both as a paid-information consumer,
    and the predominant reason people buy information from me]
    it has been a combination of your #2 above (taken to mean ‘reliable, quality information curated for efficiency) and trust.
    Your “Trust Agent” view of business and community has been the greatest
    reason I turn to certain sources, and why I am used as a source.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      Kind of you, Ed. I like to think we’re heading in the right direction.

  • Nancy Syzdek, APR

    In some cases we pay to learn to codify, frame and validate what we’ve learned through experience. I know for many of my PR colleagues, going through the accreditation process put a theoretical framework around their strategies and tactics. In the end, they’ve become better counselors for balancing their practical and academic knowledge bases.

    • http://chrisbrogan.com/ Chris Brogan

      You’re absolutely right. There are days when I wish I had more formal education. Few of them. But in your explanations above, I like the logic. It makes perfect sense.

  • http://www.CharlesSpecht.com/ Charles Specht

    I agree. Too many people assume the value of something is determined by the packaging, when in reality it is determined by the quality of the content. Many people say that about books but they usually don’t about cars.

    No one would question the pricing difference between a Mercedes Benz and a Buick. But for some reason we assume other things in life (such as books or an online class) should be considered differently.

  • http://www.businesssparks.com/ Steven

    I went through the “rabbit holes” learning stage. Don’t we all, until we learn to be much more selective?

    Now I protect my time with personal filters:

    Will this add to my strengths and mastery?
    Will it challenge and influence my thinking?
    Will I learn more than “just information”? Is there an opportunity to “get under the skin of the person” who has put the course together, so I can get a feel for their world view?
    Is this something I shouldn’t really learn and simply outsource?
    What’s the expected payback? (Is this a good use of my time?)

    If the learning satisfies most of these filters, then it become much easier to justify the cost.

    If I didn’t apply this criteria I’d get nothing done, the web is so tempting. I highly recommend TED talk coffee breaks!

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  • http://www.facebook.com/RCONNORIII Robert Connor

    Great post with some awesome points i believe everything starts with We need to know more because we’ve grown. Have a great day Chris!

  • Joseph Dabon

    Great writing style. Simple, not many fluffy words. It is really worth the time.

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  • Matt Searles


    So I think you’re kinda wrong.. I think you’re kinda.. falling under the sway of that old marketing problem of thinking you’re the same as your customers… which.. actually.. in someways I approve of more then doing it the marketing stuff right way lol…

    But for instance.. I’m a creative.. and I can tell you that among creative folks.. money is not always so high up on the motivational ladder… I mean there are people going to art school to study painting.. how many of those people you think are going to make a living as a painter?

    Personally.. I would say I have this idea in my head of what my career is.. and that there are things I might want to learn that fall into this space, and things I might want to learn that I don’t really know how they would fall into “career” but I just sorta trust, because of what I know of psychology and human potential, that it’ll still have value…

    I suppose another way of saying it is “I believe in a broad liberal arts education” as a pose to.. a kinda technical school” that’s all about getting you ready for a particular career market thing.

    I sorta stand at the intersection of the arts, technology, and business.. and to me.. it’s… important to like.. not have the same education as everyone else.. not have the same group think.. I mean I can tell you there are multiple mental health professions whom are telling me I need to get more inside the box with my thinking… but… I guess I just choose madness?

    I believe innovation comes as a result of putting things together that you wouldn’t ordinarily put together… [like chocolate and peanut butter] Like if you’re a technology person.. there are certain things you know about.. but then there are certain things you don’t… and sometimes you don’t even know what you don’t know about.. you might even think you know what you’re talking about when you don’t… So you take any group of things.. as far as “I’m a technologist,” “I’m a communication person,” “I’m a musician,” “I specialize in extracting information from people by simulating drowning”… like what ever the hell your combo of choice.. and I promise you the combination will yield special insights that only you will have.. and that can help you kick those other bastards asses!

    And that’s a big part of why I think it’s a mistake to be too narrowly focused in where you spend your money for learning.

    And I’ll say this.. I never pay to learn what I already know… or if I pay for something and find that its just a review.. I don’t feel good about it.

    I’m always paying for learning one way or another.. if its magazines, books, video tutorials… thinking about doing grad school… sometimes its the gas, attention, and time to go to some free thing…

    I’m also one of those crazy bastards who does the free open course where stuff.. or at least the podcast lectures.. History, philosophy or religion, social psychology, cultural anthropology and the media….. just whatever I’m interested in.

    So I don’t know, thought for food right?

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  • http://www.callbox.com.sg/ Jayden Chu

    It was a great learning with you here Richard. It would really take more time trying to learn something completely-new than perfect an existing skill. Very descriptive post here.

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