How To Create An Online Course: The Ultimate Guide

Choosing the Best Technology Platform for Your Online Course


A Course Platform is the technology (or more likely technologies) you use to make your course available to buyers.
Course Platform technology can get very complex and it's important in the early days to avoid spending so much time worrying about finding the perfect platform that you delay launching your course.
Let's look at the different technologies that support online courses, and then identify when you need each component.

The 5 Technology Pillars of an Online Course

There are 5 core technologies needed in some form for every online course:
  • You need a way of communicating with potential course members and presenting your course offer to them - for example a sales page or email
  • You need to be able to take payments (and trigger membership access for paying  members) - for example some kind of shopping cart or payment link
  • You need to be able to give access to the course content to members (and manage their learning progression) - for example an external learning management system or tools on your own website
  • You need a way of allowing course members to interact with you - for example live chat or a weekly video call
  • You need a way of allowing course members to interact with each other - for example a forum or Facebook group or group calls
There are two key steps in launching your course where you need to think about the technology:
When you do your initial plot for the course your primary goal is to ensure that technology doesn't become a bottleneck or barrier to quickly setting up and running the pilot.
If you already have a platform set up for courses then run with that. But if not, try to make your setup as simple as possible and if needed, simply do things manually rather than automating them.
After you've successfully run your pilot and you're launching your course more widely you'll revisit your technology platform to reduce the amount of manual intervention and make the system more sustainable.
You don’t have to do everything when you launch - you can add more components later. But you do want to decide on your main platforms so you don't get locked in to the wrong systems for you long term.

Choosing Your Pilot Platform

The most important thing to remember is that since this during a pilot you don’t have to have everything automated to work at scale.
Doing things manually (such as taking payments) is absolutely fine. People understand it’s a pilot and will make allowances. If you already have systems in place to do everything for you then that’s great and you can use them - if not, do not delay waiting to build them - do things by hand.

Technology For Communicating Your Offer

You’ll initially be offering your pilot to your most enthusiastic prospects: people who took part in the interviews and survey and those who you know well and think would be interested.
They shouldn't need a lot of persuasion to buy the course (especially a discounted version you offer for the pilot). So you don't need to create long, complex sales pages or videos. Sending emails with a small amount of documentation should be enough.
Depending on the numbers you can send personalised emails or use an email marketing system to reach them. You can include details of the pilot in the email or link to a page on your website with details.
My recommended option is to send a short email announcing the pilot with a few headlines describing it and asking them to reply if they’re interested.
By doing this you can identify who is the most interested and focus your follow up on them. As an initial follow up you can email the details of the pilot or attach a PDF with them or link to a web page.

Technology For Taking Payments and Setting Up Memberships

If you already have a shopping cart or you’re going to use an external system for your course with a built-in cart you can use that.
It’s perfectly OK to use a simple PayPal button, a link or ask them to PayPal you. Or to ask that they pay you directly into your bank account, or to use a direct bank transfer system like GoCardless, etc.
In a fully automated system payment would trigger immediate membership and access, but for a pilot all you need to do is to email them to say thanks and to give them details of when the pilot will start. You can send those emails manually to everyone who has signed up in one batch every day.

Technology for Giving Access to Your Content

If you already have a membership system or you’re using an external course system you can either trigger access directly from your shopping cart or set up their access manually.
All you need initially is a “coming soon” page that welcomes them to the course and tells them when the first module will be available and how to contact you. You’ll add the content into your system week-by-week as your produce it.
For a pilot, it’s absolutely fine not to use a membership system at all and instead to simply use “secret” pages on your website for the content that you send out links to when you release it.
Mark the pages as “noindex” so Google doesn’t index them (e.g. use Rankmath or Yoast SEO plugins for wordpress). There’s a small risk people will share the pages since they have no protection - but the chances are low because of your personal relationship with pilot members.. The impact of the pages being shared is low anyway - it’s not like thousands of potential buyers will suddenly get free access.
You’ll need somewhere to host/play your videos - an unlisted video on Youtube is fine for a pilot (and free). As you scale up you’ll want to move to a platform like Vimeo or Wistia (this s often included in hosted course platforms).
Another simple option is to host the content in a private Facebook group for members only. You can create topics or set the group as being a “social learning” group with defined units and progression tracking.
Or you can deliver the content live via Zoom calls or webinars and email out a registration link for the live version and a link to the replay afterwards.

