Nikki Elledge Brown was a Park Ranger in Hawaii. She was good at communicating clearly to an audience. She decided to create an online course about it and targeted website creators. She sold 1,000 copies of her $300-course during her first launch.
Nick Stephenson teaches authors how to improve their marketing efforts and build their platform, and made $130,208 with his first launch, in one week.
In my first article, I researched why more and more coaches and experts are excited about creating e-courses. Kathryn Hocking, an Australian e-course expert and launch strategist, sums it up very well:
“It is a leveraged way to share your gifts with your ideal clients and make a greater global impact than 1:1 work alone, and it can allow you greater flexibility and freedom in your coaching business.”
If you’re interested in learning how to design and develop your own online course, in today’s article, I’d like to:
- Show you five things that happen behind the scenes that make successful courses.
- Share with you the objections I generally hear from experts who are interested in creating their first e-course but can’t get started.
- Give you with tips and suggestions on how to overcome your invisible scripts, so you can launch your e-course
The Key Reasons Why Digital Courses (Can) Make a Lot of Money
I dissected a few online programs to find out what successful online courses have in common:
#1 Are You Selling To The Right Tribe?
Knowing your target audience inside and out is the key factor in creating an online course. Why? Because you’re able to speak their language, address their very specific pain points, and market your products where your tribe hangs out.
Nikki Elledge Brown said she was able to really take off once she targeted a specific crowd: entrepreneurs who want to write better content for their website, to attract more of their ideal clients. Her communication skills could apply to anyone, really, but since she niched her content for a specific audience, she was able to give them relevant examples and case studies, and find them where they read and spend their time.
If you are a dentist, what program are you most likely to buy in order to get more clients?
1. How to Get More Happy Clients
2. How to Get More Referrals From Your Existing Clientele – A Course for Dentists
All e-courses specialists agree on this point: if you try to teach everybody — you’ll never reach anybody.
Primoz Bovic, now a coach in an online business program, started his entrepreneur career with an idea in mind, “Help People Be More Productive”. He reports his business really taking off when he decided to target poker players. His idea became “Teach Poker Players How to Be More Productive”. Very niche, right? He, indeed, didn't have thousands of subscribers, but they were highly engaged and a large percentage bought his course.
#2 Have You Validated Your Idea Before Developing?
Courses creators knew their courses were going to sell before they created them. Or they had very good reasons to believe so.
How? Are they psychics? Not quite. There are two main situations:
1. Their customers or email list subscribers are asking or even BEGGING them to create a program.
You see, they have established a strong relationship with their audience, through their blogs, forums, and personal one-on-one emails or Skype calls. Their audience trusts them; they see them as resourceful experts. Often, course creators offered them tools and tips they could implement right away. Followers were able to judge first hand for themselves how good their expert was. And they ask for more until the expert identifies a real WANT for a solution: an online program.
2. Experts have successfully delivered their proven material for many years during one-on-one sessions, conferences, and workshops.
They know there is a high demand for their expertise and they know exactly who would buy their online programs, because they know their audience very well and have a strong relationship with them. Kathryn Hocking says,
“You can expect to convert 1% – 2% of your list into paying customers, so long as your e-course is targeted to their needs and provides a solution that is desirable to them.”
#3 Do You Have the Appropriate Marketing Strategy?
“Build it and they will come” is definitely not a motto successful course creators adhere to.
Ecourses that sell have carefully crafted sales pages; their launches are strategically prepared long in advance (several experts recommend to prepare a launch at least two to three months in advance).
What do we find inside these sales pages and launch emails?
The benefits of taking their course. It’s not about the solution, the “how”, it’s about how the students will look like once they have completed the program. Jeanine Blackwell, another digital programs “train-the-trainer” specialist, says,
“Audiences have to believe the outcome is far greater than the effort required to achieve the outcome. It’s beyond telling people why it’s about experiencing the why. How am I going to animate this big WHY for them?”
