How To Create An Online Course: The Ultimate Guide

Piloting Your Online Course


A pre-sold paid pilot is the key to successfully launching a new course with low risk, while building momentum.
Pilot means testing out the first version of your course with real customers to get feedback to improve and finalise it ready for a wider rollout and gather testimonials for your marketing
You won’t necessarily have all the details and the production values of the final product - but your pilot will give customers what they need to get the results they’re looking for.
Paid means that by charging for the pilot you get a proper sense of whether there is a market for this product. Ultimately, you never know if a course is going to sell until you ask people to pay for it.
If you can’t get your most enthusiastic prospects to take part in a pilot (usually at a discount and with the ability for them to shape what they get) then you’re unlikely to be able to get enough sales of the full product.
Pre-Sold means you create an outline of the course and offer it for sale to customers before you build it (making it clear it will be delivered in stages). That way you don’t spend a ton of time and money building something that doesn’t sell. If you can’t get enough pilot members, abandon it and refund the buyers
Using a pilot approach like this significantly reduces the time and risk involved in developing a course.
A pilot gives you the feedback, the confidence and the momentum with your audience to successfully launch and sales up your course.

Naming Your Course/Pilot

A powerful name for your course/pilot can make it easier to sell. It gives instant clarity over what buyers will get and why they should want it without having to read the “sales material”.
Ideally you want the name to immediately tell potential buyers the main outcome, result or benefit they’ll get from the course - along with something about the style or character of the course.
Try to name your course so your client feels good about buying it. Something that feels to them like it increases rather than decreases their status and ideally something they'd be happy to tell others they were doing. For example,  a course on "Developing Powerful Presence" sounds a lot more attractive than "Basic Communication Skills".

Choose Your Course Name Based on the Perception You Want to Create

My preferred template is “The [outcome] [positive characteristic of the course]”. For example:
  • The Profitable Course Playbook
  • The 7-Figure Sales Accelerator
In both cases it's clear what you'll get from the course. "The Profitable Course Playbook" implies a step by step guide to create a course that's profitable. "The 7-Figure Sales Accelerator" implies a fast way of increasing your sales by a significant amount.
Make sure the outcome phrase you use is the one your audience most wants to get - check back on the research you did for your course outline to confirm this.
Alternatives to outcomes as your course name are status based - e.g. "the Millionaire Mindset" or "The Trusted Advisor Playbook" or action based - e.g. "Double Your Client Base" or "Kick Out Procrastination for Good".
Use the characteristic phrase that follows the outcome (or status or action) to imply something about that outcome or the way they’ll get it that will be attractive to them, for example:
  • “Breakthrough” and “Transformation” imply getting getting results they've never been able to get before - e.g The Authority Breakthrough.
  • “Blueprint” and “Roadmap” imply they’ll get a clear path forward.
  • “System” or “Machine” imply the end result will largely work on its own.
  • “Fast-Track” and “Accelerator” imply speed.
  • “Masterclass”, “Bootcamp” and “Coaching program” imply they’ll get personal support
A subtitle for your course can back up the title with additional benefits.
If there’s a second outcome or characteristic that you want to get across you can use the course subtitle to convey it: e.g. The Profitable Course Playbook: Your Simple, Step-By-Step Guide to Building and Selling on Online Course
Including a quantification in the subtitle can help it stand out and feel more concrete: e.g. The Profitable Course Playbook: Build a Successful Course in Just 7 Days
Or you can address a potential objection or concern you suspect many potential buyers will have: e.g. The Profitable Course Playbook: Build a Successful Course in Just 7 Days Without Needing to be a Technology Genius or Marketing Expert

