The ultimate guide to building and marketing an online course
How offering an online course can grow into a massively profitable business
Online courses are more popular than ever. People turn to the internet for knowledge for all sorts of subjects. From learning project management and starting a business to learning a hobby or about something that interests them, learning online saves time and money. No longer are students limited to class hours or geographic locations. They can take classes at any time of the day that suits them from anywhere.
Creating an online course is a good strategy to help market your existing business. Or you may be an expert in a particular field and want to build a business around sharing your expertise. Regardless of the reason, online courses:
- Demonstrate your expertise and experience, build trust in your business and boost credibility.
- Reach many people at a time.
- Create a resource you can keep selling that does not take up your time once completed.
- Expand your services so you have more than one form of revenue supporting your business.
- Are an affordable way for people to familiarize themselves with what you offer.
- Provide value as an add-on or upsell with other services and products.
With the eLearning industry set to be worth more than $115 billion by 2022, this demonstrates people have a thirst for knowledge of all types.
Do you need a freelance writer?
No matter what format you are going to use to teach your students, you need a script for videoing lessons and a workbook for courses that are written. Now ask yourself the following questions:
- Are you going to write it or do you need to hire a freelance writer to do the writing for you?
- Do you have the time and writing experience to write good copy that gives your students value?
Reasons to hire a freelancer writer:
- Saves you time.
- Produces a professional result which can boost student uptake.
- Experienced at writing courses that get results.
- Can help you structure the content in a logical manner.
Create a content outline
Here we assume you already know the topic you want to create a course about, validated your idea and there is a demand for what you want to teach.
Regardless of whether you are going to write the content or not, you or a freelance writer needs a course outline to work from. While you may think this is unnecessary, the more thought that goes into creating a course outline, the more effective the result. It also helps the course writer create content more efficiently.
Before we start creating a course outline, let’s start with the following ground rules:
- Use as few steps as possible. The purpose of any course is to increase student’s knowledge on a subject. So, you need to determine the outcome you desire (teach a new skill or gain knowledge on a specific topic, for example). And you want to do this with this as few steps as possible.
- Use clear, simple language and ideas. While you want to establish yourself as an authority on the topic, the course outline should use clear, simple language and ideas. Keep in mind your students may have limited time to learn in and a limited attention span. Also, your writer only needs the basics to write course content.
- Do not overload it with facts and additional details. While some facts and additional details are good to establish your authority on the subject, limit them to those that are essential. Otherwise you overload your students (and the freelance writer) with unnecessary information. You only need to include the most important details.
Now we have some ground rules, it is time to look at the steps for creating an effective course outline for your freelance writer.
Step 1. Start with the learning outcome in mind
At this point, you should know what the learning objectives are. You need to understand what the learning outcome is for your students right from the start. Here are some samples of learning outcomes:
- How to start a business.
- How to earn money online.
- How to market your business online.
When you need inspiration establishing learning outcomes, research the table of contents of books on Amazon. These can help you get started.
Step 2. Decide the major steps
Next you need to decide what the major steps are for students to get the desired outcome. These are the foundation course topics without the intricate detail.
Maybe your course is teaching how to market your business online so your foundation topics could include:
- Complete market research
- What differentiates you from competitors
- Become a recognizable brand
- Select marketing platforms
- Set your objectives and a budget
- Create a marketing plan
- Nurture loyal customers
- Continually monitor and review marketing results
- Change direction to change the results.
All these major steps will include details which your freelance writer adds as they write the course content.
Step 3. Outline the knowledge required for each major step
Now you have the main topics of your course, it is time to work out the knowledge your students need to successfully complete each lesson.
To teach how to market your business online, the first lesson is completing your market research. The knowledge required to do this can include:
- Defining your marketing objectives and the problem.
- Identify your target audience.
- Determine your research design.
- Design and prepare the research questions.
- Engage market research participants.
- List your main competitors.
- Analyze the results.
Each knowledge topic will likely become an individual lesson.
Create course content
It takes a lot of effort and a financial investment to create good course content that students enjoy and learn what they need.
