Gone are the days when you could just ‘promise’ your prospects you’re worth investing in—now you have to PROVE it. And there is no better way to demonstrate your expertise than by building an online course.
By teaching your topic on a public stage, you can demonstrate you know what you’re talking about, you’re good at what you do, and you’re an expert in your field.
Learning how to create a course to sell is now essential for any entrepreneur, expert, or thought leader’s toolbox and acts as a website and digital business card. Turning your tried and true industry knowledge into a lead-generating, money-making, impact-creating online course helps you get your valuable skills out on the global marketplace.
In this article, we’ve broken the best way to create an online course into 10 easy stages, so you can get your course business rolling. They are:
- Pick the perfect course topic
- Ensure your course idea has high market demand
- Create magnetic and compelling learning outcomes
- Structure your modules and course plan
- Determine the most engaging and effective delivery methods for each lesson
- Produce your online course: filming, recording, and editing
- Set up your online school
- Establish your pricing structure
- Launch your course and market for success
- Build your community
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of what you’ll need to successfully create and sell an online course —it gives you a ‘birds-eye-view’’ of major milestones and tips to help you set expectations for the journey ahead.
While your course topic doesn’t have to be something you’re head over heels in LOVE with, it should be a topic you’re passionate about. Choose a topic you’re not passionate about and you’ll eventually get tired of teaching it. And, your lack of passion will translate to a course as engaging as a cardboard sandwich.
Think about the experiences you’ve lived and the skills and talents you have. The course topic you choose doesn’t have to be a graduate-level profession to be successful. In fact, some of the best courses out there focus on things you might consider a hobby.
To help you start brainstorming, here’s a list of 8 online courses from some of our most successful course creators. (And remember, the possibilities are endless.)
If you love your topic, you’re good at it, you have experience (professionally or otherwise), and it fulfills a need for someone—then you have all the makings for expertise you can monetize.
Try this simple exercise to help you zero in on a course topic:
Start by taking a full-size sheet of paper and writing down “Passions/Interests,” “Skills,” and “Experience/Achievements” across the top. Draw a line between them so that each is in its own column.
Next, go column by column and write down as many things that come to mind for each category. Notice any similarities between the 3 columns? If so, they could point you to your perfect course topic. If not, keep brainstorming! You’ll settle on a topic with a little more thought.
Once you find the right one, you’ll need to start thinking about your audience. People take online courses because they need help getting from where they are now to a desired point in their future, and your knowledge and expertise can help them get there quicker.
It’s important to pick a topic that has an audience motivated enough to pay money to learn., which we’ll cover in the next section.
Hands up, who wants to spend weeks of their life creating an online course only to have no one buy it? Nope. Didn’t think so.
Once you’ve picked your online course topic (or at least narrowed your choices down to 2 or 3), the next step is to conduct a number of market research tests. The goal is to understand if there’s demand for what you’re teaching.
But beware, many course creators make the mistake of thinking that a lot of competition for their topic means their course idea won’t be successful. Instead, high competition could mean there’s a thriving market for that course idea and is therefore well worth investigating further.
If you’re just getting started, there are three questions you can ask to help validate demand for your online course. They are:
- Are people searching for and asking questions about your topic?
- Is there anything your competition doesn’t cover or doesn’t cover well?
- Will someone pay money to solve the problem your course solves?
Let’s look at each question more closely and check out some tools that will help you complete your research.
Are people searching for and asking questions about your topic?
What are people asking about your topic?
- Try searching your topic on Reddit or Quora to see what questions come up and how often
- Answer The Public can show you what people are asking, how, and how often
- Use the search function and scroll through any Facebook groups on your topic to gain some insight into the challenges your audience has
After doing some research, you’ll probably have a few words that show up in posts, forums, and questions over and over. You can use these as keywords in the next section.
Are people searching for your topic and asking questions?
Google Trends is the quickest way to check general search trends for your topic. These trends will give you a better idea of how popular a topic is and how it’s performed over time.
For example, “Online Yoga Classes” spiked in popularity at the start of the pandemic in March 2020. 3 years later and it’s still more popular than it ever was before.
Search volume is also a great way to validate demand for an online course topic.
You can use a tool like Google keyword planner to look at your topic’s search volume. This tool is designed for people buying ads, but you don’t have to buy an ad to use it, making it great for market validation.
