How To Create An Online Course: The Ultimate Guide

Marketing and Scaling Up Your Online Course


Most of the attention and noise about building online courses is understandably centred on creating the course and launching it into the marketplace.
But in practice, the real success of the courses, and the place where real money is made from courses, comes after the launch.
Successful courses sell for many years beyond their initial launch. And to get those ongoing evergreen sales you need two things:
  • Systems for converting more of your existing contacts into course buyers.
  • Systems to add new contacts while promoting your course to them.
The key is to create evergreen systems and processes that work on a regular and repeating basis to bring in new contacts and course members without needing to create new content or campaigns all the time.
Now is the time you can invest in new channels and tactics to bring on board more new contacts and buyers - but do it one step at a time.
Remember: it's not just about more contacts and members - you need to be able to bring them on board profitably with your marketing.

The Key to Profitability is to Understand Lifetime Value and Customer Acquisition Cost

Course profitability is crucial - not just for making money, but to be able to grow.
If your course is profitable after the cost of marketing has been taken into account it means you can ramp up that marketing and grow your sales.
If it isn't, you can't grow unless you find a way to get profitable.
Understanding the Economics of Your Online Course
The best way to look at profitability for an online course is to try to calculate the Lifetime Value (LTV) and Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC) of your course buyers.
The lifetime value of a customer is the income you make from them over their entire life as a customer. In other words, it's not just the first purchase, it's everything they buy from you.
Smart businesses don't just focus on the first sale. They work to maximise the lifetime value of their customers. 
Once someone has bought from you and experienced what it's like to work with you, they're much more likely to buy from you again so the second, third and further sales are much easier than the first and much less costly for you.
If you have a high lifetime value it means you can afford to invest in paid advertising to acquire more customers or to hire people to do marketing for you to grow further. It's a virtuous circle.
Conversely, with a low lifetime value you can only afford free or low cost marketing. You have to do it all yourself and you're often unable to invest time in the other key activities to grow your business and raise yourself out of the details.
In his book on recurring revenue programs, The Automatic Customer, John Warrillow states that the "magic formula" for a subscription business is to ensure that:
In other words, if the lifetime value of a customer is more than three times the cost of acquiring that customer (in both time and money) then that allows plenty of room for for profitable growth. Any less and you have a low profit margin that may well be eaten up by ongoing or hidden costs.
I've found this equation to be good for one-off courses too.
Your LTV is how much you expect a typical customer to buy from you including the initial course purchase plus any future products they're likely to buy based on historical data or your best estimates. Future products could include other courses or upgrades to 1-1 or group coaching.
CAC is how much it costs you to win a typical customer in terms of paid advertising, affiliate commissions, outsourced marketing or the costs of your own time.
When thinking about marketing and scaling up a course, your mastery of a specific marketing channel or tactic allows you to acquire a new customer profitably based on the initial sale. Your mastery at converting existing contacts into buyers increases your Lifetime Value to allow you to spend more to acquire customers (or to pocket more profit per customer).

Converting More of Your Existing Contacts into Course Buyers.

Your pilot and launch will convert a certain percentage of your contacts into buyers.
Of the remainder, most will never become buyers. But for many it’s simply that the issue your course deals with wasn’t a top priority for them at the time:
harnessing Your Existing Contacts for Your Online Course
  • Sometimes it’s not an issue for them at the time, but becomes one later.
  • Sometimes it’s an issue they’re just not aware of.
  • Sometimes other things are bigger priorities.
  • Sometimes you haven’t yet built up enough credibility and trust.
  • Sometimes they just didn’t notice your promotion.
  • Sometimes they weren’t a contact when you did your promotion - they joined your mailing list or started following you after your pilot and launch.
Your challenge is to continue to market your course until the timing is right for them, without your promotions becoming so pushy or repetitive that they tune out and start ignoring your messages.

