New businesses typically don’t have the money for most traditional forms of marketing. What you need are low-cost, yet highly effective ways to achieve rapid growth. That’s where growth hacks come into play, and for my money, online courses are one of the most powerful growth hacks you can put to work.
And as we’ve learned from Sean Ellis, founder of Growth Hackers, that doesn’t mean using any one specific strategy or tactic to grow your business. Rather, growth hacking is a process of rapid experimentation across marketing channels and product development to identify the most efficient ways to grow your business. It’s about baking the willingness to continuously test different growth strategies into the culture of your company.
That being said, while working as the content manager for Thinkific (a fast-growing startup in the online education space), I can vouch for online courses as a particular strategy that has helped some of today’s most successful entrepreneurs scale their businesses.
As any company that is serious about content marketing will tell you, publishing useful information is one of the best ways to add value to your target market and become a trusted authority in your industry simultaneously.
Well, creating online courses is like content marketing on steroids. Garrett Moon, co-founder and CEO of CoSchedule, listed creating courses as one of the top 25 growth hacks that will amplify your content marketing.
In this article, I’m going to outline some of the main benefits of creating online courses, show you examples of people and companies that are creating courses successfully, and give you some specific steps to create and launch an online course that will take your business up a level or two.
Top 3 Reasons to Create Online Courses
To kick things off, let’s start with the main reasons why people and companies create online courses. After speaking directly with hundreds of course creators, here are their top 3 reasons:
For many entrepreneurs, the obvious reason for creating online courses is to sell them at a profit. And since the market for online learning has grown significantly over the past few years (the global e-learning market reached an enormous $255 billion in 2017), it comes as no surprise that so many people and companies are capitalizing on this growing demand.
Apart from payment processing, web hosting and/or online course platform fees, the cost to deliver an online course to a customer is extremely low. Since an online course is a digital product, the cost of creating it is incurred only one time, after which it can be sold over and over again to an unlimited number of people. This one-time creation cost, coupled with a low distribution cost, results in an exceptionally high profit margin.
Foundr is a perfect example of a company that generates a significant percentage of its revenue from online course sales. As you may know, Foundr originally began as a digital magazine in the App Store. Their CEO Nathan Chan recalls earning a grand total of $5.50 in revenue from the magazine on its first day in the App Store:
And although Foundr did eventually become a profitable business from its magazine subscription revenue, it wasn’t until they launched their first premium online course about Instagram marketing that they quickly grew to over 7-figures in annual revenue.
Top podcast host and New York Times-bestselling author Lewis Howes is another example of an entrepreneur who creates and sells online courses for profit. Alongside other revenue sources such as live events, mastermind groups, book sales, and public speaking, Howes has generated millions of dollars for his business from just a small handful of premium online courses over the past few years.
“I think now is the perfect time to start a business by sharing your knowledge.” -Lewis Howes, School of Greatness
2. Awareness & Customer Acquisition
Another reason entrepreneurs and companies create online courses is to increase brand awareness and acquire new customers.
With brand awareness and customer acquisition as your primary objectives, you will most likely offer your course for free, with the goal of getting it into the hands of as many prospective customers as possible.
Hootsuite, a social media management platform, for example, offers numerous free social media marketing courses on Hootsuite Academy. Millions of people have taken free courses on their academy, many of which have become paying customers shortly thereafter.
To give you another example, in 2017 I had the privilege of collaborating with 30 entrepreneurs and course creators to create and launch Profitable Course Creator, an online course that teaches entrepreneurs how to build a profitable business selling online courses.
Thinkific produced the course, and we’re donating 100% of the proceeds to Pencils of Promise, a nonprofit organization that builds schools in developing countries.
We accomplished two objectives with the launch of this course. We increased brand awareness and generated leads for Thinkific, and we raised some money for a great cause. Double win.
Another approach is to charge a nominal fee for your online course. Rather than trying to generate an immediate profit from the sale, your goal is simply to help recoup the cost of promoting your course and acquiring a customer.
Done correctly, selling a low-priced online course can actually bring your customer acquisition costs to zero, thereby increasing your profits on products or services that you upsell on the backend.
“For Moz, educational content and helping marketers succeed has been at the forefront of our mission and the best way we’ve found to grow our community and our customer base.” -Rand Fishkin, Founder, Moz
Dana Malstaff (Founder of Boss Mom), for example, helps women build their businesses and raise families at the same time. To acquire leads, she offers a free online course on how to use Trello (a popular project management tool).
Immediately after someone opts in for her free Trello course, she invites them to purchase her Trello board templates for a one-time reduced price of $27. Her goal here is not to generate a significant profit. It’s to immediately separate the prospects from the buyers on her email list. Once someone becomes a customer, she knows they are more likely to purchase additional products or services from her in the future.
