If you’ve ever thought of creating your own online course, then you’ve likely hit a wall when you realized all the work required to go from idea to welcoming your first paying student.
After launching Blog School for 3 sessions and the soon to be released First 1000 Subscribers, I thought an overview of how to put an online course together would be really useful if you’re thinking of creating one now or in the near future.
One of the BEST things about the online course model is you can use it in a number of different ways:
- Live : Students all start content on same day. Content is then released at pre-set intervals usually weekly or monthly. (e.g. personal trainer doing a 12 week virtual bootcamp)
- Self-Paced: All program content is available immediately after sign up and student progresses at own pace. (e.g. an independent study 4 week juice cleanse program)
- Group Coaching/Mentorship Programs: This type of product can be similar to a course but combines learning with coaching, forums and other hands on support.
- Membership Sites: Sites that have a monthly fee to access content, a community or other item. (e.g. No Meat Athlete Academy)
Things to consider when choosing a model:
- live courses and group coaching programs usually fetch a higher price because you are more hands on with the students. Your income will be restricted to the enrollment period and isn’t reoccurring.
- Self-paced courses have the benefit of being available all the time so you can receive a more steady revenue however, they are usually priced less than live programs.
Your course is going to need an online home.
If you’re a self-hosted WordPress blog then you don’t need to worry about further hosting unless you want your course to have it’s own website. In that case, you’ll want to create an additional site on your hosting account. (Most web hosts allow for multiple websites on a single account at no extra cost.) Even if you chose not to create a new website for your course, buy the domain name if it’s in the budget, it’s always a good idea to own that just in case.
Originally, I set up Blog School here on Blog Genie using the tools I’ll mention below and only after the success of the first class did I set up the course separately. This is a great option to see if your idea is going to get traction before incurring additional expenses, especially if you need to hire a blog designer to do that sort of work for you.
If you’re on a free platform like WordPress.com or Blogger or don’t want to do-it-yourself, there are membership site platforms you can use but they cost around $100/month. (e.g. Kajabi)
Your membership software is going to do most of the heavy technical lifting for your online course.
- It safe guards your content from people who haven’t paid for it.
- It creates all your sign up pages and registration forms.
- It integrates with payment gateways (like PayPal and Stripe) to help you get paid.
Each membership software has different features, prices and integrations so be sure to investigate them before making your choice. You can easy lose days trying to pick the “right” software but they will all do the job. My main suggestion is to pick based on price (is it better for you to have a one time fee or a lower monthly expense) and on integrations (what other services it co-ordinates with.)
1. Wishlist Member: This is the software I use for Blog School. Wishlist Member installs just like any other WordPress plugin and has set up tutorials to walk you through the initial configuration of the system. The plugin costs $97 for a single site license. I’ve been really happy with the ease of use of this software but you don’t have a lot of control of it’s design unless you get into your theme’s stylesheets.
2. MemberMouse: Also a WordPress plugin, MemberMouse creates a membership platform with all the features of Wishlist Member plus more advanced features for member support and different product types. This plugin starts at $19.99/month for 1000 members and has a 14 day free trial so you can try before you buy.
3. Memberful: You can use Memberful for free and only pay when you sign people up to your membership site (but the fee per transaction is a higher than normal). You can then transition to a $25/month plan once you have enough revenue that it makes financial sense to do so. I’ve never used Memberful for any personal projects but I’ve used it on behalf of a number of client projects. It’s really easy to use, maybe the most user friendly of the bunch listed here and provides a very pro looking experience for customers without needing to be a designer yourself.
4. Paid Membership Pro: The only free membership plugin I’ve encountered that is reasonably easy to use. If cost is holding you back from setting up a course or online program, it doesn’t need to with paid membership pro!
5. Cart66 Cloud: Cart 66 Cloud is another option I don’t have extensive experience with just yet but I’m beta testing on First 1000 Subscribers so I’ll have more information soon! It’s a monthly $25 subscription paid yearly or $30/month.
Email Subscriber List
As part of your online course or membership site, you’re going to need to send emails to your customers. Whether it’s new content being released or general announcements, a reliable email system is a must for your online course.
