You’ve learned the basics, and maybe even started building your first online course. Now I’d like to share some of the best online course creation tips I’ve learned in the past few years of creating my own awesome online courses and helping others do the same.
The 7 Lessons I Learned Testing and Launching My First Online Course
I learned a lot through the process of creating and launching my first paid online course, Smart From Scratch®, back in 2017. These lessons still resonate today, even after creating and launching four more paid courses.
To be fair, I had already created a course before Smart From Scratch: the free companion course to my book Will It Fly?. But diving into my first paid course was a different experience that posed a bunch of new challenges and taught me several key lessons. Here are the seven biggest ones.
Lesson 1: It’s Not Easy
Believe it or not, creating a comprehensive course with clear objectives isn’t easy. My team and I put a ton of effort into the course design and beta experience for Smart From Scratch. Thankfully, we had our experience creating and launching the Will It Fly? companion course, and that definitely helped make the process a little easier. As did using Teachable as a platform (which we’ll talk more about in chapter 7). But each of the videos within the course required outlines, and they needed to be done well. The course design mattered. The structure of the course needed to make sense for the students. The material needed to truly inspire. And of course, people needed to come away with the promised transformation at the end.
There are two things that really helped me through this:
- Inspiration from my peers. People like Amy Porterfield, David Siteman Garland, and Michael Hyatt all helped me immensely. I took their courses to help get me into the mindset of a student and to see how truly helpful I could be with my own course. In the process, I realized that Smart From Scratch was something my audience was asking for, so I needed to build it. If I had let fear or uncertainty get in my way, it wouldn’t have been possible. But thanks to my peers, I was able to see through that.
- Beta customers. The founding students of Smart From Scratch were integral to creating what the course has become. If you’re thinking of creating and launching your own course, having a beta group that can help you validate and refine the course is an absolute must.
That second point leads me into the second lesson I learned while testing and launching Smart From Scratch.
Lesson 2: Be Open to Feedback
If you’re not open to feedback—in anything—you’re not going to have room to grow and improve.
This needs to be said again and again: The feedback I received from the Smart From Scratch beta students was vital. From the positive feedback to the eye-opening criticism, all of it has been so helpful. It afforded me the opportunity to hold back from selling the course publicly to collect feedback early, tweak it, refine it, and make the course better to sell later. From a business perspective, that’s such a huge deal, and for that I’ll be forever grateful for their amazing insight throughout the process.
Lesson 3: People Like Structure and Convenience
During the course creation process, one of many things I validated was this: People like structure. With Smart From Scratch, they benefit from a hands-on, step-by-step process for testing and validating their business idea. Essentially all of the information in the course could be accessed by reading Will It Fly? and browsing SmartPassiveIncome.com. With YouTube and the wide and wonderful internet, so much information is out there.
But the difference with a course like Smart From Scratch is the structure and convenience of it. Sometimes it’s easier to consume and learn information when it’s structured, like in a course with built-in accountability and community.
If whatever you’re trying to sell, whether it’s a course or physical product, is structured in a way that makes people’s lives easier, you’ll win.
Lesson 4: Embrace the Community
The fourth lesson I learned while testing and launching Smart From Scratch was just how amazing a community can be. The SPI community is so great, so it really shouldn’t have surprised me, but it did. Going through the course and working with the students, hearing feedback in multiple ways from surveys within the course, reading the messages in the groups and in emails—all really inspired me. It really showed me how lovely and supportive our community of entrepreneurs can be. And it proved to me why Smart From Scratch needed to exist.
All of my audience’s feedback and stated wins along the way really motivated me and spurred me to continue creating courses and connecting in that way with my audience. It is, without a doubt, one of the more enlightening and rewarding experiences I’ve had.
Lesson 5: Create Ways for Students to Interact
One thing I wanted to do with the Smart From Scratch experience was give students a means to interact with one another. I wanted them to be able to ask questions, get feedback, and connect with me throughout their learning journey.
