Creating and selling online courses: what you need to know

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online courses

It’s been quite a year so far, hasn’t it?

In all likelihood, you’ve had to make changes to the way you normally do business. Perhaps you’ve developed new ways of generating income, such as virtual services or digital products. Another good option to consider is online courses.

As well as providing you with an additional income stream, online courses can be a valuable resource for clients who can’t afford or don’t require one-on-one support.

They’re more work to develop and set up than e-books or standalone recordings, so you’ll definitely need to apply your organizing skills to this project.

Find out what’s involved.

I’m not going to lie to you – developing online courses is a lot of work! Unless you have a background in education, you should take time to learn more about it and make sure it’s right for you before you dive in with both feet.

You might want to start with Content Sparks’ 10-Day Online Course Challenge. This free program includes daily actions and checklists, a brandable, done-for-you mini-course on time management that you can use to set up your first course, and access to a private community.

There are lots of other programs designed to teach you how to create online courses, ranging from free to hundreds of dollars. As with any investment, do your due diligence and speak with your colleagues or search for online ratings and reviews before you open up your wallet.

One of my clients completed Jeanine Blackwell’s Create 6-Figure Courses® Virtual Bootcamp and reported that the material was excellent but the support was rather limited.

Make a plan.

Even if you already have a business plan, I recommend creating a separate plan for your courses. Although you’ll be building on your existing business, it’s quite possible that your courses will have a different target market and/or competition, and it may require different marketing strategies.

To be profitable, your income from course registrations needs to exceed your expenses, which may include:

  • Domain registration and website hosting (unless you’re building the course on your existing website)
  • Fees for a hosted course solution or premium WordPress plugins
  • Outsourcing fees to qualified contractors to help with various aspects of the project

Nate Johnson of Fly Plugins covers this topic in detail in his post, How Much Time and Money Does It Cost to Create an Online Course?

Choose a topic for your first course.

You need to choose a subject where you have expertise and for which there is a demand.

To get your course on the market quickly, I suggest you look at material you’ve already created.

  • Have you written blog posts, articles, or e-books that could be developed into a course?
  • Have you delivered teleclasses, presentations, seminars, or workshops that could be repurposed as an online course?

If you don’t have anything to repurpose and you’re not up to creating something from scratch, look into PLR (Private Label Rights) content, which is pre-written material you purchase the right to use. Content Sparks offers a number of packages that might be a good starting point for you, including:

There are many other PLR sellers out there, but not all of them offer quality products. In my experience, the lower the price, the more time you’ll need to spend rewriting the content.

Decide where you will host your online course.

There are so many options available that I can’t possibly discuss all of them here, but I’d like to give you an overview of what’s out there so you can decide where to begin your own research.

Important factors to consider include:

  • Upfront costs
  • Ongoing costs
  • Ease of use for yourself and your students
  • The level of support available from the developer, other users, and/or experts

Standalone eLearning Platforms

There are a number of websites that provide all the tools you need to build and deliver online courses. For most people, this is the easiest way to get started.

Kajabi, Kartra, Teachable and Thinkific have all been described as easy to use by people in my network.

At time of writing, only Thinkific offers a free version, but Kajabi and Teachable offer free trials, and Kartra promises a 30-day Money Back Guarantee. This is important because you may need to try more than one to find the one that’s best for you, as what’s easy for one person may be difficult for you.

With each of the above platforms, you design your own courses, set your own prices, and have your own “school” which is hosted on their site, which is all good. However, if you’re not generating a lot of sales, monthly fees can eat up or even exceed your income.

Sites like Udemy and Skillshare may be a better option if you want to minimize your expenses as there’s no upfront or ongoing costs. All course registrations go through their websites and you receive a percentage of the sales. Your earning potential tends to be lower on this type of site, and courses are listed by category, so you may end up on the same page as direct competitors. On the other hand, your income will continue as long as people keep signing up for your course.

eLearning Plugins for WordPress

If you already have a WordPress site, you might choose to incorporate your course into your existing site or set up a second WordPress site since you’re already familiar with it.

Fortunately, there are lots of eLearning plugins available for WordPress, including Learn Dash and WP Courseware. I’ve tested both and found them powerful and intuitive, but there are a lot of moving pieces so it’s definitely not a matter of install your plugin and you’re all set. Both of these are highly rated and widely used, so there are lots of people out there to help, whether you need to ask a question, purchase addons to perform specific functions, or hire expert help.

I’m less familiar with LifterLMS, but would like to mention that you can currently receive a 15% discount through Cloudways’ initiative to support online businesses during COVID-19.

To learn more about these and other eLearning plugins for WordPress, read 7 Best WordPress LMS Plugins to Build a Killer Online Course.

Membership Plugins for WordPress

I’ve built and currently manage two eLearning sites based on WordPress, but neither of them uses plugins specific to eLearning.

