So you have it all planned out. You have discovered that there’s a gap in your space, you have made your lesson plan, and you’re pumped up and passionate about it all. You may be even done with building the course. But a question looms: how do you spread the word to potential students? How do you make it more known to your target community? To which sites should you post links on?

I have good news for you: this is a solved problem. Many authors before you have developed online courses for all types of content; and I’ll teach you the best practices that you need to take your course from 0 students to 1,000 students. All without spending anything on advertising.

First, however, I will dispel a common mistake teachers make when they set out to build their course. And that mistake is that they pursue a build-first approach rather than an audience-first approach. The reason that the “build-first” approach is sub-optimal is because you are assuming a lot of things to be true, which exposes you to a lot of risk in your course. Especially around what content to write and how your course structure should be.

And I understand where you’re coming from: you’re an expert in your field. You’ve talked to old students offline and you know your stuff. I’m not disputing that. Instead, what I’m saying is that you can reduce your promotion risk significantly by taking an audience-first approach. And by doing it audience-first, you will know where to promote before you’ve even started. You will have clarity on what specific topics people want to know. This eliminates your risk of low interest significantly, setting yourself up for a wave of organic traffic to your course.

That said, here are the 4 key parts to this mini-tutorial to ensure steady, consistent traffic to your course:

  1. How to Discover Where your Ideal Audience Hangs Out
  2. How to Read your Audience’s Minds
  3. How to Build Respect and Reputation among your Audience
  4. How to Share Your Course to an Audience that’s Ready to Buy your Product
How To Go From 0 To 1,000 Online Course Students With No Ad Budget. #teachonline Click To Tweet

How to Discover Where your Ideal Audience Hangs Out

Let’s pretend that you’re a consulting client of mine and you want to promote a course around Marketing Analytics.

The first thing that I’ll state to you is that you’ll need to ask the right question — you need to ask first “who do you plan to serve” rather than “what you plan to serve”. In the Marketing Analytics case, you will then have to make a choice: do you want to target CMOs, Marketing Managers, Marketing Newbies, or Entrepreneurs?

Say that you’ve chosen to target entrepreneurs.

If that is the case, then the first task is to start googling for “where this audience hangs out”. The best way to do this is to look for “online lounges”. Online lounges are spaces in the internet where people discuss things related to their topic of interest. These can be forums, blogs, and mailing lists. The way that I do this is to do the following steps:

  1. Open up your search engine (eg. Google, Bing, Yahoo!)
  2. Do a search query using any of the following combinations:

– {Profession} + {topic} + forum

– {Profession} + {topic} + mailing list

– {Profession} + {topic} + blog

– {Profession} + {topic} + industry forum

– {Profession} + {topic} + link-sharing site (Eg. Reddit, stumbleupon)

– Example: Entrepreneur + Marketing + forum

And just right there, I get to discover 10+ potential forums to target:

your first 1000 online course students

It doesn’t end there yet. Once you select a specific forum, you need to drill down further and make another search query using your topic of choice. In this example, we search for discussions revolving around marketing within reddit.com/r/entrepreneur. What you want to look out for here is any indication of pain or trouble from the original poster. From the initial query of just “marketing” within the subreddit. We don’t have any luck.

first 1000 course sales

So how do we refine our search to really dig for pain? Let’s add “pain indicators” like “help” or “advice needed”. Let’s check out the results. We can see that in just the first page, we get a lot of potentially useful threads.

from 0 to 1000 course sales

1000 course sales

first 1000 online course sales

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If you have found specific threads with LOTS of expressions of pain, then you know that you’re in the right online lounge to promote to in the future. As you dive in and do more research, you will find that some forums will work for specific topics and some forums won’t. This will help you focus your promotion efforts only in areas where your ideal target audience hangs out. This is critical to the success of your course.

From the above 15 minute exercise, we just got evidence that reddit.com/r/entrepreneur is a great place to promote our marketing course.

Try it out for other forums! My advice is that you need to identify at least 10 online lounges. Blogs work too (especially with its very active comment sections).

How to Read your Audience’s Minds

By now, you have a long list of threads with clear indications of pain. Let’s underline all of them and let’s really understand who are audience is.

your first 1000 course sales

first 1k course students

Once you collect enough data, you’ll start seeing patterns on who your audience is. Once you identify these patterns, you start to get a strong instinct of what your audience feels and thinks about marketing in general.

From the above, there are some small patterns emerging (we’ll need 10+ more painful threads to really know) that entrepreneurs really want 3 things: a highly efficient digital marketing strategy with low cash outlay, tips around local or city-wise marketing, and how to position oneself to get high-value clients.

