In mid-March, as much of the world withdrew into their homes, the celebrity-powered e-learning platform MasterClass began to notice that people who encountered its advertisements were often watching them in full.
This was a testament to the efficacy of what the company calls its “trailers” — glossy spots, set against the rise and fall of an orchestral score, that function as not only an expression of its thesis that “online education can be beautiful and cinematic,” as Aaron Rasmussen, a co-founder, explained, but also as reintroductions to illustrious known quantities.
“For someone to watch your film for more than just a few seconds is a big victory,” said David Schriber, the company’s chief marketing officer.
Of course, seductive advertising is a kind of science. “There really is a format to it,” said Mr. Rasmussen, “with a joke and a buildup, a sensitive moment that’s sometimes painful, then the contrast to the rising end of the trailer that brings us into, ‘I’m so-and-so, and this is my MasterClass.”
While Mr. Rasmussen has since left to start his own e-learning company, Outlier, MasterClass has embraced the cosmetic approach he spearheaded. “I wanted it to look like when you have a beautiful box for a piece of jewelry, and you open the box and, in the black velvet, let’s say there’s a pair of earrings,” he said. “Those are only two earrings, but there’s all this sort of pomp and circumstance around it.”
Founded in 2015, MasterClass lays claim to Bob Iger, Anna Wintour, RuPaul and Serena Williams, plus another 80 or so other titans of art and industry, all of whom impart wisdom and know-how from their respective fields in lectures that run about the length of a film by Martin Scorsese, who, as you might have guessed, teaches a MasterClass, too.
The idea is to accord virtual education the same sheen of prestige that HBO bestowed upon the three-camera sitcom and that TED Talks brought to the airport book. With a somewhat-captive audience now spending twice as many minutes each month on the platform; a promotional campaign called “Today’s the Day”; and another $100 million in private investment announced last week, MasterClass has seized its moment.
You Can Take It With You
In combining the production value (and cost) of streaming television, the lure of celebrity and the silver-tongued spirit of self-improvement, MasterClass is oriented toward teaching certain abstract concepts — “creativity,” “self-expression,” “entrepreneurship” — even as some courses address more empirical pursuits like poker or the fundamentals of French pastries.
“Our consumers seize the metaphor in every class,” said Mr. Schriber. “If Thomas Keller is talking about cooking, he’s also teaching you about life. If Doris Kearns Goodwin is talking about leadership and presidential history, she’s teaching about life.”
Mr. Schriber described the aforementioned consumer as a “30-something who aspires to do something more, who is sensitive to the fact that they have a career, they’re not in structured education anymore and they might even be feeling insecure that their peers know a little bit more about certain subjects.”
When he left his post as Nike’s Vice President of Global Brand Experience to join the MasterClass team last summer, he saw a company that had perfected the art of social media marketing but whose variegated portfolio of instructors “made us 50 different brands.”
As a result, he sought to streamline the process of teacher recruitment, which had been geared more toward star power than student.
The people, he found, wanted classes about personal finance and negotiation. This led MasterClass to a “somewhat unlikely instructor,” he said: The former FBI hostage negotiator Chris Voss, whose course has been one of the most-watched this year. A company spokesperson said Mr. Voss’s class was the most common destination for users who’ve completed Bobbi Brown’s course on makeup and beauty, while those who start with Steph Curry’s lesson in basketball most often elect to watch Gordon Ramsay next.
“I think what’s happened over the last 10 years is we’ve become multi-hyphenate,” said David Rogier, MasterClass’s other co-founder and current chief executive. “For myself, I’m an entrepreneur, but I also love fish tanks and I love to hike and I take pictures.”
Now, MasterClass rejects nine out of 10 people who pitch themselves as potential instructors. The reason, Mr. Schriber said, “is that they’re not a practitioner.”
MasterClass declined to share how its instructors are compensated, though reports say they receive a base pay up front and a revenue share of subscriptions sold to their classes.
“For every single one of our instructors,” Mr. Rogier said, the decision to teach a MasterClass “comes from a place of wanting to help people. You’re never going to earn as much money with us. You’re going to earn tons more if you just do an endorsement deal.”
MasterClass is aiming for post-pandemic posterity. “We’re trying to think about our classes being something that’s here for all time,” Mr. Schriber said.