Each of the membership plugins listed above integrates with at least a few different email services. You need to make sure that the email service you chose works with your membership plugin or you’re in for a world of unnecessary struggle. Simply check the membership plugin’s website for “integrations” and you’ll see what options you have.
If you don’t already have a service, I recommend Mailchimp because it’s free up to 2000 emails, has the most integrations. Once you have 2000 people buy your course the monthly fee will be a drop in the bucket for you!
The content of your course can be written posts, pdf’s, worksheets, audio, video, forums or a combination of all of these. If you decide to go with video as part of your content mix you’ll have an additional expense for your course.
Your membership plugin is going to handle making your pages secure but when using video, you also need a service to host your videos and keep them for paying eyes only.
1. Vimeo: For $199 per year you can access the Vimeo PRO Membership that allows you full control of your uploaded videos. You can restrict them from showing up on Vimeo search, remove branding and restrict the embedding of your content so the only place they can be seen is on your website, behind the virtual walls of your membership site.
2. Wistia: Wistia is quickly becoming the go-to hosting service for online courses because it has a great stats interface along with all the other features that Vimeo Pro provides. Wistia lets you see where people stop watching your videos so you can improve your videos with better flow and content. With monthly plans starting at $25/month or a yearly $240 plan it’s a bit more expensive than Vimeo but that additional stat information may be worth it for you.
Wistia also provides a 3 video, free plan so if you just want to include a welcome video in your course but it’s otherwise written content, you can enjoy the benefits of high end hosting for free!
When you’re spending hours on content creation and the tech set up for your new course, an affiliate program may not get on your radar until much, much later.
An affiliate program is where you allow other people to promote your product on their websites or social media accounts in exchange for earning a referral commission. For digital products, like online courses or ebooks, this commission is usually between 30-50%. That may seem really high at first but often the sales you make from affiliates you’d never have received otherwise so it’s a win-win for everyone.
With a smaller audience and zero ad budget your affiliates will help you make this venture a success. Taking the time to create an affiliate program, then reaching out to potential partners before you launch is really going to spread the word fast.
When Blog School launched in 2012, I speak from experience, an affiliate program was the last thing on my mind. After months of content creation and launch planning it just never made it to the top of the to do list. Fast forward to session 2 and 3 and enrollment doubled and then tripled respectively. The difference? An affiliate program. It’s worth the effort and expense to get this part right.
The only affiliate program I’ve used with my courses and the one that has the most integrations (with all the membership plugins) is iDevAffiliate. The set up for this system is going to require some technical confidence with your hosting account so if you don’t have that, investing the $45 for a professional set up is going to make you a very happy camper.
iDevAffiliate starts at $149.99 and is a one time purchase and then you’re free to set up your affiliate program however you like, with any type of commission percent and payout schedule.
Don’t Break the Bank
There are a lot of prices mentioned in this post and it’s true, making an online program can incur a lot of expenses is you go for high end right out of the gate, but it’s a great idea to start small:
- Outline and write your content first, don’t spend money before you’ve followed through a big chunk of the course
- Try doing a written course first before jumping into video, you can always upgrade the course content (and the price tag) later on
- Go free with your email software by using Mailchimp
- Affiliate programs can be set up after the course is running, you may sacrifice some sales by not having this piece in place but it’s the biggest upfront expense and can wait until you have more cash flow
Price should not stop you if this is something you want to do. In the beginning, you can use free tools to set this up and only incur hosting fees!
The Silver Lining
Making an online program was some of the hardest work I’ve ever done in my business because there was only self-imposed deadlines. There were no clients waiting, no due dates, just me and what I wanted to get out in the world.
But where’s that silver lining? The program is set up is largely a one time endeavour and once it’s done, it’s done. From there you just have to worry about marketing and getting your name out there while the course starts earning income. There’s always content tweaks and improvements you can make but those are a pleasure when everything’s humming along nicely.
If you have any questions about creating an online course, please leave them in the comments. I’m happy to share or hunt down the answer for you.