8 Steps to Building an Online Course that Actually Makes Money

Today we’re going to be walking you through how to build an online course in 8 easy steps.

Several years ago, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the idea that someone needed at least 10,000 hours of practice to become a master at something. It doesn’t matter if it’s chess, free-diving, or public speaking, you need at least 417 days worth of practice to be labeled an expert.

Whether that theory is true or not — and there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary — you most likely have spent that amount of time in some chosen pursuit. If you’re reading this blog, for example, you likely have a side hustle that you’re looking to grow.

Is it possible you can leverage what you already know to make some money on the side?

That’s the beauty of online course creation. By investing a certain amount of time into developing content, you can create a steady stream of passive income teaching others to find the same success you have.

And depending on your niche, you can charge hundreds or even thousands of dollars in the process.

How to Build an Online Course

how to build an online courseThe best part of creating your own online course is you control everything: learning materials, topic, interaction, and most importantly, revenue.

But before you give your credit card number over to an online learning platform to build your school, take a step back. Plan your next few steps carefully in order to create the most profitable online course possible.

Step 1: Find an Online Course Idea

Before you go any further, the very first thing you need to do is find a topic to teach.

Truthfully, this may be the hardest part of the entire process. You may be tempted to teach something that you enjoy, but the real money from online courses comes in something you can monetize.

For example, an online training course on beginner wakeboarding may be more fun, but I guarantee you a class on real estate investing will be more profitable. The return on investment is higher for your learners, and they’ll be more willing to fork over the money for your course.

To find the right topic, think about your passions alongside your expertise. Create a Venn diagram and see where those two ideas intersect.

Additionally, you should also do some research to find out what topics are in demand. You can have the best course in the world, but if nobody cares about it, it won’t sell.

Remember, when someone buys your course, what they’re really looking for is transformation. Either they want a better-paying job, a better lifestyle, or to be a better version of themselves. Your course should help them do that.

Step 2: Find Your Target Audience

Where does your audience hang out? What do they like to do? What are their interests and specific challenges?

More specifically, what demographic are they? Are they younger or older? Male or female? Low income or high income?

By answering these questions, you can put yourself in the mindset of a potential student. The more specific you can be, the more applicable your course will be, and the more effectively you can sell it.

Spend some time hanging out in forums on social media to get an idea of what conversations are taking place. Contribute to these discussions and gain credibility, then leverage that presence by asking for their help with the course. Be careful not to get spammy, but gaining real-life feedback is vital to ensure your course is a success.

Step 3: Choose a Platform

Just as online courses have exploded in popularity, so have the choices of online course platforms. Sites like Teachable and Podia offer an incredibly robust platform for you to build your course on, but they also come at a steep price point. You either pay a monthly fee course to use their service, or they’ll take a percentage of your course sales.

Here are some of the most popular options, along with price points.

  • Thinkific – Free to $499 per month.
  • Teachery – $49 per month, or $470 per year.
  • Podia – $39 to $199 per month
  • Teachable – Free to $249 per month
  • Kartra – $99 to $499 per month
  • LearnWorlds – $24 to $465.80 per month
  • Kajabi – $119 to $319 per month
  • LearnDash – $189 to $329 per month

Another factor to consider when deciding to set up your school is customization options. Just about every online school platform will allow you to create quizzes and host video content, but today’s learners demand more.

  • Students want to be able to learn at their own pace.
  • They want to be able to interact with the teacher and other students, when possible.
  • They want action-oriented steps to take based on their performance in a certain section. Artificial intelligence can track a student’s progress and make suggestions for further instruction.

Once again, you’ll have to take all these factors into consideration, alongside the niche that you’ve chosen to teach. Most online course platforms can handle just about any niche, but it’s still worth checking into the specifics to make sure.

How to Build an Online Course

Step 4: Create an Outline

A course outline isn’t just useful for your students to know where they’re going, it’s also valuable for you as the teacher to map out a logical progression of growth.

Since you’re the expert, you know what topics need to be considered before others are brought into the discussion. You know which sections are more advanced, and which topics build on previous principles.

