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A great way to avoid the unfortunate situation of creating a course that no one buys – is to pre sell it!

Of course, no one plans to create an online course that doesn’t sell. But by neglecting to plan how they’re going to sell their course, they inadvertently risk creating a course that generates very few (if any) sales once published.

Instead of validating the demand for their online course before they create it, their process of creating and launching their course goes a little like this. Perhaps you can relate:

  1. Inspiration strikes. You have an idea for an online course.
  2. You think your course idea is amazing, so you commit to creating it.
  3. You spend hundreds (maybe even thousands!) of dollars on equipment and software to record and edit your content.
  4. You spend several weeks (maybe even months!) recording and editing your course content.
  5. You set up your online course website (bonus points for using Thinkific). It’s published and you’re ready for customers.
  6. You start promoting your course, hoping to get your first few sales.

But despite all of your efforts, no one buys your course.


The launch of your course is a complete failure. All the time, effort, and resources you spent creating your course have gone to waste.

Pretty terrible situation right?

If you’ve experienced this situation before, I sympathize with you. The good news is you don’t have to experience this again.

If you’ve never experienced this situation before, then I’ve got even better news for you: you never have to.

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, and it’s one of the best ways to protect yourself from wasting your time creating a course that no one wants or is willing to pay for.

In this article, I’m going to show you why pre-selling your online course is critical to your success (and sanity!) as an online course creator. I’ve also included some insights from a few of our customers that have pre-sold their online courses successfully.

Why you should sell your online course before you create it

Selling something before you create it is not a new concept. Individuals and organizations from all over the world have pre-sold various products and services before they committed to creating them. By doing this, they’re validating the demand for their ideas upfront, before investing the necessary time and resources to create them.

(See how Thinkific creator Ellen Daly of Sundown Lines approaches selling her courses before she creates them for inspiration from a real-life example!)

Crowdfunding is a perfect example. Thanks to platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, innovators and entrepreneurs can present their idea to the world, and raise money from people (aka backers) upfront to fund its creation. If they get enough backers, they proceed with the project, and they already have their first customers!

If they don’t meet their funding requirements, they will often improve or refine their idea, improve or refine their marketing, or abandon the project entirely.

Sales from real customers are the ultimate form of market validation. If no one is willing to pay you for your online course, the demand for your course hasn’t been validated.

This crucial step of validating your course idea is, unfortunately, the one step that many online course creators forget to take.

Check out multi-millionaire dollar creator-educator Ellie Diop’s tips for proof on why course validation, pre-selling, and collecting feedback is so important.

Benefits of pre-selling your online course

Here are some of the main benefits of selling your course before you create it:

  • Protect your time and resources

Creating and selling an online course can quickly become a resource-intensive endeavor. It’s important to ensure that the time and money that you allocate to creating an online course is not better utilized elsewhere. By pre-selling your course, you minimize the risk of spending your time and money on a project that flops, resulting in missed opportunities to grow your business in other ways.

  • Self-fund your course creation

By selling your course upfront, you can use the revenue from those sales to fund the creation and promotion of your course, resulting in zero out-of-pocket expenses for you.

  • Instant feedback

The sooner you involve your target audience in the validation and creation of your online course, the sooner you can create a course based on their actual desires and requests (versus creating what you think they will want).

  • Build your customer list

Promoting your course before you create it enables you to build an email list of customers. When your course is ready, you can simply send an email to the people who paid for it, and voila, you’ll have your first round of students.

  • Excitement and accountability

Not knowing if anyone will be interested in your course or not is a common excuse for delaying creating it. Getting your first round of customers before you create your course is a great motivator for actually creating it. When you know that people who have paid you are waiting for you to create it, you are more likely to follow through with actually creating it.

Launch your online learning product for free

Use Thinkific to create, market, and sell online courses, communities, and memberships — all from a single platform.

How to validate market demand for your course topic:

Here are two specific strategies our customers have used to validate the demand for their courses before they invested a significant amount of time and resources creating them:

1. Sell your course before you create it (pre-selling)

In this scenario, you come up with a title for your course, and an outline of the content you intend to include in it. You then present your course title and outline to your target audience (by hosting a webinar, for example).

