So . . . what is an online course? Basically, it’s an environment for learning that someone can access through a digital device like a computer or smartphone. An online course is a great way to deliver a transformative learning experience to your customers while growing your audience, enhancing your authority, and making some passive income.
I've been all-in with online courses since 2017, and they’ve become a huge part of my business and the SPI brand.
I owe so much to the very first online course I took, way back in 2008, called Internet Business Mastery. It taught me, early on, that courses could help people, because it definitely helped me. This course really changed my life, and although it took me a little while after that to launch my own course, it’s hard to overstate just how big an impact online courses have had on my business and my audience.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way. Online courses have become an incredibly popular way for people to share their expertise with their audience while making some passive income. According to Stratistics MRC, the global e-learning market is expected to grow from $176.12 billion in 2017 to $398.15 billion by 2026!
It’s a huge and growing market, which is why I’m excited to help you grab your piece of it with this guide.
Why Do People Like Online Courses?
In the previous chapter, we talked about some of the big benefits of online courses to both course creators and their students, benefits that have contributed to the growth of this thriving industry.
If you’re like most course creators, you want to create your own course because of a desire to share your knowledge with others. In 2017, 63 percent of course creators listed “sharing knowledge” as their primary motivation for building a course, compared to 48 percent who named “making money” as their main driver.
But let’s be honest: a huge benefit of creating your own online course is having a scalable way to make income without putting in a ton of work after the upfront investment in time and energy to build the course. An online course can provide reliable passive income while better serving your audience, building community, and establishing your authority in your field.
And on the other side of the equation—the students taking those courses—there are three big factors that have made online courses so appealing to knowledge-hungry folks everywhere.
Online Course Student Benefit #1: Accessibility
Forget packing up your stuff, traveling to school, and finding a classroom. Accessing an online course is as easy as firing up your computer and logging on to a website.
(Making sure your course is accessible to all learners, including those with disabilities, is another very important factor that we’ll cover later in this guide.)
Online Course Student Benefit #2: Convenience
There are plenty of topics out there that a potential student can probably learn about by themselves if they spent enough time poring over Google search results.
So why build a course on something if the information is already out there?
The key is hiding in plain sight: if they spend enough time. People are drawn to the convenient option, even if they could get the same thing for free or more cheaply doing it themselves. Your course doesn’t need to offer some hidden collection of knowledge gems that can’t be found elsewhere. Simply offering a super-convenient way for people to get what they need to know on a given topic to achieve the desired transformation can be enough of a selling point.
Course Student Benefit #3: Affordability
Compared to other forms of learning, taking an online course often comes out ahead. There are no travel costs, and all of the learning materials are online so there’s no need to pay extra for physical textbooks and other resources.
How Online Courses Work
As we covered at the beginning of this chapter, an online course is a structured environment for learning that someone can access digitally. You create a “path” your student can follow to learn about a given topic and achieve the desired transformation, sharing your expertise via various forms of media like text, video, and audio. Many courses also provide the opportunity to connect with a community of others taking the course, mechanisms like downloadable worksheets (homework!) to ensure accountability, and the chance to learn directly from the course creator through regular “office hours.”
On the course creator’s side (that’s you!), you get benefits like increased authority, audience growth, and passive income. But how exactly do you make money from an online course? Basically, you charge a set price for each person to take the course, which entitles them to access the course materials, typically for as long as they like. We’ll talk about what goes into pricing your course in the next chapter.
It’s important to remember that, just like any worthwhile method of passive income generation, building an online course is not a get-rich-quick scheme. Like all ethically sound passive income opportunities, it requires work upfront. But once you’ve created your course, it becomes an asset that can continue to generate income for your business well into the future.
In terms of how you sell your course, there’s a lot that goes into marketing it, and we’ll talk about that later on in this guide. There’s also the aspect of timing: courses can be made available year-round (“evergreen”) or only at certain times. There are benefits and tradeoffs to each approach, but making your course evergreen is generally preferable if you want to make it available to as many people as possible. The alternative option, making it available only during certain windows of time, can convey a sense of scarcity and help build excitement about the course.
What’s Involved in Creating an Online Course?
Let’s talk about the different ingredients that combine to make a delicious, satisfying, and transformative meal for your course students.
There’s one ingredient to creating a successful online course that comes before everything else (and I hinted at it above): Your desire and ability to help your audience create a transformation for themselves.
The transformation is the why or the outcome that your course will provide. It is the most important thing you need to clarify before you start creating your course!