3. Onboarding & Customer Retention
The third most common reason to create an online course is to train customers and increase customer retention.
This approach is particularly popular among SaaS companies, since teaching their customers how to use and get value from their software is a critical step in activating and retaining those customers. In many cases, completing some product training is a mandatory part of their customer onboarding process.
The logic behind this approach is simple: When you help your customers achieve success with your product, they tend to have higher lifetime values, lower churn rates, and are more likely to refer other customers to your business.
“An educated customer is a capable customer. A capable customer will push the boundaries of what is possible with your product, forcing innovation, reference-ability and ultimately value to your bottom line.” -Michael Litt, Co-Founder & CEO, Vidyard
Wishpond, a SaaS company that provides a marketing platform for businesses, invested a single 10-day sprint in developing Wishpond Academy. Their goal was to create an engaging training experience to bridge the gap between customer acquisition and activation, and to ensure that each new customer had the knowledge and confidence to achieve their first WOW moment with their product as quickly as possible.
Did it work? You bet it did. According to Wishpond, customers who accessed their online training courses upgraded from trial to paid plans at a rate 380% higher than customers not accessing the training.
“Customers who participate in our academy not only have more success, but also become loyal users.” – Ali Tajsekander, Founder & CEO, Wishpond
How To Create Online Courses: A Step-by-Step Guide
OK, so now that we’ve covered the main motivations, let’s discuss how to create an online course.
I’m not going to dive into the specifics of creating content for your course (how to create video lessons, worksheets, quizzes, etc.). Instead, I’m going to focus on the critical steps involved in planning and launching your course.
Note: if you want to learn about course design and curriculum development, check out eLearning Industry. They’ve got some great articles and free resources.
Step 1: Choose Your Online Course Topic
Every product or service is a solution to a problem. Whether your product or service helps your customer lose weight, have better relationships, save more time, look better, make more money, etc.—being able to define that problem is critical.
To ensure the course you create attracts your ideal customers, I recommend unpacking a specific part of the problem that your product or service solves. This is why knowing your target audience is key.
If you’re a financial planner, for example, one of the biggest problems your clients might face is struggling to save for retirement. If you unpack a specific part of that problem, you might discover that after paying their bills each month, they simply don’t have enough money to allocate to savings and investments in order to achieve their retirement goals.
In this case, creating a course that helps them solve that specific problem will better position them to solve their bigger problem (saving for retirement), which, of course, your services can help with. A course on budgeting, or a course on how to negotiate a raise (if they’re an employee), for example, would both be great topics to teach your client.
“Stay laser-focused on the results your clients will invest in achieving. Get focused by narrowing your audience, narrowing your result, and narrowing your content, and your course will instantly stand out.” – Jeanine Blackwell, Create 6-Figure Courses
Step 2: Validate Demand for Your Online Course
With a specific course topic in mind, the next step is to validate the demand for that course, before you create it. The goal here is to make sure that you’ve chosen a topic that your ideal customers actually want to learn, not that you think they want to learn.
Foundr executed this step perfectly earlier in 2017. They sent an email to their subscribers and asked them which topics they were interested in learning about. And when the responses came in, they listened.
It turned out that a significant percentage of Foundr’s audience wanted to learn how to build a physical product business. This feedback led to the creation and launch of Foundr’s next online course: Start & Scale Your Online Store.
Here’s a screenshot of the survey they set up to collect feedback from their audience:
Pre-selling a course (accepting payments from customers before you create it) is another great way to validate the demand for your course, but this approach only applies to paid courses. When someone tells you they will buy your course, you have proof of interest. When someone actually pays you upfront, you have proof of demand.
“The first step for me is looking for user feedback and signs of interest in a topic. I try to avoid the mistake of building something that I think people want and then finding out no one wants it. So instead, I look at what my audience is asking me.” – Yaro Starak, Entrepreneur’s Journey
Step 3: Create a Minimum Viable Course
The goal of a Minimum Viable Course (MVC), often called a beta launch or pilot launch, is to create the first version of your course and get feedback from real customers as quickly as possible. Based on feedback, engagement, and completion rates, you would then make revisions to the course to make it better.
Since an MVC is just the first version of your course, you should charge a lower price than what you eventually intend to charge once you’ve expanded and improved the training. You might create one or two hours of audio or video training, a series of live webinars, or perhaps even just an email course.
The point is not to try to create the perfect course the first time. It’s to create a course that is good enough to help someone, with the goal of improving it and increasing its price over time.
Daniel DiPiazza (Founder of Rich20Something), for example, decided to create an online course to teach freelancers how to get paid to write. He pre-sold the course, limiting it to 100 customers, before he created it.
