You’ve built your course, and you even got a few people to buy it. That’s great—but what’s next? If you want to keep growing your customer base, you’re going to need to do some active marketing, and that’s what we’ll cover in this chapter. By the end of it, you'll know exactly why people buy online courses, plus the specific strategies you can implement right away to start sharing your online course more widely and effectively.
The 3 Must-Know Principles for Selling Online Courses
- Principle 1: People Don't Want to Buy Online Courses
- Principle 2: Trust and Proof Are Your Best Friends
- Principle 3: People Buy Online Courses Because They’re Convenient
There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to marketing tactics for effectively promoting an online course, from emails to funnels to Facebook ads to podcasts, blog posts, videos, all kinds of things, but the tactics don't matter unless you get the principles right.
I’ve sold millions of dollars worth of online courses of my own (and as an affiliate for other people's courses). And over the years, I've learned a ton by experimenting with different types of ways to promote online courses. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the underlying principles that make your tactics work.
You could have the best tactics in the world, but if you don't get these three principles right, then, well, you’re just amplifying a big mistake.
Principle 1: People Don't Want to Buy Online Courses
People don’t want to buy online courses. Wait, what? It's true, though. Think about it: Nobody wakes up and says, “You know, I think I'm gonna buy an online course today.” Nobody. What people really want are the outcomes and the results that an online course could potentially give them. That’s the secret to selling anything. People want the transformation—how their life is going to be different after using that product. If you’re not clear about the results and outcome your course promises, then your prospective customers are not going to be able to make a clear buying decision, and your work promoting that course is going to be much harder.
This is why sales pages that focus primarily on the features of a course are less successful than ones that promote outcomes and transformations. For example, with my Power-Up Podcasting® course, I promise you'll have a podcast up and running with listeners on the day you publish your first episode. Compare that to a sales page that only exclaims how the course has five modules with thirty videos and office hours.
As you promote your online courses, keep in mind the desired outcome that your target audience has—and if that desired outcome is not desirable, well, then you probably shouldn't be promoting or selling that course anyway.
People don’t buy courses. They buy outcomes and transformations.
Principle 2: Trust and Proof Are Your Best Friends
Let’s get this out of the way first: Selling an online course is not easy. Let's take in contrast, for example, a piece of software that does a specific thing in a very convenient way. A potential customer can easily imagine using that software to solve a specific problem they have and seeing the result immediately.
For example, here’s a screenshot of a Mac app that arranges your files and apps on your desktop for a more organized experience.
The transformation is obvious—you can see it in the picture!
With online courses, however, the outcome isn’t as easy to show in a single screenshot. Since you’re dealing with information and learning, quickly demonstrating the potential results someone will see can be much trickier. And in many cases, people aren't going to get results the moment they buy, the way they would with a desktop organizer app. They have to actually take action and spend time before seeing results.
When it comes to selling online courses, trust and proof are your best friends. People need to trust that you’re selling them something worthwhile, and they need some sort of evidence that your course will do what you say it will.
If you’re selling an online course, ideally you’ve started building trust long before you start marketing the course. As we talked about in chapter 2, you need to do the work of building an audience, finding out what they need, and delivering value before you start pitching your course.
In episode 1081 of the AskPat Podcast, Mio has an amazing offline business, but how can she take it online to grow her audience there? We talk about Mio's superpowers, and how she can use them for good to build an online community for her business.
Then there’s proof—specifically social proof. What is social proof, exactly? It’s a way of letting other people show that your course actually does what you say it will.
One of the most powerful ways to provide this proof is through the stories and testimonials of people who have taken it and achieved the desired transformation. The easiest way to start taking advantage of social proof to market your course is to ask your beta group for testimonials, then infuse these stories in your marketing messages:
I first learned about social proof from an episode of the Internet Business Mastery podcast. One of the hosts talked about how he was at a farmer’s market and was looking for something good to eat. He went to the food vendor area, where there was a super long line at one of the stalls, much longer than any of the other lines. That’s how he knew that was the place to get food. Because there were so many people there, it must have been worth waiting in line for.
In that case, the form of social proof was numbers. How can you take advantage of numbers in your course marketing? You could add a note to your course sales page that thousands of people have taken the course and 98 percent of them were completely satisfied. Those numbers are a powerful signal to a prospective customer that this is a course worth taking.
There’s nothing more powerful than having other people do your marketing for you.
What if you’re just getting started and feeling stuck because you don’t have any course testimonials yet? Three things can help:
- Offer a beta of your course to your first batch of students so you can get some feedback before you go live publicly.
- Offer a version of your course to one person who can go through the content and give you feedback on it. You'll be surprised how much one person’s experience and feedback can change things for you and how you approach the content and selling in the course. It’ll also help you unlock some of that much-needed confidence.
- Share proof or testimonials not about your course, specifically, but rather about you. People want to know they can trust who they’re buying from, especially online, so offer some reassurance. Who have you worked with? Who have you helped in some way? Think of it like a letter of recommendation from someone who you’ve helped. Ideally this feedback is related to the topic of the course, but it doesn't have to be.