#4 Is Your Content Appropriate for Your Digital Course?
A course can sell well, but if its content is poor or doesn’t deliver to its promises, it will put clients off of working with you in the future, and refunds will potentially be high. Successful course creators have long-term growth in mind. They don’t want to make quick money, because they understand that making their customers happy will lead to a more successful (and ultimately MORE PROFITABLE) business down the line.
So how do course creators create high-quality content?
They learn what their students want:
- Step-by-step processes
- Real people case studies and examples
- Tools (cheat sheets, templates, and checklists)
- Actionable points – by far the most important element, that differentiates the information product from the training product
Being accountable to someone for our progress is a factor of success in any learning environment, and it’s especially valid for online settings.
Students are happily paying for:
- Private email or Skype support (customized feedback from the experts themselves, mentorship, coaching)
- Group support (Facebook or private groups)
- Peer support inside a group (accountability partners)
- Live Q&A sessions in small groups
It’s so important that you’ll find e-courses on how to find a mentor, an accountability partner, and organize web-conferences!
The Key Objections That Prevent Experts From Creating Their Courses and How to Overcome Them:
“I’m not an instructional designer, I can’t design a course!”
“How to create excellent content even without a background in learning design” is a common fear among wannabe course creators. I get it. And I can reassure them: I’ve taught many subject matter experts and project managers how to design an online course, and I can tell you that the best at this game are the ones who dedicate themselves to learning it, think critically, and are strategic. The background is irrelevant.
How to Create a Premium Course That People Can't Wait to Buy, Even if You Don’t Have a Background in Training or Education
Why are you creating a course?
Don’t laugh and think the answer to this question is obvious. I mean, beyond the fact that you want to earn an income from it, why? Ninety percent of the time, corporate people create a course “to raise awareness” about something, or they have vague objective, such as “make employees understand the importance of health and safety in the workplace”.
This is not measurable. Remember, people want actionable points. They want to measure the before and after. They want results — not knowledge. Let me reiterate this: Being aware of something doesn’t make us skilled at doing it. Understanding is not doing. Plus, knowledge alone is not relevant for your target audience. If people don’t see why they should care, the course has failed before it has begun
How to Create a Course That Changes Lives:
Great online courses sell the promise that they will transform people (and then they deliver). If a course doesn’t transform people and only informs, you have an information product.
There is nothing wrong with information products, but they don’t serve the same purpose. An information product tells you, for example, the essentials about a new software that was just released, how great it is, and how it’s going to help you in your job. A training product shows you how to use it and lets you practice so that you acquire some skills. It transforms you.
Cathy Moore, a corporate e-learning designer who trains instructional designers to design engaging and fun programs, has another example to differentiate info product and training products: an information product (or job-aid) is a map of Australia, a course is how to read a map.
An online training aims to let people practice some ACTIONS through activities. That’s it. I said the magic word. A good e-course focuses on the actions you want your students to perform at the end of your program. Jeanine Blackwell says, “A lot of course creators think creating a course is about getting people to understand something … and it’s not. It’s about people to do something.” I like to draw an action-map to list all the absolutely necessary actions I want to let people practice during the course.
“How can my clients benefit from what I usually do well face to face? It won’t work online!”
Yes, it can work. But in a different way than the traditional face-to-face events we’re so used to, since school. And that’s where I see the biggest potential to improve the current e-courses that are offered. Often, they reproduce a model we’re familiar with, the “one-to-many” top-down approach. It translates into a boring lecture; at best, an entertaining one.
The fear of losing our best assets by going digital is a fair one. I often hear this fear from coaches who are helping clients with their soft skills. They say they co-define their objectives together and they adapt their tools and techniques to the progress of their clients, and they don’t see how they could model this in an online product.
But I also hear this fear from people whose personality is very well suited to live sessions. They have a strong charisma, rely a lot on improvisation (after so many years, they know their material by heart), and firmly believe real interactions take place only in a real, physical world.