So we created a Facebook group for the beta students, and kept it open for students after the public launch as well. The Facebook group (which you can create on Facebook for free) has been amazing for helping people to get through it together, for asking questions, getting feedback, and staying motivated.
I was worried that some people wouldn’t be able to access Facebook. And that may be the case sometimes, but it’s not the norm. Giving people a safe place to communicate with one another is essential. And Facebook makes it easy because you can set up notifications that go straight to your email.
So, if you create a course, remember to create an easy way for your students to interact and communicate with each other—whether that’s on Facebook, in a forum, or elsewhere. It’ll make a huge difference.
Lesson 6: Provide Office Hours
Having office hours throughout the course to answer questions for students is a super high-value proposition. For Smart From Scratch, the office hours were key because we were able to get the beta students together to answer specific questions, whether they asked them through chat or directly on camera (via Zoom).
Getting people together so that they can ask questions and interact with the group is highly encouraging for everyone. Even people who are sitting on the sidelines listening to these questions and my answers are still getting a lot of benefit because a lot of them have the same questions.
I did find initially that only a small percentage of people were attending these office hours, so I’d try to mix up the hours, having them early in the morning, sometimes later in the evening, and mid-afternoon. Offering different times helps ensure that as many people as possible have an opportunity to talk, especially if you have international students in various time zones, like I did with Smart From Scratch.
Now onto the seventh and final lesson I learned while testing and launching my first online course!
Lesson 7: People Are Busy (But Encouragement Helps)
The seventh and final lesson I learned while testing and launching Smart From Scratch, is that people lead busy lives. With that in mind, it's hard to expect everybody to get through the whole course in the timeframe you may want or expect.
Even after the course was launched, there were still people from the beta group who had yet to get through all the videos in the course, and it was simply because life gets in the way. I tried to do my best to encourage them through various means, including the Facebook group and in office hours.
One thing that I didn't do for the Smart From Scratch beta group but implemented with the course’s public launch (and every one of my courses since then), is to send emails to students while they’re taking the course. This can be really rewarding and motivating, especially if the emails can answer questions your students may have, or feature a success story that may motivate them. Be a cheerleader for your students, and they’ll be that much more likely to succeed!
Five More Lessons for Online Course Creators
Before we move on, I’ve got more tips for you to make the most out of your online course, based on what I’ve learned creating and launching multiple successful online courses. Here they are, in no particular order!
Lesson 8: Give Away a Piece of the Course for Free
Giving part of your course away is a great way to get people excited about upgrading to the full thing. The simplest option is probably to give people access to the first module (or part of it, depending on how many modules your course has). You could even give people full access to the course for a limited time, like a week.
Another option is to offer limited access to the course community, like letting people view Facebook conversations but not contribute to them until they purchase the course.
Whichever way you’re leaning, I definitely recommend testing different options to see what works best for you and your audience. If you use a course platform like Teachable, you can also see whether people have accessed their free module and how much progress they’ve made.
Lesson 9: Got a Book? Create a Companion Course
If you’re an author trying to build your audience, then a companion course might make a lot of sense.
For two of my books, Will It Fly? and Superfans, I’ve created companion courses. Each of those courses has been a big success in helping me stay connected to my readers, by giving them extra value for free and asking them to join my email list when they sign up for the course. Many people who took the Will It Fly? course have also ended up purchasing my paid courses.
Since you’ve already written the book, creating the course is going to be a little easier than if you were starting from scratch with a brand-new course. You can create lessons to match each chapter of the book, with all the links you mention in the book chapter, plus additional resources that might be helpful for your reader.
Lesson 10: Consider Hiring a Professional Videographer
If you’re serious about using high-quality video in your course lessons, consider hiring a professional to help you out. Anyone can set up their phone and record a basic video, and that might be all you need for your beta course. But if you’re trying to create a premium experience for your course takers and charge a premium price for it, a professional videographer will have the expertise, knowledge of lighting and filming techniques, and access to the top-end equipment that will make a huge difference in your video quality and your students’ experience.