As such, you should plan to spend a significant amount of time creating your outline and adjusting it as you go.

One of the best ways to create a course outline is to do a full-on brain dump. Take all the different topics that you plan on teaching and get them out on a piece of paper.

Next, look at each one of those topics and try to create subtopics on each one. Then, create subtopics from those, and more subtopics, all the way down until you’ve got the material to its most granular level.

While you’re developing the course outline, you should be continually asking yourself what the goal is with this information. What outcome do you want your students to achieve as they move through the material? What skills do you want them to develop? What’s the learning objective?

Lastly, all of the material should be actionable. People grow best by active learning, so throw in some homework assignments and quizzes to keep them engaged.

Step 5: Create Content

The type of niche that you’re in will determine the format of your content. If you’re in a more visual medium, video content will be your main outlet. If you’re creating a course on passing the bar exam, chances are you will rely on a text-based approach.

Ideally, you’ll use a mix. In some places, you’ll utilize video and audio content, while in others, you have a downloadable PDF that people can study from. Alternatively, look into screencasting, which records your desktop while you’re teaching. You don’t *have* to be on camera, and your learners can see real-world instruction. Win-win!

Obviously, producing the course content can be extremely expensive, but it doesn’t have to be. Most powerpoints allow you to record audio on top of a slideshow, while a quality microphone can be found for less than $100. If you’re really strapped for cash, don’t even bother with buying a camera — use your smartphone instead.

The key is to make the content engaging. You’ll need to replicate the feeling of a personal, one-on-one lecture or private lesson. If you’re not the most charismatic person on the planet, that’s fine; choose a format that puts the information front and center. Some courses even rely on animation to drive the point across. It’s more expensive, but it’s also more fun (for everyone).

Find a format that you’re comfortable with, and don’t be embarrassed if it takes you several (hundred) takes to get it right.

Man filming video content for an online course

Step 6: Enlist Beta Testers (And Gain Reviews)

Reviews are the lifeblood of your course. Nobody will buy a $5000 course based on your word alone; they’ll buy it based on whether or not other people have found it useful.

That’s why beta testers are so important. Not only do you get real-world feedback on your course and find ways you can improve, but you get valuable testimonials you can advertise to others.

Cycle back to the “Find Your Audience” section above, since this is where you’ll find potential beta testers. Once you have the admin’s approvals, make a post asking for beta testers to go through your course at a discount — or even free, in some cases.

Give them a reasonable timeline to move through the material, and ask for notes about where you can improve. Be prepared to take a little bit of criticism along the way. Your course won’t be perfect at this stage anyway, but it should be presentable enough that you don’t mind showing it to others.

Once they’re finished, ask them what they’ve gained from the course. You want your reviews to be specific, ideally interjecting certain keywords for SEO purposes. Most reviewers will say that a course is “informative” or “entertaining,” but ask people to tell you specific ways it helped them.

That way, you can double down on the parts that people really appreciated and develop those areas more thoroughly. Additionally, others who are considering the course in order to achieve the same outcome may be more inclined to buy.

Step 7: Make Corrections

As stated above, not all the feedback you receive will be roses and sunshine. A healthy dose of your responses will be negative, and in some cases, downright brutal.

That’s okay. It’s what you signed up for, isn’t it?

Anytime you try to teach something to somebody else, there’ll always be some yokel that tells you that the way you explain something isn’t quite “up to snuff.” Or, that it “doesn’t apply to them.” 

What you’re looking for is real, valid feedback about where you can improve. If you have a text-based course, somebody may say they wish you included more videos (or vice versa). Others may prefer more quizzes or homework. It may also be that they wished you included more everyday scenarios to help them take actionable steps.

If so, then go back through your course material and adjust accordingly. This may take you more time and may force you to revamp a significant part of the course, but that’s a lot less expensive than launching a course that doesn’t sell.

how to build an online course

Step 8: Launch

Once you have your material as valuable as possible, it’s time to launch your course

If you choose to have your course launched through an online marketplace like Udemy, then getting quick early sales is key. Once their algorithm determines that your course is popular, they’ll most likely move it up in the rankings and show it to more people.