Remember: the transformation is not just what’s inside the course! Here are a few examples to show you what I mean:
- Not a Transformation: How to Set Up Your Podcast and Launch on Apple Podcasts
- Transformation: How to Launch a Podcast that Impacts your Income and Influence Online
- Not a Transformation: How to Start Email Marketing
- Transformation: How to Get Email Leads to Grow Your Business and Connect with Your Audience
If you can define the transformation clearly before you start creating and marketing your course, then you’ll have a much better shot at building something that people will flock to and benefit from. With a clear transformation, it becomes so much easier to market your course and communicate its value, and it becomes easier for potential students to understand if it’s for them.
The next ingredient is expertise.
Let’s say you offer premium services—like one-on-one or small-group coaching—that are good income generators but are inherently difficult to scale. A course is a great way to provide a deep level of expertise and learning without offering your time as well (beyond the time you spend upfront creating the course).
But wait, I hear you thinking, I have to be an EXPERT? Having expertise just means having more experience than someone who doesn't know where to start, or hasn't had as much time with something as you have. You don't have to have a Ph.D. or go to school for years to be able to teach something. Credentials help, but sometimes the better teachers, as we all know, are the ones who have a closer connection to the audience and the most recent experience with their topic area.
Your expertise comes through via the next ingredient, the content you use to share the information in your course. Your expertise and your content come together to help create a transformation for the student.
Do you already have a blog? Do you write emails to your list, create instructional videos, or publish your own podcast episodes? Then guess what? You already have what it takes to create content for an online course!
There are a few main forms of content to consider using to teach the material in your course:
- Written material
These are not the only content types you can use, but they’re the most common ones.
As far as software to help you organize your course content and manage and distribute your course, we'll cover that later in this lesson. In case you're curious, however, this platform is called Teachable, and it's awesome!
I recommend using a variety of content types in your course. Why? Because different people have different learning styles. Some people learn better by reading, while others have an easier time digesting and processing information when they hear it, or when they see it.
A big question many would-be course creators ask is, how much content do I need to create a successful course that helps people achieve that promised transformation?
The short answer is less than you might think. A great online course is one that simplifies things and cuts through the fluff to deliver only the most essential nuggets of information your student needs to get to that transformation.
Other Ingredients of a Successful Course
The next few ingredients can help your students have an even more positive and successful experience with your course.
The first of those ingredients is community. Having access to a supportive community of like-minded people can make the difference between a good learning experience and an amazing one.
The next one is accountability. Helping your students have an effective learning experience isn’t just about giving them information, but about helping them stay on track and do the work they need to do to actually learn.
The third ingredient is access to you, the expert. Although most of your course content is going to be pre-made—you record the videos, write the text, etc., beforehand—you can also offer the opportunity to work directly with you. One way to do this is with “office hours,” set periods of time where students can join you live to discuss the material they’re learning, ask questions, and get customized help.
These additional ingredients can make an already solid course even better and turn a happy student into a raving superfan who will stay with you for life.
Examples of Online Courses
Another great thing about online courses is that they can be super basic, really thorough and complex, or somewhere in between. Here are examples of five different course types, in ascending order of complexity, to give you an idea of what’s possible.
Free email course
A simple, free course delivered via a series of emails. Could be good for lead generation, attracting potential customers for a bigger course.
Free video course
A video course that lives on your website. Requires more production, but gets people to your website.
Paid short course
A handful of modules that go into more depth than your video course. A low-cost way for people to go a little deeper on your topic.
Paid medium-length course
A larger collection of modules that explore additional elements of your topic. More income, more learning.
Paid high-end course
Comprehensive course with multiple forms of content, including access to a Facebook group and office hours or coaching calls.
As you can see, it’s possible to start small and create a “ladder” with your courses that helps people learn from you at the level that makes sense for them.
However, I definitely don’t want you to think you need to create five courses, especially if you’re just getting started. The best approach is this: start with one course, and make it great. Your first course doesn’t have to be an entry-level product, either. You can create something premium that people will pay good money for, as long as it’s something that actually provides the transformation they’re looking for.
The most important thing is to create a course that your audience wants, and we’ll talk about exactly how to do that later in this guide.
How I’ve Used Online Courses to Generate Income
I want to share a story about how my very first course came about, and how it carved a path for online courses to become a major and indispensable part of the SPI brand.
I created a course containing a module for each chapter of the book, with all the links mentioned in that chapter, plus bonus materials like videos that gave readers a way to dive deeper into the content.
My main goal with the companion course, beyond giving people who’d read the book even more value, was to collect email addresses.
The strategy paid off! Nearly 40 percent of people who purchased the book ended up taking the free companion course and sharing their email address with me.
There was a secondary outcome to the Will It Fly? companion course that was less expected but pretty remarkable. After going through the companion course, many of my students told me they wanted more. More detail, more accountability, and more community.