If you want to know more about what it’s like to work with a professional videographer, check out this podcast interview with Caleb Wojcik, who’s been helping me create awesome video content for a number of years.
Lesson 11: Look Out for Course Thieves
Chances are good that 99.9 percent of the people who buy your course, or come across it, have good intentions and want to pay you for it. Unfortunately, there are people out there who don’t like doing things ethically, and you need to look out for the ways your course material might be used improperly.
First, there are unscrupulous websites out there that resell other people’s courses at a hugely discounted price. How do they do that? They basically buy the course, steal the content, upload it to their own site, then in some cases request a refund using some excuse. There are several such sites out there (that I won’t link to for obvious reasons), and you need to be aware of this phenomenon if you’re going to be creating and selling your own courses.
While you can’t completely guard against this happening, you can still include elements in your course experience that can’t be easily stolen or replicated. These are the ingredients we talked about in chapter 1: community, accountability, and access to you, the expert. A great course is more than just a container for content and information.
There’s another scenario that exists in an ethical gray area, and while it’s not as bad as someone stealing your course content, it’s something to watch out for: people sharing course logins with others so they can take your course without paying for it.
In this podcast episode, I go into more detail on what to do when someone gains access to your course material without paying, or just outright steals it.
Lesson 12: Listen To This Interview with Ankur from Teachable
As you’ve learned so far in this guide, online courses can be great for evangelizing your business, building community, growing your customer base, and providing massive amounts of value to your audience. Ankur Nagpal, the creator of the online course platform Teachable believes this too. In this podcast episode, Ankur revealed a ton of amazing insight that any course creator can benefit from.
This podcast episode is an absolute must-listen, so check it out. You’ll learn:
- Everything that goes into a great online course.
- Strategies for turning your students into customers.
- The biggest obstacle for first-time course creators—it's simpler than you think.
- The secret to pricing your course.
- Tips for reinvigorating students who drop off or lose interest.
I also asked course creators in my audience to share their best tips and lessons learned from creating and marketing their own courses. I got some amazing input, and I want to share the 26 best tidbits they sent me. You’ll notice that some of them share really similar tips, and I don’t see that as a negative! On the contrary, it reinforces how important some of these best practices are to having a successful course.
Want to know what those 26 online course creation tips are? Read on!
26 Entrepreneurs’ Best Tips for Creating and Selling Online Courses
1. Do not prepare an online course for selling. Create an online course for what you love to do and then sell it. You will earn a lot if you sell a topic that you love to do. – Resit, Master of Project Academy
2. Stop worrying all the time about how you will sell your course and start worrying about how you will create such a good course that will provoke a real change in your students' lives. Then, I promise you the money will come. Great content means good reviews, and good reviews mean more money. – David Perálvarez, Club SiliCODE Valley
3. Build content that people can't find anywhere else in the world for the same price or at the same level of quality. If you do both at the same time, sales will roll in like crazy. – Dakota Wixom, QuantCourse
4. Stop making excuses as to why you aren't qualified to teach, set a deadline, and commit to that deadline. Do not let yourself get distracted by trying to make everything perfect. It will never be perfect. Strive for professionalism, but don't derail yourself in the chase of perfection. You can't fix what you don't launch. So launch it, learn, tweak, and repeat.
I lurked around the SPI and Teachable communities for 14 months. I listened to all the course-related podcasts Pat did. And I got stuck in a cycle of trying to gather all this intelligence. I wish I had stopped going into “research” mode and just committed that time to DOING IT. Finally, in January I committed to launching my course by the first week of March. I did it and got 52 students. I was actually literally sitting in the audience at a conference Pat was speaking at and I was getting student after student and refreshing my app to see how much money had come in!
It was an amazing feeling and I only wish I had done it SOONER :).