Technology for Allowing Members to Interact With You

For support, help and feedback (at whatever level you want to promise), email is absolutely fine for a pilot (and usually for a live course too).
If you already have them available you can use a Live Chat or Helpdesk system - but in reality giving pilot members your personal email address feels like a bonus them so it's worth doing.
If needed you can hop on a 1-1 video call - but make email the primary channel to give you more flexibility in how and when you respond to requests.
A live call/webinar either weekly or every 2 weeks depending on the pace of the pilot is very useful. It allows you to answer questions and helps the pilot members really feel like they’re working directly with you and shaping the pilot. It’s also a great way to get feedback on the pilot for you. Any decent tool for this like Zoom is great

Technology for Allowing Members to Interact With Each Other

An active community of course members can be very beneficial during a pilot - allowing you to get quick feedback and for you and other members to provide immediate support to members with questions.
It can also build good team spirit amongst members which can help when it comes to testimonials
Choose a tool for your forum that members are familiar with. Usually that means a Facebook group - but make sure the majority of your pilot members are happy to use Facebook.
Alternatives are a forum on your website or or a team room on tools like Slack or Mighty Networks.
You weekly/bi-weekly calls (f you do them) can work to build community too.

Choosing Your Platform for Launch and Afterwards

After your pilot has finished and you're planning your full launch you'll need to revisit your technology choices. You’ll still want to keep things as simple as possible, but you'll also want things to work largely automatically to minimise the need for your own manual intervention.
Your new course customers are also likely to be a little less forgiving than your pilot volunteers and they're likely to want access to the course the moment they pay rather than having to wait for you to manually set up access. So increasing the level of automation is useful.
There are three options for setting up a more automated course platform:

Build it yourself on your own website or dedicated site

Use an externally hosted course system (e.g. Teachable or Udemy) 

Get someone else to build it for you

Building a Course Platform Yourself on Your Own Website or Dedicated Site

With this option you implement all the technologies on your own website. Either a subdomain of your main website or a dedicated standalone site.
Typically the primary platform will be Wordpress as there are many options for tools for membership sites and learning management to build a course on.
This is a good option if you want to have complete control over how the site looks and functions and you're comfortable building and managing your own site.
Membership and course sites are more complex than normal websites, so if you haven't built and run a site before, an online course site is not the place to start.

Using an Externally Hosted Course System

There are a number of dedicated systems available that will host your course for you.
Some like Udemy or Skillshare take payment themselves and pay you out a percentage.
They make your course visible to all their users their course directory and although it's highly unlikely for most people, they may promote your course to them too. They tend to take a large cut of the payment.
Other systems like Teachable, Thinkific and Kajabi simply give you the tools to build your course site and take payments yourself. Promoting the course and making it visible is entirely up to you. They tend to take a fixed fee and either a small or no cut of the payment.
There are fewer options for tailoring your course to get it exactly how you like than with building it on your own site. But it can be a lot quicker to get it up and running and it's a lot easier to maintain if you’re not a technology expert.

Getting Someone Else to Build it For You

Just like a normal website, you can hire a web developer to create your course website for you.
Usually they will build a dedicated website for you using the same technology you could use if you built it yourself, so you can take it over later if needed.
This is a good option if you’re confident enough to be able to manage your own website but don’t have the time or the design skills to build it in the first place. Once the site's been built it's fairly easy to add new courses or lessons within the same template without needing the same level of expertise as building it from scratch.
It’s usually a more expensive approach in the short term - but often cheaper long term as the provider should be able to get bulk discounts on the underlying tools if they work on many membership sites.
Make sure you use someone with experience in building course/membership sites - not just normal websites - there are distinct differences and even a great website developer for normal sites can get stuck or waste time reinventing the wheel if they're using a whole set of new technologies.

