I created freemediationcourse.com in early 2007, fresh out of law school while I was working as a compliance officer for a Learning Management System startup in Santa Cruz, California. At the time, I was learning HTML, CSS, PHP and MySQL and was just looking for a way to practice my skills. I also had an alternative dispute resolution background and thought it would be cool to share my knowledge for free, since it’s a very worthwhile discipline for anyone to learn.
Of the roughly 2 dozen sites I have made for myself, this was the first and it has been the most successful. I’d like to explain how I created the site, how I promoted it, managed it, maintained it and supported a growing user base over the past 5+ years.
As you can see, my first design from 2007 left a lot to be desired! I don’t claim to be an artist, but I learned a lot over the last 5 years about effective presentation on the web. Essentially, I created a home page which allowed prospective students to read a little bit about the course (before I knew that people didn’t like to read on the web) and enabled current students to sign-in. I also provided some links to course documentation, some primitive sharing tools and a PayPal donation button. I didn’t have any ads and everything was free. As the site improved in appearance and functionality, my costs also increased and so did my need to earn revenue from the site.
My design of the course functionality was based loosely on the Moodle platform which allows students to enroll, view content, take quizzes, do exercises and collaborate. This model has been very effective in terms of functionality, but the layout of course modules and UI evolved quite a bit over the years. The changes I made to the course interface were the result of observations I made through web logs, Google Analytics, user feedback, course module usage statistics and heatmaps. Basically, I figured out where students were getting confused, lost, frustrated, etc. and reorganized the display or sometimes the content itself to be more intuitive. This has been a long process and I owe a debt of gratitude to every student who complained about a confusing feature or instruction.
The site is on a Linux operating system, professionally hosted (shared hosting) by Network Solutions (uptime hasn’t been as solid as I would hope, but it’s still very good and cost effective). The site is hand coded in HTML, CSS & PHP, using MySQL on the backend (with the exception of the blog which is a WordPress implementation). Ajax is used only on the registration page where the user sees a dynamic indicator of password strength.
As stated previously, I didn’t have any intention of making money from the site when I made it. As the operation became more sophisticated, however, I needed to generate some revenue to cover my costs. The donation button, courtesy of PayPal, generated little revenue and took up valuable space. Google Adsense was a more effective use of space – just one block on the home page, and later, some banners on 2nd tier pages. I also allowed users to download the complete curriculum for $5, which has actually been a surprisingly popular option. About two years ago, I began selling professional quality certificates on embossed certificate paper, with a gold seal and original signatures. These have also been very popular and I have sold them to people in nearly 50 different countries. Last year, partially as a response to economic indicators, I also added a PDF certificate option which sells at half the price of the paper certificate. This too, has been a great revenue generator for the site and entails far less time on my part. I have yet to find a good automation technique for creating the PDFs programatically. Ideas? The hardcopy certificates take about 7 minutes to assemble, from verifying the student record to modifying the template to reflect the student’s name and graduation date, to printing, attaching the seal and signatures, preparation for mailing, standing in line at the post office, sending a personalized email confirmation, and more. I have been successful at automating some parts of this process, but it is still time and labor intensive.
One of my specialties being search optimization, I have tried to maintain a low marketing budget by leveraging organic SEO techniques which I have learned over the years. At the time of publication, I occupy several #1 Google positions for strong, relevant phrases. I have also advertised on Google, Yahoo, Bing, LinkedIn and Facebook over the years, with varying results. LinkdIn and Facebook were a total bust. I gave up on Yahoo and Bing simply out of convenience for the simplicity of managing only one campaign with Google. Since the item price on this site is low ($10 – $20), the Adwords campaign has a razor thin margin. I created an Excel spreadsheet which helps me to determine my bids based on my conversion rate, average sale revenue, average impressions at different bid levels, average conversions per impressions and a few more data points. I find that if my bids are off even by 30 cents, it can rapidly diminish the ROI of the campaign. At times when my conversion rate slips (economic factors?) I have to quickly throttle back my advertising to avoid losing money.
In my day job, I focus considerable time on optimizing the web for self-service. Since I don’t have a paid staff to help me field support requests for the mediation site, I have had to be crafty about handling them programatically and also by making the interface and content as clear and intuitive as possible. At every part of the course or in the enrollment process where I have determined a high likelihood of confusion, I refer users to my ‘Contact’ page. This page has a form at the bottom which the visitor can fill out to send me an email. At the top of the page, I have a list of the top 14 questions that I have been asked over the years about the course. Over time, clear patterns emerge as to customer needs. By requiring users to look at this list before submitting their form, I am both helping myself and helping the user.
A couple of other notable features on this page are the anti-spam filters and the knowledge search feature. As any webmaster knows, a contact form is a magnet for abuse. I wrote an application that detects spam (based on my experience of the kind of spam I frequently received through this site), and also added a custom “Captcha” at the end of the form. I can’t stand the spam-bot filters which require the user to look at a bunch of squiggly numbers and letters and type them into a box. It’s a terrible user experience. Instead, I created a random image generator which requires the user to answer a simple question (through a dropdown menu) based on what they see. Note that I have an accessibility feature for visually impaired users, as well. With respect to the knowledge search feature: when the user submits the form, if my app detects a common question for which I already have a documented answer, the page presents the user with that answer and asks them if they still want to submit their question.
When I created this page a few years ago, I quickly went from having to answer an average of 10 or so emails per day to less than 1, immediately. That was back when my enrollment was still in the 4 digit range. Now, it would be unthinkable to allow allow users direct access to my inbox.
At the time of publication, the site is approved for four MCLE credits by the State Bar of California. The course has also been adopted for use at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland and is pending approval at two additional educational institutions in Europe and Africa. I often wonder whether I need these credentials to have a successful course, however. I find that accreditation is somewhat illusory as compared with the demonstrable value of the curriculum itself.
Running this course has been very rewarding to me personally, because of the meaningful and often heartfelt feedback I receive from many people around the world who have benefited from the course. Many of the people who take the course are in the midst of divorce proceedings, child custody battles or even geopolitical conflict. Providing a free curriculum to help people peaceably navigate complex and high-stakes negotiations has been a great way for me to feel as if I am contributing something positive to society.
While the site started out just as a sandbox for me to learn web skills, I really stumbled into a great niche market which has required me to continually evolve the site to meet customer needs. I’ve found that it’s hard to predict which web projects will be successful – out of the many that I have created, only 3 have stood the test of time, and they were the first three that I created. While it is somewhat despiriting to have put so much energy into implementing sites that I thought would be successful, I’ve had to accept the fact that I don’t choose which ones succeed – customers do. All I can do is allocate my time appropriately to maintain the successful projects, cut the unsuccessful sites loose, minimize my costs and maximize the value I give to customers. Give the people what they want! That’s probably the most important lesson I’ve learned from my endeavors as a web entrepreneur.