– Sarah, User Research Mastery
5. For a fast and profitable launch, plan a launch on Instagram. We flipped $2k in ad spend into $60k worth of sales on our Teachable course. Micro-influencers are the way to go! – Julie Cabezas, Social Brand School
6. Each one of us has a secret passion. Maybe you know more about Star Trek than anyone on this (or any) planet. Maybe you can recite the relative strengths and weaknesses of every car on the market. Maybe you have all your grandmother's recipes for your family's special foods. You think you're the only one who cares about these things. You are not. Use your secret passion as material for an online course and people will respond. Because people respond to passion. – Eric Goldman, Profit Leader Academy
7. Test your idea first. Don't waste any time creating a course unless you have a solid list ready to buy it. Start small with blog posts and expand as the traffic steadily increases. Launch your course when your audience starts asking for it. – Sarah Crosley, The Creative Boss: Create the Ultimate Opt-In Offer
8. Don't wait . . . set a date and get out there and pre-sell (better yet, create your webinar date to launch your yet-to-be-created course). Nothing will light a fire fast enough knowing that you have to get it done. – Susie Parker, Family Success Academy: Baby Naps Made Easy
9. No course is ever perfect when it launches. If you try to make your course perfect before you launch, you will NEVER launch. It's okay to start with an initial version of your course that you improve on after receiving feedback from your students. – Daniel Milner, Make TV Easy
10. The number one thing people need to know is to sell something that people actually need. And then know a thing or two about marketing to sell it. Love Pat Flynn. Love Teachable. Love helpful people and making a living doing it! – Jen Kamel, VBACfacts Academy: The Truth About VBAC™ for Professionals
11. Teach MORE THAN your competitors for FREE. Selling is nothing but teaching genuinely. If you just teach without holding anything back, genuinely, and help people, everything becomes very easy. Why I am saying this? Because it's not something I had planned before my course launch. It's something I realized last month. My “Aha!” moment. After looking at the last 4 months' stats.
I did $20,000 in sales in the last 4 months without running a single Facebook ad or any kind of promotion. I have just 11 videos on my YouTube channel. But those 11 videos teach more than other paid courses. Somehow people are finding those videos, getting amazing value, and subscribing to my paid course. – Mubaid Syed, T-Shirt Profit Academy
12. Roadmap actual deliverables and stick to a schedule that's conducive to producing the outcomes you need to meet your plan. Too many entrepreneurs spend three years “making” a course, and not a single buyer will ever be exposed or even hear about it!
Our current course is doing well over $25k/month in recurring and we're moving all of the outside stuff into Teachable as we speak! – Scot Smith, Automated Inbound: Rainmaker University
13. Plan out your marketing and promotion strategy even before you build your course. – Amir West, Online Entrepreneur Life: Amazon Phenomenon
14. Business success is not dependent on the size of your email list, nor what you're passionate about. A large unresponsive list is a massive cost centre and your passions don't mean a thing if people don't want to pay for it.
Find a deep unmet need or hidden desire waiting to be addressed. Address that in your course, and then make THAT your passion. If you can do that, even a small list can be very responsive and profitable; and you'll have a thriving business. – Vikram Anand, Get Ahead Fast™
15. It's all about creating a detailed, powerful outline. Armed with that, you'll know how much of your course you can give away for free to attract the right audience, which parts of your course to promote or add to your blog/podcast, and how to build a sales page that highlights what you'll share with people. – Regina Anaejionu, Business School for Humans: Monetize and Market Your Mind
16. Whatever topic you have in mind right now, make it 5 times smaller. The biggest mistake is to think you have to cover everything in one step. – Kerstin, Fluent Language School
17. Just do it! Perfection kills progress. Like Pat, I live in San Diego. I'm a huge fan of the show. I literally shot my class in my living room. I duct-taped together my first sales funnel and I was trying and failing at Facebook ads on Black Friday (my launch day, which now I hear is the WORST day to launch anything, LOL). Now a few short months later it has made about $50,000 and enrollment has been closed much of that time. Testing deadline funnel now. Yes I will be adding more courses ASAP! – Gina Downey, Academy for Dance
18. VALIDATE, then create. Before pouring time and money into an online course, make sure that people will buy it by actually ASKING people to buy it! You may be able to get 100 people to sign up to be beta testers for your course, but if no one is willing to pay you for the course, then it's not worth creating.
