Gone are the days when you could just ‘promise’ your prospects that you are worth investing in – now you have to PROVE it. And there is no better way of demonstrating your expertise than by creating an online course to sell.
By teaching your topic, you are leaving no shadow of a doubt that you know what you’re talking about, you’re good at what you do, and that you are an expert in your field.
The online course is now as essential to any entrepreneur, expert or thought leader’s toolbox, as a website and business card.
One of the fastest and most impactful ways to get your knowledge out to a global marketplace, making a bigger impact and making more money, is to download that knowledge lying dormant in your brain and turn it into a lead-generating, money-making, impact-creating online course.
In this article, you’ll find an overview of the 10 major stages of online course creation:
- Pick the perfect course topic
- Ensure your course idea has high market demand
- Create Magnetic and Compelling Learning Outcomes
- Select and Gather your Course Content
- Structure Your Modules and Course Plan
- Determine the most engaging and effective delivery methods for each lesson
- Filming, Recording, and Editing your Online Course
- Setting up your online school
- Pricing your course and feeding into a bigger education-based business model
- Launch and Ongoing Marketing
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of all the things that need to be planned, prepared for, and executed to successfully create and sell an online course – it provides you with the ‘stratospheric overview’ of the major milestones, and tips along the way to help you know what to expect and what the journey will look like before you get started.
1. Pick the Perfect Course Topic
Your course topic must be something that you LOVE. If you are not passionate about your topic, it will be obvious if you don’t love your topic and will make your training about as engaging as a cardboard sandwich.
Think about the skills, talents, and life experiences that you have been through. Don’t feel like you have to teach a university-level profession to make money selling courses. The list of possible course topics is endless, here’s a couple of online course examples from our successful customers:
- Microsoft excel
- Roller skating (yup, even interests can be thriving knowledge commerce businesses)
In short, if you love your topic, you are good at your topic and you have experience (formal or life) in it, and fulfills a need for someone – then you have a topic and expertise you can monetize.
A simple exercise to help you zero in on a course topic:
On a piece of paper, write down as many things that come to mind that reflect your Passions, Skills, and Experience. Once you’ve done this, identify the top 2-3 topics where your passions/interests, your skills, and your experience/achievements intersect.
Someone won’t purchase your course simply because they like you or what they sell. People take online courses because they’re looking for a transformation from their current reality to their desired future.
It’s important to pick a topic that has an audience that is motivated enough to pay money to learn about, which is what we’ll cover in the next section.
2. Ensure Your Course Idea has High Market Demand
Hands up who wants to spend weeks of their life creating an online course, for absolutely nobody to buy it? Nope. Didn’t think so.
Once you have picked your online course topic, the next step is to conduct a number of market research tests to see if it has a market demand or not. Many course creators make the mistake of thinking that if there is a lot of competition in their topic area, then their course idea won’t fly. But actually, this shows that there is a high chance of there being a strong market demand for that course idea and is therefore well worth investigating further.
A few things you want to be checking for are:
- Are people searching for it and asking questions?
- Is there a gap in what the competition is offering?
- Will someone pay money to solve the problem your course solves?
If your answer to the above three questions is ‘yes’ and your idea is similar but different to what is already out there, then you have a course idea that has a chance of being a best-seller.
If you’re just getting started, here are a few tips to help you validate demand for your online course:
Are people searching for it and asking questions?
Here are a few ways to gauge interest in your course topic:
Search your topic in Google Trends
Google Trends will tell you how popular a topic is. It’s the quickest way to check if there’s anyone searching google, and how popular the topic is over time.
For example “Online Yoga Classes” became more popular when the pandemic started– and it’s still more popular than it was before!
Check search volume for your course topic
Search volume is a great way to validate demand for an online course topic. You can use the google keyword planner for free through google ads. (And no, you don’t need to be buying ads to use this tool.)
You can enter your keywords and get insights into how many people are searching for your online course idea. It will also give you suggestions for other keywords that people might use to find your course.
As you can see, the topic is fairly popular, and it’s also competitive. But you’ll notice that “Free yoga classes online” is less competitive – this might make a great lead magnet to fill your funnel (more on that later).
What are people asking about your topic?