The Institute for Professional Organizers, which offers self-study and group training for organizing professionals, uses the WP eMember plugin.

Students sign up directly on the website and are immediately given access to the course or materials they’ve purchased through their own login on the site. Founder and Trainer Anne Blumer reports that the system is extremely easy to manage and update.

CareerPro Course, which offers fully facilitated online courses for Canadian career professionals, uses the Ultimate Member plugin. When someone registers for a course, they are assigned to a membership level which grants them access to that particular program.

Because Ultimate Member only allows a person to belong to one membership level at a time, it poses challenges when someone takes two or more courses concurrently, so we’ve developed workarounds to deal with that when it happens. We’ve considered migrating to an eLearning plugin or standalone platform but have concluded that it’s not worth the time and cost of doing so, since everything else is working beautifully.

Other Options

If all this sounds like more than you want or need at this point, rest assured that you can offer courses without investing in a website.

You can send eCourses to participants using Mailchimp’s automation feature, and you’re not restricted to text only. Record your lessons on Zoom, GoToWebinar, Microsoft Teams, or your preferred video app, upload them to YouTube as private, and send the links via Mailchimp. You can even include PDF handouts if you like.

Market your course.

Once you’ve developed your course material and set it up on the platform you’ve chosen, you still need to market it!

“Build it and they will come” doesn’t work for regular websites, and it definitely doesn’t work for online courses. If you already have a decent mailing list and social media following, it will help, but you have to be aggressive about it. A single blog post announcing that you’re now offering a course isn’t likely to garner much attention.

There’s a wealth of marketing advice here on Your Organizing Business, but How To Build An Audience And Move Beyond Client Work includes marketing strategies that will be especially helpful to market your new online course.

Acknowledgements

The following individuals helped me cover this topic more thoroughly than I could have done without their input.

Conclusion

Although COVID-19 has made eLearning more important than ever, it’s been growing in popularity for some time and this trend is likely to continue in the years to come.

This is a very long post, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s involved with creating, producing and marketing online courses. Hopefully I’ve provided enough detail to help you get started.

To explore this topic further, I recommend A Step by Step Guide to Creating Your First Online Course.

If you already offer one or more courses online, please leave a comment naming the platform you use, why you chose it, and what you like and dislike about it. Any other insights you’d like to share will also be welcomed!

Photo by Nick Morrison on Unsplash

Creating and selling online courses: what you need to know
Gravatar mystery man

A former professional organizer, I'm now a Website Design and Care Specialist. I love helping others succeed by sharing the knowledge and insight I’ve gained through marketing my own business for over 15 years! When I’m away from my desk, I enjoy reading, photography, watching movies, and cooking.

Gravatar mystery man

A former professional organizer, I'm now a Website Design and Care Specialist. I love helping others succeed by sharing the knowledge and insight I’ve gained through marketing my own business for over 15 years! When I’m away from my desk, I enjoy reading, photography, watching movies, and cooking.

20 Comments

  1. Avatar Seana Turner on August 26, 2020 at 11:06 am

    This seems like a major undertaking. I know many organizers have had success with it, but I don’t think I’m ready to dive into this right now. I can see that there is a lot involved, and it makes sense to be thorough and do it right. Thanks for sharing, Janet!

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on August 26, 2020 at 12:49 pm

      It definitely is a major undertaking. It combines everything you need to do to create a website with everything you’d do to prepare a workshop, and then some!

  2. Avatar Janet Schiesl on August 26, 2020 at 12:20 pm

    It’s like you know what I’ve been up to!
    I working on a course/product to sell. This is all great information that I’ll read over again.
    I’ll be contacting you soon for some help.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on August 26, 2020 at 12:50 pm

      Didn’t you see me peeking over your shoulder? 😉

      That’s very exciting – I look forward to learning more.

  3. Avatar Carolyn Caldwell on August 26, 2020 at 3:11 pm

    Another option that is now available is to run a course through Facebook. As long as you are happy to load your assets on FB this is a super easy way to offer a course. Once your students have paid for the course you can give them entry to a private group specific to the course and use the units function to drip content or load up according to your program. I have been using the Unit feature/function for organizing a 3 different live features that I have in my group, plus have used as a student in another group. It is super easy, intuitive and free. Plus, being able to record live and save is pretty good flexibility.

    I personally would prefer to use plugins where I can host the content on my own website. I have tried to use Teachables and held an account there for 3 yrs before giving up. I have used Zippy courses as a student of another course. It was certainly easy to navigate as a student. Janet is it available as a WP plugin?

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on August 27, 2020 at 12:39 pm

      Thanks for sharing those options, Carolyn. I’ve seen references to courses in Facebook and never paid much attention to them, but have never heard of Zippy courses. Apparently it is available as a WordPress plugin – it looks pretty amazing!

