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Marketing and selling online courses is something that a lot of online course creators struggle with. Maybe you can relate to being the expert on your topic (after all, you did create an entire course about it!), but you’re not an expert at marketing. Consequently, your course has very few, maybe even no sales yet.

So is it time to throw in the towel? Should you give up on your dream of teaching online and making a positive impact on the lives of others by sharing your knowledge with them?

Absolutely not!

Having a great course is just one of the requirements for succeeding as an online instructor. Another requirement is having a specific process for attracting and enrolling students in your course.

That process is called a sales funnel, and without one, it’s going to be very difficult to continuously find new students who want to purchase your course.

Jump ahead:

Not having a sales funnel for your online course is the equivalent of setting up a lemonade stand in the middle of the desert where no one will ever find it. Sure, it may be super hot outside. Sure, your lemonade may be delicious. But if you’re not giving people a clear path to follow and that leads to your lemonade stand, they will never find it. In this example, the path to the stand is your sales funnel. The path will also be lined with information that excites the person to keep moving forward, like pictures of the ice cold lemonade or reviews from other people on how great it was. These bits of information are marketing touchpoints (also called marketing tactics). 

How to create a sales funnel for your online course

Disclaimers about using this guide

The sales funnel I am about to show you is not the only type of sales funnel that you can create to sell your course, but it is one that is currently being used by many online instructors in the Thinkific community. Thinkific customer Justin Brooke, for example, uses this sales funnel to sell his online courses. And as you can see from the post he shared in Thinkific’s Facebook Group, it’s working out pretty well for him:

How to create a sales funnel to sell your online course

I should also mention that the sales funnel I’m about to show you will take a fair amount of work to set up. But it’s effective and it’s not very difficult to implement.

And the best part is, once you set up this sales funnel, it can run virtually on autopilot – meaning it will continue to enroll new students into your course while you’re relaxing, watching a movie, enjoying a meal with your family, and even while you’re sleeping. Woohoo!

3 Basic requirements for building a sales funnel

  1. Email marketing software and subscriber list

This sales funnel involves building a list of email subscribers and sending them automated emails, so you will need an account with an email service provider (ESP). You can use this guide to learn how to build an email list.

  1. Research on target audience

A sales funnel only works if people actually enter the sales funnel. To get those people, you either need an audience (your email list, blog readers, podcast listeners, social media followers, etc.) or a willingness to hustle and/or spend money on ads to get people into the funnel. Make sure to do research on your target audience to learn about their preferences on platforms, messaging, and solutions. 

  1. Customer relationship management (CRM) software

This one is optional, but it will be useful to track the lifecycle stages of potential and current customers. Then you can target groups based on their current stage in the funnel or based on their engagement with certain marketing tactics. Hubspot is one of the most popular tools for small business owners but many marketing platforms also offer similar functionalities to Hubspot. 

5 Steps to creating a sales funnel for your online course

While there are a lot of possible ways to create a funnel and earn sales as an online course creator, these are the fundamentals that you should learn first: 

  1. Identify a specific problem your target market is facing

Let’s be honest. Your course is not for everyone (don’t worry, this is a good thing). There is a specific type of person that is going to earn the most value from your course and it’s usually because that person needs to solve a problem that your course will help them answer. I recommend creating a detailed persona of your ideal student or customer as soon as possible

From there, the next step is to identify a specific problem that those people are searching for a solution to, such as learning how to use a new software or understanding how to improve leadership skills development. 

There are two ways you can figure out what problems your target audience needs help with. You can do some research about your target market, or you can ask them directly. Ideally, you will do both.