To do that, go back to the same groups that you found your beta testers and offer discounts. Reach out to influencers in your space and provide a coupon to listeners.

If you’re launching your course on your own platform, you can take a similar approach…with a little less angst. Ideally, you’ll have built up a significant amount of buzz for your course beforehand, so that when you launch, you have a list of buyers already waiting.

One of the best ways to drive sales is by hosting a webinar. By doing a one-hour live Q&A, along with a demonstration of some of the material, for example, you’ll whet their appetite for more. Hit them with the full course sales pitch at the end, and you should at least see a few purchases trickling in.

How Do I Market an Online Course?

Now that you know how to build an online course, it’s time to start getting the word out.

Successfully building and launching an online course is only half the battle. If you want it to be successful, and generate that passive income that we’re all after, you need to market it effectively.

Truthfully, marketing an online course isn’t that much different than marketing anything else. It’s a product, which means you need to leverage your existing community in addition to driving sales through paid traffic.

By implementing just a few best practices, you’ll give yourself a much better chance of success.

Use Existing Traffic

When it comes to existing traffic, there are two major sources: your email list and organic traffic. Your email list will be a greater source of initial sales, but don’t short-change the long-term effect of organic traffic that comes from solid SEO practices.

Email Marketing

Regardless of whether you’re launching an online course or a new motorcycle shop, email marketing is a sure-fire approach to sales. Your email subscribers are essentially a list of people that are already engaged with your material in some way and want to hear more from you. 

Your email list can be built up over time, with paid ads, organic traffic, and autoresponders creating a solid foundation. In the weeks and days leading up to your course lunch, drip small tidbits about the course and tease certain sections that they might be interested in.

Then, when you launch your course, buckle up.

If you cultivated and built your list the right way, you should see a huge boost of initial sales right out of the gate. This can be an exciting time for you, but it could also be hectic, especially if it causes your site to crash. Be present during this time to handle any issues that may arise.

There’s no magic number you need to hit to launch a successful online course, either. Some markers recommend having a list of the thousand email addresses, while others recommend 10 times that amount.

Truthfully though, it doesn’t matter if your list is 150 people. As long as they’re engaged with your brand, they’ll respond.

Organic Traffic

One of the decisions that you have to make concerning your course is whether or not to keep it open year-round or only for a limited time.

There are advantages to both. Year-round sales mean that you derive passive income on a regular basis, while limited openings allow you to drum up expectations for a huge, single windfall. Additionally, a limited-time course offering gives you several months in between to update your material.

Depending on which approach you choose, having a steady stream of organic traffic will be important. Either you’ll be building a list to sell to when the time is right, or you’ll keep your course as a continual upsell in your product cycle. The more you improve your SEO, the more passive income you’ll receive.

Use Manual Traffic

If you don’t have an email list or organic traffic, you still have a shot at a very nice course launch. You have to do it the hard way, and it will most likely be more expensive, but it’s still possible to turn a sizable profit. Allow yourself about 6 to 8 weeks before your course launch to utilize the below tactics.

Build a Community

If you don’t have a community already built, you’ll need to leverage somebody else’s. Administrators universally disapprove of people coming into their communities and selling things, so spend a solid month engaging with the conversations taking place and provide valuable tips when you can.

The goal is to establish yourself as an authority so that when it comes time to launch your course, they’ll already trust you.  Here’s how to build a community website.

You can also start a social media group yourself, but chances are, it won’t be at terminal velocity by the time you launch your course. Moreover, if people feel like they’re only being added to a group in order to be sold something, they’ll leave the group entirely.

Instead, find a community to be a part of and build your authority over time.

Paid Ads

There’s no doubt about it, paid ads are a game-changer for course launches.

Whether it’s Facebook, Google, or even LinkedIn, utilizing a platform’s paid ads network allows you to tap into already existing communities and demographic information. Once you’re there, you can find your target audience and sell directly to them.

Unfortunately, the more expensive your courses, the less likely you are to reach them through a single ad, so start with lower ticket items. Maybe sell a portion of the course at a 90% discount, then upsell the rest of the course once they finished that section.