Once you complete your course outline give it to your freelance writer to create the content. They will use the outline to create each lesson. Make sure the writer uses language that is easy to understand and explains concepts in a simple way.
They should use descriptive headings, bullet points, tables, graphics and break out content to back up and better explain concepts.
Edit content for flow, errors and completeness
Using a professional freelance writer means your content should be perfect if you give them a complete course outline. Read through the course content after it is delivered to make sure all the elements are there to meet the end goal of the course. Also look for spelling and grammatical errors, and for flow and structure of the material.
Where there are problems or there is content missing, hand it back to your freelance writer with comments. Part of their job is to provide content updates and do final edits. But where there is content left out of the course outline, you may need to negotiate an extra payment for its inclusion.
Add extras to capture attention
To add a unique selling point to your course, add extras that capture potential students’ attention. Your course needs to stand out in a crowded market.
You may want to add:
- Bonus material on a related topic
- A list of commonly asked questions with the answers
- Step-by-step how to guides
- Analogies and stories
- Interviews with other experts in the field
- Video clips
- Links to additional resources
- Screenshot examples and details.
Add anything you think will help enhance what you are teaching so your students grasp concepts easily. But keep them as brief as possible. For example, an hour long interview with an industry expert probably does not add much value because students will tune out but 15 minutes will.
Use a graphic designer for a professional touch
Now you have the course content, hire a freelance graphic designer to take it to the next level. Well-designed workbooks, infographics, graphics and worksheets are much better for students to work with.
Good graphics tell a visual story and can transcend words. They can make an impact that helps to explain concepts. A graphic designer understands good layout and formats, type styles, colors and symbols to suit your course content. Adding the work of a graphic artist will increase exposure to your course, add a point of difference and be well received by your target audience.
Graphic design can make good content stand out from your competitors. And their work can be consistent with your brand.
A freelance graphic designer adds value to your course content, for example:
- A lot of people learn better visually. They respond to graphics and photos and these create more interest and help engage students.
- Use infographics to visually present your information more clearly to help students absorb knowledge easily.
- Using graphics in course material helps students process concepts quicker than merely just reading text.
- Graphics can illustrate important points.
- Images break up long sections of text to make it more interesting.
Hiring a good freelance graphic designer will enhance your students’ experience with your course. It will also increase their perception of your expertise and enhance your brand.
Choose a platform for your course
There are many platforms you can use to deliver your course to students. Options such as Udemy, Skillshare, Udacity and the Khan Academy are just a few. Or, you can choose to host your course on your own website. You need to carefully consider the options to make a good choice that suits your purpose.
Advantages and disadvantages
Every solution has its advantages and disadvantages. Marketplace platform solutions make it easy to create and upload your course online. And many already have a huge audience you can tap into. While marketplace solutions have a lot of students looking for courses, you lose control of your marketing, pricing, brand and student data.
Course platforms also take a share of your earnings while selling a competitor’s course on the same page as your course.
The best solution can be creating your own website using plugins to structure your content, set up a payment gateway and to deliver your course from a Learning Management System. WordPress is a good option for a standalone course website that gives you full control. Make sure you know the functionality you want from your website from the beginning. Start with the basics and you can build on to these as you grow.
The biggest advantages of using your own website is you can create, sell and market your courses all in one place. You also have access to all your student data.
If building a website is overwhelming or you don't have time, hire a freelance website developer to do it for you cost-effectively. They can even upload your content to the site and either manage it all for you or teach you how to do it yourself.
Structuring your course online
Let’s use WordPress as an example for structuring your course online. This does not mean it is the only or the best solution. But WordPress powers a huge number of websites globally and is often offered free with web hosting.
WordPress has almost unlimited flexibility with the sheer volume of plugins available for functionality. You can use it to create a blog to promote your course and new pages easily. There are also payment gateway plug ins to offer students payment options so you need to decide to offer your course for a one-time payment or a membership subscription.
The types of course material you can include in your course structure includes:
- Ebooks. Ebooks are a good learning tool that presents course content in text form with graphics.
- Videos. Either directly upload video files to your website for use in your course or embed code for videos uploaded to YouTube.