For example, try one of these ways to do online research about your target audience’s current challenges:

  • Do a Google search to find the top blogs, forums, and publications about your course topic and then read the comment section of those articles. 
  • Head over to Amazon and search for some books about your topic and read the reviews that were left by readers. 
  • Search for unanswered questions on Quora about your topic
  • Join a few Facebook and/or LinkedIn Groups related to your niche and pay attention to the questions that members are asking in these groups
  • If you own or work for a company that serves your target market, pay attention to the questions that customers are sending to the customer service team

The second way to find out what your target market is struggling with is to ask them directly. Here are a few ways you can ask your target market:

  • Send a survey link to your email subscriber list and ask for their feedback
  • Ask Facebook or LinkedIn Group members via a poll or post
  • Leverage your top-performing social media platforms to publish a post where you ask them to reveal any specific questions or challenges they have about your course topic
  • Get on the phone with your existing and/or past clients and customers. Tell them you are doing some research to help create additional content and resources to help them, and ask them for 10-15 minutes of their time to learn more about their specific questions and challenges. 
  • Post into your Thinkific learning community to get feedback about the course topics or the need for additional content in your niche
  1. Publish free content that solves the specific problem

Once you’ve identified a specific problem that your target market is searching for a solution to, the next step is to publish free content that helps them solve that specific problem.

The idea behind this step is to provide value to your target market upfront for free (which means there’s no barrier to access) while earning their trust and positioning you as an expert in the process.

Some content formats you can create include:

  • Blog posts
  • Podcast episodes or audio clips
  • Short videos
  • Downloadable templates

The type of content you create is not super important. The important thing is that the content you create actually helps your target market. Try to create the best piece of content on the web about that specific problem that you identified in Step 1.

You might be wondering why helping someone solve their problem for free will help you sell your course, and that’s a fair concern. The problem that your free content helps them solve should not be the ONLY problem that your paid course helps them solve. It should be just one of several problems that your course addresses. In a way, your free content is like a teaser of what the full course contains.

As you build your content, utilize some of the great tools out there like Headline Analyzer, Canva, or Semrush to make your content as impactful as possible . Don’t forget to read up on how to use AI for creating content either!  

  1. Encourage a content upgrade 

Not everyone who reads your blog post will sign up for your online course, and that is perfectly normal. The best way to separate the casual readers from potential students is to get them to subscribe to your email list.

According to Hubspot’s 2024 Guide to Prospecting, at least three strong and viable touchpoints are needed before a connection is established with a lead. Like we mentioned earlier, touchpoints are times when information is given to someone in the sales funnel to encourage them to move further down the line.

In order to get someone to subscribe to your email list, you’ll need to offer them an incentive for doing so, such as a free resource that supplements the information that you shared in your blog post.

Often called a content upgrade, this is a resource that you give away in exchange for someone’s email address. A checklist, worksheet, resource guide, additional training, or even a free course, are all examples of content upgrades that you could offer. You may also hear the term “gated content” as it refers to content that is restricted until the email address is offered (and validated).

Make sure it is very obvious that you are offering a content upgrade in your blog post. Include it near the top, in the middle, at the bottom, and maybe even on the sidebar of the page as well.

  1. Send a welcome email (with the free resource) to new subscribers

This step is very straightforward, and probably the easiest of all the steps involved in creating this sales funnel.

Using your email service provider (like MailChimp, SendGrid or Hubspot), you can create what is called a workflow automation. This means that when a new email is collected on a specific form, a workflow triggers to send an email containing relevant information & resources to that contact. The workflow and email content will need to be built in advance before the form is distributed to your audience. 

I recommend keeping your welcome email pretty simple as you don’t want to overwhelm someone who is brand new to your email list. Introduce yourself, thank them for reading your blog post, and include a link to download the free resource you promised them.

Evelyn Woods, a teacher of a 1,000+ student sewing course always emphasizes that “a community or a way to touch base is important.” Based on that, you could also invite a new subscriber to reach out to you (because actually talking to people in your target market is never a bad idea). Let them know they can email you any time, follow you on social media, or visit your website. 

Lastly, let them know that if they ever want to stop receiving emails from you, all they have to do is unsubscribe from your email list. Local regulations may also impact how contacts can provide permission to be contacted and how frequently you can contact them. 

  1. Created an automated sequence to sell your course

I mentioned at the beginning of this article that this particular sales funnel, once created, can run virtually on autopilot. One of the things that makes that possible is automated workflows, which you will have partially set up in Step 4. 

How it works is pretty simple. You write a bunch of emails and then add them to a workflow sequence using your email service provider. You will determine how often you want these emails sent (eg. weekly), what time of day they should send, and what customization or personalization will be added to each email. Pro tip: if your email service provider is synced with your CRM platform, you can get notified when contacts engage with your website, paid ads, or social media posts and automate emails to send out after these interactions. 

