Even though I don’t consider myself an expert at doing online courses, I did pretty well with my first one. So this is an (epic) case study explaining everything I did to make 5-figures with my first course launch – without any affiliates promoting it for me, and without doing any webinars. I hope it will be useful for anyone else thinking about making an online course.
NOTE: I use Teachable, and they’re doing a huge online summit this month about online courses which features a lot of the mentors I learned from. You can sign up for free here. I’m also turning this post into an online course, which I’ll give you for free if you decide Teachable is right for you.
I got interested in online courses a couple of years ago: I wanted to shift away from client work and have more time for my own projects. It took me a year to get comfortable on camera, another year to settle on a course system, then another year to put together my first course and work up the nerve to pull the trigger. Things kept getting in the way, and it never seemed like the right time to launch. I started a launch sequence a couple of times but bailed before going all the way through.
I also have a psychological resistance to selling – especially after building my platform for several years by only offering free content. Nevertheless, when I finally launched my first course (Reach Your Readers – a guide to help authors grow their platform) I made over 18K in 48 hours.
I did a lot of things wrong – you’ll notice I lost almost $1000 from earnings to payout because I was using the wrong payment gateway on Teachable (I’ll talk more about that later). Also posts like this rarely discuss how much work goes into a course, both before and after. So realistically that 18K could represent six months of effort: three months to build and launch the course, and three months making sure all the students are happy. Plus all the money spent building and advertising it.
So while it’s exciting to see that much money come in so quickly, it’s actually a lot less than what I’d normally make with client work over the same period.
The difference is that, once a course is finished, you can keep selling it. I could open it up again every three months and let new students sign up. Or I could put it in a sales funnel system and try to sell a few every day. Running an online course can be a full-time business, but it also lets you double your time (I can keep doing client work and also have courses available, if I wanted to.)
Why online courses
If you want to make money online, if you have any kind of knowledge-based business, or valuable knowledge about anything, an online course is a smart move. You can set a much higher price than you could for just an ebook, and you don’t even have to record yourself with “talking head” videos – you could just make powerpoint presentations or record your screen. They are harder to produce, set up and market than ebooks, but can also pay much better. Plus having videos will connect you with your audience much faster and make it easier for people to find you.
I usually recommend books for small businesses for some of the same reasons, and I’d still start with books first, but increasingly will be using books + online courses in a very broad marketing funnel that takes zero marketing or advertising.
I’ve taken lots of courses about funnels and product launches (I link to some of them at the end of this article), and it was a steep learning curve, but I knew I needed to do it in order to take my business to the next level. Now that I’ve had my first course launch, I have a much clear idea of what it takes to be successful, and a much more detailed map for my next course launch.
What to teach
Teach anything your audience wants or needs. If you don’t know who your audience is, figure it out. You need to find a group of people to serve. You need to understand their wants, fears and problems. It will probably be something you’re already interested in or know how to do. But it could also be something you determine to figure out quickly. If you have the first course on how to use some new software or platform, that could be great. But also think about your brand, who you are, what you want to stand for – your courses should be connected somehow. I intentionally kept my brand pretty broad – the intersection between being creative and making things that sell – so I can talk about art, writing, publishing and online business.
Once you have some ideas of what you might want to teach and for whom, test your ideas out. Join some Facebook groups; run some free 5 day challenges. Put each idea into a 5 page PDF and advertise your “free guide.” Build a list from those you can use to get more feedback. Pick the idea/title that gets the most clicks and signups. Ask them questions about your course outline. Ask them what they’re stuck on or challenged by. Don’t ask a big group of people a very vague question… they aren’t going to tell you what to do or who to help, you need to figure that part out yourself and at least have a direction. But then, getting feedback on the course structure and title is a good idea.
The way to validate a course is to set up a very simple landing page, drive some traffic and see if anyone buys it. You can say something like “I’m working on my first course about X, and I need some beta-testers. I’m looking for 10 people who want to get the course for 75% off and some personal feedback from me.”
Make it a great offer, share all the benefits/course details, make it look and sound good (we’ll talk more about what to include on a sales page later) but mostly, put something up that covers the idea of the course and see if anyone is willing to pay for it. The alternative is spending a long time making something that doesn’t sell well. I will usually build a quick email list with Facebook advertising with a free guide, report, challenge or email series, and then see whether I can put together a course that I can sell to that list.
How to build an online course
An online course is usually a combination of videos and PDF files or written content, though you can include other things if you wish.
So mostly, you’ll want to outline your course into sections and then make content. You could write it all up in a big Word file first (and publish that as an ebook, if you wanted). I usually make an outline, then the videos, then add a text summary with some links to mentioned tools and resources. I also make a workbook/guide with activities that they can print off and fill in (I’d actually like to just start designing this for print and putting them on Createspace/Amazon, so when people sign up for a course I can mail them a copy of the workbook.)
Video – you need a decent camera and speaker… I use a Samson Go Mic and a Logitech webcam. They’re light as easy to travel with. I tried a Yeti mic before but it was heavy and I had trouble with mine, it had a high pitch whine.