Enter your keywords, and Google will give you insights into how many people are searching for each keyword.
As you can see, the topic is fairly popular and has decent competition. But keep in mind that the search volume and competition apply to your specific search terms. There may be hundreds of different search terms for any given topic.
Is there anything your competition doesn’t cover or doesn’t cover well?
Is there a gap in the online courses the competition is offering?
Courses already on the market have the upper hand. They’ve been learning about your audience, developing their course, and marketing longer than you have. So one of the best ways to cultivate success is to differentiate your course from what’s already out there.
Do some research to figure out who your competitors are and what their courses offer. There’s a slim chance you’re the first person to think of your idea, but there’s a good chance you can cover it differently.
Here are a few approaches with examples of how course creators have created differentiated online course offerings:
Miss Excel and distinguishing your content from others’
Despite the stiff competition for Microsoft Excel courses, Miss Excel carved a niche for herself in a crowded space by using TikTok and infusing creativity, fun, and enthusiasm into an otherwise boring topic.
She began by posting a new video once a day. To her surprise, one of her videos went viral and hit 100,000 views in just four days. After that, the rest was history! After her first video went viral, the rest was history! She was able to quit her job and now boasts an impressive lineup of five courses on the Thinkific platform, bringing in a whopping six figures in April 2021.
The Budgetnista and appealing to a “new” audience
Thinkific membership site creator Tiffany Aliche, from The Budgetnista, found that there was no shortage of financial advice out there. But she also saw that few creators catered to women, specifically black women, who have felt left out of the conversation.
By building her online course for an underserved 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:
- Pre-Selling 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 more tips on this later)
- Competition – If you discover competitors selling a similar online course, that isn’t a bad thing! It means there’s a revenue stream 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.
To recap, we started this second stage by asking three questions to determine market demand:
- Are people searching for and asking questions about your topic?
- Is there anything your competition doesn’t cover or doesn’t cover well?
- Will someone pay money to solve the problem your course solves?
If, after doing all your research, your answer to these three questions is ‘yes,’ then you have a course idea with a shot at being a best-seller. Let’s move on to stage 3!
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. So don’t underestimate the importance of learning outcomes in your course.
One of the most critical elements in learning how to create online courses is identifying your learning outcomes. They’re your big picture goals for the course.
To your student, these clearly explain, with measurable verbs, what your student will be able to do by the end of the course. As a bonus, this can help to make sure the people hitting “checkout” are purchasing the right course for them, which means higher completion and satisfaction rates and lower refund requests.
As an example, to write a learning outcome, complete this statement “By the end of this course you will be able to ________.”
Whether or not you display your learning outcomes in sentence form, or some other way is up to you. Mimi Goodwin’s Sew It! Academy has some of their learning outcomes listed under the pricing plans.
Take the Kids plan for example. In that plan, kids will learn sewing machine basics, how to cut, pin, and iron, sew in a straight line, and the basic stitches and terms. Her potential students know exactly what to expect from the course and can easily determine if it’s the right choice for them.
Once you’ve determined your learning outcomes, then you can start to focus on individual modules and lessons, which brings us to stage 4 of learning how to create a course to sell.
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Now that you know what your major learning goals are, you can begin to organize your course. If, by chance, your course content lends itself to a linear progression like building up to a yoga pose, this stage may be easier for you.
If your course topic is a bit more complex, then try grouping similar themes, tips, and ideas into modules. Then structure the lectures within your 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 instructional design 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 course by creating a course outline
A course outline is like the roadmap of how your online course will bring your students from point A to point 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
Consider how you’ll structure your overall academy
Most online course creators don’t intend on creating just one online course. You’ll probably end up with an academy of 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 about sewing, you might have a bundle of courses on sewing projects and pattern making, containing:
- A course on fabrics and garment sewing; a chapter about how to draft a garment; and a video lesson on using basic shapes to create a clothing item.
- A course on pattern making; with a chapter on how to read basic patterns; and a video lesson demonstrating how to sew a pattern.
Sound familiar? We gave you a glimpse of this earlier with Sew it! Academy’s pricing plan. This example was lifted straight from their course catalog. Sew it! Academy is an excellent example of how you can bundle courses into cohesive units. Check them out to see academy structure in action.
