What do you know? I bet it’s more than you think, and that some of that bank of knowledge is, well, bankable. In this factsheet, we are going to investigate the booming world of online courses, and how millions of people are taking their smarts and sharing with the world on all kinds of things - and monetising their efforts. If you haven’t thought about creating an online course before, there is no better time than when we are faced with the perfect storm of people not being able to operate their businesses in the traditional way (which is nearly all of us) and millions of folks stuck at home wanting something to do to take their minds off the current global situation with COVID-19.
Let’s begin with what online courses are, just to get the definitions clear. These are (usually) platforms that host a course where customers can find something they are interested in, pay for it, and have access to learning in a structured way at their own pace. The material can be presented in video, in text, in exercises with quizzes, through visuals and graphics, and are usually a combination of all of the above. We will cover a selection of platforms a little later on, but the options are either cloud based, as a service model, where the platform takes a percentage of the cost of your course, or where the course is hosted on your website as a standalone product.
You create the content, load it up, get your marketing and sales material out there, and wait for participants to download and get excited about all their new learnings, and of course follow up so you can continually improve the content and get glowing testimonials.
What do I know?
At this point, you may already have a keen idea of what it is you want to teach people. Or you may be feeling a little overwhelmed or unclear in relation to what you want to teach, and if anyone wants to buy what you want to teach. What we know about online courses is that there is a big and ever growing market for them. They are part of the exciting democratisation of learning, where everyone can access information, even from a simple smart phone. If you are wondering how big, the online education industry will grow from $107 billion in 2015 to $325 billion in 2025 (Forbes, 2018).
The world is a big place and there is a thirst for knowledge, no matter how small or simple your expertise is, so there will be someone who wants to know and is willing to pay for it. It’s almost the case that the MORE niche the better, as it makes it very easy to target your market. One great example is of a woman who created a course about treating copper deficiencies in goats. I know, right – not most people’s idea of a best seller, but she exemplifies this market and why it works. She knew about treating copper deficiencies in goats, and it had been hard for her to find the information, so she knew there were people in the same situation as her, which meant there was a potential market. That woman has sold her course over 3000 times. Even if she only charged $10 per course, well, the maths is solid.
A way to think about the value of what you know is what are people asking you about regularly? What in your business or side hustle do you constantly share with newbies? What is it you have learned that you had to look hard to find out about, and how did you learn, evolve and master that thing you do? All of these are ways you can begin to conceptualise where you might find people who want to know what you know, and will pay you for it.
On the Digital Ready Program Podcast about Online Courses, Gabrielle Osborne from Creative Accounting tells the story of how she made a course for accountants to find and create marketing images to use in their social media. Sounds ultra-niche? She thought so too – but kept getting asked where and how she got her cool images from. She made the course and the accountants of the world are now giving us much better marketing – thanks Gab! In summary, you know more than you think, so push through those misgivings and start an Excel spreadsheet. In one column, put all the topics you can speak and teach about with enthusiasm and authority. In another, a demographic summary of who would purchase them. Which leads us to…
Who are you teaching?
Knowing and understanding the demographics of your customer is super important in developing a product, in this case a course, which will hit the sweet spot for your customers. Spend some time thinking and exploring who the potential purchasers for the course are and what they need to get out of it. Likely they will be someone who shares some of your own demographics and interests, so you already have a good idea of some of their traits.
Explore places like Quora, online forums and Facebook groups. In your areas of expertise, what questions are constantly coming up, who is asking them, where are the gaps that you can fill and are there nuances to the way you can do that. Writing a course about monetising Instagram followers will be quite different for instance if it is for Millennials or to teach Baby Boomers, so look for where you can further niche a market to speak to people who you resonate with.
Testing your market
Once you’ve identified your market, it’s time to test it. 'Wait, what?' you say, 'before I’ve written the course and made a whiz bang video?' Oh yes, this is the way you test your hypothesis as to whether your bright idea is going to be adopted and paid for by real customers and it is also a brilliant opportunity for you to get some feedback before you leap into the time and effort to make a full, real course.
Here’s some ways you can test the market: the easiest of course is a survey. You can make one of these in Facebook or Survey Monkey – just ask people what they want to learn and give them a few options to choose from to kick them off.
If you have a clear idea already of what you are going to teach, you can get a little next level and develop an outline for your course, and some images to use in a landing page. You want to capture people who are interested and get their details so you can work out if what you want to teach is resonating, and also so you can let them know when you go live.
You also therefore need an audience to promote to: selling online courses works best when you already have followers across your various social channels that you can activate. Write some catchy copy with a call to action to sign up for the course which is coming soon, or even more compelling, offer pre-purchase at a bargain price (which is the most validating of all, that someone is willing to pay.)
This is sometimes known as a 'smoke test', and with only a landing page and some paid social advertising you can validate that people want what you’ve got. Or rather, test validate that you have a list of eager beavers waiting to learn. Now its time to build your course.
Building your course
Your first course, or the way you structure your first course will definitely not be how it will stay. Think of building courses like building your websites or apps, they are only ever 80 per cent done, and the feedback you get from participants and how you grow as a presenter and teacher along the way will really inform how you adapt and evolve your offering. Your first customers are your most valuable, as they are the ones who will be your first referees, your first critical users and the base on which you grow. It helps to invite a few people at a very discounted rate to use your first offerings just so you can get their feedback and suggestions for improvement.
Your course will be structured following the format of the platform you use, but generally will have a number of modules that users complete end to end at their own pace. When you are ready to roll your sleeves up, have all the content together to build, and if you are using video to teach, you will need to have the requisite camera/audio elements to make that clear and watchable. Most courses allow video to be created inside their platforms, or you can import in your own material. More on those platform options and functionality below.