So I decided to beta test another course that would go into more detail about the process I covered in Will It Fly?, as well as give students access to me and a community of other students taking the course.
To validate this new course idea, I set a goal of getting 100 students from the Will It Fly? companion course to sign up for the paid beta. If I didn’t hit that number, then what? Simple! I’d just cancel the course and refund everyone’s money.
Doing things this way had two benefits: first, it would provide some income upfront, but much more importantly, it would validate whether the idea was worth pursuing.
I called that new course Smart From Scratch®, and it promised to help people find a winning business idea and land their first customer. I pre-sold Smart From Scratch for $197—and sold out all 100 spots in one day. A big reason for this was that I knew exactly who I was speaking to, and I knew exactly the language I needed to use to show them that I could help them take the next step.
Starting with a beta version of Smart From Scratch® was amazing because it allowed me to gather feedback from those first 100 students and adjust the course based on their input. As a result, I was confident that when I finally launched the course to the wider public, my new students would see real results.
Smart From Scratch® has since earned me several hundred thousand dollars, and it’s still available to new students in my course library. Many of those students have enrolled in my other courses too.
Brainstorm Your Next Online Course
Plan the Outline for Your Next Course
Sometimes getting started is the hardest part. Even if you've created courses before, the outlining process can feel overwhelming. The Online Course Creation Template walks you through the outlining process step by step.
Access SPI's free business toolkit library
Download the template to work through the brainstorming process for your next online course. You'll also get access to the free resource library, packed with other cheat sheets, videos, and challenges to help you grow your business.
Are Online Courses for Everyone?
Online course platform Teachable [affiliate link] has crunched the data of more than 10,000 course creators, and they’ve identified three buckets that course creators typically find themselves in when they’re getting started creating a course:
- “I’m excited but have no idea what I want my course to be and don’t know where to start.”
- “I have an idea of what I may want my course to be about, now I need help to refine my idea.”
- “I have a lot of ideas for courses and just need to figure out which one is the most profitable.”
Later in this guide, we’ll break down what you need to do to succeed with your online course based on which bucket you fit in.
But what happens when the idea of creating an online course just doesn’t seem like a good fit for you? In the introduction, we touched on some of the most common objections and reasons you might not want to create an online course.
Don’t create an online course just because you think you should. If you a) have absolutely no interest in creating a course or b) really don’t think your audience would be interested, then creating a course probably isn’t for you.
What if you’re on the fence? If you’re not sure if your audience would be interested in a course, then ask them! And of course, if your audience is asking you to create a course, that’s a pretty clear signal you need to look into offering one.
Unfortunately, too many people find themselves paralyzed by the question, Who am I to create a course of my own?
Even though I’ve been in business for over a decade, it’s only in the past three years that I’ve been creating and producing online courses of my own. People asked me for a long time to create my own courses. I would tell them to take someone else’s course. Share the love, right?
But it wasn’t until a friend and mentor told me I was doing my audience a disservice by not offering them a course!
A disservice. That realization set in motion a huge mental shift for me. If you have an audience that wants to learn more from you, then you owe it to them to provide a way to do that—with you.
If you have an audience, that means there’s a group of people out there who are interested in learning from you. You may not be the only person in your space, but there’s a reason those people are listening to you over someone else. They may be drawn to you because they like your personality, your teaching style, or some other combination of factors.
They like you, and they want to learn from you.
Starting from Scratch—Does a Course Make Sense?
But what about the beginners out there? What if you’re just getting started in online business and don’t have much of an audience (if any) you can ask for input? Does a course make sense for you?
You’ll need to do a little more work up front to figure out a focus and build a following—but having your own course that’s driving passive income for you is definitely not out of reach.
If you’re starting from ground zero, you can ask yourself these basic questions:
- What are you good at or passionate about?
- What are you already interested in?
- What experience do you have? What jobs have you done? What skills do you have? What hobbies do you enjoy?
There’s one more myth that I see floating around, and it’s that your course has to be about building a business of some kind or creating an income stream. But here’s the thing: You don’t have to teach people how to make money. There are so many other options out there.
People have many interests, hobbies, and passions, and if your skills and experience are a match for theirs—but you just happen to be further along—then there’s an opportunity to create a course that people will pay you for. There are thousands of reasons people might pay money to take a course. Are you good at acrylic painting? How about rug weaving? Door hinge repair? Underwater meditation? Then a course might be in your future, so get ready to do some learning.
We’ve only scratched the surface of what it takes to create an online course so far. In chapter 2, we’ll dive much deeper into everything you need to know to define your most profitable course topic and start building your course!