3 Effective Evergreen Promotional Strategies

  • Only open up the course for sales in specific time windows.
  • Re-run regular content campaigns. Either run campaigns with new or updated content so that it doesn't become repetitive.  Or re-run the same campaigns for people who didn’t open/click the last time.
  • Promote the course “in passing” in your content. Rather than overtly promoting your course in a campaign, mention it as an aside in relevant content or as a PS after the content.
Opening Up Your Course in Specific Time Windows
Using specific time windows for your course creates a natural urgency. You open it up for a specific amount of time and then close it until the next window.
In essence, you're repeating your launch on a regular cycle - perhaps every year, every 6-months or every quarter (any more frequent and you lose the impact as it's rarely closed).  Each time you open the course you'll vary the marketing somewhat to stay interesting and relevant.
This strategy is a good fit where your course involves personal support (so you can only have limited spaces anyway) or where course members need to progress on a similar timeline so it makes sense to run specific "cohorts". If you arbitrarily use time windows just to increase scarcity it can feel manipulative to savvy buyers.
The focus of the strategy is people who are new contacts (who won’t have seen previous promotions) or who have become ready for the course over time.
It picks up the people who have become ready naturally rather than trying to increase their readiness.
Using Ongoing Content Campaigns to Increase the Readiness to Buy Amongst Your Contacts
With this strategy you publish or send (depending on the medium) valuable content that also serves to raise the readiness of potential buyers.
For example, your content may:
  • Highlight the importance and value of the topic of your course - e.g. a case study or piece of research.
  • Share useful information and tips in the area of the course to build credibility and trust.
  • Give them a new insight or quick win - proving they can actually make progress (with your help).
  • Show an overall roadmap for what they need to do - giving them a clear path forward to help them make the first step.
At the end of each piece of content you'll mention or promote your course linking to it naturally from the topic and showing it to be a logical next step for those who want to make further progress fast.
The content you use can be re-purposed from within the course itself, or you can create new content for the promotions.
Over time you'll build up a stock of successful campaigns and you can re-run these periodically for new contacts who didn’t see them the first time, or for existing contacts who saw them but didn’t take action (e.g. didn’t open or click).
Because you're re-sending useful content rather than a direct promotion, it won't feel like you're over-promoting of being pushy to your contacts. It'll feel more like you're trying to be helpful.
Depending on how you run and track your campaigns you can follow-up directly with the people who showed interest in the campaign. For example you can have a series of further content and promotional emails which are triggered only for people who click through to view your content.
Using “In-Passing” Promotion as a Subtle Way of Promoting Your Course
With this strategy you send valuable content based emails (or publish other media) as normal to your audience. If you're covering a topic that your course touches on (which should happen regularly) you find a subtle way of mentioning the course in the content without making a big deal of it.
A simple way of doing this is to mention the course as a way of introducing the topic.
For example: “One of my Corporate Sales Breakthrough course members asked me this question last week…” or “One of the main topics we cover in the Corporate Sales Breakthrough course is how to…”
If the topic of the email is less related to the course, you can simply add a PS at the end: “By the way, members of my Corporate Sales breakthrough course are getting amazing results right now. To find out how you can get more corporate clients without selling your soul, click here”.
In both these cases because the main focus of the email is the useful content and you just mention the course "in passing" it won't actually be noticed by most people who aren't interested in the course at the time. It won't feel to them like they're being promoted to at all - they'll just notice the content.
But someone who is considering a course or getting further help on the topic will be both consciously and subconsciously "on the lookout" for relevant messages and will pick up on the mentions.
The Difference Between Content Campaigns and “In-Passing” Promotion
Content campaigns are more deliberately planned with a sequence of content pieces designed to get your contacts ready to buy.
“In Passing” Promotions are more ad-hoc - really just finding an extra way to promote your course without a lot of extra effort by piggybacking on your existing content.
Content campaigns usually involve linking to larger “external” pieces of content - e.g. linking to a video on your website from an email or Linkedin post - and at the end of the content you spend a bit of time promoting the course.
“In Passing” promotions typically just quickly mention/link to the course directly within the email or post.