Pre-Selling Your Pilot

In order to start pre-selling your pilot you need to answer a few key questions: 
How many pilot members are you aiming for? If you’re going to be working with them live on calls, aim for 10-12 pilot participants. -More than that will become difficult to manage, especially for your first pilot. And pilot participants may feel they're not getting value from the pilot if your time is spread too thinly. On the other hand if the course will primarily be based on pre-recorded material then you can go for more.
Who are you going to pre-sell your pilot to? Usually you will offer your pilot to the people who helped with your interviews and survey first (and potentially a few other people you know well and believe will be interested). Then go wider to your email list, social media contacts, groups etc if needed.
What is your pilot going to include? Your course title/subtitle and outline is your starting point, but you also need to think about what level of support and interaction you're going to provide to participants on the pilot (e.g. group calls, 1-1 calls, a private forum). 
Some courses need a lot of direction and guidance from you to help members.
And for more expensive courses badged as bootcamps, workshops and coaching, a good degree of interaction with you is expected.
For lower priced courses it’s difficult to justify a lot of personal live involvement (though you may want to do extra just for the pilot as it enables you to get good feedback).
You personally might enjoy and be good at group or 1-1 coaching - or you might want to avoid it.
My recommendation is to try to have a minimum of a group call every two weeks plus a forum/email support for most courses - or just the forum/email support for a very low cost one
When is your pilot going to start and end? You’ll need to pick a realistic date to start based on any preparation work you have to do to get ready plus time needed to promote the pilot.
Depending on the size of each of your modules, a week is usually enough to create the content for each module.
If you feel confident you can get enough pilot members quickly then 2 weeks is long enough to start pre-selling and give yourself a week to create the content for the first module if recruitment is going well.
If you’re less sure you’ll get the members quickly or you have a lot of content to develop for the first module, give yourself 3 or even 4 weeks. But be wary of giving too much time as you’ll lose the urgency of a tight deadline.
In terms of the length of the pilot, consider how long it will take you to produce the content for each module plus how long it will take pilot members to consume it and take action.
2 weeks per module is a good timeframe for most people and balances out pace with the time needed to learn and implement. It also allows you to drip release the content during week 1, then run a group call in week 2 to review.
Finally, consider adding a bonus wrap up call at the end, 2 weeks after the last official call.
What price is your pilot going to be? As discussed in the pricing section, you'll usually offer a significant discount over the target price for the final course to make selling easy and get momentum going.
What format will your pilot take? You can run a live pilot where you deliver the content via live calls and webinars, or you can pre-record the content.
If you're confident doing live video calls or webinars then that's often the best format to use. For a short course your pilot can be as simple as a 2-hour workshop delivered on a live video platform like Zoom. For a longer course you can deliver it through multiple sessions spread over a number of weeks.
Delivering your course live means you can get immediate feedback on the course and adjust to questions as you're delivering. There's also a certain buzz and camaraderie to live events that will build enthusiasm in your pilot participants which helps with testimonials later.
If you're less confident delivering your course live then you can simply create and release the individual videos for each module of the course one at a time. Depending on the size and pace of the course this could be one module per week or one module every two weeks.
This has the advantage of allowing you to fit video creation into your schedule more easily. You should still aim to do live Q&A calls to get feedback, but it relieves the pressure on presenting your content live.

Communicating Your Pilot Offer to Potential Members

For a pilot your goal is to get members enrolled quickly and easily so you can focus on creating and delivering. You're not looking to maximise sales at this point: just get enough pilot members to validate the viability of the course and get feedback on it.

Your first port of call should be the interviewees and survey respondents who indicated they wanted to be alerted when the pilot was launching. They're obviously going to be the most ready to jump in and join the pilot - especially if it’s only been a short time since your survey/interviews.
Add in any people you know would specifically be interested based on personal interaction with them and get your offer out to them in the quickest and simplest way possible for you.
Use your preferred method of communicating with them (usually email) to send them a short summary of what will be in the pilot (the pilot and a brief version of your outline) and ask them to reply if they want you to send more details.
For small numbers of people you can do this from your personal email - for larger numbers you'll need to use an email marketing system.
To those that reply, send a personal email with more details (the full outline and pricing) - either in the email itself, on a web page or in an attached PDF. Include details of how they can sign up for the pilot and pay.
As the deadline to start the pilot draws near, send reminders to the people who asked for details but haven't signed up yet.
If you haven’t filled the pilot with a week to go before it starts, open up enrolment to your wider audience with a more general email or social media posts.
And for a more expensive program (e.g. one that includes coaching) consider using a webinar to launch the pilot.
Here's an example pilot launch email. This is to an audience not familiar with pilots or online courses, so it goes into some detail to explain what they are. For a more familiar audience you could make it much simpler.

Final Checks Before Starting to Pre-Sell Your Pilot

Now you should be ready to pre-sell your pilot. Here's a final checklist to re-assure you that you're ready:
  • Have you made all your key decisions that shape the pilot: the number of pilot members, who you're going to pre-sell to, the contents of the pilot and level of support, the start and end dates and the pricing?
  • Have you decided how you're going to communicate with potential pilot members? Email, web page, social media etc? Have you prepared the materials for your first communication?
  • Are you ready personally? Are you confident you have the right offer for members (the title, outline and price)? Are you confident you can create the content you're promising? Are you confident you’ll be able to get the technology to work? 
If you can answer "yes" to each of those questions it's time to grit your teeth and get pre-selling!

