Creating and selling on online course is a fast way to instant wealth, right? You’ve seen the ads. Create a course in 28 days and rake in the money month after month. Or maybe you read about the guy who makes $1,000,000 a year selling a course on how to create Excel spreadsheets. It seems like everyone is getting into the online course business, so why not you? Is it really that easy? I spent the last year building online courses for the Early Exit Academy, and here are ten dirty secrets that aren’t advertised.
There are plenty of articles that give you the recipe for course creation: figure out what sells, create an outline, do your research, write goals and objectives, and create the content. What’s missing? How about the theories and principles of instructional design? Instructional design considers how students learn and what materials and methods will be most effective in helping them achieve their goals. And guess what? The methods that work in the classroom are not the same ones that work online. Without a foundation in instructional design, what are the odds that your course will produce the outcomes you advertise, especially if your students drop out after the first few lessons?
I have a PhD in Sociology and I’ve created content for online courses, but I don’t have a degree in instructional design. In my previous career, I handed off the content to a colleague who then built the framework and created interactive tools. Now I’m on my own – responsible for creating every single aspect of my courses. And despite my background, I needed to fill in the knowledge gaps. So the first thing I did on my course creation journey was take an online course on how to create online courses. My choice? Jeanine Blackwell’s Create 6-Figure Courses Virtual Bootcamp. It was one of the best decisions I ever made. The course gave me a step-by-step guide, was brilliantly organized, and came with a built-in support network through a private Facebook group. And it addressed strategies to meet the needs of different learning styles, which helped me create dynamic courses.
Creating an online course is often promoted as a side hustle – something you can do on top of your full-time day job. According to one side hustle expert, “For most courses, it should take right around 8 weeks to create your course from coming up with your idea to launching your course.” Is it possible? Maybe, but only if you’ve already created most of the content and have the technical skills to build the website, landing pages, webinars, zaps, shopping carts, affiliate programs, subscription forms, and sales funnels. And even then, I challenge you to create a truly robust course in just two months.
My experience is that course creation is a full-time job. I’ve worked incredibly long hours to build the best course possible. There’s definitely a trade-off. Spend less time and money and produce a mediocre course – or spend more time and money and create a fantastically interactive and unique course offering. I just can’t produce mediocre. And I want my course to be the ⭐SUPERSTAR⭐ in my field, setting new standards for course design. Fortunately, my own path to financial freedom bought me the time and money I needed to create an extraordinary course. Make no mistake about it – creating an online course is HARD WORK!
The typical online course consists of PowerPoint slides, talking head videos, and downloads. These are the easiest things to produce, but can you say B…O…R…I…N…G! Few people are charismatic enough to deliver scintillating videos hour after hour, and there’s only so much you can do with PowerPoint. I started down this same path. Then I discovered Articulate software. I have never been so WOWed! The software was a game changer. Why? Suddenly I could make my courses interactive. I added matching games, dials, priority lists that could be moved up and down, images with markers that students had to click, quizzes, and open-ended questions. I seamlessly incorporated videos and even gamified the experience by adding coins and badges that unlocked new units. Boring became FUN! The downside? It added six months to the process as I dug into the software and became entrenched in creating a truly interactive experience. Regrets? None!
There’s another consideration to make when trying to quickly develop and launch an online course: IMAGE. Unless you already have everything in place, you’ll need professional photos, graphics, and branding. Yes, you can put out a course without any of those features and it will look very amateurish. Unless you have such a narrow niche that you hold a monopoly on your audience, you will be competing with professionals who have a team of experts creating slick courses and promotional campaigns. You don’t want to look sloppy!
When novices start out on the course creation journey, they soon discover that technology overload is very real. And at some point, uncertainty sets in and paralysis ensues. What theme do I use to create my website or landing page? What subscription service should I use? How do I create a zap that connects all the moving parts? Where should I host my webinar? What learning management system should I use? How do I set up a shopping cart? How do I connect my Facebook pixel to my website? How do I create closed captions? What equipment do I use to light and record my videos? The number of technology issues and the huge array of options can lead to major heartburn – WHAT IF I SELECT THE WRONG TOOL OR APPLICATION?
My advice is to focus on one tech solution at a time. You don’t have to figure it out all at once – and you won’t. Plus, you may make mistakes. For example, after I signed up with a learning management system (LMS), I discovered that it couldn’t accommodate SCORM files – like the ones produced by Articulate. I had never heard of SCORM (it’s a set of technical standards for eLearning programs that allows the eLearning contents and LMSs to work together). Once I committed to Articulate, I had to cancel my LMS subscription, request a refund, and research SCORM-compliant LMSs (I’m currently using TalentLMS). With technology, it’s often a case of “you don’t know what you don’t know.”
List-building is hugely important. And many experts recommend selling the course before you even create it. The truth? Unless you already have a dedicated following, sales are just not going to happen. I’m a blogger with a small audience. And I have another website (BetterLifeChallenges) that has a sizeable reach, but an entirely different target audience. Despite the wonderful content in the Early Exit Academy, I have to grow my mailing list before I can expect enough sales to cover my costs. It’s not unusual for first launches to be very disappointing (“launching to crickets” as they say). BUT no one advertises that reality. Instead, we read about the huge successes of master classes and courses taught by people who already have an enormous audience – people like Tony Robbins.