Here’s a screenshot of the email I received from Daniel shortly after he announced the beta launch of his course:
I purchased his course, and just a few weeks later, Daniel sent me the login details to access the training (a two-hour audio course). When Daniel improves his course and re-launches it at a higher price point, I will be given access to the new version at no additional cost—my reward for being a part of his beta launch.
“Money follows momentum, not perfection. That means you don’t need your website or your course to be perfect. I’ve re-recorded our core product six times since its start in May, 2015. Just get started and get sales. That’s the most important part at the beginning.” -Scott Oldford, LeadCraft
Step 4: Choose a Platform to Host Your Course
Once you have the content created, it’s time to pick a platform for hosting your course. I won’t go into too much detail here, but I will provide a brief overview of the three main options you have for hosting a course.
For more help with choosing an online course platform, check out e-learning expert Jeff Cobb’s list of recommendations here.
Option 1: Self-Hosting
Self-hosting means that you host your course on your own website (using WordPress, for example). With this approach, you’ll likely need to install a membership site plugin such as OptimizePress or LearnDash, along with a few other integrations such as video hosting, payment processing, email marketing, etc.
The downside of self-hosting is that it can be very time consuming to set up, integrations sometimes break as plugins update to newer versions, and if your website is ever down then your online course/membership site will also be down (which may temporarily inconvenience your customers).
Option 2: Learning Management Systems
A Learning Management System (LMS) is a type of software built specifically for delivering online courses and membership sites. Think of them as a WordPress for online courses. Thinkific is an example of a LMS.
Most LMS’s give you full control over your online course website: You can use your own domain or subdomain, customize your site’s branding, control your pricing, manage your affiliates, integrate directly with your payment processing system and email marketing system, and a number of other features.
Overall, they’re a great option if you don’t have the technical expertise to set up and maintain your own self-hosted online course.
Option 3: Online Course Marketplaces
Lastly, there are online course marketplaces (such as Udemy or Skillshare). Some marketplaces have millions of students, so having a course in a large marketplace can be great for exposure. They can also a great place to validate the demand for your chosen course topic.
Since every marketplace has its own terms and restrictions that you must comply with, the downside of publishing your online course in a marketplace is that give you up a lot of control.
With Udemy, for example, there is a limit to what you can charge for your course, and regardless of the price you select, they often run steep price discounts in order to attract more students to their marketplace. It is not uncommon for courses that are priced at $100 or more by their instructors to be sold for as little as $10 or $20.
Plus, when someone purchases your online course on a marketplace, that person is technically not your customer. They are that marketplace’s customer. As such, your ability to obtain their contact information and communicate with them outside of that marketplace will be limited.
Each of these options have their own advantages and disadvantages. I encourage you to do your own independent research before choosing a platform to host your course on.
Step 5: Refine & Scale
Finally, once your course has been published and shared with an initial group of students/customers, it’s time to improve and refine your training based on their feedback. If your course is a hit, great! If it needs improvement, that’s great too!
The last thing you want to do is create a mediocre course and then promote it to as many people as possible. It’s better to test your course with a small group of people first, refine and improve it if necessary, and then spend more time and effort promoting it to a larger audience.
Here are a few things you can do to boost student engagement and completion rates in your courses:
- Gamify the learning experience. Let your students track their progress and consider rewarding them for achieving certain milestones.
- Hold your students accountable with email support, group calls, private discussion boards, etc.
- Create different types of training to appeal to different learning styles.
- Create small, bite-sized lessons for quick consumption.
- Send progress updates and reminder emails to keep your students engaged.
- Include action steps at the end of each lesson to help them implement what they learn.
Make Online Courses That Make an Impact
Even if generating revenue is your primary goal for creating an online course, don’t neglect to support your customers after the initial sale is made.
Acquiring a customer is just the beginning. Their purchase marks the beginning of your relationship with them, not the end of it.
This is where I see a lot of entrepreneurs go wrong. They spend the majority of their time focusing on acquiring new customers, neglecting the ones that have already bought from them.
A company doesn’t stay in business because they are constantly attracting new customers. They stay in business because their existing customers come back more than once, often bringing their friends and family with them. I believe that the same is true for an online course business.
An important lesson that I’d like to leave you with as I wrap up this article is this:
If you’re constantly investing in marketing and promotional initiatives to attract new customers to your business, but you’re doing nothing to ensure the success of those customers, it will be very difficult (and expensive!) for you to build a profitable and sustainable business.
Nick Unsworth, one of the course creators and entrepreneurs we featured in Profitable Course Creator, said it best:
“We’re not in this business to just get people to buy our stuff. We want them to see the change and the impact and create the success stories.” -Nick Unsworth, Life on Fire
On that note, I wish you the best of luck in creating online courses to help scale your business.
If you have any questions or comments about creating online courses, please leave them in the comment section below!