- PDFs. Upload a PDF copy of course presentations and eBooks.
- Assignments. Add assignments to a course. Assignments require students to answer open-ended questions and are manually graded.
- Quizzes. Use quizzes for students to assess their knowledges. Quizzes can be multiple choice or yes or no questions.
- Exams. Use exams to monitor students’ progress. You can use these to formally test what your students learn from your course.
Develop a launch strategy
Now you have everything in place, it is time to launch your course. As part of this you need to create a marketing plan. There are decisions to make before you do. There are some questions to consider before you start as part of the launch strategy:
- Are you going to test the course for free to get feedback before launching it publicly?
- Do you intend to offer course enrollment for a limited time or can people enroll at any time?
- How often will course enrollment open, if you choose to open it for only limited times?
- Do you have a list of people in your target audience to create hype before the launch?
- Do you have a social media or a blog following to release details of your course to?
- Are you going to reach out to industry influencers for help to get the message out about the course launch?
- Will you use an affiliate marketing program to encourage influencers to get on board?
- Do you intend to use social media ads to attract your target audience?
- Will you promote a free incentive to market the course to potential buyers in exchange for their email address?
Marketing your course
While you may have the best course, if no one signs up to take it then this defeats your purpose. Marketing is essential to selling your course online and there are many ways to market your course. If you are not confident doing it yourself or do not have the time, you may want to hire a freelance marketing expert to do it for you. They are specialists in the field. Freelance marketers have the experience to help your course get noticed by your target market.
There are many things you or a freelance marketer can do to market your course including:
- Creating a sales page on your website
- Driving traffic to your website
- Social media marketing
- Creating compelling calls to action
- Running your blog and commission articles to promote your course
- Creating email marketing campaigns
- Maximizing organic traffic.
Create a sales page for your website
A sales (or landing) page on your website persuades visitors of the value of the course and encourages them to take action. These pages include calls to action (CTAs) to encourage visitors to take steps that take them closer to signing up your course.
There are different types of sales pages so you want to use what works best for you. Simple sales pages push visitors to buy, while other can include watching a video about the course, capturing leads or pre-registering.
Here are the basic differences between:
- Simple sales page. A simple sales page has a CTA with a button to click to sign up.
- Lead generation pages. These are common for B2B marketing and use CTAs that collect data about visitors as leads. The information collected can include email addresses, names and phone numbers. Use this to create an email list to use in an email marketing campaign.
Creating a sales page
A sales page needs to be well-designed and contain good copy. This is where your freelance graphic designer and writer can help you as a good sales page takes experience to create.
Before creating copy for your sales page, you need the answers to the following questions:
- Who is your target audience? You identified your target audience during your market research. Look at the results of that research and identify the characteristics, behavior, attitudes and demographics of the average person in your target audience. Then you need to consider:
- How to approach your audience.
- What content should be on the page that will interest them.
- Will the page make sense to them?
- Will they buy the course?
- How much will they pay?
- What does the course teach them? Consider the solution you are providing. Articulate how taking the course will give them results. For example, by taking the course you can market your business yourself.
- Why is the course beneficial? People need to know how they will benefit from taking the course. The sales page should offer pain points with the solutions found in the course.
Characteristics of a good sales page
A good sales page has specific characteristics to catch people’s attention. These include:
- Short descriptive headlines. A sales page needs a short catchy title that encompasses what they will learn. Using the title of the course may not be enough to capture attention. The page title should include the ultimate benefit people will get from taking the course. For example, Learn to market your business or Take professional photos in 3 weeks.
- Use action words. Engage and excite visitors with the use of action words and phrases. Use verbs like discover, explore, improve and learn to prompt action.
- Add elements to enhance the message. Add visual elements such as beautiful graphics, CTA buttons, infographics, and anything else that will let your visitors know what they can achieve by taking the course. People process images quicker than text and they leave a greater lasting impression.
- Include testimonials. Include any testimonials you receive to prove you are trustworthy and an authority on the subject of your course. Testimonials can come from emails, comments on blog posts and social media, for example.
