How To Create An Online Course: The Ultimate Guide

Critical Success Factors for Creating Online Courses

Critical Success Factors for Creating Online Courses


The golden key to a course that sells well and is quick and easy to build is your choice of topic and audience.
Find a topic with a hungry audience desperate to learn and it won't take a lot of marketing to make it a winner. Conversely, a topic that few people are interested in is going to flop, no matter how brilliant your marketing is.
And in terms of a course that's easy to create, that's very much dependent on the depth and breadth of the material you need to produce to teach the topic. And that in turn depends on what your audience is looking for.
Luckily there are a few simple rules of thumb you can use to identify what type of course will have the most demand and be the easiest to product.

The 3 Different Types of Online Course

There are three primary types of online course, each with a different audience and motivation for buying.
By understanding these different types of course and why they're bought you can make sure you're developing a course that will sell, right from the start.
The first type of course is an Entertainment Based Course.
The 3 Different Types of Online Course
As you can guess from the name, the primary motivation for buying a course of this type is because of the enjoyment you'll get from taking it and from growing your mastery of a skill.
So while you might learn a useful new skill or enhance your current skills on an Entertainment Based Course, there's no real expectation that you'll get a major financial or career benefit from it.
The courses from Masterclass are a great example of this type.
For a small monthly fee you can learn tennis from Serena Williams, screenwriting from Aaron Sorkin, cooking from Gordon Ramsay and many many more.
The courses tend to be relatively high level and inspirational rather than something you could build a career or business from.
Your tennis skills may improve a bit and you'll probably enjoy the game more as a result of taking Serena's course but it's doubtful you'll become a tennis pro.
I took Sorkin's screenwriting course while on vacation a few years ago. And while I learnt some things about storytelling that could be useful to me in business, I had no expectation of ever writing a screenplay let alone becoming a professional screenwriter. My primary motivation was the enjoyment of learning something new and interesting from someone whose work I admired while sitting by the pool sipping a cold beer.
People typically choose this type of course based on whether the specific skill they'd enjoy learning is covered (for hobby based skills there may be few providers), and to a large degree the prestige of the instructor.
The second type of course is a Professional Development Course.
Buyers of this type of course are looking for a broad set of skills that can help them in their career.
Sometimes that relates to doing their current job better. More usually it's to gain new skills that will help them in a new role or the next step up on the ladder in their current role.
Examples of this would be doing an online MBA, a functional skills course or a coach certification. 
People who buy Professional Development Courses typically want to gain as broad and as deep a range of skills from the course as they can, since anything they learn has the potential to be helpful to them in their future career.
They choose their provider of this type of course based on the perceived value future value to their career of the skills they'll acquire and to a certain degree the prestige of the course provider (a Harvard MBA will help their career rather more than a course from their local college for example).
The third type of course is an Outcome Based Course.
Buyers of this type of course are looking to learn a skill in order to achieve a specific result. Their motivation is less about the skill itself and more about the result it enables them to achieve.
An example of this type of course would be a business owner doing sales training in order to get more customers (rather than a salesperson wanting to become better at at their profession of sales).
Because buyers of Outcome Based Courses are interested in the results they'll get from the skills they acquire rather than the skills themselves, they ideally want to learn the minimum possible to get the job done and achieve the maximum benefits.
In other words, any time spent learning skills that aren't absolutely necessary to achieve the outcome they're looking for is viewed as a waste.
Buyers of this type of course make their selection based on the perceived return on investment they'll get from the course (how much the outcome they're looking to achieve is worth vs the cost of the course) and how how confident they are that the skills they'll acquire through the course provider will definitely lead to the outcome they're looking for.
The three types of course are summarised below:
Comparison of the 3 main types of online course
Each type of course can be very successful, but if you have the choice, my advice would be to focus on building an Outcome Based Course. At least initially.
Because an Outcome Based Course is aimed at giving your clients the skills they need to get a specific result, it's much easier for them to have a clear return on investment on the course rather than if it gives them skills they use for enjoyment or they're building to help their future career.
And a clear return on investment makes it much easier to charge higher prices for the course.
Additionally, because buyers of an Outcome Based Course prefer to learn the minimum necessary to achieve the outcome they're looking for, it's much quicker and easier to develop this type of course than when buyers are looking to learn as much as they can from the course.
This analysis is summarised below:
Profitability analysis of types of online course
That's not to say you can't make a great success of an Entertainment Based or Professional Development Course. It's just that they're likely to be tougher to make work than an Outcome Based Course - especially for your first course.