Evaluating Platform Components

Technology For Communicating Your Offer

Your main tools for communicating your offer on an ongoing basis will be email and a “sales page” on your website.
The thing to remember is that because you’re marketing to a colder audience that you did with your pilot, you’ll need to do more persuading in your emails and on your page. You can't get buy with just a short email announcement.
That means you page needs to be well-designed and easy to read.
If you’re building your own site on Wordpress, how you do the sales page depends on the capabilities of theme. Some are very basic, others have good design capabilities built in.
If you have a basic theme, use a Page Builder to build your sales page. It will save you a ton on time and frustration and will come with a number of templates you can reuse.  This site is built using Thrive Architect, but the Pro versions of Elementor or  Beaver Builder are great options too.
Teachable, Thinkific, Kajabi and other course building tools include the ability to create sales pages.
Kajabi has the best page builder, the others are pretty limited.
For email, use whatever you’re already familiar with.
If you don’t have one, the system I use and recommend is Active Campaign with Convertkit as a backup option. You can read my review here.
Kajabi has a built in email system - but I would still use a dedicated email marketing system if you can as they have better features and a better ability to get your emails through to your subscriber's inbox.

Technology For Taking Payments and Setting Up Memberships

You’ll need a shopping cart that’s integrated with whatever membership system you use to manage access to the course content and whatever email marketing tool you’re using - so you’ll normally look at both areas together before making a decision on either.
You may already have a shopping cart - if so you’ll be able to use that as long as it integrates with the email marketing system and membership system you plan to use (this may limit your choice of email and membership systems).
Some membership systems include their own shopping cart which simplifies things. For that reason I usually recommend Memberpress as it’s the best all round membership system that includes a shopping cart and handles sales tax correctly (including EU Digital VAT).
All dedicated course building systems include their own shopping cart. However some are better at handling sales tax than others. Teachable handles EU Digital VAT for consumer sales to customers in Europe whereas both Thinkific and Kajabi need to you take out a subscription to an additional service like Quaderno if you want to handle tax fully.
You’ll need a “merchant account” to take payments via your shopping cart. This is a special bank account that integrates with shopping carts and allows card transactions to be paid into your account. The most common ones supported are Stripe, and PayPal.
Stripe is the easiest to get set up with. PayPal is easy too, but standard PayPal sends customers off to the PayPal site to pay and requires them to have a PayPal account for subscription payments so it's best used as a backup or where your customers prefer it rather than as a primary option.

Technology for Giving Access to the Content

For your own site you’ll need a membership system to restrict access to the content to paying members. That functionality is built in to external course building systems.
Membership systems typically allow you to restrict different pages and other assets like files on your site to different course members.
You can also get Learning Management Systems (LMSs) which enhance your course members’ learning experience by organising pages into courses and lessons with progress bars, quizzes, badges, certificates, etc.
You’ll need some way of hosting and playing videos on your site. An unlisted Youtube video is OK at small scale but are relatively easy to share. At some point you’ll want to upgrade to a paid service like Vimeo Pro or Wistia. Video hosting is built in to most external course building systems.
Some membership systems include basic learning management functionality and some have a built in shopping cart.
Some learning management systems have basic membership functionality and some have a built in shopping cart - though typically they can only protect courses and the cart can’t handle taxes.
Which one is best for you depends on the functionality you need, the existing tools you already have, and what you need to integrate with.
You’ll also need a Wordpress theme and/or page builder to show the content optimally to members.