Here are a few qualitative approaches to understand how to cover your online course idea:
- Try searching your potential topic on Reddit or Quora or to see what comes up, and how often
- Answer The Public is a helpful way to find out what people are asking about a topic
- If you’re in any Facebook groups, or better yet, you run one – scroll through and use the search function to gain some insight into the challenges your potential audience has. (AKA social listening)
Is there a gap in online courses that the competition is offering?
It’s important to differentiate your offer from what’s out there. So do some research to figure out who competitors are, and what they’re offering. There’s a slim chance you’re the first person to think of your idea. But there is a good chance you can cover a topic differently, for a different audience.
Here are a few approaches with examples of how course creators have created differentiated online course offerings:
Can you cover a popular topic differently?
Despite the stiff competition for Microsoft Excel courses, Miss Excel carved a niche for herself in a very crowded space by using TikTok, and she infused a little fun into an otherwise boring topic.
By combining practical Excel tips with creativity, fun, and enthusiasm, Norton posted a new video once a day. To her surprise, one of her videos hit 100,000 views by the fourth day. After her first video went viral, the rest was history! She was able to quit her job, and now makes over $20,000 per month selling online courses.
Can you position your topic to appeal to a different audience?
Thinkific membership site creator, Tiffany Aliche from The Budgetnista found that there was no shortage of financial advice out there, but few that catered specifically to women, and particularly black women who have felt left out of the conversation.
By catering her offering to an under-served audience, Tiffany carved out a niche for herself and created a 7-figure business.
I want to help women, especially black women, live richer lives. Because we have been left out of the financial conversation for so long.Tiffany Aliche, Thinkific Course Creator and Membership Site Owner
Will someone pay money to solve the problem your course solves?
There are a few ways to ensure there’s market potential for your online course:
- Preselling your course – A great way to avoid the unfortunate situation of creating a course that no one buys – is to pre-sell it! People buy courses before they’re created all the time. It’s one of the best approaches to launching an online course. (We’ll offer a few tips pre-selling your course at the end of this blog)
- Competition – If you discover competitors selling a similar online course, that isn’t a bad thing! It means there’s a revenue stream that you can tap into. Online course marketplaces are a good place to quickly check what’s out there, and can be a good marketing tool to compliment your core online course site.
- Talking to your audience – If you’re not engaging your audience, you’re missing out on a lot of insights. Ask them about their challenges, and whether or not they’d pay for a course to overcome them.
- Keyword Research – By using google’s keyword planner, you can see how many people are searching for courses like yours on Google. Pay attention to the “bid cost” – more profitable products tend to have a higher cost per click.
Based on the example below, you can see that Yoga Teacher Training might be a little more profitable than selling directly to customers.
3. Create Magnetic and Compelling Learning Outcomes
Don’t underestimate the importance of learning outcomes. If you don’t do this for your online courses you could severely risk your reputation and your bottom line – let alone make the course creation process a frustrating one.
Online courses are a vehicle for transformation for your students– from their current reality to their desired future.
Would you hand over your money to someone for a product you don’t understand and you have no idea what it will do for you? Of course not.
Just because you know what your course will give your students, it does not mean that they will know. If your students don’t know HOW your course is going to help them, they are unlikely to enroll in it.
Learning outcomes clearly explain, with measurable verbs, what the learner will be able to do, know and feel by the end of your course.
- What skills will they be able to demonstrate?
- What new knowledge will they have obtained?
- What feelings will they have moved away from or to?
As an example, to write a learning outcome, complete this statement “By the end of this course you will be able to… ”
For example: “By the end of this course, you will be able to demonstrate the 6 steps for making a coffee.”
Having clear learning outcomes also ensures that only the RIGHT students are joining your course – which means higher completion and satisfaction rates and lower refund requests.
4. Select and Gather your Course Content
This is the stage where many course creators start to risk falling into ‘The Hole of Eternal Procrastination’.
The main reason we get stuck here is often because of the sheer volume of information we have in our heads or all around us in books, on our hard drives, in our notepads and so on. The art at this stage is not just about what we should include in our course, but what stuff we need to leave out.
This is where the research you will have conducted in the market testing phase and your learning outcomes, now come to serve you again. As you are sorting through your piles of content, throw out anything that does not directly relate to achieving a learning outcome.
