Creating and Selling Online Courses: What You Need to Know
It’s been quite a year so far, hasn’t it? In all likelihood, you’ve had to make changes to the way you normally do business. Perhaps you’ve developed new ways of generating income, such as virtual services or digital products. Another good option to consider is creating and selling online courses.
As well as providing you with an additional income stream, online courses can be a valuable resource for clients who can’t afford or don’t require one-on-one support.
Online courses are more work to develop and set up than e-books or standalone recordings are, so you’ll need to get organized before diving into this project.
Find out what’s involved.
I’m not going to lie to you — developing online courses is a lot of work! Unless you have a background in education, you should take time to learn more about it and make sure it’s right for you before you dive in with both feet.
You might want to start with Content Sparks’ 10-Day Online Course Challenge. This free program includes daily actions and checklists, a brandable, done-for-you mini-course that you can use as a template for your first course, and access to a private community.
There are lots of other programs designed to teach you how to create online courses, ranging in cost from free to hundreds of dollars. As with any investment, do your due diligence and speak with your colleagues, or search for online ratings and reviews before you open up your wallet.
One of my clients completed Jeanine Blackwell’s Create 6-Figure Courses® Virtual Bootcamp and reported that the material was excellent but the support was rather limited.
Make a plan.
Even if you already have a business plan, I recommend creating a separate plan for your courses. Although you’ll be building on your existing business, it’s quite possible that your courses will have a different target market and/or competition, and it may require different marketing strategies.
To be profitable, your income from course registrations needs to exceed your expenses, which may include:
- Domain registration and website hosting (unless you’re building the course on your existing website)
- Fees for a hosted course solution or premium WordPress plugins
- Outsourcing fees to qualified contractors to help with various aspects of the project
Nate Johnson of Fly Plugins covers this topic in detail in his post, How Much Time and Money Does It Cost to Create an Online Course?
Choose a topic for your first course.
You need to choose a subject where you have expertise and for which there is a demand.
To get your course on the market quickly, I suggest you look at material you’ve already created.
- Have you written blog posts, articles, or e-books that could be developed into a course?
- Have you delivered tele-classes, presentations, seminars, or workshops that could be repurposed as an online course?
If you don’t have anything to repurpose and you’re not up to creating something from scratch, look into PLR (Private Label Rights) content, which is pre-written material you purchase the right to use. Content Sparks offers a few packages that might be a good starting point for you, including:
There are many other PLR sellers out there, but not all of them offer quality products. In my experience, the lower the price, the more time you’ll need to spend rewriting the content.
Decide where you will host your online course.
There are so many options available that I can’t possibly discuss all of them here, but I’d like to give you an overview of what’s out there so you can decide where to begin your own research.
Important factors to consider include:
- Upfront costs
- Ongoing costs
- Ease of use for yourself and your students
- The level of support available from the developer, other users, and/or experts
Standalone eLearning Platforms
There are a number of websites that provide all the tools you need to build and deliver online courses. For most people, this is the easiest way to get started.
At time of writing, only Thinkific offers a free version, but Kajabi and Teachable offer free trials, and Kartra promises a 30-day money-back guarantee. This is important because you may need to try more than one platform to find the one that’s best for you, as what’s easy for one person to learn and use may be difficult for you.
With each of the above platforms, you design your own courses, set your own prices, and have your own “school,” which is hosted on their site. This is all good. However, if you’re not generating a lot of sales, monthly fees for these platforms can eat up or even exceed your income.
Sites like Udemy and Skillshare may be better options if you want to minimize your expenses as there are no upfront or ongoing costs. All course registrations go through their websites and you receive a percentage of the sales. Your earning potential tends to be lower on this type of site, and courses are listed by category, so you may end up on the same page as direct competitors. On the other hand, your income will continue as long as people keep signing up for your course.
eLearning Plugins for WordPress
If you already have a WordPress site, you might choose to incorporate your course into your existing site or set up a second WordPress site since you’re already familiar with it.
Fortunately, there are lots of eLearning plugins available for WordPress, including LearnDash and WP Courseware. I’ve tested both and found them powerful and intuitive, but there are a lot of moving pieces so it’s definitely not a matter of simply installing your plugin and you’re set to go. Both of these plugins are highly rated and widely used, so there are lots of people out there to help, whether you need to ask a question, purchase add-ons to perform specific functions, or hire expert help.
I’m less familiar with LifterLMS, but would like to mention that you can currently receive a 15% discount through Cloudways’ initiative to support online businesses during COVID-19.
To learn more about these and other eLearning plugins for WordPress, read 7 Best WordPress LMS Plugins to Build a Killer Online Course.
Membership Plugins for WordPress
I’ve built and currently manage two eLearning sites based on WordPress, but neither of them uses plugins specific to eLearning.
Because Ultimate Member only allows a person to belong to one membership level at a time, it poses challenges when someone takes two or more courses concurrently, so we’ve developed workarounds to deal with that when it happens. We’ve considered migrating to an eLearning plugin or standalone platform but have concluded that it’s not worth the time and cost of doing so since everything else works beautifully.
The Institute for Professional Organizers, which offers self-study and group training for organizing professionals, uses the WP eMember plugin. Students sign up directly on the website and are immediately given access to the course or materials they’ve purchased through their own login on the site. Founder and trainer Anne Blumer reports that the system is extremely easy to manage and update.
If all this sounds like more than you want or need at this point, rest assured that you can offer courses without investing in a website.
You can send eCourses to participants using Mailchimp’s automation feature, and you’re not restricted to text only. Record your lessons on Zoom, GoToWebinar, Microsoft Teams, or your preferred video app, upload them to YouTube as private, and send the links to students via Mailchimp. You can even include PDF handouts if you like.
Market your course.
Once you’ve developed your course material and set it up on the platform of your choice, you still need to market it!
“Build it and they will come” doesn’t work for regular websites, and it definitely doesn’t work for online courses. If you already have a decent mailing list and social media following, that will help, but you have to be aggressive about your marketing. A single blog post announcing that you’re now offering a course isn’t likely to garner much attention.
You’ll find strategies that will be especially helpful to market your new online course in How To Build An Audience And Move Beyond Client Work. I also encourage you to explore the wealth of marketing advice for career service businesses on this site.
The following individuals helped me cover this topic more thoroughly than I could have done without their input. Thank you to all!
Anne Blumer | Carolyn Caldwell | Clare Kumar | Jana Tulloch | Jill Annis | Julie Stobbe | Karen McDonald Hurley | Majid Bastami | Melanie Summers | Melissa Gratias | Melissa Macfarlane Heidmiller | Melissa Rogers | Michelle Slywka | Sarah Buckwalter | Sharon Graham | Shellie Deloyer | Tonya Holowitski | YubRaj Paudyal
This is a very long post, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s involved with creating, producing, and marketing online courses. I do hope that I’ve provided enough detail to help you get started.
To explore this topic further, I recommend A Step by Step Guide to Creating Your First Online Course.
Although COVID-19 has made eLearning more important than ever, it’s been growing in popularity for some time and this trend is likely to continue in the years to come.
If you already offer one or more courses online, please leave a comment naming the platform you use, why you chose it, and what you like and dislike about it. Any other insights you’d like to share will also be welcomed!
Janet Barclay is a former employment counsellor who supports Career Professionals of Canada as technology manager, and many of its members with her web design services and website care plans. When she’s away from her desk, she enjoys reading, photography, cooking, watching movies, spending time with her family, and walking her dog.