“It’s funny, people kept coming in, and you know, we’re having to hire a ton of people, et cetera. And they would be like, ‘What’s your four-year plan?’ And I would say, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what our hundred-year plan is. And we’ll wind it back 96 years and we’ll get to the first four years, but the hundred year plan is, 100 years from now, there should be a group of people capturing the knowledge of the world’s greatest — crystallizing it, and disseminating it, that’s my goal. But also, 100 years from now, the things we make today should hold up. They should be worthy of that. So when people look back in time and say, you know, who is the greatest singer of that era? Christina Aguilera’s name is going to come up. I’m huge into music, and I’ve never seen anything like that in person. She’s just absolutely unbelievable. Well, what’s amazing is, it’ll say: And she tried to pass on her knowledge and here’s where you can see it,” Mr. Rasmussen said.
A class on the subject of “leadership” by the Pulitzer-winning presidential biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin benefits from some degree of critical distance, where courses on the same topic by Disney chairman Bob Iger or Condé Nast artistic director and Vogue editor Anna Wintour appeal more to a kind of in-the-room-where-it-happens voyeurism, such as Mr. Iger recounting the moment he pitched Steve Jobs on Disney acquiring Pixar, or when Ms. Wintour reveals, rather suspiciously, that she doesn’t notice the outfits of job applicants she interviews.
Are you learning? Or are you having fun? It’s a binary Mr. Rogier rejects altogether.
“I think there’s this myth and we got it, especially in the beginning, when we began this, people ask me, are you education, or are you entertainment?” he recalled. “I think that’s a false choice. Why can’t education also be entertaining?”
Incidentally, the Other Classes Are Also Booming Even Without Masters
If other e-learning start-ups have positioned themselves as alternatives to in-person schooling, MasterClass sits neatly at the intersection of pedagogy and entertainment, leveraging its celebrity roll call and minimalist design to foster a sense of amity between users and their instructors.
Salman Khan, the founder of Khan Academy, the 12-year-old education nonprofit, also noticed an uptick in traffic this year. (It started in Asia, where the coronavirus originated.) But he distinguishes the MasterClass audience from his own. “That’s going to solve your upper-middle class or affluent” consumer, he said. “Our charter is very different. We want to create the best learning materials that you can make accessible to the entire planet.”
“There are lots and lots of players in this space who take various approaches,” said Darren Shimkus, the president of Udemy for Business, an e-learning start-up which boasts over 150,000 prerecorded courses taught by some 57,000 voluntary instructors. Like Khan Academy, whose teacher and student registrations are “five to 10 times” greater than normal, Udemy is experiencing a new groundswell of activity in the early part of this year.
“It’s almost like the next 10 years of change and growth is being compressed into about a month,” said Mr. Shimkus. “Change we would have expected by 2030 we’re actually seeing now, in April 2020.”
Who Will Watch the Masters Give Classes?
“It’s almost like you’re sitting in your living room having a conversation with these people, or more of a one-way conversation,” said Patrick Mahan, 41, who owns an advertising agency in Lexington, Ky., and first encountered MasterClass when looking for a Christmas gift last year for his father.
Then came the targeted advertisements on Facebook and Twitter, which drove Mr. Mahan to purchase his own subscription. “The last few years I’ve always been like, man, I would love to do this, I just wish we had more time. Sometimes you’ve got to be careful what you wish for, I guess.”
Now, more than two months into quarantine, Mr. Mahan finds himself binge-watching Masterclasses “like Netflix,” owing at least in part to the blink-and-you-miss-it intervals between lessons the program appears to have borrowed from the streaming heavyweight.
Kanesha Baynard, who runs an educational consulting business, was similarly impressed by the platform’s ability to exploit the conventions of recreational viewing.
Ms. Baynard first encountered a MasterClass ad for the prolific showrunner Shonda Rhimes on TV writing. Sheltered with her family in Los Altos, Calif., the program has become a source of both reprieve and enrichment. “If I’m cooking dinner, I can put it on, because no one wants to come into the kitchen when I’m cooking because they don’t want to help,” she said. “Which is great, because then I can watch MasterClass.”
Can We Learn It All?
The MasterClass approach is not without its skeptics, who wonder if the masters might not be ideal narrators of their own prowess. (“We are not a replacement for college,” Mr. Rogier told me.)
“These people are not teachers,” said Cole Steffensen, who works in digital marketing while pursuing a career as a stand-up comic. “It’s that awful saying, people who can’t do, teach. But the opposite is also true: people who are out there doing stuff don’t necessarily make good teachers.”
Earlier this year, Mr. Steffensen was gifted a MasterClass subscription by his mother; quarantine provided an occasion for him to work on his writing, so he took classes taught by Aaron Sorkin and David Sedaris. “It felt very TedTalk-y to me, with people saying really profound things, but maybe not a lot of actionable steps,” he said. “You’re David Sedaris, telling me what I should be saying to my publisher. I don’t have a publisher.”