Secondly, make sure that every learning outcome does have content aligned to it.
Only include content that answers your audiences burning questions, or fills gaps not met by your competitors.
This should be a easy if you already have content and an existing audience, like from a facebook group, blog, or youtube channel – figure out what your most popular content is, and package it into a more structured learning journey.
5. Structure Your Modules and Course Plan
This is the stage where you now take a look at all of your content and start grouping together your similar themes, tips, and ideas into modules and then ordering the lectures within those modules into the most progressive and logical manner so that they form a flowing sequence of lessons.
Here are a few tips to get you started:
Plan your course with an instructional design storyboard
An elearning storyboard will help save you a lot of time in the instructional design process. It helps keep your training focused, and makes sure you hit all the important points in the learning journey – before sinking hours into fleshing your online course.
Storyboards aren’t just a tool for planning videos. they can help you map high-level learning themes. For example, you could storyboard your student’s learning objectives using a Bloom’s Taxonomy storyboard, that covers all the levels of mastery your students need to master along the way.
From here, you can start planning what courses you’ll need to create based on the themes you’ve come up with.
Consider how you’ll structure your online courses and the overall academy
Most online course creators don’t intend on creating just one online course. You’ll probably end up with an academy, with many courses – and that’s the right way to approach it.
Here’s the simplest way to think about structuring your online courses. You can follow this method to create an entire academy:
Let’s say the goal of your academy is to teach people to master the culinary arts, you might have a bundle of courses on how to become a master chef, containing
- A course on how to source baking ingredients; a chapter about how to source baking ingredients for alternative food preferences; with a video lesson about bulk sourcing practices.
- A course on how to chop up your ingredients without chopping your fingers off, with a chapter on what knives to use in each scenario, and a video lesson to demonstrate techniques to help you safely chop up your vegetables.
Here’s how an online course academy is structured visually:
From here, you can start creating individual courses.
Create a course outline
A course outline is like the roadmap of how your online course will bring your students from A to B. It will help you deliver content to your students in a structured, ordered way, layering skill upon skill until they finish your course feeling like an expert.
Related: Download a copy of our course outline template.
Planning individual lessons
When it comes to creating a lesson plan, it’s helpful to start with a few questions to determine the goal of your lesson.
- What do your students already know?
- What do they need to learn?
- What’s the best way to lock it in place?
Here’s an example of a lesson plan, including learning objectives and topics covered.
Lesson #1: How To Source Ingredients For Baking
Learning Objective: Learn how to source ingredients for baking to save time and money
- How to find fresh locally sourced ingredients
- What ingredients to buy in bulk for multiple recipes
- How to evaluate ingredients by nutritional value
6. Determine the Most Engaging and Effective Delivery Methods for Each Lesson
Now it’s time to decide on the best way to deliver your content.
You need to be aware of the different principles of adult learning, learning preferences, and all of the different ways that you can deliver your training to really make sure that your training is as engaging as possible.
- Will you have videos, reading content, activities, audio content?
- What type of visuals will you have?
- Will you have community learning areas?
- How will you make your course fun and engaging?
- How will you help students with different learning styles?
You need to make sure that you have a balance of visual, audio, and practical methodologies so that everyone is engaged and provided with the optimum learning experience.
Here are a few tips to help you design effective learning content:
Designing course content that is engaging
Traditional classroom experiences don’t always translate nicely to engaging online learning experiences. So it’s important to find ways to make your online course a delight to take. Here are a few ways to make your online course more engaging:
- Bring more storytelling into your teaching
- Create a learning community
- Host live lessons
- Use both synchronous (real-time) and asynchronous (self-paced) learning
- Use Gamification to motivate your students and reward smaller milestones
Design your course with different learning styles and abilities in mind
A lot of thought goes into planning an online course; how it’s organized, what type of content is presented, and particularly accessibility issues for students with special needs.
This all ties back to Universal Design for Learning– a framework to improve and optimize teaching and learning for all people based on the science of how people learn.
How long should your online course be?
The ideal length of your online course is the shortest amount of time to get your students from A to B. (The shorter the path, the better).
If you want some rough figures, based on what we’ve seen at Thinkific – the most profitable course length on average is between 10–25 hours. Just below that, 5-10 hour courses are about 75% as profitable.