Set a price for your soon-to-be-released online course, and have a specific sales goal in mind that would justify creating the course. If you plan to charge $500 for your course, for example, you might set a goal of acquiring 10 customers ($5,000 in sales) before you commit to creating it.

If you aren’t able to acquire 10 customers, simply refund their purchase and explain to them that there simply wasn’t enough interest in your course to justify creating it.

You can use Thinkific to create the sales page for your soon-to-be-released course and collect payments. Just make it clear that the course has not yet been created.

Thinkific customer and digital marketing agency owner Matt Kohn, for example, generated $30,000 in sales before he created the first lesson in his course (watch our interview with him to learn how he did it here). With the demand for online course idea validated, he proceeded to create the training for his first round of customers.

A word of caution with this approach:

If you sell your online course before you create it, be prepared to actually create it in the time frame that you promised your customers. If you don’t give them what was promised, it won’t take long for the complaints and refund requests to start pouring in. Overall, this is not a great situation to be in. A couple of negative reviews about you online can really damage your reputation and make people less likely to buy anything from you in the future.

“Before there was anything there, it was $297 for lifetime membership. I wanted to validate the idea plus let my long term followers get in at a reduced rate. I also knew that by the time I launched it, the associated Facebook group would already be thriving. Having real time clients while I built it also enabled be to create what they needed, not just what I thought they needed.” Shazzie Love

2. Launch a pilot course

Another approach is to create a minimum viable course (MVC). Sometimes called a pilot course, this would just be your first version of a course that you intend to improve (and eventually charge more for) in the future.

Television networks use this pilot strategy all the time. Before committing to producing an entire series, they create a pilot episode (a standalone episode of an intended television series). That pilot episode is used as a testing ground to gauge whether the series will be successful. If the pilot flops, the television network will usually abandon the series, saving millions of dollars in production and marketing costs in the process.

How To Pre-Sell Your Online Course

The purpose of creating a pilot course is to prove to that people are willing to pay for a course on your chosen topic, and to obtain feedback and testimonials from your students. As you collect questions and feedback from your students, you can begin to improve your course by refining your content or adding additional training and resources to it.

Pricing your pilot course:

Sell your pilot course at a lower price than what you eventually intend to charge. Remember, your pilot course is your minimum viable course, so it’s fair to offer your first group of students a reduced price to enroll in it. You might even call your first groups of students your beta testing group, and place a limit on the number of students that can enroll.

As you improve your course and/or add more content to it, and as you collect more positive testimonials from students that have completed your course, you can increase the price. For more information on course pricing strategy, check out our complete guide to course pricing here.

When Khush Mark (one of our customers) launched her pilot course, for example, she set up a drip schedule to give her students access to a new training video every day over a 4 week period. She also included downloadable worksheets and access to a private Facebook Group for her students where they could reach out to her for additional support.

Get The Ultimate Guide to Marketing & Selling Your Online Course: Download Now

Ready, fire, aim!

I know it can seem counterintuitive to try to sell something before you create it, but trust me on this. It is much better to pitch your idea for your online course to your target audience and find out they aren’t interested in it than to spend significant amounts of time and money creating an online course that no one buys.

If no one shows interest in your course topic, simply test a different topic, or find a different target audience (sometimes you have a good topic, but you just presented it to the wrong people). Pitching a course on how to cook a great steak to a group of vegetarians, is an example of incongruence between course topic and target audience.

Launching a pilot course works well too. Instead of trying working along to create what you think is the best and most complete version of your course, you get to involve students in that creation process. By the time you launch the improved and complete version of your course at a higher price, you’ll know that it will be a big hit because you created it based on the feedback and questions of real customers.

“Believe in your work and put it out into the world. There is an audience that needs to hear what you have to say and share.” – Andrea Beaman

Launch your online learning product for free

Use Thinkific to create, market, and sell online courses, communities, and memberships — all from a single platform.

Originally published on April 26, 2018, refreshed with new content in October, 2023.