I get it. While you can’t (yet) feel another’s person energy on Skype as well as you would do in real life, there are ways to make the most of this new form of interactivity.
How Advanced Course Creators Use Simulations to Enhance Their Clients’ Results:
Simulations are underused, both in the corporate world and in the private individual online world of e-courses. The reason could be that 1) people think it’s too difficult to design and develop, 2) people don’t even know they exist.
It’s too bad because simulations are a powerful tool to let people practice their soft skills. Experts can easily create meaningful situations, based on their long experience; they know what phases people will go through, they know their common mistakes, assumptions, and they know what feedback to give their clients, to train them. A simulation – or branching scenario – will never cover 100% of all the world’s possibilities, but it’s good enough to practice for most situations one can encounter, and prepare them for the real thing.
A simulation can take the form of text only, text with pictures and/or audio, audio with pictures, and videos. My favorite example is this decision-making scenario, designed by Cathy Moore. Replace the soldiers and Afghan leader by an overwhelmed mother learning how to say no to her boss, and you’ve got a powerful tool for your clients to practice their scripts.
I like this example in a ‘choose a different ending’ style video. Replace the protagonists with a person hesitating to eat junk food and you’re on to something …
With free software such as TouchCast, it’s easy to create interactive videos, where you can add cheat sheets, pictures, links to websites and additional resources for examples. The possibilities are endless. And untapped, yet, in the private online courses world.
Now, what about people’s charisma being lost in the digital world? Well, first of all, an online course doesn't have to be made of 100% of pre-recorded content. In fact, I mentioned at the beginning that the best online courses that sell well all have some form of support, which gives plenty of room for the charismatic trainer to shine.
Ah, yes, generating passive revenue does include a dose of active work to deliver quality.
“But I’m not into technology, I can’t create a course!”
If you really can’t: either learn it or hire your 10-year-old, because they can. Joke aside, most course creators I talked to admit they used some help from others for their videos, photos, copywriting, or any technology-related task.
A lot of folks bought themselves a course to learn how to create a course, and this includes some kind of software that takes care of everything, from content creation to inscriptions, passing by payment and integrated support. For example, David Siteman Garland offers Course Cats, Derek Halpern has Zippy Courses.
You can try to copy a course that you like, but chances are you won’t figure out the exact process they followed to (or you will, but it’ll take you forever). I interviewed a coach who did everything by herself, imitating a course she took, and she’s not selling that many courses.
I vote in favor of simplicity first. Start with free tools and equipment you have available. Use Google Drive, your smartphone for the videos, and record some slides with free or cheap audio software.
You can also hire someone who wants to build themselves a portfolio in graphic design, web design or learning design and will be happy to do it for free, in exchange for some publicity, or you can pay them with your expertise (swap services).
There are plenty of resources to learn the “how”. It was not such a big deal for the course creators I interviewed. They decided to do it, took action, followed a system, and bang!
“I don’t know how to price my course!”
Don’t overthink this. Start relatively low, at less than $300. It’s the number most people cited above started with.
Have a good, simple course, and after you test it and receive feedback, create a new course and price it higher, offering more value, for something between $300 and $900.
Selling above this price range is possible, but usually, involves a more complex structure that can be daunting for the first-timer. A counterexample is Selena Soo, who sold her first program for 4K and very soon after for 24K a year!
You can also ask your list what they would pay for your program, before creating it.
“But it must cost a lot of money to get an e-course up and running!”
Not necessarily. It’ll cost some of your time, but not that much: three months is an average, to go from zero to launch.
Have fun doing it!
Experts enjoy what they do, people buy that too. So don’t forget to have fun doing it, and show us the result of your hard work!
Helene Caura is an e-learning design alchemist. She is passionate about eating good chocolate and helping experts design super-efficient AND profitable e-courses (in that order). You can keep in touch with her at