Principle 3: People Buy Online Courses Because They’re Convenient
This third principle might sound a little ridiculous, but don’t be scared—I’ll explain. For most online courses out there, the information in those courses can be already found for free elsewhere on the internet, on places like Google or YouTube or even on social media posts. When you really think about it, it's kind of obvious. There’s rarely any brand-new, never-before-mentioned-in-the-history-of-time information in any of these courses.
So why would people ever buy these courses? I learned this important lesson back in 2008 when I sold my first online product, which was an ebook study guide to help people pass the LEED exam, a very specific exam in the architecture space. That ebook was made up of 95 percent of the same material that could be found for free on my blog. In fact, right before I started selling it, I remember being scared to death of the thought that every person who bought it would ask for a refund and complain about that very fact.
How many people complained and asked for their money back? Zero. Not one person out of tens of thousands of copies sold made a peep.
Does that mean people are just too lazy to complain and ask for a refund? Not at all. Trust me, if people aren't happy with their purchase, they’ll be quick to let you know and ask for their money back. We’re not running a gym membership here.
You see, the reason people buy online courses, beyond the desired outcome and the trust you’ve built with them, is because it's simply convenient. You're saving them time and energy by providing the information they need, and only the information they need, in one place for them to take action on and get results. Take Uber. Think about it. What does it do? It helps you save time and energy hailing a cab. What about upgrading to Early Bird seating on Southwest so you can sit up front? Is it because you like the front seats? No, it's because you like to save time and energy getting on and off the plane.
Likewise, do people love to sit down in front of a computer and take an online course? Not necessarily, but doing that is a whole lot better than spending time and energy to search for and gather all the information they need to achieve their desired outcome. It’s much more convenient to sit down and take the course, which will have all of the information in one place.
Of course, there’s a bonus with online courses beyond mere convenience, and it’s the additional support you can provide your students on their learning journey. When people are looking for the information they need on their own, there's no one else there to help them and to hold them accountable for their progress. People want their hand held, they want accountability through the process. It might be through something like weekly office hours, or via worksheets attached to each lesson that keep the student engaged. When a person decides they want to take your course and pay money for it, they’re putting skin in the game, and that alone is powerful for keeping them accountable. But it's your responsibility as a course creator to make sure that they progress and get the result they’re looking for.
Some Basic Course Marketing Options
All right, with that out of the way, let’s talk tactics and channels! Thankfully, marketing a course isn’t that different from marketing any other product you might be selling. You likely have a number of channels, platforms, and tactics available to you to market your course, including:
- Your email list. The bread and butter of your online business. Create a series of emails with helpful free content related to your course topic, eventually leading to a sales email for the course.
- Webinars. A popular tactic in course marketing is to host a free webinar where you give away free information related to the course topic, then pitch the course at the end.
- Podcasts (yours and others). Podcasts are still one of the best ways to engage and grow your audience and demonstrate your authority.
- YouTube. I recommend using video as the main form of content in your course because it’s so engaging, and the same applies to your course marketing. Create a promo video, or even share a video from one of your lessons for free.
- Affiliate partnerships. An advanced option once your course is established, affiliate partnerships are a powerful way to market your course by appealing to another person or brand’s similar audience.
- Word of mouth. Remember that word of mouth is one of the most powerful marketing methods out there. Happy customers tell other people.
- Paid advertising. Paid ads via Facebook and Google AdWords can be a helpful way to grow your course audience, though I recommend trying paid advertising only after you’ve got your course off the ground and are making some sales.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to ways you can market your course. In episode 979 of my AskPat podcast, I shared a couple of specific course marketing ideas with Tsh Oxenreider, including the benefit of creating anticipation with a waitlist.
Course Launch Example: Power-Up Podcasting®
When it comes to marketing your course, perhaps the most crucial phase is the course launch.
In 2017 I publicly launched my Power-Up Podcasting course. To support the launch, we spent an entire month only producing and promoting content that was podcasting-related. Through blog articles, YouTube videos, and social media posts, we used that content to do a few important things:
- Explain why podcasting is important
- Show people how to get started with their own podcast
- Address every objection someone might have that would prevent them from getting started
We designed all this content to be both free and valuable. We also created a lead magnet that would get people onto our email list, where we could continue to communicate with them up through the launch date (and beyond). That lead magnet is a PDF called The Podcast Cheat Sheet, and it provides a framework people can use to start designing their podcast: coming up with a show idea, figuring out how to brand and differentiate their podcast, and even starting to think about the content of their first few episodes.
The Podcast Cheat Sheet also provides a checklist of everything they need to do to get started. That checklist isn’t just a couple of items—it’s a couple of pages of all the things you need to do to get your podcast up and running. This cheat sheet gives people enough to get started, but it also makes them excited to learn more and keep going—and that’s where Power-Up Podcasting comes in!
When we finally launched the course, we crushed it with over $300,000 in sales. The pre-launch marketing had given people something to think about and start planning toward, and once we finally gave them the opportunity to work further with us, lots of them jumped on it.