While this data is useful in providing a broad picture of course lengths and how they perform, we want to make one thing clear: course length is not a predictor of revenue growth.
A few factors that may influence the length of your course, and profitability may include:
- The complexity of topic – A course on rocket science will probably be longer than a course on how to source healthy local ingredients.
- Required course lengths for continuing education credits – if you’re hoping to get your course certified for continuing education, your students may need to complete a certain number of hours.
Consider the best way to package your content
There’s no one size fits all approach to creating an online course. In many cases, smaller micro learning can be just as impactful as a lengthy online course.
There are two things that can make your online course easy or difficult for students to process.
- Content that is large, heavy, or dense. For example, complex course material.
- Packaging that is bulky or awkward. Course material presented in a bulky, confusing, complex, or awkward way.
To summarize, the worst thing you can do is cover a simple topic in a needlessly bulky or awkward way.
Consider social elements, like learning communities and Cohort-Based Learning
We’re social animals and lack of social interaction is one of the biggest challenges with self-paced online learning.
Consider building an online community for your students as a way to facilitate meaningful connections between you and your students. Learning communities complement online courses perfectly, because they enable social learning, peer-to-peer support, and student-to-instructor support.
They also help with accountability, as students can be paired or placed in cohorts to collaborate on activities, and hold each other accountable for learning goals.
Since 2020, we’ve seen cohort-based learning grow rapidly in popularity in the online course space. This model differs from self-paced learning as it emphasizes collaboration and teamwork rather than individual content consumption. There are many benefits to your students, and you as a course creator.
Cohort-based classes are a little more work to manage, but students love them. Because of the high-quality learning experience, you can charge more for a cohort-based class than you would for a self-paced online course.
Related: How to create a cohort-based course
7. Filming, Recording, and Editing your Online Course
This is the production phase.
By now you should have a thorough course plan, all of your content together and know exactly how you are going to deliver each element of your online course.
Now it’s time for the fun part – getting on camera. Of course, how you deliver your training is entirely dependent on what your audience will prefer to engage with and what method delivers your learning outcomes most effectively.
However, at present the most effective method of delivery is video.
This could be a ‘talking head’ video which is when you are in the shot on camera. You could also have ‘green screen’ talking head videos.
This means that you are recording with a green background behind you – where you have a green screen, you can have anything behind you during the editing process. It could be a video behind you, animations, or just a still image. I use the green screen so that I can have my PowerPoint slides up behind me in the post-editing phase this is great for my more classroom type training
Another method is called screen recording which is when you are recording your computer screen – you can choose to include a webcam-type video of yourself on top of this.
And finally, you can record a voiceover, where you’re recording a narration of a presentation.
This allows you to quickly cut edit replace your green screen, fix your sound, add logos, text and pop-ups to your videos; save them as an mp4 and then upload them to your online learning system.
8. Setting up your online school
The first thing here is to recognize that there are three major ways to sell your online courses.
- online course marketplaces
- learning management systems
- plugins or software on your website
There is a very big difference between online course marketplaces and a self-hosted LMS. Online course marketplaces are more of a marketing and awareness play.
Since marketplaces give you very little control over branding and user experience, and they often discount your courses without notice, it should not be the primary channel you sell through.
A learning management system is your own Academy that you can link to your website and fully brand as your own platform. It makes online course creation simple and easy to sell your learning products. My recommendation is Thinkific (I host all of my courses on this platform), but if you’re still early in the platform selection process, here is a list of all of the things you should look for in an LMS (Learning Management System).
9. Getting the perfect pricing models and feeding into a bigger education-based business model
Make sure you have strategized how and where your online course will fit into your overall online course business model.
- Is it going to just be a free lead magnet into your primary product and service?
- Is it going to be an income stream in its own right?
- Or, is it going to be your primary income stream?
- Are you selling memberships or access to a community?
Each of these will mean that your course needs to be designed slightly differently, provide a different volume of value, have different marketing methodologies and put your followers and students into very different types of funnels.
This also will considerably affect the pricing that you need to apply to your online course so that it appropriately matches the position it’s given within your business.