You can either record yourself talking, or record your screen. I usually do some of both. You need enough lighting (I also have a usb fluorescent light I use sometimes that helps a little) and a quiet room without a lot of echo.
You can get really fancy with this stuff, and add thumbnails and text overlays and have a big in-home studio. Having a very professionally made course will let you charge more, but in my experience people pay for the education more than the experience. Your course needs to be able to teach what they want to learn, and make them continue/finish/do the work. But especially for your first course, I wouldn’t try and do everything perfectly.
Make something simple, even a short free course you can use to build your list. Get it done and put it out there. Derek Halpern, founder of Zippy Courses, gave a talk at an event I went to that was really motivational for me – he said make something quick and keep it simple. Even just three shitty videos. Start with what you have, don’t spend years hesitating or trying to make it better. Find the easiest and simplest way that works for you to communicate your knowledge to others who need it, and put it up for sale. Otherwise you’ll spend too long trying to get everything just right without actually testing whether it will sell. (If people like it, you can improve it or redo it and make it better).
Workbook – you’ll want to get your workbook designed professional, to match your brand or course. I’ve noticed a huge need for this kind of stuff, workbooks, guides, lead-magnets etc. so I’m going to make a package of design templates you can use soon. A workbook will be styled more than an ordinary print book, and usually 8.5″ x 11″. Don’t make it huge either with big text or line space, especially if you’re expecting other people to print it out.
The Course Platform (Teachable)
So you’ve outlined your course and made your videos and content… now you just need to put them up online. There are lots of options. I looked at ZippyCourses, Udemy, and Thinkific before deciding on Teachable.
It’s still not perfect, but it does what I needed it to. It’s easy to upload videos and add text; you can even make quizzes and keep track of student’s progress. It doesn’t integrate with Mailchimp automatically but there’s a workaround (I heard ConvertKit does integrate but haven’t tested it). It would be nice to get students on an email list automatically so they can start getting an autoresponder sequence that keeps them engaged and active – I’ll do that much better for my next course.
It took some work but the default sales page for Teachable is also pretty stylish – you can set fonts and sizes, add images, add picture dividers with text over the pictures… I didn’t like the testimonials style so I made image quotes in photoshop for those.
You can check out my sales page for Reach Your Readers here – the course isn’t open anymore but you can see how I styled it. Teachable also lets you have a “school” where all your courses show up, this is my home page/school, and also lets you bundle courses together into a package, which increases value.
When I started, Teachable cost $39 for a mid-level option that took 5% of sales, or $99 for a professional option that took zero percent up to $5000, and then it jumped up to 10%. I complained on the Facebook group that this made no sense and only penalized big earners, some people agreed with me, and they’ve since fixed it so the professional level doesn’t take such a big cut. Pretty sure it’s about 2% now…
However I didn’t set up a custom payment gateway correctly so even at the professional level, I paid about 5%, which was almost $1000 of my earnings.
There are ways around the fees – you could host all the videos on your own platform and set up password protection, but for the user experience and the organizational features, as well as the school/course pages, I think Teachable is a good system and worth the money. (If you’re interested in Teachable, make sure you check out the Black Friday Deal they’re offering).
How to launch and market
I had a big advantage in that I’ve built an email list to 25K over 5 years by blogging and giving away free resources (design templates). But there are plenty of ways to grow a list quickly or launch a course with no platform. And actually my list isn’t super engaged. If I was starting over I would have built a list with one big giveaway and lots of targeted ads.
Most people without a platform advertise a free webinar, and/or use JV partners or affiliates to promote their course. That’s very effective, but I didn’t want to do it (it ends up being the same webinar being repeated with new partners every week to reach new customers). It works, it’s powerful, and there’s nothing wrong with it – it’s just not my thing.
My funnel will actually be: free books on Amazon and iBooks >> a free guide, challenge or short course to get them to sign up >> a sales sequence and special deal on the course. But I’ll probably also set up an affiliate section so that at least friends who have blog posts about my topic or subject can add a link to my course and earn some money that way – done well it’s good for everybody (even the students who find it).
Here’s a short list of tips I shared on Facebook after my launch:
★ Build a great product or course. Price well. Offer a “deal” with bonuses to increase value. Offer a “discount” with reduced pricing. Limit availability by saying how many people you’ll be letting in.
★ Warm people up by being active and helping and posting amazing content every where. Don’t be salesy or sleazy. If someone wants more info, don’t “sell” it to them. I don’t even post links to my course everywhere, people just see it and have to email me for a link if they want it… or I say the offer is “only for my list” and they sign up.
★ Don’t post on social media asking people to buy. Just post talking about your success. (Don’t say “course open now!” Say “Just opened this course and already get 28 signups! Still a few slots left!”)
★ Offer a bonus if they signup in first 24hours. Email list day before, the day it opens, just before the “last chance to get the free bonuses” and then the “final call” to get the course before it’s closed. (I had one more email a few days before introducing my course and talking about it, but didn’t do the full course launch program Teachable recommends.)