You can also drive traffic to the webinar, or you can teach a snippet of the course material and then sell the whole course after that. If you’re able to get a few thousand people inside your webinar — whether live or recorded — you should get several sales.

Best of all, you don’t have to break the bank for paid advertising. Even a budget of $10 a day should get enough people to raise their hands that they’re interested in whatever it is you’re trying to teach them.

Network 

Today, we call them “influencers,” but 30 years ago, they called them “endorsements.”

The process is exactly the same. You reach out to somebody that has already established their credibility in the market and pay them to promote your product. 

You don’t have to worry about paid ads, or building up your own community — you can simply take advantage of a group of someone else’s passionate fans.

It should go without saying then that this is probably the most expensive option of the three, but it’s also highly effective. In the best scenario, you would use a combination of all three of these to maximize your chances of successful course launch.

The Course is Launched. What Do I Do Now?

Just because your course is launched doesn’t mean it’s time for you to shop for condos on the beach. There is still a significant amount of legwork that needs to take place after the course‘s launch in order to keep the income stream alive.

A lot of very promising courses have fallen by the wayside simply because a course creator failed to exercise the proper amount of maintenance. Don’t be one of them.

Update

As technology and tactics evolve, so will your course. New regulations in your industry will require making adjustments to your course, as will new platforms that emerge.

A course on how to sell self-published books for Amazon may initially have a section devoted to Facebook ads, but what about TikTok? Twitter? Instagram?

As these changes happen in the marketplace, be sure to update your material to reflect the change in time.

Uplift 

People can sense when course creators are out there just for money. Newsflash: They hate it.

These days, course creators are not only expected to support their course but support the people as well. Answering emails, responding to comments and questions, providing guidance — you’ll be responsible for all of it. If you promise any kind of office hours and don’t deliver, for example, you can expect a flood of poor testimonials on the backend.

Even if you’ve never promised support directly, you still need to give them a community to engage with. Create a private group only for your students, and let them engage with each other. Not only will it create a group of rabid fans to upsell to later, but also a built-in support team that answers common questions.

Upsell

It’s rare for an online course creator to invest time and energy into a course, only to have it be one and done.

Instead, create complementary courses that are lower-priced and higher velocity. Someone taking a course on Facebook ads may also benefit from an online course in ad design. When people buy one, they’ll be more likely to be the other.

And just because you’re not a designer, it doesn’t mean that you can’t organize the course. Find a graphic designer to create the course for you in exchange for a slice of the royalties.

Every time you brainstorm a new course, you may find an idea for an even more profitable online course. Pretty soon, you won’t just have a course anymore — you’ll have a whole school of your own. 

Why Should I Create a Course?

Many business owners and entrepreneurs are inundated with around-the-clock tasks that keep them busy, so why should they create a course as well?

Profit

By far, this is the biggest reason for you to create a course. By putting in a few month’s work to create material on your specific area of expertise, you can add another income stream to your already established business. 

Courses are a hot commodity as well. Online learning is a $107 billion industry; if you can take advantage of even a part of that, it’s worth it.

Authority

There aren’t many better ways to establish yourself as an authority in your niche than by creating a course on it. There, you can demonstrate your knowledge and experience in a certain area, and create fans that will think of you when they explore that area further.

Scale

Adding a single course to your business is one thing, but a dozen or so courses on a variety of topics will allow you to scale your business to new heights.

Not only will you have additional income streams, but you may get speaking opportunities, promotional deals, or other opportunities that allow you to explode your business in ways you didn’t think possible beforehand.

How to Build an Online Course: Final Thoughts

Now that you know how to build an online course, it’s time to get started.

One of the biggest reasons people don’t create courses is because they don’t think of themselves as an “expert” on anything. But if you’ve been even mildly successful, you more than likely have some wisdom you can share.

And there’s nothing that says you have to charge $10k for a course anyways. Sometimes, a simple $20 course is all you need to test the waters. Move from there to more advanced topics, and charge accordingly.

Regardless, course creation isn’t rocket science. It’s just you helping a new generation of practitioners learn from your experience. 

Whatever way you choose to do that is up to you.

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