Expanding Your Contact Network While Promoting Your Course to Them

One of the advantages of an online course over live consulting, training or coaching is that it’s a relatively low cost purchase. So it’s a much shorter cycle before new contacts are going to be ready to buy.
This means you can promote your course to them earlier in your relationship - as long as you can add value quickly to get them ready.
Getting New Contacts for Your Online Course
Of course, only a small percentage will be ready to buy immediately when they first come into contact with you online. But that small percentage is very valuable and not to be wasted.
In effect, those that are ready to buy immediately (or soon after) are paying for your marketing costs. This allows you to do your marketing to acquire new contacts at a profit or at close to zero expense (known as a “self liquidating” advertising campaign).
The speed with which you’re able to recover your marketing costs determines the confidence and pace with which you can scale up. If you've recovered your marketing costs within a few days or weeks from initial course sales you can increase your spend and grow quickly.
If it takes months or more it's a much braver decision to ramp up your marketing with so much uncertainty over if and when you'll recover your costs.

Use Common Sense to Choose New Marketing Channels and Tactics

Almost any marketing channel or tactic can work in the right situation. The key, of course, is to figure out which will work for you.
The most important thing is to focus on the channels where your ideal clients spend their time - not just the ones that happen to be fashionable at the moment or the ones the latest guru tells you are “crushing it”. 
But do sanity-check your biases. Years ago I was convinced my audience wouldn’t be active on Facebook but I was wrong. 
Facebook and Linkedin are the obvious platforms where your audience is likely to be. But don’t overlook Google Adwords, YouTube or channels like Instagram or Pinterest for more consumer oriented courses.
Ensure you match your marketing tactics to your type of course. For a low-cost “hands-off” course use “hands-off” marketing like Facebook, Linkedin or Google ads. For higher priced courses you can do more of the marketing personally through content posting or live events.

Use a Value-Based Approach, Whatever Channels and Tactics You Choose

Rather than promoting your course directly, promote something free of value to potential customer (ie use a Lead Magnet).
You’ll get exponentially more people signing up for a free checklist or blueprint from cold than you will if you try to sell your course directly. And once they sign up for your lead magnet you can nurture your relationship with them (as per the previous section) so that even if they're not ready to buy now, they may well buy in the future.
Your lead magnet can be extracted from your course - either one video or a checklist or blueprint based on the content of the course.
When they sign up to get your lead magnet, offer them the course on the thank-you page (potentially with some kind of time-limited bonus or discount to encourage action taking). Your immediate follow-up for the next few days for new signups should add value (e.g. more useful tips) but also promote the course.
That way you're giving those who are ready to buy immediately (or are close to being ready) every opportunity to buy so that your marketing quickly becomes profitable or at least break-even.
But if they're not ready to buy, you've still been delivering value and building your relationship so you don’t put them off and lose future sales.
If you've had success using a content campaign to promote your course to existing subscribers or as part of your launch, you can repurpose that for use with new contacts on an ongoing basis.
After the initial nurturing and promotion of the course, if they haven't bought they become part of your "existing contacts" that we covered in the previous section.

Your Next Steps

We've now covered every aspect of designing, building, launching and ongoing marketing of your online course.
Your next step now, of course, is to do it!
I can tell you from my own experience and from very many of my clients that having an online course can be a huge game-changer.
I know that phrase is a big cliché and much overused, but in the case of online courses, it's true.
As we saw in the introduction, online courses are very much here to stay and both individuals and organisations are rapidly adopting them as their default mode of training.
From your perspective, online courses gives you the ability to scale your business much easier both in terms of sales volume and in terms of reaching people across the world. And they free you up from the tyranny of "9 to 5" client work: allowng you to work when and where you want.
This in-depth guide has given you everything you need to get started.
If you want more hands-on support my recommendation is to talk to our sister business which we set up specifically to take the pain and cost away from building online courses for small and solo businesses that don't have the time or technical expertise to do so themselves.
We'd love to work with you to help you quickly make your online course a reality.

Find out more about how we can build your online course for you is our dedicated service where we work with you to build a brilliant online course that meets your exact needs:

  • A beautiful course site with content and sales pages
  • Membership and learning management
  • In-built forums or groups for client engagement

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