  4. Avatar Ronni on August 26, 2020 at 6:35 pm

    I think you’ve been peeking over my shoulder too.
    Years ago I did a lot of teaching in the city at different institutions, like The New School. They were four or six part workshop programs and they always sold out.

    After Labor Day I will be teaching a four part course on time management and organization through a local library. I designed an interactive workshop via Zoom. The library is doing all the marketing. They’re also hosting the program so they’re taking care of all the technical issues. It’s an online learning program without worrying about all those details!.
    I’m excited! I’ve had so much fun creating content and graphics. I’ll keep you posted!

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on August 27, 2020 at 12:40 pm

      Sounds like a pretty sweet deal – the library does all the heavy lifting and you get to do what you do best! I look forward to hearing more about it.

  5. Avatar Anne Blumer on August 26, 2020 at 7:16 pm

    Janet, thank you for the mention of my training program in your blog post. You did all the heavy lifting to get my training program set up on our new website. It has been effortless to maintain since. My students find it easy to register for the course and navigate the online videos and materials. Thank you!

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on August 27, 2020 at 12:42 pm

      I’m so glad it has worked out so well for you and your students. I’d had my eye on WP eMember for a long time before creating your course site, and had a feeling it was going to be great.

  6. Avatar Sabrina Quairoli on August 31, 2020 at 6:37 am

    Thank you for this very informative post!

    I wanted to do this for my admin services business some years ago. I even did the trial on Teachable. It is a big undertaking and I wasn’t sure if it was something I would have time to continue down the road. If it is something you want to do, there are a few more things you need to take into account. 1. Some states in the US have sales tax on these type of digital sales. So be sure to check your country/states for their sales tax laws. 2. Be sure you want to make the commitment. It’s not a one online course and you are done. You will need to continue creating courses to make it profitable.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on August 31, 2020 at 1:23 pm

      Great points, Sabrina – thank you! In some cases, you need to charge tax based on where the purchaser is, so your system needs to have that capability.

  7. Avatar Linda Samuels on August 31, 2020 at 10:18 am

    As always, you’ve provided so many things to consider and a wealth of information. I’m impressed with people that have figured out all of the many elements for rolling out, marketing, and giving an online course. There are so many ways to do it. I love the systems that make it seamless and straightforward. I’m not ready to venture in that direction yet, but I may in the future. Currently, it’s still floating around my head as a potential idea.

    My daughter just launched a new initiative called The Level Up Project. I think you saw the post I shared about it. She’s going through a huge learning curve. There are so many considerations. When we spoke about it yesterday, it seems like giving the course is the easy part. Have seamless registration, creating the right messaging, marketing, getting the reports you need to track enrollment, expenses, income, etc… are the trickier parts.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on August 31, 2020 at 1:24 pm

      You’re right – giving the course is the easy part! Just like “organizing” is the easy part of running an organizing business. Neither is for the faint of heart. 😀

  8. Avatar Melanie on August 31, 2020 at 1:32 pm

    Thank you for starting the conversation about this topic, Janet. You’re absolutely right, this type of thing is a business in itself and requires so much time and attention to get right. When I relaunched my business back in March I started developing some course content. I began researching the options for hosting, marketing, selling, etc. and it got overwhelming sifting through the endless options. I had to table the project to focus on my existing business… BUT you provide a great framework and recommendations that will be great when I’m ready to get back to creating my course. Definitely saving this one.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on September 1, 2020 at 12:25 pm

      I was really afraid that I’d just scratched the surface in a lot of areas without providing any solid information, so I’m so glad you found it helpful. Thanks for your input and your feedback!

  9. Avatar Julie Bestry on August 31, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    What an amazing depth of research you’ve done, Janet, to help clarify all of the steps in this process. It’s easy to think, “Oh, I have all this material! I’ll created an online course!” — which is the 2020 equivalent of the 1930’s movies, “Let’s put on a show!” There’s so much “behind the curtain” work, from domain registration to platforms and marketing, and you’ve made the opaque so much more transparent. Great job!

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on September 1, 2020 at 12:27 pm

      Is that a nice way of saying I’ve pointed out that creating an online course is too much work? 😉

      I know that’s not really what you meant, but even if I did that, it would probably save a lot of people a lot of time and energy!

  10. Avatar Lisa Tonjes Moritz on August 31, 2020 at 4:23 pm

    A very timely read for me as I am working on my first course right now. I am planning to use Groove Funnels for my course. (it was just released) HOPEfully it will be out by October.

    • Avatar Janet Barclay on September 1, 2020 at 12:28 pm

      That’s a new one to me, Lisa. I’d love it if you came back here with your thoughts (or even a guest post) about Groove Funnels once you’ve worked with it.

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