Your Pilot Timeline

During your pilot it's important to stick to a regular schedule. Not only does this help you organise things, it helps your pilot members to plan their week around the pilot activities. If they know that new content becomes available every Monday morning and there's a live call every second Thursday then they can plan their other activities to ensure they have time to go through the content and join the calls. 
Most course pilots (outside of single workshop ones) run between 3 to 12 weeks and cover between 3 to 6 modules of content.
Typically you’ll be releasing a module a week for a short, fast paced course or a module every 2 weeks for longer courses with more content in each module.  You’ll be creating the content for each module in the week or two weeks before you release it.
That means that if you’re releasing a module every 2 weeks you have 2 weeks to develop the next module’s content. If you’re releasing weekly it’s a tighter schedule.
If you release a module every 2 weeks you’ll typically release the content early in week one, then run a webinar or Q&A session in week 2. If you’re releasing weekly you’ll do the Q&A at the end of the week. And if you choose to do everything live rather than using pre-recorded videos, you’ll follow the same basic schedule except the content will be released as you do the live call.
Here's an example timeline for a 4 module pilot run over 8 weeks:
You'll notice I've included a "pre-season training" module in the timeline. This is optional, but it can be helpful to include some short training that's immediately available to pilot members the moment they sign up.
The training is usually aimed at getting all pilot members ready to start the pilot fast by giving them exercises to do - for example to think about what they want to achieve on the pilot or to gather the materials and ideas they'll be using.  You can also find out more about participants by asking them to introduce themselves in a forum/group or complete a short intake survey.
Not only does this get your pilot members ready for a fast start, it also gives them an immediate payback on their investment in the pilot. If you can include some quick wins they can get before they even start the program then that will help generate a lot of momentum and positive feedback quickly which you can then use to promote the pilot further.
You need to make sure your pre-season training is optional though, and the rest of the course isn't reliant on it. Members who join early should be able to get extra value from it,  but members who join nearer the deadline may not have time to go through it so it can't be a vital component unless it's short and easy for them to do before they start the pilot proper.

Running Your Pilot

When you run your pilot you're going to have to do three primary things:
  • Create the content that your pilot members are going to use.
  • Deliver that content to them as videos or in live calls or webinars.
  • Interact with them to answer their questions and get feedback.
For most people, it's the content creation that's the sticking point.
The good news is that for a pilot, your content doesn't have to be perfect. Pilot members won't expect perfect formatting and production values: as long as they get useful content that helps them get results.
And if there are gaps in the content that doesn't matter so much either. Because you're doing live Q&A you'll get asked about any gaps and be able to answer live rather than having to second guess all the information your members will need in advance.
Ideally you’ll be able to re-use most of the content from the pilot when the course goes live afterwards. But don’t let that get you tied up in knots trying to get it perfect first time. It's much better to have to redo all the content after a successful pilot than to never get round to the pilot because you’re so busy trying to make picture-perfect content for it.

Creating Your Pilot Content: Outlining the Lessons

You’ll follow the same steps for creating content whether you’re going to be releasing the content as pre-recorded videos or doing live calls or webinars. 
Start by taking the module structure you developed for the pilot and break down each module in the same way you broke down the overall course outcome into modules.
Each module will usually be a big step in the overall process or an independent component of the final solution. For example, in a course on “How to Play Darts” you might have modules on the rules of darts, the grip and throw, how to practice, how to play in a match and troubleshooting.
The ideal module size for a pilot is something you’d expect your course members to be able to complete in a week. Once you’ve started creating the content it may become obvious that a particular module is too big and you'll need to split it, or that some modules are quite small and you can combine them.
Breaking down each module into lessons is a similar process to breaking down a whole course into modules. There’ll be a logical split into steps or components or different aspects of the whole area
For example, the darts module on the grip and throw might break down into an overview of the three grip types, then a lesson on each grip type, then a lesson on your stance, then a lesson on your arm action for the throw, then a lesson on putting it all together.
Try to make it so each lesson lasts about 10-20 minutes and teaches primarily one main thing per lesson. Ideally add a meaningful exercise or action at the end of every lesson. These lessons will work best if they relate to the real work of the person taking the course rather than being made up exercises just for learning purposes.
An example of different modules from my Rapid Results Program course:
  • Nichefinder Module: Introduction - brainstorming and evaluating options - worked example
  • Insight Generator Module: Introduction - research - ideal client persona - worked example

  • Lead Magnet Creator Module: Introduction - topics - style & format - build - worked example
Each module has a common three-part structure that can be used for almost any course:
  • An introduction which covers why this module is important, discusses the main principles and gives an overview of the module contents.
  • Lessons for each of the main points, with actions or exercises at the end of (almost) every lesson.
  • A worked example at the end of the module which gives practical tips for implementing what's been learned.