We also experimented with another opportunity for course customers beyond the course itself, which was a live two-day workshop in San Diego where they could fast-track the process of getting started with their podcast. We sold tickets to the workshop in conjunction with the course, and fifteen people grabbed one. We’ve been running the Power-Up Podcasting Fast-Track Workshop every year since then, and it’s been a big hit.
Evergreen vs. Periodic Launches
In general, marketing a course isn’t that different from marketing any other service or product you offer. However, there is one big consideration that’s relevant to courses in particular that will have a big effect on how you plan your course marketing: whether you opt for an open or closed launch.
One of the biggest questions you’ll need to answer when it comes to how you market your course is whether to make it available year-round (evergreen) or periodically. There are benefits and drawbacks to each option, so we’ll talk about them now.
For a beta launch, and possibly your first public launch, I recommend going periodic, sometimes known as an open-and-close launch. The main reason is that in the beginning, a periodic launch is going to be more manageable for you. Having a defined period when the course will open and close lets you focus on working closely with your beta students and having them help you make the course the best it can be.
Even after you’ve been offering your course for a while, having periodic launches may be better if you have a small team (or a team of one!) and don’t have the resources to handle year-round management of your course and its customers.
The other potential benefit of a periodic launch is that it creates a sense of scarcity that may incentivize potential customers to act. At the same time, some course creators aren’t comfortable with the idea of creating artificial scarcity. I think it’s up to you to determine your comfort level with this approach.
Making your course evergreen is a good option if you don’t like the idea of creating scarcity and you have the ability to handle your course promotion and management year-round. Once you’re happy with your course and you have the systems and/or personnel in place to help you run things year-round, you can move into evergreen mode. Ideally, you have someone on your team who can split the duties. For instance, the other person could handle the logistics of the course itself (payments, customer support, etc.), so you can focus on the marketing end, if that’s your jam.
Here's a deeper dive into creating evergreen sales funnels for your courses and other products.
The option you go with—evergreen vs. periodic—will have an effect on how you market the course. Your evergreen course marketing is likely to be more steady and consistent, whereas your periodic launch marketing is going to have ebbs and flows depending on how many times you open and close the course each year.
In the end, neither approach is better than the other in every situation, and it’s really about your personal comfort level, resources, and preferences. There are pros and cons to each approach, so I definitely recommend testing and experimenting to find the right fit for you and your course. If you try something and it's not working, try something else. The only firm recommendation I have is that your beta launch should be periodic, but after that, the world is your oyster!
Building Audience Trust in Affiliate Partnerships
Earlier in this chapter, I mentioned affiliate relationships as a powerful way to grow your course audience. Many course creators opt to work with affiliates who promote their course and get a small commission for every person in their audience who buys the course. These types of arrangements can work out great for both parties, but they can also present pitfalls when it comes to building trust if you don’t go about things thoughtfully.
You see, even once you’ve built solid trust with your audience, there’s a danger in “shuttling” them over to somebody else without laying down the right foundation first. It's almost like saying, “Now that we've gotten to know each other pretty well, I'd love to introduce you to my friend over here. You've never met him before, but he's gonna ask you to buy something.” In real life, that's not going to come across very well—but unfortunately that exact thing happens online a lot.
Beyond promoting a course that offers a desirable outcome for your potential customers, the most important thing to do is convince your audience that the person creating the course is the right person to teach them that material. So how do you do that? One way I’ve done it is to interview the creators of those online courses on my podcast, which is also a great relationship-building tool. Most of the time, I promote courses that I’ve used myself. I talk about my own experience and what I loved about it and why I appreciate the care that the course creator put in to help me achieve success. And if someone in my audience has taken their course, I’ll use their examples and stories to help promote that course as well.
And all of the same tactics apply if you’re asking someone else to promote your course as an affiliate. If they have a podcast, you can have them interview you on it, or maybe write a guest post on their website. If they or anyone in their audience has taken your course and succeeded with it, you can ask them to share those stories with the rest of their audience.
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More Reading and Learning on How to Market Your Online Course
If you already have an established online business and you’re adding a course to expand your offerings and serve your audience in new ways, then you hopefully already have a solid marketing strategy in place for your brand, and a grasp on the most effective tactics and channels for you.
On the other hand, if you’re just getting started and are planning a business around an online course, you may need to spend more time getting a marketing plan in order.
Everything that goes into becoming an effective digital marketer and creating powerful sales funnels, for your course or any other products or services you offer, is definitely more than we could cover in this guide. If this is an area where you could stand to learn more, then I want to share a few additional resources with you.
Read more about why I recommend starting with a periodic launch for your course.
On the other side of the equation, here’s a great interview with author and sales funnel expert Nick Stephenson on how to set up successful evergreen funnels for your course:
This is one of those things you may not think about until you’re dealing with it. How do you promote a course that’s geared toward kids in an appropriate but effective way?
Finally, I highly recommend you go through all the material on my Digital Marketing page. There’s a ton of great info in there, including the SPI Epic Guide to Branding, tutorials and case studies, and several courses of my own that will help you build your own brand, find a winning business idea and land your first customer, and start generating an income with affiliate marketing.
Okay! In chapter 4, I’ll share my favorite tips for creating and marketing an online course your audience will love.