For a general example, check out this structure map:
You’re at the halfway point! To recap, you have:
- Picked the perfect course topic
- Validated demand for that topic
- Created clear and compelling learning outcomes
- Designed your course structure and plan
Now, as we continue to work through the course creation stages, it’s time to decide on the best way to deliver your content.
When figuring out the best way to create an online course, you need to be aware of the different learning preferences and ways you can deliver information so it’s 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?
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 storytelling into your teaching
- Create a learning community
- Host live lessons
- Use both synchronous and asynchronous learning
- Use gamification to motivate your students and reward smaller milestones
Design your course to be accessible
A lot of thought goes into building the best learning experience. Engagement strategies like gamification can be fun and somewhat easy to incorporate, but you also have to consider accessibility. If someone can’t access your content in the first place, they won’t even get the chance to enjoy it.
Building your course using universal design learning principles will ensure your course is accessible by anyone so that everyone gets to enjoy the fruits of your labor.
Create your online course with an ideal length in mind
The ideal length of your online course is the shortest amount of time to get your students from point A to point B. (The shorter, the better.)
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.
A few factors that may influence the length of your course may include:
- The complexity of the 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 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, cohort-based learning has grown in popularity rapidly. This model differs from self-paced learning as it emphasizes collaboration and teamwork rather than individual content consumption. Cohort-based classes are a little more work to manage, but students love them.
And as a bonus, online communities will help you in the marketing of your course (which we discuss in stages 9 and 10).
Related: How to create a cohort-based course
How you deliver your course should depend on what your audience prefers to engage with and which method delivers your learning outcomes most effectively. In 2023, that method is more than likely video, which means it’s time to get in front of the camera and hit record!
Course creators commonly use a combination of these three recording styles for their content:
- Talking heads – This is when just your upper body is in frame for the video. You may or may not have a greenscreen behind you for things like presentation slides, visuals, or something else.
- Screen recording – This is where you’re recording your device’s screen. Typically this is done to walk viewers through a process or demonstrate something digitally. You may or may not be featured on screen.
- Voiceovers – A voiceover is similar to screen recording, except you’re narrating what’s happening on screen. Often, this is done for presentations, and you are not shown on screen.
Gathering your thoughts on paper and organizing them into a course plan may have seemed hard in the moment, but learning new software, recording content, and editing videos is tough stuff! Hang in there, and try your best.
Pro-Tip: Even though you’re learning to create an online course to sell, you may find resources for building YouTube channels very useful. Content like “How to Edit YouTube Videos” or editing software roundups will breakdown everything you need to produce quality video content even if you have no plans of using the YouTube platform.
Where you choose to house your online course is everything. Your choice in platform will affect how you collect payment, what kinds of gamification you can include, what your website will look like, and so much more. It’s essential you choose an online course platform that fits all of your needs.
Of course, we recommend Thinkific. You can create your first course, one community, two community spaces, take on unlimited students, and enjoy zero transaction fees all within the free plan. But if that’s not enough, Kujabi, LearnWorlds, and Podia are also great choices.
As you search for the perfect platform for your course, make sure to also look at your marketing options. Here are some questions to begin asking:
- What marketing integrations does this platform allow?
- Can I build a site and/or landing pages on this platform?
- What email marketing features do they offer?
- What metrics can I track?
As we’ll discuss more in stage 9, marketing is critical to the ongoing success and growth of your online course business.
Next on your “Create online course” to-do list is to establish where your course fits into your overall business model, and then establish your pricing structure.
Online courses can range in price from absolutely free to thousands of dollars. To come up with a final price tag, you need to consider a few things:
- Where does the course fit into your bottom line? In other words, is it a free lead magnet, a passive income stream on the side, or your primary product?
- Are you selling a stand-alone course, a bundle, community, membership, or some combination of these? How you package your product will influence the overall design of your course, the value you build into it, and how you market it.
There aren’t any rules for setting your pricing structure. But the value of the content you deliver will significantly affect how much you can charge.
For a starting point, look at what your competitors are charging. Way back in stage 2, you researched competitor pricing as part of your market demand validation. Take a look at the notes you took.
If your course is better than what’s on the market, then price yours higher than the competition. If your course isn’t as in-depth, or doesn’t offer as much, consider revising your course to add more value.
Here are three reasons why you shouldn’t underprice your online course:
It will hurt your bottom line
If your course is significantly cheaper than your competition, people will assume it has less value. As a result, you could be driving customers to your competitors.