Earlier, in our hypothetical example, you wanted to build a product around Marketing Analytics. But it turns out it may be too advanced (at least for the Reddit online lounge). It is better to pursue a course focused on low-budget, high-efficiency advertising, local marketing, and seeking & closing high-value clients.

My course structure for these samples of pain will then start to look like this:

  1. How to Use Facebook Interest Targeting to find High-Quality Clients at a few dimes a Click
  2. How to Build a Referral Machine by using these Pitch Scripts in Your Next Local Chamber of Commerce Event
  3. How to Discover the Needs only High-Value Clients Have

Course Name: “How to Get High-Value Clients Using with Hyperlocal and Hyper targeted Marketing”

If you dropped that course within the Reddit space, I’m sure that will get traction. See what evidence-based marketing gives us?

How to Build Respect and Reputation among your Audience

Beyond discovering pains, however, you need to establish yourself as an authority within these online lounges.

That means giving bite-sized advice whenever you encounter these pains. By bite-sized, I mean something that’s from 1 to 10 sentences but is actionable enough for the person to use.

As an example, I would answer the person who said “haven’t found FB to be useful” and “need an efficient strategy” in this way:

“I understand that you need an efficient digital strategy given your low budget. I am surprised, however, that you find FB ads to be NOT useful. I do FB ads a lot in my consultancy, and here’s how I suggest you do your targeting to get quality clicks at $0.40 – $0.80 per click:

  1. ONLY use interest targeting. Leave everything else at defaults.
  2. When you use interest targeting, make sure to use 10+ interests and leave out interests with a large reach. Reason being large reach per interest will equate to high cost per click. If I were targeting entrepreneurs into marketing, I would use interests by using gurus like ‘Neil Patel’, ‘Derek Halpern’, ‘Darren Rowse’, etc. I would leave out ‘Gary Vaynerchuk’ because his reach is way too big!
  3. Make sure that the TOTAL reach does not exceed 800,000 people
  4. Start your test! Make sure your test is locked to $5 per day. NEVER use the lifetime budget option.
  5. If you exceed $1 per click, you need to cut off interests with the highest reach and add more ‘niche’ interests
  6. If you need ideas on ‘niche’ interests, google for tools, influencers, and software then try it out”

If you give advice at such low-level and actionable detail, you will gain respect and authority within the space.

How to Share Your Course to an Audience that’s Ready to Buy your Product

“Isn’t it spammy to post links?!” “What if I get banned?!”

I’m sure you had these thoughts. And these are fair assertions. In order to to solve for this problem, what you can do is to use inline links in your comments and you pair this with other links not related to your site. This helps drive the sense that you intend to be helpful and not be spammy. Here’s a personal example when I tried to help someone having trouble with landing pages:

online course sales

Apart from sharing these comments, you need to do this consistently, day-after-day, for only 1 hour a day. The thing with marketing is that it’s a frequency game. With paid ads, the ads work for you — it generates reach and frequency at the click of the button. With these organic efforts, you need to build the reach and frequency yourself. So you are your own ad. But as long as you dedicate 1 hour a day, you should start to get a good flow of leads to your landing page.

By doing these 4 broad, strategic steps, I was able to build my course to around 4k-5k organic visits a month, 89% from direct links. Check out the stats below from SimilarWeb. No dollar spent on advertising at all.

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increase course registrations

Give lots of free, actionable value to the world, and the world will love you back. I wish you great results in your journey!


Kenn Costales is a growth hacker and online course creator who loves finding new ways to marketing products online without spending a dime. For actionable marketing advice, head on over to GrowthHackerKit.com, and join the community of growth hackers.

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Amanda Smith
Amanda Smith

This is awesome! Thanks for writing, Kenn!

Kenn Costales
Kenn Costales

Thank you Amanda!

Cory Boatright
Cory Boatright

Phenomenal post bro!

Kenn Costales
Kenn Costales

Thanks Cory! Let me know if you have any follow up questions 🙂

Virginia Reeves
Virginia Reeves

Kenn – very useful information. I appreciate the details.

Kenn Costales
Kenn Costales

Great to hear that it helped, Virginia!

James Forno
James Forno

Very useful info on simple and free ways to promote your courses… Thank You!

James

Kenn Costales
Kenn Costales

Thanks James! Keep engaging and helping folks in your community, and you’ll get students coming in… It’s a slow game at first, but it will quickly build as soon as you get a reputation in your community.

DJ
DJ

Thanks Kenn, great article and clearly articulated advice!

Kenn
Kenn

Thanks DJ! Time to get some students enrolled! 😉

Nicolas
Nicolas

very good

Bob Oliver
Bob Oliver

That’s nice and your topic is very nice I’m very thank full and great article and clearly article to advice and some students easily to get some enrolled Great Article