Specific Technology Recommendations for Building Your Own Course Platform

Technology changes fast, so you goal isn't to agonise over finding the perfect technology set as it'll all have changed in a few months. Instead, pick technologies that work and that you're able to use and that are mainstream enough that they're likely to have reasonable longevity.
If you're building on your own site on wordpress then the best theme for course and membership sites is the Buddyboss platform.
Buddyboss is more than just a theme. It includes forums and social groups (that function like Facebook groups) and has user profiles and on-site messaging. It also has pages specifically designed for courses with course menus in the sidebar.
I you don't need the full functionality of Buddyboss, then go for a simple and fast theme like Astra (which also has the advantage of being free).
For a Page Builder for sales pages and to add extra elements to your core pages easily I recommend Thrive Architect - though Elementor or beaver Build will work well too.
For Video Hosting I recommend Vimeo Pro with Wistia as an alternative. 
For a membership system that offers the widest range of integrations with email marketing systems and has it’s own built-in shopping cart I recommend Memberpress.
If you want to add Learning Management functionality I recommend Learndash.  In theory, for simple membership management and a simple shopping cart based on Stripe, Learndash on its own will be enough. If you need to add sales tax and you need to protect pages/assets other than your course and lessons you’ll need Memberpress or an equivalent.
There are many other ways of setting things up but I’ve found this to be the most effective for most people.
If you find one that’s a better fit for your specific situation - go for it. But do make sure it’s a mainstream system that’s unlikely to disappear overnight. You don't want to have to go through the whole process of setting up your system again and then have to transfer members across to the new setup.
For my own business I use Thrivecart as my shopping cart and Memberium as my membership system rather than memberpress. I already had Thrivecart and was using it for other products, and Memberium works particularly well with Active Campaign which I use for emails.

Specific Technology Recommendations for Externally Hosted Systems

For externally hosted systems, the biggest platforms are Teachable, Thinkific and Kajabi.
Teachable is the biggest and is the only one that’s able to handle EU Digital VAT out for the box (where the VAT rate of the consumer’s country is used). However it can’t handle the VAT situation for courses with a live component or other situations where the supplier country VAT needs to be used.
Thinkific and Kajabi integrate with Quaderno if you need to handle tax properly using those platforms.
Kajabi has the best page builder and includes a built-in email marketing system.
There are many other systems with different advantages (e.g. Simplero handles all versions of EU VAT properly, Mighty Networks has a build in forum, etc) but be wary of using a small obscure system that might go out of business.

Avoid Udemy Except in Specific Situations

Udemy is a very big course platform with a huge number of members. However its economics work very differently to either running your own system or hosting it on a system like Teachable, Thinkific or Kajabi.
Udemy takes the fees for a course itself and pays out a certain percentage to instructors. Payout to instructors is 50% if students find your course via organic search and 25% if they come in through a Udemy partner or promotion.
Udemy also tends to focus on low cost, high volume courses which may not be appropriate for your course.
Finally, Udemy is very sensitive about external links that take students outside of the Udemy platform to your own site and courses. You can use Udemy to build brand recognition but if you overtly promote something outside Udemy they can shut you down.
So unless you have a mass market course and your see a role for using Udemy to gain visibility I would steer clear.

Technology for Allowing Members to Interact With You

Initially there won't be much change from the pilot in terms of what's needed to allow members to interact with you.  Your core tools will be a contact page and giving them your personal email address.
As you scale up and get more more members, a Helpdesk system can ensure you don’t lose track of support requests and it’s managed more professionally. And you won't want to give out your personal email address so often.
A live chat widget on the course site can give a quicker, more personal response to members to improve their experience.
Bi-weekly or monthly Q&A calls help members and build relationships (weekly usually isn’t necessary and can potentially overwhelm them).
You can offer 1-1 calls for high value programs, but they become difficult to do if you scale up to large numbers of course members unless you bring on board additional team members.
If you already have them available you can use live chat or a Helpdesk system - but in reality giving them your personal email address feels like a bonus to pilot members so it's worth doing.

Technology for Allowing Members to Interact With Each Other

Again, there's not much change from the pilot. Use your experience on the pilot to tell you whether the forum you were using worked or whether you need to change to something else.
If you didn’t use a Facebook group and you had a low level of interaction, try switching to a Facebook group.
If you had a high level of interaction on Facebook but are concerned about distractions then consider an on-site forum (e.g. buddyboss) or external forum like Mighty Networks.

Pricing Your Online Course

Pricing Your Online Course

Define an optimal price for your pilot and full launch of the course:

  • The Economics of Course Pricing
  • Psychological Influences on Your Course Price
  • Strategic Influences on Your Course Price
  • Benchmarking customer alternatives
  • Pricing your pilot and adjusting for launch 

Learn more about  Pricing Your Course