How to create an online course
Online courses have changed my entire business.
I started out like most people, thinking that teaching my first online course could be a good idea but not knowing where to start.
Fast forward to today: I’ve now taught more than 14,000 students and generated millions of dollars from my courses (Chimp Essentials and Creative Class). And I did it without needing to scale my business and hire staff, get offices, or rack up expenses.
(I’m not saying the above to brag, but too many articles describe what to do without the author having ever done it… whereas this article is based on real-world experience building successful online courses for years.)
Online education is why the internet should exist: democratizing learning, so it’s accessible to everyone, everywhere. Online learning statistics show that the online course industry is massive and growing every year, poised to surpass $240 billion by 2021 according to Global Industry Analysts, Inc. So it’s in our best interests to try and carve out a piece of that pie for ourselves (even a tiny sliver is a huge amount of revenue).
Online courses aren’t a magic bullet where “If you build it, they will come and shower you with never-ending cash money.” But there are certainly things you can do to increase your chances of creating and selling online courses that become your main revenue stream, which I’ll cover below.
What I’m going to teach you about course creation
- Step 1: Decide if you should teach your first online course (the answer is probably YES)
- Step 2: Choose your topic to teach
- Step 3: Outline your course content
- Step 4: Write and record your course content
- Step 5: Deliver your course content online
- Step 6: Start selling your online course
Now creating your first online course isn’t exactly easy, but it’s entirely doable. There are a lot of steps, but none of them are overly complex if you focus on them one at a time.
Too many online courses fail. Not because they aren’t full of great information or taught by wonderful people, but because a lot of online course beginners focus on the wrong things. Read on and I’ll help you focus on the right ones.
Step 1: Decide if you should teach your first online course
Maybe you’ve considered teaching a course in the past but didn’t go through with it because you thought “This is a bad idea, I’m not worthy of teaching anything.”
Let’s go over this harmful self-talk, because it’s not grounded in reality. The truth is, if you know a little bit more than most people on a specific topic and they want to get to your level, then you should definitely teach an online course.
The other thought many first-time potential course creators have is that, well, Google exists. Why would anyone pay for information they can find for free? Well, here’s the thing: if you build an audience and build trust with them, then those people specifically are happy to pay for your own unique take on a topic. This is why there are literally millions of books on business: people want a specific person’s unique expertise and knowledge on a specific topic because they trust them.
A few other points to note when deciding if teaching an online course is right for you:
- Is the topic something that’s both valuable and actionable? More on this in step 2.
- Do you have access to a large enough group of people who would find your teachings valuable and actionable?
- What specific problem would be fixed if that group of people had your online course? How would this transform them?
- Do you have the time to put in the work to take your first online course from idea to launch?
- How would this course align with your current business and what you do?
- Will your business be ok if the course doesn’t do as well as you hope it will (since nothing in business is a “sure thing”)?
Courses are a lot of work. Most of my own have taken a few hundred hours to go from idea to launch, over the course (pun intended!) of several months. But as I mentioned, it’s all work that can be done with little to no prior expertise on building courses.
Step 2: Choose your topic to teach
Everyone’s an expert in something. But that doesn’t always mean you should teach a course on that subject (if it was, I’d have an online course about cuddling pet rats and how to binge-watch old Top Gear episodes… neither of which would sell or relate to my business in any way).
In order to choose the right topic to teach in your online course based on your expertise, you have to consider:
- What do I have experience in that other people wish they knew more about?
- What are people already asking me about?
- Is there a specific audience for this topic, and do I already reach them (and if not, can I)?
- Is having knowledge on this topic specifically valuable to them, i.e. it’d cost them more to not know this information?
- Does this specific audience have the means to pay for this knowledge?
- Where are people/businesses currently spending money? Don’t just look for problems that need solving, look at what people/businesses are spending money on to solve problems currently.
A good way to think about choosing your online course topic is to simply fill in the blanks:
My course helps [specific audience] learn how to [specific outcome] through [your topic].
For example, for my own course, Chimp Essentials:
My course helps online business owners learn how to increase their sustainable revenue through learning how to use Mailchimp’s software.