You’ll see plenty of suggestions to set a launch date and then build the course out after you launch. Maybe it works for some, but for me, I had to break the work into phases. I didn’t want to live with the anxiety of having students enrolled in the course waiting for me to churn out a new unit. So I did things backwards. I worked like a fiend building my fabulous course, and now I’m focusing on building my mailing list. Ideally, I would have done both at the same time. However, there’s only so much of me to go around and the sacrifices to my health were already too great. In the end, each course creator has to do what’s best given their timeframe, money needs, and exhaustion/anxiety levels.
Facebook. My nemesis. Facebook is the most popular way to market courses. But Facebook advertising isn’t what it used to be. A few years ago, I could spit out an ad and get good leads fast without breaking the bank. Now, it’s anybody’s guess. The advertising challenges have spawned a new industry of Facebook “experts” who promise amazing results. I hired marketing and Facebook experts and with one exception, I was not impressed. You see, no one knows the material like the course creator does. In the end, I followed advice from a Monica Louie course on Facebook ads and took back the job of creating and testing Facebook ads. The cost of retaining an “expert,” in addition to the actual cost of advertising, just wasn’t worth it.
Advertising is an ongoing and expensive experiment that requires tweaking the copy, image, and audience based on results. While there are other platforms to try, like LinkedIn, Facebook has the largest reach. But competition is fierce and there’s a saturation point – people are tired of seeing ads pop up everywhere. If you are starting from ground zero, expect to spend much more money and time building your “tribe” than you anticipated.
Aside from paid advertising, there’s another approach that is worth exploring – writing guest posts on popular blogging sites and being a podcast guest. I’ll be working on both fronts over the next several months. It requires relationship building and reaching out to some of the better-known bloggers and podcasters in my field. The payoff should be a growth in my audience.
Sales will come naturally once you get people on your mailing list automated into your sales funnel emails. Or will they? In practice, most course creators rely on conversion rates of just 1 to 2 percent of mailing list subscribers. That means you need at least 1,000 people in your sales funnel to fill 10 to 20 seats. Again, if you’re starting from scratch, building a mailing list of 1,000 interested people will take time and money, so those first students come at a high price. As your mailing list grows and your reputation spreads, sales should come easier.
One of the decision points for course creators is to make the course “evergreen” (available at any time) versus periodic launches. There are positives and negatives to both. For now, my courses are “evergreen,” since there’s no real reason why people can’t start their journey to financial independence any time of the year. But human nature tells us that most people are procrastinators and need deadlines to take action. On this first go-around, I’m offering a $200 discount for everyone who signs up by July 4. But that’s the last discount I plan to offer, ever. So I’ll have to come up with other incentives that create a sense of urgency. And if that approach fails, I can put the courses into launch mode. Selling the course may take just as much energy as creating the course.
There’s a gimmicky side to course sales that I despise. There are too many sham offers that create a false sense of urgency. Above all else, recorded webinars are often promoted as “live” webinars and pushed by using limited seating or countdowns that create a sense of scarcity. Unfortunately, the gimmicks seem to work. People are more likely to sign up as the clock ticks down or the number of open seats dwindles to one. But is that the way you want to sell your course?
I’m not going to be “one of those people,” and that could hurt my sales. I have a free mini-course (Kiss your Job Goodbye: Three Secrets that will help you Escape the Workforce Early) that is available to anyone at any time. And I am working on a recorded “webinar” that will also be on-demand. My philosophy is that your time is as precious as my time, so why not give you the option to access the material when you want? While my materials provide an overview and invitation to the course, I refuse to use high pressure sales tactics and gimmicks. Hopefully, integrity will appeal to the people I most want in my course. But yes, there may be a price to pay.
Affiliate programs don’t sell themselves. I set up an Affiliate Program that offers 30% commissions for each referral who signs up for a course. It’s a nice chunk of money – $239 per referral at the full price of the course. But guess what? Bloggers are not flocking to my Affiliate Program. And since I chose to prioritize course creation, I have not yet devoted the time or energy to bring in affiliates who have bigger audiences. I also opened the Affiliate program to anyone – students can make money by referring friends and family into the course. It’s a nice system when it’s working.
My number one mistake during course creation process has been this – I failed to build connections and relationships within the personal finance sphere. At this point, most bloggers don’t know who I am and can’t speak to the quality of my work. On the plus side, it’s never too late to build those relationships, so that’s on my task list. While Affiliate Programs are a great way to sell courses, you might have to devote a fair amount of time to recruiting and nurturing affiliates.
One year later, I cannot believe how much I have learned about course creation and marketing. I have mastered so many different skills and solved technical snafus and in the course of this journey, made a huge discovery: I LOVE CREATING COURSES. But there’s a caveat – I have to use Articulate software to create courses. Reverting back to PowerPoint and talking head videos would be like moving from the laptop to the typewriter.
The combination of incorporating instructional design principles, creating content, and building and gamifying the course through this amazing software is something I really enjoy. Dare I say, it’s magical! And it’s these set of skills that could bring in new income streams. So if my courses are slow in taking off and I need to bring in money, I can sell my course creation expertise to help others develop Articulate courses that are highly interactive and engaging. That’s a wonderful development that I never anticipated.
Are you creating an online course? What surprises have you run across? Any course creation and sales tips you’d like to share?
Dr. Brenda is a sociologist, educator, blogger, motivator, and financial coach. In addition to blogging at The Five Journeys, she writes 30-day challenges at BetterLifeChallenges.com. Her passion is guiding people on their journey to financial freedom through coaching at DrBrendaMoneyCoach and online courses at EarlyExitAcademy.com.