How Course Hero Built a Brand on User-Generated Content

by Josh Ritchie

When Andrew Nesbit joined the Course Hero team as a product manager in 2014, he was employee #38 to come aboard the burgeoning ed-tech startup in Silicon Valley.

Today, Nesbit—who now serves as Course Hero’s Vice President of Community and Partnerships—has seen the company more than quadruple its staff to support the growing needs of its 10 million+ members.

The online platform, which started on CEO Andrew Grauer’s flash drive in 2006, has now become a thriving community of students and educators collaborating and uploading thousands of educational resources every day.

Nesbit drew from his experience in the venture capital industry to help scale the company’s explosive growth and to oversee several of the company’s large-scale initiatives—from creating Course Hero’s proprietary content department (check out their literature study guides and infographics) to leading and expanding the community and partnership teams.

We caught up with Nesbit to chat about the power of leveraging a user-generated content (UGC) business model and building a community of students and educators both online and on campus.

C5: Can you give an overview of your role/responsibilities at Course Hero? Or, in layperson’s terms, “What would you say you do around here?”

AN: My favorite thing about my role is that every day is different. That being said, I work on the overall strategy for our internal team of community marketing managers. We focus on everything from conducting user testing and piloting on-campus initiatives to awarding scholarships and interviewing students whose academic performance has been positively impacted by Course Hero.

We also manage Course Hero’s social media channels to promote campus events and solicit feedback from students to see what pain points they’re encountering in their studies.

It has been fun to see the impact the community team has had in cultivating relationships with on-campus ambassadors for the Course Hero brand. For example, in 2016 we executed 1,200+ local events to help build brand awareness at universities across the United States and Canada.

One of the things that makes the community team unique is that we engage with our users every single day. Using their feedback, we’re able to collaborate closely with the product team and deliver actionable insights to continually improve our platform. We also work with our content marketing team to amplify our biggest advocates’ success stories.

As it relates to partnerships, I help lead the research, identification, and collaboration with many different types of partners that range from universities to large brands.

C5: What are your overarching goals as a marketing team? How is your marketing team structured?

AN: We break our marketing team’s mission into three parts:

  1. Know the user: Understand the user, know their needs and wants, and conduct research to provide meaningful user insights to the product teams.
  2. Connect the magic: Translate user research from feedback groups into actionable insights that can lead to future product development.
  3. Build the love: Create awareness, consideration, trial, purchase, and repeat usage of the product through efficient highly targeted marketing campaigns.

Our marketing department is rapidly growing, but in addition to our community and partnerships teams, we are scaling five other teams that include content marketing, digital media, product marketing, brand marketing, and PR/communications.

C5: Course Hero is a really unique brand because, in a way, the content is the product—and the bulk of the content is created by your community. How has this business model affected your content and marketing strategy?

AN: Our vision is to help any student and any educator ask and answer any question in any course. To do this, we have been working to build the biggest and best digital library of course-specific educational content and effective tools to help facilitate the mastery of a course.

From the very beginning, the strategy has been to leverage the power of the community. New Course Hero users have the option to pay for access, or, if they don’t want to pay, they can contribute content they created, such as study guides, lecture notes, etc. to help the broader community.

It has been through this approach that we have been effective at scaling the amount of educational resources on the platform. At the end of the day, the more quality content we have, the more students and educators we can help!

As it relates to marketing, Course Hero focused on social sharing, flyering, referral programs, PR, on-campus marketing, and search engine optimization. We did a lot of things. There was no silver bullet.

C5: What are the most successful ways you’ve been able to attract people to your community?

AN: It all starts with the content our users provide. Great content drives traffic, which builds the community; that community then contributes more great content, which drives more traffic. It’s what we call the Course Hero value creation loop.

I believe our success has been driven by solving some major pain points for students and educators in a way that hasn’t been done before. We’ve been able to do this by connecting students, tutors, and educators from a variety of courses and majors at schools across the globe. In this way, we’ve facilitated a diverse and collaborative learning environment for our users.


By giving those users an outlet to share their knowledge, we have been able to grow a robust and relevant library of resources at scale—which ultimately drives that value creation loop.

C5: What would you say is the most important thing to keep in mind when building online communities in order for them to flourish?

AN: Building an online community takes time! Course Hero was founded in 2006, and it took a number of years to obtain a critical mass of content and users that allowed us to hit an inflection point.

Today, we have a community of more than 10 million members with 12 million pieces of user-generated content from 11,000 different schools; however, it was very much a grind in the beginning.

Equally as important as acquiring new users is keeping them engaged with the platform and each other. Being persistent, optimizing, and getting to know who your target users are and understanding their pain points is essential.