If your students have to pay to take your course, it will likely take a bit of time to convince them to enroll in it. Here are a few approaches you can take:

  1. Offer a free trial. Using Thinkific’s Free Preview feature, you can choose to make certain lessons in your course a part of a free trial. So if your course has 10 lessons, for example, you could make the first 1-2 lessons available for free.
  2. Write a series of emails that end with an invitation to enroll in your course. These emails could include exclusive advice, links to other blog posts or helpful resources, and eventually an invitation to sign up for your course.
  3. Invite them to attend a live webinar where you will present your course. The great thing about hosting live webinars is they allow you to spend some time educating and interacting with your prospective students before you invite them to sign up for your course.
  4. Invite your list to watch a pre-recorded webinar or sales video that presents your course. The drawback of sending people to a pre-recorded webinar or sales video is you won’t be there to engage with them or answer their questions in real time. So unless you have a really effective presentation that has been tested several times, this approach may not be as effective as the ones mentioned above.
  5. Follow up with the non-buyers on your email list. Not everyone that you invite to sign up for your online course will do it, and that is perfectly normal. That being said, what you can do after you pitch your course to your email subscribers is politely ask them why they didn’t buy. If you do it properly, you can obtain some incredibly valuable feedback from your target market. Sometimes they just want to talk to you and ask you a few questions before buying.

Next steps after your sales funnel is built

  1. Promote your course to your target audience

This is a big marketing step and there are a ton of options. See this guide here or use one of these ways to promote your course, content upgrades, and free content samples:

  • Email your list of subscribers with a link to the content
  • Create search engine optimized blogs or whitepapers related to your course topic
  • Share blog posts on all of your social media channels
  • Share blog posts inside relevant Facebook or LinkedIn groups
  • Run paid social media advertising to your existing fans or retargeting audiences
  • Run paid search engine advertising to people who are looking up search terms related to your course
  • Share the link to your blog post in social media groups where people are discussing your course topic (Pro tip: always read the group guidelines before posting, so you don’t get flagged as a spammer)
  • Share links to relevant content on popular communities and forums online such as Reddit and Quora
  • Publish a course snippet on YouTube or TikTok
  • Leverage a learning community to generate referrals or post about upcoming courses that current students might want to explore next 
  • Include highly visible social media sharing buttons to make it easy for readers to share
  • Add a few Click-To-Tweets throughout your post
  1. Continuously get feedback

Once your sales funnel is launched, you might hear from customers or non-buyers about what could be improved.

More often than not, the feedback you receive from non-buyers will help you to think of additional lessons to add to your course, make changes to your follow-up emails, or add more information to your course sales page or Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, all of which will help you to be more successful in the long run.

You can also pull feedback from students about what they like in the course content compared to what their initial expectations were while they were in the sales funnel stage. This can be useful in crafting messaging that explains the value that can be pulled from the course. For example, Diamond Lee shares, “I’m a big proponent of reaching out to students. I want to see how they’re doing, if they have any issues, and what setbacks and roadblocks they’re experiencing.”

Use your sales funnel to enroll new course students on autopilot

I hope these steps are helpful to you. And again, I just want to reiterate that this is certainly not the only type of sales funnel that you can use to enroll more students in your online courses. But it is one that a lot of online instructors are using and experiencing success with.

It takes time to create, but once you have a functional sales funnel up and running, your only responsibility is to make sure that new people are entering your funnel on a regular basis. How you do that is completely up to you. Do what you can, with whatever time, budget, and resources you have.

By creating content and lead magnets that appeal to your target audience at every stage in the customer buying journey, you attract as many potential customers as possible into your sales funnel, not just the ones who are ready to buy immediately.

One last piece of advice that I would like to leave you with is to not expect your first sales funnel to be perfect. You should always be testing different approaches, making adjustments to your sales funnel, and measuring the results. What gets measured gets improved.

If you’re ready to try selling your course, Thinkific offers built-in tools like course website design, payment processing on paid courses, and learning communities that facilitate mentorship and referrals. Sign up for a free trial here

This blog was originally published in April 2016, it’s since been updated in March 2024.