How can I build and sell an online course?

Posted on

Everyone has something to teach. Many are spending hours every week (or every day!) creating high-value educational content on social media platforms– content that gets likes and views and that people find genuinely helpful and valuable. In fact, many of these platforms include monetization, sometimes even allowing content consumers to directly pay creators for their content.

So clearly, there is a proven market need for new courses. So if you’re ready to share the knowledge that you’re passionate about with an audience that’s hungry for it, the next step is to decide where to share it.

Sharing content on social media vs. your own website

For many, the first stop is their favorite social media app.

The problem is, when you upload content to someone else’s platform, whether it’s YouTube, TikTok, Instagram, etc., someone else is in control of that content. Content creators must comply with the platform’s terms of service, or risk being demonetized or their account disabled.

It does work for some– it can even be very lucrative. But is it really possible to build a solid business on such a shaky foundation? It’s a bit like building your own house on someone else’s land.

If you want to build a solid knowledge-based business, the best way is to move that knowledge to your own platform.

Selling on your own platform means you can keep 100% of the profits and set your own price point, without competing alongside related products and other content creators.

Using your own website to sell your course also means getting to know your students more personally than on a social media platform. After all, on social media, yours is one voice in an endlessly scrollable feed. But being a course creator allows you to directly communicate with students in their email inbox as they progress.

And for as long as you have their permission to email them, you can let them know when you are dropping new courses or content that they might be interested in. So the lifetime value of each student is not limited by the popularity of a particular social media platform or the latest algorithm changes.

It might seem intimidating to go your own way and build your own online course, manage students, accept payments, and market it all yourself– but that’s where learning management systems come in to make it all doable.

What is a Learning Management System (LMS)?

An LMS is software that can be hosted on your own website that allows for building courses, managing individual accounts that restrict what content is available for each enrolled student, tracking progress of students, and adds payment gateways that handle whatever pricing model you choose. Popular options for WordPress websites include LearnDash and LifterLMS, but there’s a lot of other options, too.

You can use the software to create and organize your material into lessons, sections/modules, and incorporate assignments, quizzes, and tests.

Online courses are useful for a ton of different applications, whether you’re looking to build a limited-run course and sell those for a one-time payment, or whether you’re looking to build a community with monthly dues. Here’s some examples:

  • Courses for everything you can think of– makeup artistry, how to play chess, home repair, web design, raising backyard chickens, etc.
  • Business coaches, life coaches, marketing coaches, etc.
  • Fitness programs– these are often monthly subscriptions, but there’s also “boot camp” style programs available for one-time purchase
  • Employee onboarding & training

Building and administering your online course

Adding to and updating your courses is easy– it’s designed for non-coders to handle, so you won’t have to learn web design in order to succeed as a course creator or create beautiful course materials.

But if there’s customizations or modifications that you need, a developer like me can help you get your WordPress-based LMS working exactly how you want. (That’s the beauty of your own platform!) And I can help recommend the best learning management software for your particular needs.

Then, you can monitor the progress of the learners as they go through the course. Some courses make all materials available at once, but you can also drip-feed content on a set schedule, or even have engagement-based triggers like content that drops at the completion of a quiz or test.

Learners can access your content based on a monthly subscription, a one-time payment, or a series of x number of payments, all handled by the learning management software itself. So you don’t have to manually chase payments, and learners will be automatically enrolled in courses they purchase or automatically unenrolled, based on their payment status and the rules you set up.

Marketing your online course

Before you begin, your research should show that there is a need for the online course that you are planning to build. If there’s already a course or two (or hundreds!) on the topic you are considering, don’t be discouraged– that’s a good sign that people are hungry for that topic. If you can bring unique value to the table, you can carve out your own audience.

Next, begin building up your potential pool of students before you are ready to launch, even before writing your curriculum.

If you’ve ever been berry picking, you know you’ve got to bring a bucket or you’ll miss out on a lot of ripe ones. Your audience’s attention is the same way. And the “bucket” is your mailing list. So build a landing page to send the ripe ones to, and give them a way to hear from you later when your course is ready– a form to add their email address to your mailing list.

This landing page shouldn’t be just a description of the course and a button to sign up– you really need to sell it!

Let them know that you understand the challenges they are facing that your course will solve. Spark their imagination about what it will be like after they have mastered the subject you teach. Describe the benefits of learning what you offer, not just a dry description of the features of your course. And give them a clear call-to-action to purchase the course (or membership subscription) or get on your waitlist.

Continue delivering high quality content on social media and your website, so that your audience knows you’re an expert in the field. Don’t talk about your course all the time, but make sure that it’s not a secret, either!

Create an enticing lead magnet– that’s something that’s high-level (not overly in-depth: we’re not trying to put the whole online course in it, after all), but also actionable, valuable, and positions you as the expert.

This can be something like a checklist, a worksheet, a curated collection of resources, or something else that you can develop reasonably quickly.

This may only take you a weekend to perfect, but it will serve you for a long time if it’s something your leads want it enough! Upload it to your website, create an email form to get their email address in exchange for the download, and you’ll be collecting leads in no time.

If your topic lends itself to a mini-course, you might consider offering this as your lead magnet. This is kind of like a free trial of your course, so it should give readers a taste without giving away the whole thing.

Mini-courses are automated series of emails that begins dripping out at a set schedule of days or weeks. The first email is triggered as soon as someone signs up to your list, and the course concludes with a pitch to get more value by enrolling in the full online course. So this requires that your course be ready by the time the series of emails is finished.

Other ideas for getting the word out include starting a podcast, a blog, or being a guest on someone else’s podcast or blog. Others find success with a YouTube channel (which requires a bit more equipment investment to make it high-quality).

Get started with sharing your knowledge!

Whatever your field of expertise, with a great website and the right learning management software, you can share the expertise you’ve earned, and get paid for sharing the ideas you’re passionate about. If you want to build a website for your online course business, or add the ability to serve up online courses to your website, get in touch today.

Kelsey Barmettler headshot

Kelsey Barmettler

I'm a web designer near Tucson, AZ and I write these articles to help business owners (including my clients) be more informed and empowered about their websites.