Creating Your Pilot Content: Building the Content

Your course will undoubtedly be video based, and the easiest way to create tutorial videos (especially for a pilot) is to do slides with a voiceover.
They're much quicker and easier to create than in-person video and if you make mistakes you can either change the slides or re-record a small section of voiceover later and it wont be noticeable. Live action video is more complex to create and time consuming to edit, has lots of external factors to worry about (lighting, background etc) and can’t be overdubbed easily if you need to change things later.
If you do want to build more of a personal relationship with your pilot members via live action video, record a short introduction to each module before doing the lessons as slideshows.
For a pilot, your slides can be as simple as bullet points. But ideally you'll liven them up and use images, diagrams, etc.
I make my slides using a standard template and will include quite a lot of details on each slide. This wouldn’t be best practice for a live presentation, but in this case it means the slides themselves are good reference material (and it means I don’t have to write notes to present from).
I always try to include an action step or exercise at the end of each video lesson. This embeds the learning and breaks up the lessons. Ideally the actions will be “real” rather than just hypothetical training exercises and will build the solution the client is looking for step-by-step.
Ideally, before making any slides or recording videos, I'll plan the contents of the module and write a few bullet points about each lesson so I know roughly what is going to be in each one using the method outlined above.
For a full course I would normally do all the slides and then record the videos in batches a module at a time. But for a pilot I will often do them one-by-one and release them as soon as they’re done. I might end up needing to rework some of them if I discover in a later video that something was missing or needs updating - but the benefit is that paying pilot members get their content as soon as possible.
Sound quality is important for tutorial videos so use a decent microphone. it doesn't need to be expensive however, you can get decent ones for $100/£100 or less.
For recording the videos you can get by initially using free tools like Quicktime and Loom. But if you're going to make a number of courses it's worth investing in software like Camtasia (PC) or Screenflow (Mac) for screen recording as they also contain good editing tools.

Wrapping Up Your Pilot

As you reach the end of your pilot timeframe you'll want to think about how to wrap it up.
Your pilot wrap-up has two goals:
  • Maximising the results and benefits your pilot participants get.
  • Getting the most learning and marketing impact for you so that your post-pilot launch is successful.

Your first priority is to make the pilot a roaring success for your pilot members

As you near the final few weeks of the pilot, identify missing areas of content or things that need clarifying. You can ask for feedback on the live calls or in your pilot forum on what's missing or needs clarifying and you can infer what’s missing or unclear from the questions people are asking and anything they struggle with during the pilot.
If you can release extra content during the pilot as a bonus to plug these gaps or add extra value, try to do so as it will really help your pilot members and leave them enthusiastic about all the extra value they got in the pilot.
Make sure you invest the time to build a relationship with pilot members. Listen to their feedback (and act on it). Answer their questions and interact with them in the forum.
Try to ask them about achievements regularly and lead the celebration of member successes.
Finally, go back to anything members said when they joined about what would be a big win for them and try to make it happen (within reason).

An end of course survey can be a good way to get useful feedback for you - along with testimonials

If you haven’t had lot of personal interaction on the course then a simple survey can elicit more feedback:
  • Ask what they’ve achieved as a result of the course.
  • Ask what the highlights of the course were for them.
  • Ask what they think could be improved or anything that could be added.
  • Ask a “testimonial trigger” question like “if someone asked you about whether they should take this course, what would your advice be?”
If you’ve been working more closely with members personally during the pilot you should have been getting feedback all the time. On the assumption all has gone well, in the last call ask them directly if they could do a testimonial for the course.
If they say yes, email them your preferred template and suggestions to help write the testimonial after the call. Keep the email short and casual like this example and mention the key points you'd like to get from the testimonial that you think would help sell the course.
Notice in this letter we're specifically asking them to be specific about results - this tends to make for the most powerful testimonials. If you leave people to write their own they tend to mention how great you are, but really the testimonial should be about the results that course members can get.
The "was there anything you were concerned about..." question will often highlight the same concerns that new potential members will have, so hearing that their fears were unfounded or easily addressed will help overcome those objections.
And finally the "what would your advice be..." can result in very powerful and positive quotes from happy pilot members urging potential buyers to just do it!

Make a final "snag list" of what you need to do to wrap up the pilot and be ready for your bigger post-pilot launch

Review all the feedback you’ve had plus your own observations and feelings as you ran the pilot and make a summary of what you want to do differently for your full course launch:
  • Any big changes or additions to content (including the structure)?
  • Any changes to the way you run the course in terms of interaction with members (more/fewer live calls, different forum etc)
  • Any updates to the materials (workbooks, additional tools, format/design of slides)
  • Any thoughts on technology changes for the full launch
  • Review of your planned pricing (are your initial ideas still valid?)
Work your way through the snag list systematically and you'll be ready to move on to the next step of launching your course.

Launching Your Online Course

Launching Your Online Course

Learn how to plan the three key steps to launch your course after piloting:

  • Updating your content
  • Updating your technology
  • Preparing your marketing