There is no right or wrong or even guideline price for an online course as it depends very much on what it is that you are delivering.
But as a starting point, my recommendation is to analyze and benchmark your idea against competing products within the marketplace – have a look at what your competitors are charging and what for, then find out how yours can be different and better. When you’ve made yours better, then price yours slightly higher.
Never price yours lower because that will just make yours look like it has less value than your competitors.
Here are a few reasons why you shouldn’t underprice your online course:
1. It can reduce your market potential, and hurt your ability to support your students – Under-pricing your online course can significantly decrease your potential.
For example, here are 5 different ways to make $50,000 selling an online course. It’s a lot easier to support a hand full of students vs hundreds of them.
2. It takes just as much effort to sell a low-priced course as it does to sell a high-priced one – The effort to get someone to buy is only marginally easier at a lower price point– so you won’t sell twice as many courses by low-balling.
To demonstrate why, this guide on how to price an online course fleshes out a few scenarios assuming $5 per lead, and a 5% conversion rate.
3. You can’t invest in growth if your margins are too low – Selling an online course for a lower price will limit your ability to advertise it. When you have a low course price, you are more likely to lose money than you are to earn a profit when you pay for advertising.
10. Launch and Ongoing Marketing
If you think the work is over now that you’ve completed on your online course think again now the real work begins!
Too many course creators make the mistake of thinking that once their course is created, they now have an income stream. You need a launch and ongoing marketing strategy for selling your course and generating leads.
- Will you run early bird discount promotions?
- Do you have a content marketing plan that will sell your online courses?
- Will you run ads?
- Do you have a list to market to?
- Can you partner up with influencers?
- Will you run an affiliate program?
- How will you use social media?
Make sure that you have at least an 18-month marketing plan for your online course and remember that the second you stop marketing is the second you stop selling.
The list of ways to promote online courses is endless, but here are a few tips to get you started:
1. Consider pre-selling your online course before you’ve created it
The way to avoid creating an online course that no one buys is to sell your course before you create it.
This approach is often called pre-selling an online course, and it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself from wasting your time creating a course that no one buys.
To motivate students to enroll early, consider an early bird special for those who pre-register for your online course.
A word of caution: be prepared to actually create it in the timeframe you promised your customers. Failing to deliver on time may lead to unhappy customers and refund requests.
The main thing you’ll need to pre-sell your online course is a sales page, which we’ll cover next.
2. Create a sales page for your online course
Next, you’ll want to create a sales page for your course.
A sales page (also known as a landing page) is different from your main homepage. Your sales page only has one goal: Influence someone to enroll in your course. Here are a few key features of a Sales Page:
- A compelling headline (to capture attention)
- An opening story (to introduce the problem)
- Bullet-points (to highlight benefits of the solution, your offer, and bonuses)
- Testimonials (for social proof)
- Credibility (instructor bio)
- FAQ (to overcome objections)
- Pricing details (with a clear call-to-action)
- Risk Reversal (a satisfaction guarantee)
3. Use the webinar launch method
The reason webinars work is because they provide an environment in which you can quickly earn the trust of your target audience before you ask for the sale.
Every few months, Kat Norton uses a webinar launch method as a quick cash injection in her business. She hosts a free Excel training and, at the end of the training, offers her students each course for half the price as well as the option to purchase the bundle for just $50 more.
Webinars have proved to be the most impactful action for her revenue; the last webinar she launched generated $50,000 in 24 hours.
4. Use lead magnets to grow your email list
Remember that “Free Yoga Classes Online” keyword example from earlier? There are probably people searching for free online courses in your vertical too, and this can be the perfect way to fill your funnel.
You could create a free mini-course with certain sections or concepts from your main course, and give them away for free. At the end of the mini-course, you can invite your students to purchase your main course if they want to dive deeper into the topic.
After students enroll in your course, you can set up a funnel in your email system to convert them into paid offerings. You don’t even have to create a free course – lead magnets can be anything, like a guide or a case study.
So there you have it – a ‘birds-eye-view’ of the major milestones in online course creation!
Hopefully, these steps give you a good idea of what to expect from the journey of creating and marketing online courses.
Note: This guide to creating an online course was originally published in January 2017 and was refreshed and expanded in September 2021 to be even more useful to course creators.