C5: How do you get people in online communities excited about UGC and engaged enough to contribute?

AN: Over the last 15 years, there has been a rapidly growing number of large companies that found success using crowdsourced content. Take Yelp, TripAdvisor, and Glassdoor to name a few. More than ever before, people are searching online—and looking to other consumers just like themselves—to help them get advice and answer their questions.

The idea behind Course Hero is no different; we’re just bringing that peer-to-peer collaboration and personalization to the education industry.

The current incentive that has been effective for us is that users ultimately need to contribute to the community in order to get access to it. Separately, once we get a new user, we are always identifying strategic ways to keep them engaged from both a product (e.g., receiving notifications if someone has rated their document helpful) and a marketing perspective (e.g., $1 million tutor credit giveaway).

C5: How does Course Hero protect the brand from negative user-generated content?

AN: Course Hero users upload millions of pages of content to our sharing platform each month. We believe that this exchange of ideas and the advancement of knowledge benefits students and educators alike in achieving their academic goals.  

We have QA measures and proprietary filtering technology in place to ensure content uploaded does not violate our community guidelines, including copyrighted material. Our goal is to block offensive material that is unrelated to any academic field to ensure our users have as positive an experience as possible.  

That being said, our community plays a pivotal role in grooming the content. We put the tools in place that empower our educators, tutors, and students to flag, share, rate, review, and comment on the content. These tools and actions by our users allow us to help surface the most relevant information to our users in the most efficient way.

C5: What efficiencies are unlocked vs. complications created by adopting UGC?

AN: For Course Hero, our user-generated content model has allowed us to scale our library of content quickly and cost-efficiently. Conversely, without the contributions from our community, our ability to help students and educators would greatly diminish.

In some ways, the efficiencies and complications created by user-generated content are one and the same. For instance, some of our user-generated content—while it may be relevant to the field in which another user is studying—may not cater to their personal learning style.

However, our user-generated content is also what makes our library so rich and diverse. There is material that resonates with all learning styles. One big challenge for a typical UGC model revolves around search and discoverability, which is something we have as a company and will continue to invest in for our users.

The bigger the community, the higher probability that our platform helps facilitate the connection with a user who is just like you, providing a personalized experience you can’t get anywhere else.

Finally, there is something that is often not talked about: The intangible component of our members being able to feel like they are contributing to the betterment of global knowledge is a huge competitive advantage.

C5: How are you instructing your community to contribute quality content and make it easily discoverable? How are you empowering them?

AN: During the upload process, we provide tips and best practices on how a user can best tag their content. One of Course Hero’s key differentiating factors is that the content on Course Hero can be tagged to a school, course, and even a subject. This allows users to search our library more easily and efficiently.

When you dig into the data, one of the exciting things to see is that, often times, users are exploring content not only from the courses they are currently in but also relevant content in similar courses at other schools—hence the power of collaboration!

Additionally, we have built numerous tools to empower our contributors and incentivize quality content. Some of my favorites include:

  • Our user dashboard that allows contributors to see how often the content they have uploaded has been viewed
  • The ability for users to get instant notifications anytime their content has been commented on
  • Leveraging a rewards system based on the positive ratings on their material

C5: What skills do you look for when hiring for a marketing position on your in-house team?

AN: Hiring is incredibly important at Course Hero and within our marketing department. One of my favorite things about the company is the amazingly talented and passionate people. As a result, we dedicate a lot of time and resources to our recruiting, interviewing, and onboarding processes to make sure we don’t skip a beat as we scale the organization.

It has been exciting to see Course Hero grow from a team of 30 to 140, while maintaining many of the intangibles that make this place special.

In addition to identifying individuals with the relevant experience and skills for the specific role, we put a large emphasis on the alignment with company culture and core values. We look for people who can picture success and plot a course, who are collaborative and problem solvers, who think like an owner, and who have a growth mindset. We also want them to embody enthusiasm for changing and improving the way people learn!

C5: Any final pieces of advice for people looking to pursue a user-generated content model?

AN: I can’t emphasize enough the importance of understanding and learning from your community members. It doesn’t matter if you are starting from scratch or 10 years into it—you should always be learning and iterating.

Define your target users and take the time to understand the problems they experience. The more frequent the problem occurs and the more people who experience the problem, the more valuable the problem is to solve. Solving a consistent problem is the best way to grow a business and create more value for more people.

Many thanks to Andrew Nesbit for sharing his thoughts. For more tips about leveraging a UGC model and building online communities, follow him on Twitter @anesbit1. For more wisdom from game-changers in content marketing and content strategy, check out these Q&As:

Of course, if you need any help with your own content strategy, we’d love to chat.

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