Between the slabs of sparkled stone and the charismatic HGTV show host, it could have been easy at first to miss Don Smithmier, Twin Cities’ habitual innovator.

Smithmier was on hand at a launch event late last month at the Cambria Gallery in downtown Minneapolis in connection with his latest endeavor, The Big Know, a new online resource that provides free courses on topics ranging from healthy living to kitchen renovation brought to consumers by various brands.

The website straddles the line between learning center and brand marketing and is another example of how companies are engaging with consumers beyond traditional advertising.

“When you think about the world’s best and brightest brands, they have a lot of expertise to share and they have access to incredible experts all over the world,” Smithmier said. “Why aren’t they stepping into the role of teacher … and engaging them in a totally different way that proves to be totally effective marketing?”

The Big Know is the latest business spinoff from digital design and marketing company GoKart Labs, which Smithmier co-founded.

A couple of its other notable additions were BringMeTheNews, an online news source started with journalist Rick Kupchella, and the Sophia social learning platform. BringMeTheNews was bought by the Pohlad Companies last year, and Sophia was sold to Capella Education in 2012.

The Big Know was born from two trends, Smithmier said. One was that brands are struggling to connect with consumers, who try their best to ignore or block advertisements.

The second was that consumers are taking online courses in huge numbers.

“It really is an engagement platform for brands to reach their consumers,” Smithmier said.

The concept of brands teaching consumers is not new, Smithmier said. Betty Crocker taught women how to cook via radio programs in the 1930s, he said. The difference now is that with the technology of the internet, the reach can be on a massive scale, he said.

The Big Know officially launched last October, and has averaged more than 10,000 enrollments per course. Some of the partner brands include UnitedHealthcare, AARP and Cambria. There will soon be courses sponsored by Procter & Gamble and foodie Andrew Zimmern.

On average, registrants spend just under an hour viewing the content, Smithmier said.

“That’s a really big deal for a brand to have that kind of attention from a consumer uninterrupted,” he said. “Clearly the consumers really like the courses, and it’s great for the brands.”

Brands will sponsor the course and pay to create the content while The Big Know provides the expertise in online learning and design and manages production.

Cambria, the Le Sueur-based maker of countertops, was a good partner for the website because it already is an innovator in creating content, Smithmier said.

Since 2009, the company has published Cambria Style, a lifestyle magazine that would be hard to know was produced by the company if it weren’t for the exquisite quartz counters that are featured in many of the photos.

“We’re about quality and beauty and inspiration,” said Shelly Nelson, vice president of marketing for Cambria.

The Big Know provided a platform for Cambria to take its content to a higher level, she said. In the nine-part course, real estate investor and home improvement television host Scott McGillivray helps learners figure out the main parts of designing a kitchen including the selection of cabinets and floors and planning a layout. The only hint of a Cambria plug comes when he compares countertops.

“For us, it was just a huge opportunity,” Nelson said.

The “Dream. Plan. Do” course was a way to connect genuinely with consumers while they are still in the planning stage of creating their dream kitchens, she said.

McGillivray said the No. 1 thing that he hoped viewers would take away from the course is confidence.

“People are petrified to invest in their kitchens because it’s a lot of money and you want to love it and you want to have a return on your investment,” he said.

McGillivray said he was used to the role of teacher.

“My show is always like edutainment,” he said.


Twitter: @nicolenorfleet