In contrast, in the scenario that you end up attracting more students, you may overexert yourself at the cost of your business. For example, here are 5 different ways to make $50,000 selling an online course.
It’s a lot easier to support 50 students than 500.
Your effort is the same
The effort to get someone to buy at a lower price point is only marginally easier–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. (Assume each lead costs $5 and you have a 5% conversion rate.)
You can’t reinvest in growth if your margins are too low
A lower price point on your course results in a smaller marketing and advertising budget. In the example below, the $50 course actually loses money compared to the $200 course.
That $100 profit is money you can use to reinvest in filming equipment, a graphic designer, a microphone, or even just a day off.
Now that you’ve chosen and validated your topic, created your learning outcomes, gathered and created your course content, set up your school, and finalized pricing, it’s time to launch! Give yourself a pat on the back, but don’t go anywhere.
If you think the work is over now that you’ve completed your online course, think again. Too many course creators make the mistake of thinking that once their course is created, they have an income stream.
In reality, even long after you’ve launched your course, you’ll need an ongoing marketing strategy. It’s unlikely you’ll have a constant flow of new students without having to work for them.
In short, your marketing plan can be the difference between zero sales and a seven-figure business. To get started with your plan, answer the following questions:
- 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?
Each of these questions represent a possible pillar in your overall marketing strategy. One alone probably isn’t enough to set the foundations for a strong student base, but combine several and you’re on the right path.
Now, let’s take a closer look at four of the most common marketing tools course creators use to generate industry and drive sales.
Pre-sell your course
We mentioned this in the stage about validating market demand. Pre-selling your course means you sell it before you’ve even created it, and it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself from wasting time by creating a course no one wants.
To motivate students to enroll early, consider an early bird special for anyone that buys during your pre-sell.
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.
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) differs from your main homepage.
Your sales page only has one goal, to encourage 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 the benefits of the solution, your offer, and bonuses)
- Testimonials (for social proof)
- Credibility (instructor bio, experience, etc.)
- Pricing details (with a clear call-to-action)
- Risk Reversal (a satisfaction guarantee)
Use the webinar launch method
Webinars work because they provide an environment where you can quickly earn trust before you ask your target audience to act.
Every few months, Kat Norton uses the webinar method to generate more interest in her course. She hosts a free Excel training and, at the end of the training, offers her webinar attendees half-price on each of her courses.
Webinars are a proven marketing tool that can help you generate leads, drum up interest, and sell your course.
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 niche too. And while lead magnet can sound like a complex marketing term at first, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It acts like a magnet and attracts potential customers to your landing page, email campaign, or overall sales funnel.
The webinar method we just mentioned is a form of a lead magnet. You could also offer a free mini-course. This would be a shortened version of your main course that delivers value, builds your authority with your audience, and encourages them to consume more of your content.
Last but certainly not least, in the final stage of your course creation process, you should focus on building your online community. In fact, we’ve mentioned community in stages two, five, seven, and eight. And in case that wasn’t enough, we’re bringing it up again. Your online community is what turns one-time customers into loyal, repeat students.
As you continue to market your online course to new audience members, building an online community lets you foster direct relationships with previous and current students, allowing you to engage with your target audience in ways a sales page or webinar won’t let you.
By building an online community, you’ll give your students the space to ask you questions, share their learning, and give you feedback (directly or indirectly) about what your course does well and what it might be missing.
An online community can also function as an extension of your marketing strategy. When you “own” a community, you have constant access to your target market. You can use this access to build your authority in your niche and generate more revenue.
Just remember, as the community leader, it’s also your responsibility to keep the machine oiled and the wheels turning. This could look like:
- Sharing themed posts for each day of the week
- Asking questions to spark conversation
- Answering questions yourself, or calling on others to share their tips
- Enforcing rules and guidelines to ensure the safety of your member
And most importantly, it’s your responsibility to make sure you give more than you ask. Your students will quickly see through you if your community is nothing more than a thinly veiled marketing guise. So whatever you do, put people first.
There you have it – a ‘birds-eye-view’ of the major milestones in online course creation! Hopefully, these 10 steps give you a good idea of what to expect from the journey of creating and marketing online courses.
This blog was originally published in September 2021, it has been updated in October 2023 to include new information.