If you are wondering where to start with writing up or structuring your modules, you can use a simple formula for each lesson that leaves students with a call to action to get them doing, not just learning academically. The following guides students through the content and gives them solid signposts as to why it is relevant (but don’t forget to make it fun!).
- What I’m going to teach you
- What you need to learn
- What happens if you don’t
- How to do it
- Action item
Alright, you’re across the content and structure and well on your way to having an online course. You might be super familiar with your topic, but how are your teaching skills? If you haven’t spent a tonne of time in front of a camera or class, it might be an awesome idea (and also fantastic user experience engagement) to get a few like-minded folks together and give them a preview of some of the material, in exchange for them giving you some kind and candid feedback about your teaching style.
It would also be a great idea to find a few teachers of online courses that you like and work out what it is about their style that resonates with you. Like so many things we do for the first time, it takes a while to find your authentic voice, so don’t be put off if you don’t feel your first go is your finest work – but be mindful that people are paying for you to be their new expert, so you need to present with authority and a level of mastery over the material that gives true value to your customers.
There are three ways you can get your course into the hands of customers, each with pros and cons and ultimately the choice will come down to what suits you, your customers and your skill levels.
A course ‘marketplace’ is one of the easiest ways to get started, with all the tech done for you. With a course marketplace, you basically sign up and immediately start creating the content for your course. You’ll need to pay a percentage of your earnings as transaction fees to the company. You also won’t be able to host your course on your own website, which means you’ll have less control over your site design and format, as your course will be hosted on the marketplace domain (e.g., www.udemy.com/yourcourse).
The second option to consider is a hosted course. In terms of usability, this option is similar to a course marketplace. The main difference is that you have the option of paying a one-time or monthly fee, rather than paying a cut of your profits. In this choice, your course won’t get the benefit of being promoted by the platform itself. While you won’t be hosting your course on your own site, you can redirect visitors to a custom site URL (e.g.,www.yourcourse.com).
Marketplaces are a very common way to enter the online course market as they offer the lowest barriers to entry, much like Etsy or Ebay, and they share the same issues with having to cut through the noise of lots of competitors. This is not a deal breaker, but it means you need a strong marketing strategy. The reality is you are always competing with a lot of other online learning products and will always need to have a strategy for driving traffic to your course until your work becomes well known, so this isn’t a major minus as much as it is the environment you will be operating in .
The final option if you want maximum flexibility, customisability and have some tech and coding skills is a self-hosted or standalone option hosted on your own site. While it takes more work to set up and manage, the main advantage is that beyond the initial – usually one-time cost – of the software or setup, you don’t pay a cut of your profits or any transaction fees (besides what your payment processor charges). While you can hire a developer to design and set up your course site for you, another option is to use a WordPress Learning Management System (LMS) plugin on your site.
Here are some of the most popular tried and true options in all three of these categories. Have a click through and see which ones seem to best fit your needs. If you want this list pre-digested, my top tips are Teachable and Udemy for marketplace platforms, and Learndash as a Wordpress plug in. But don’t take my word for it, validate your own assumptions!
And once you’ve got your platform sorted, you’re going to need to think about some marketing hacks to get people flooding into your 'sign me up' page.
From simple online lectures to intensive bootcamps, you’ll find courses that charge anywhere from a few hundred dollars to nearly $20,000, depending on the topic. There is a direct correlation between how much you charge for your course and the engagement level of your students. A quirk of human psychology is that when you make your content free or cheap, people are less likely to trust it and have low expectations for results.
If you increase the price, people inherently feel that they’re getting more value. Not to mention the fact that once people purchase your course they immediately feel compelled to see a return on their investment. No one wants to feel like they’re spending hundreds of dollars on something they’ll never use. If you don’t have a clear idea of what to charge, have a look at similar courses on some of the major platforms and price yours in their ballpark. Of course you can also use your test groups and smoke tests to validate your pricing too. If in doubt, price up.
Marketing Your Course
Marketing is the way you connect your online course with customers eager to learn. The sales funnel starts before it is complete, and warming up your potential buyers can happen when you make your first landing page. Key ways to get more buyers faster is to have an existing email list to be able to market your course to pre-launch and get some early cash flow.
Strong social media following with paid ads targeting your demographics will build this audience, and will be more valuable if you push them towards a landing page that can capture their details. Use teasers like some course content, work with influencers and bloggers to share your new course, and write blogs and articles yourself about the course content to establish yourself as a thought leader in the area you are teaching in.
Most importantly, make a strategic plan to accompany your course, map out your implementation plan and where you get traction, do more of that. Keep asking questions of your customers and followers, this will narrow down what the best marketing narratives are and allow you to reach product market fit sooner.
Creating a community
Creating a community around your course is one of the best things you can do to keep the discussions going and build your brand and reputation. People are inherently social creatures; we like being able to interact with different people. Online courses can quickly get very boring if your student doesn’t feel like they can interact with anyone else about the material. With a private Facebook group, exciting dynamics can emerge among vocal students. A strong community means people are less inclined to drop out if they feel like they’ll be missing out on all the exciting learnings, networking and value.
Online courses at their heart are all about transformation. In times of fear and flux, what we need is hope and distraction, which in their own way sow the seeds of transformation. In order to have a good course, you must be dedicated to helping your students through their own transformation process, and have this user journey front of mind from when they enter your funnel, through transaction, doing the course, engaging with the community and course completion. You’re not just giving out information. Your customers could get that anywhere else for free, as the internet is full of everything a curious learner could want. What you bring is information curation, your passion and personality and a unique way of presenting your knowledge in a safe environment for people to explore new ways of being.