Drive traffic to your website
Drive traffic to your website using a blog and social media.
Write articles for your blog to build your authority on a subject and share it to social media and blog. This gives you backlinks which helps your site rank better on search engines.
Post on social media and tweet on Twitter to get your course and brand noticed. Even publish an ebook on Amazon, promote your course in forums and communities, and answer questions on Quora.
Be consistent in using these methods. And, if you have the budget, use Facebook ads to drive traffic to your sales page.
Social media marketing
Billions of people across the world use social media every day. Social media marketing plays an important role in marketing your course. Make sure you use the right platform to reach your target audience. There are many to choose from such as:
- Facebook. Facebook is the most popular and largest social media platform. It is a good environment to reach people who may want to take your course. Use unique posts to engage people. Memes, photos and videos can all attract attention. Even start a page or group for the courses you have to sell.
- LinkedIn. LinkedIn is a professional platform ideal for promoting your course from B2B. When your course is teaching professional or job skills, LinkedIn is a good platform to use. It also gives your brand more exposure. LinkedIn also helps to establish yourself as a thought leader in your industry.
- YouTube. YouTube has billions of users and a huge audience especially for eLearning. Create a channel to upload live training and instructional videos for easy access and to keep people updated on what you are doing.
- Twitter. While Twitter is smaller than Facebook, it still has millions of users. It is a good platform to use. Tweet course updates to encourage new users to participate in the conversation.
These are just a few social media platforms you can use. It is important to stay connected in a digital world. Social media marketing is an important skill that will help you sell courses when you use it to your advantage. Hire a freelance marketer to help you learn how when you do not know what to do.
Create compelling calls to action
Creating compelling CTAs is important as these are what get people to click through and sign up to your course. Three points to remember:
- Know your target market.
- Use their language.
- Target their wants and needs.
CTAs have a message that compels people to click the button. While this sounds easy, it is more difficult than you may think. CTAs consist of just a few powerful words such as:
Use these words in short messages to get a result. For example, Get the only course that teaches project management or Join now to learn Mexican cooking. If they do not get results, rewrite them or get the help of a freelance marketing specialist.
Run a blog
Running a blog has a lot of benefits. It brings traffic to your website and can promote your courses. A blog helps to position you as an industry leader and builds your brand. It can support your social media marketing and you can build the hype for project launches to excite your audience. A blog is also good for website search engine optimization.
Posting informative articles regularly on your blog builds a loyal following of people interested in what you have to offer.
Create email marketing campaigns
The return on investment of email marketing campaigns is an average of 37:1. Almost everyone has an email account and using this as part of your marketing campaign is direct, personal, cost-effective and encourages action.
While email marketing campaigns can have amazing results, they are the hardest to get right. The first thing you need to start email marketing is an email list. This is easy using lead magnets such as a free ebook where someone gives their details before downloading it or offer a free subscription to sign up to your blog.
But do not flood the people on your email list with emails everyday otherwise they will block you or unsubscribe. It is the quality of the information that matters not how often you send out emails. Make sure you have a carefully thought out email marketing strategy to get the best results.
Maximize organic traffic
Maximizing organic traffic to your website is a long-term strategy and much relies on how well the website uses search engine optimization (SEO). But your blog, a YouTube channel and social media posts all linking back to your website help drive organic traffic.
To start with you may even invest in paid advertising using Google, Facebook and/or YouTube ads to get you noticed as it takes a while to see the benefits of organic traffic.
The most important thing for maximizing organic traffic is good content that is SEO-friendly posted on social media and your blog.
It takes an investment of time and money to build a worthwhile course people want to buy.
First you need to create a course outline to use to create the content. When the content is finalized, use a graphic designer to add the visuals so it stands out and looks professional. Once it is completed you need to choose a platform to sell your course on or create your own website. Using your own website is a better option as you have complete control. Now you are ready to launch your course, you need to market it to your target audience.
Sounds simple. Right? It is if you have the skills. But at any point in the process you can hire an expert freelance writer, graphic designer, website designer and marketer where you don't have confidence in your own skills.