Deliver a Specific, Tangible Outcome in an Important or Urgent Area

How you frame the outcome your course delivers makes a big difference to how attractive it is to potential buyers.
Ideally you want it to be clear from just the title of the course what kind of return on investment buyers will get from it. But even if the link to financial benefits isn't easily quantifiable you can make your course much more attractive simply by the way you phrase the name and the goals.
Deliver a Specific, Tangible Outcome in an Important or Urgent Area
The more specific and tangible you can make it and the more you can focus it on a known priority of your potential clients the better. For example:
  • "Marketing for Startups" vs "Get Your First 10 Big Clients"
  • "Presentation Skills" vs "Ace Your Board Presentation"
  • "Leadership Skills" vs "Crisis Management for Leaders"
You might be worried that by making your course more specific and focusing on only one aspect of the bigger set of skills you can deliver that you'll shrink the market for it and have lower sales. but in fact the opposite happens. 
When people buy courses to help them achieve an outcome they're looking for something as focused on that outcome as possible. Buying a broader course to achieve just one of the many outcomes it covers is a bit like buying a full toolbox just because you need a new screwdriver. Typically it feels like a waste if you do it, and you worry that the screwdriver won't be as good quality as the one you could buy specifically on it's own to do exactly the job you want done.
So although focusing on a very specific outcome shrinks the market, it makes you exponentially more likely to get buyers who want that outcome. 
And, of course, it's a lot quicker and easier to create a course based on one outcome than a more general course.

Pick the Right Audience for You

Typically there are two potential audiences of buyers for courses: 
  • Individuals (end consumers or small business owners). These are people buying the course for their own use (or for someone to use on their behalf. They typically buy one course at a time and are able to make decisions quickly and pay instantly via credit card.
  • Corporate buyers. This is where appointed representatives or committees buy courses for use by others in their organisation. They usually buy multiple courses, are often from administrative functions (HR or Procurement for example), have long, complex decision processes often involving multiple people, and may have technical criteria for courses (e.g. the technology/methodology used)
There's no one best audience for everyone, just the best audience for you.
For most of us, selling to individuals (e.g. small business owners) is going to be our fastest and easiest route to success.
  • They're usually easier to reach
  • Decision making is faster and easier
  • Their needs are more straightforward and focused (the needs of an individual vs multi-person)
However, if you already have established relationships with corporates it can be relatively easy to get them interested in courses.
  • You can offer the course as an add-on to existing work
  • Or you can simply use your strong connections and pre-existing trust to start a conversation about online courses
  • You can often be paid in advance to develop a course specifically for a corporate client that you can then reuse 80% of later
  • Because they're buying multiple copies of a course for employees it can be very lucrative
However, if you don’t have good connections already it can be very hard to break into a corporate - especially right now when access is limited due to the pandemic. The sales process is much longer and complex and you'll probably be required to make your course compatible with their existing systems. 
So if you're starting from scratch or don't have those pre-established corporate connections, focusing on individuals (either end consumers or small business owners) will be your most probable route to success.

Ensure Your Course Stands Out from Others on the Market

When you deliver face-to-face services you're somewhat insulated from competition.
Travel costs and time mean that most face-to-face services are bought from relatively local providers. And even if international providers are considered, they can't be in two places at the same time. So if they're delivering work for one client they can't deliver work simultaneously for another.
Neither of those constraints is true for online courses.
Ensure Your Course Stands Out from Others on the Market
While they offer you the big advantages that you can reach clients with your courses anywhere in the world and those courses can be bought and delivered 24/7 - those same factors apply to your competitors too. In other words, with online courses you're competing against everyone else in the world who sells the same type of course as you.
In order to succeed with online courses it's vital that your course stands out and is clearly different and better (for some people) than the others on the market.
There are five primary ways to make your course stand out from other similar ones:
  • Make your course cheaper than everyone else's.
    This is an obvious way to stand out from other courses, but it's not one I'd recommend. There will always be someone prepared to undercut your pricing in a race to the bottom that hurts everyone. And these days, marketplaces like Udemy and Skillshare are making basic courses on many topics available at ultra low prices.
  • Make your course more in-depth and comprehensive than everyone else's.
    This can be a very effective way of competing. In the world of online advertising for small businesses, Adskills is well-known for these type of courses: more in-depth and technical than any others on the market.