When I created my first online course, I sent a few people in my audience a personalized email where I gave them a description of what the course was and what it would include. If they were interested, I asked them if they wanted to pre-purchase the course at a special rate (yes, before it was built!). I made $8,000 off of the pre-sale, which validated that people wanted my course. I spent the next few months creating the course, and launched to my list of only 2,000 at the time. My first launch did $41k in sales. Validate the idea, then create the product. – Abbey Ashley, The Virtual Savvy: VA Bootcamp
19. The number one tip I would give to course creators is start building your list immediately. Always be growing your audience and remember to nurture it as you grow. If you have a great audience who wants to hear what you have to say, you will be successful in your online course creation and sales! – Fleur Ottaway, Venture Digital: Get Results from Your Facebook Ads
20. Jump and then figure out how to open the parachute. I started my course live before I had all the content developed. Each week I had 15 people who were showing up to my office to learn, so I needed to make sure it was ready for them. Eight weeks later my course was developed, recorded, and uploaded to Teachable. Over $70k in 6 months later and I'm happy I didn't wait until it was “ready.” – Gregory Bottaro, Catholic Psych Academy: Take Control of Your Life Today
21. Don't pressure yourself to create one module or even one PDF of the course BEFORE you've pre-launched and pre-sold the idea. That pressure can be a major mental block, and you'll never take action to get it out of your brain and into Teachable (#speakingfromexperience).
So instead, craft your pre-sales campaign, do that, and then once the dollars are in and there's PROOF that your people are willing to put their money into your idea . . . then your mental blocks will magically turn into action. – Elise Darma, InstaGrowth Boss
22. Overcome any hesitations, any procrastination, any fear by writing a list about how fabulous you are, how helpful your course will be, what benefits you'll be bringing to their lives. Jump up and down, get super excited, and GO! You're now in the right buzzing mindset and vibrational vantage point to pour the right energy into your work. YOU'RE GOING TO NAIL IT! – Heather, The Brain Trainer
23. Differentiate yourself and your course. Don't be one of a thousand teaching HTML, or healthy lifestyles. Find something that makes you different. Find a way to be different. It's the only way you can stand out and build a real business. If you're the same as everyone else, no one has a reason to enroll in YOUR course. Differentiate yourself and make that differentiator your competitive advantage. – Mark Lassoff, LearnToProgram: Become a Professional Developer
24. Find one person and walk them through your exact process of the course you're considering creating. Each step of the way becomes your working outline for the course and helps identify any steps you might overlook. As an added bonus, this person becomes your true raving fan and an amazing testimonial. Teachable rocks! – Jeff Rose, The Online Advisor Growth Formula
25. Engage with your audience. Focus on helping people, money will follow. – Sam (Sanjay) J, TIBCO Learning
26. Sell as you create! By sharing what you are working on, your fans feel like they are part of the process and they will be rooting for your success. Plus they will be thinking about getting the class when it comes out. I think it is enticing to know about a product that you can't have yet and by the time it comes out they have convinced themselves that they need it and they jump at the chance to buy. Offering a special price for early buyers also removes a consideration and makes the purchase a no-brainer. Just make sure you deliver the good so they will come back for the next class 🙂 – Lindsay Weirich, Essential Tools and Techniques for Watercolor Painting
I hope all these online course creation tips and best practices come in handy as you’re building and launching your course! But what about the flipside—the things you shouldn’t do if you want to have a successful online course? That’s what we’ll cover in chapter 5.