★ Before I launched I had put up some massive value bombs on my website (huge lists of free resources, clickbaity titles focusing on problems for my audience, like “how much do authors really make” and “the horrible hidden truth about self-publishing nobody wants you to know” and “1100 new places to market your book (for any genre)”… I sent those to my list, not selling anything, just giving great resources and encouraging them to share, to build up some traffic and social karma. Now that I’ve launched, I posted some of those on Reddit (NOT a promotion or link to my course, just the link to great, free content on my site… where they can subscribe or check out the course if they want to). I also shared these on Facebook and boosted them to get more views… more traffic on my site, where they could sign up or see what else was going on.
★ I also usually post some course videos on YouTube, especially the practice or warm up videos – sometimes the same videos that are in the course. I’d also turn it into a powerpoint presentation and put it on slideshare.
★ Like I mentioned I’ll probably have at least one published ebook to go with each course, which I can make free or cheap (or tell my list if you buy the book and review it, you’ll get the course for free… that way I can have a book that sells well and also leads into the course).
When you’re ready to launch a course, after you’ve built a list and provided lots of valuable content to boost trust, likability and credibility, you usually do a “launch sequence.” There are different formulas for this… mine was influenced by Mariah Coz’s “Fuck yeah funnels” course and also advice from Jenna Soard, who was also the person who introduced me to Teachable.
My soft-sell looked like this:
- Launching something new soon (5 days before)
- Course opens tomorrow, details coming soon (1 day before)
- Course is open (day of)
On Day One I made $9,383
Partly it’s because I had a good offer: 3 courses and bonuses + extras + a discount. In hindsight I was probably overselling which made some people skeptical. The price of the course was $149 for the basic level, $449 for an advanced level and $2449 for a done-for-you option. The higher prices were mostly price anchors to make the lowest option seem cheaper, but actually I sold about 10 of the $449 and 2 of the $2449… so almost 10K of my launch (a little over half) was because of those higher price options.
I need to work harder to help the students who bought into the higher levels, but I’m grateful they took a chance on me and it may be some time until I feel like I’ve given them their money’s worth. (Because it’s my first course launch, I want to make sure I over-deliver: which is hard to do since I’m doing everything for the first time and learning as I go, but I also know the next two courses, which they will get for free, will be even better and more useful).
I posted the course on Facebook and Twitter. I boosted posts to my audience and targeted audience. I also put up some of my best new articles, and boosted those as indirect marketing to get more people to my site. I posted those articles to Reddit too (which is risky: it does get traffic but is likely to get torn apart on Reddit if it seems at all spammy or promotional).
I also started checking email frequently. When people first bought my course they were having problems because I hadn’t set up a thank you page properly. You need to be ready to respond and email back right away. I also needed to welcome people into the private Facebook group I’d set up. It’s a lot to do for one person, so you may want to consider hiring someone to help.
I was planning on just emailing a “cart closing” email but Jenna Soard recommended I try sending a few more, so I came up with this plan with her help:
Day 2: An email with testimonials from people who had gone through the course already (you can let some people in for free to get this kind of feedback). In this email I also announced an “ask me anything” on my Facebook group. I planned to do a Facebook live video, but it was awkward. Instead I did just a text post where they could ask questions and I responded. It went pretty well.
On day two I only made about $2,000 and I thought things were slowing down. I was feeling disappointed that the flurry of sales the first day had dried up.
Day 3: First I sent an email with “Cart is closing in six hours.” I was pretty relaxed about the launch by now and considered it mostly over. We were in Plovdiv Bulgaria at the time and took a leisurely walk for lunch.
Then I sent a “last call” email one or two hours before the cart closed. (I think Jenna recommended another email, but I wasn’t confident overselling so I didn’t do them all).
Even though everyone had told me most of the sales came at the end, when the cart was closing, I was still surprised after the slow second day to make over $7000 on day three.
*I should also mention I chose to do this over the weekend, which is the worst time to launch a course, but I did it anyway. Due to lack of confidence, and my laid-back, low-key personality, I wanted to keep things casual. Next time however, I’ll follow expert advice like Jenna’s more carefully and maximize sales.
I only spent about $150 on boosted posts and ads. I know big players spend as much as 30% – so they spend $30,000 in ads to make $100,000. But this is my first launch, and I’m learning as I go.
What if you don’t have a big list already?
If you don’t already have a list, here are some ways you can get a bunch of optins just before you launch your course. This list is from the course I put together about course launches, but I’ll make a video soon discussing them all.
You can get this course for free if you signup with Teachable this month (details below). But there are other ways to build a list: I made a post yesterday about getting 1K new subscribers in 10 days or less. I’m building another course just on listbuilding and email marketing, which you can get for free by signing up to one of the email services I recommend.
Get my 5-figure course launch course for free
I used Teachable for my course, and they’re doing a huge online summit this month about online courses which features a lot of the mentors I learned from. You can sign up for free here. I’m also turning this post into an online course, which I’ll give you for free if you decide Teachable is right for you.
I’m only looking for 20 students however, so this offer is only good for this month – November, 2016. I made the following video explaining some of the details.
Hat tip to my mentors/inspiration
I’m a philosophy dropout with a PhD in Literature. I covet a cabin full of cats, where I can write fantasy novels to pay for my cake addiction. Sometimes I live in castles.