    Creating these in-depth, comprehensive courses obviously takes a lot of work, and they're more suitable for Professional Development type courses than Outcome Based ones. For example, Adksills is often used by agencies  to train and certify their staff or by individuals wanting to become a deep expert in an advertising platform, rather than by business owners just wanting to get ads that work for them.
  • Focus your course on a specialist niche .
    A course focused on a narrow audience or sub-topic (or combination of both) is going to have much less competition than a course focused on a much broader market. At it's going to be much more appealing to buyers in that niche

    The challenge, of course, is to find a niche with limited competition, but still big enough to allow you to hit your sales goals.
  • Differentiate based on your own credibility, personality or relationship with your audience.
    If you're a well-known expert in your field, have a long track record of success, or have built a strong relationship with an audience (e.g. your own email list) then that can differentiate your course from others.

    People buy from people they know and trust and that relationship can be your edge, even if the course itself is similar to others.
  • Base your course on a unique methodology or approach.
    Rather than just teaching standard material, if the core of your course is a methodology or model or approach that's unique to you it becomes impossible for competitors to copy.

    And because the approach is different to what anyone else is offering it'll be new and compelling to potential buyers. It also means you can focus on teaching the unique aspects of the approach rather than covering everything related to the topic.

    For very many people this will be the most effective way of differentiating yourself while minimising the amount of work needed to develop an effective course. And the reality is that we all have our own unique approaches to how we deliver our work - it's a matter of codifying and communicating them in a compelling way.
In practice, most successful courses use a combination of ways of differentiation.
Mark Dawson's course on Facebook Advertising for Authors, for example, stands out partially because it was the first and is still one of the few courses on Facebook Advertising specifically for fiction authors. But it also benefits from his personal credibility as a highly successful author having sold millions of fiction books.

Use a Lean Approach to Developing Your Course

One of the biggest mistakes people make with online courses - particularly their first one - is to spend too much time developing the course and building the infrastructure before they've properly tested whether there's a viable market for the course.
Your biggest uncertainty by far when building an online course isn't whether you'll be able to create a good course, or whether you'll be able to master the technology. It's whether you'll be able to sell it.
Use a Lean Approach to Developing Your Course
And while surveys, interviews and other forms of research can help, the only real way to know if your audience will buy a course is to offer it for sale.
The best way to do this is to follow a "lean" approach to developing the course.
With a lean approach you develop a "minimum viable product" that delivers the results your customers are looking for without the bells and whistles and presentational niceties and offer it for sale to your hungriest potential customers as soon as possible.
With an online course, you can do this by running a paid pilot.
With a paid pilot, you offer to deliver the initial version of the course in a "rough and ready" pilot version to customers who are happy to get the content, give you feedback, and help shape the course.
In return for being guinea pigs for the course, they usually get a significant discount on the target price, plus they get to work with you directly as you develop the course so that it's certain to meet their specific needs.
Usually a paid pilot is drip fed week by week - either as training videos or delivered live by webinar or video call.
This sequential delivery means you can offer the course for sale as soon as you've pulled together an outline of what will go in the course. You don't need to actually create all the course materials before selling it.
Of course, you have to be confident you'll be able to create each module of the course in time to deliver it to your paying customers. And it's wise to keep a week or so ahead of your promised delivery date for each module just in case illness or other problems strike.
But the key is that you can offer the course for sale before you've created the bulk of it. And you can deliver the course using simple technology like a live webinar or hidden pages on your website - you don't have to build a complex fully automated infrastructure for the course.
That means that you can test whether the course will be viable before making large investments in time and money to create it.
In the worst case, if the course doesn't sell well enough to justify creating the rest of it, you simply refund the early buyers (and ideally gift them something else to thank them).
In the best case, the course will sell quickly and give you the confidence to push ahead full steam developing the remainder of the pilot course and then updating for the full course.
Using a paid pilot to de-risk course development
Following this approach you take a lot of the risk out of course development. And you also ensure that the course you develop is much more likely to meet the needs of your clients.
The first step is to choose a  topic that will be attractive to buyers and easy for you to develop.

Choosing the Right Topic for Your Online Course

Choosing the Right Topic for Your Profitable Online Course

Learn which topics lead to the most profitable and easiest to develop course

  • Brainstorm ideas using Topic Triggers
  • Strengthen your initial ideas
  • Evaluate and select the best idea