That explains exactly who it’s for (online business owners), what they’ll get out of it (sustainable revenue) and how they’ll achieve it (by learning all the best features of Mailchimp).
To go further though, the reason I chose to teach Mailchimp in the first place is because:
- I had years of experience helping 100s of clients setup and use Mailchimp, which helped them build sustainable revenue.
- My audience was constantly asking me how I did it. The reason I was asked about it was because I was writing articles on the subject of email marketing and Mailchimp to my email list and on my blog.
- The knowledge of learning Mailchimp was specifically valuable to online business owners, because email marketing is how most of them generate revenue. So paying a few hundred bucks for an online course that could help them see 10x or 100x their current revenue was a no brainer.
Think about this for your own business. What are you currently doing (even if it’s a service)? How could that be translated into a course? What are people asking you about (on social media, your inbox, comments on your blog, etc)? If they’re not asking you about anything, then start by writing or sharing on specific topics and judging the response.
The easiest road to your first online course
A slight aside here, but it’s worth talking about. For my own business, I’ve never built a product (like an online course) then gone out to find an audience for it. That feels very risky to me, and I hate risk. Instead, I’ve always worked to build a relationship with my audience (by talking to them regularly through my mailing list) and simply listening to what they wanted from me. Each and every course I’ve built that’s made money has been because people were asking me for it. So instead of making a course and then finding an audience, I’ve always found an audience, listened to them, and then built an online course they wanted. This is far less risky.
END OF ASIDE
The topic of your first online course should also be something you’re cool with being “known for” as the best case scenario is that it takes off, and then you become the de facto expert on that topic. This happens when courses do well, people start to look to you when writing articles, filming quick TV spots with “experts” or doing round-up blog posts with blurbs from people in the know. So make sure your course topic is something you are happy to hang your hat on for years to come.
Step 3: Outline your course content
Once you’ve listened to your audience and picked a topic for your online course that will you be stoked to teach, it’s time to start thinking about the content.
This is where a lot of people probably stop, because it feels like a big, hairy step that’s hard to accomplish. It’s like wanting to write a book, staring at a blank document for hours, sweating a little, and then calling it quits. That’s because most people try to chunk too much into a single “todo” item on a list. You can’t put “write a book” on your todo list and bang it out in a single session. Put “create an online course” on your todo list is just as ineffective.
Most people don’t think of online courses as stories, but successful online course creators do. That’s because storytelling works in terms of helping folks understand, empathize and want to invest their time and focus. They always have, since the dawn of humanity—it’s just how we’re wired.
Even the arc of a “hero’s journey” still absolutely relates to outlining and then building a course. The hero of the story is your student. They start out in a place they’re comfortable with, go on a grand adventure (learning the lessons in your course), and end up different at then end (because they learned something valuable and actionable).
Consider how you can help your students achieve small wins as you go through your lessons. Each small win will help them build confidence and momentum, so they’re more likely to keep going. Share and tell stories that relate to the content, since humans mostly learn through stories.
END OF ASIDE
To start outlining your course, let’s consider that our first “todo” item here is the basic outline. As in, a bulleted list of what we think we want to teach. Not specifics for every point in every lesson, but just a general idea of the lesson list. Think about what a student would absolutely need to know in order to go from where they’re currently at to the outcome you want them to achieve.
If you get stuck on your outline, remember you don’t have to reinvent the wheel here or start with a blank page (with that damn blinking cursor!). You can look to your existing content. What have you already written or shared about this topic? What was popular? What could be expanded upon or be taught more clearly through video or screencasts? Lean on work you’ve already done.
This bulleted list could be 7 bullets. My first online course, Creative Class, had exactly 7 lessons total, when I started selling it. The number of lessons doesn’t make a course more or less valuable.
The first draft of your outline doesn’t have to pretty, spell-checked or even be your final outline of lessons. Just write down all of your ideas. Write first, edit later. Think about what steps would be required to take a student from start to finish. What do they need to know?
Once the first draft of your outline is complete, step away for a bit. Let it settle. Then, come back to it to both prune and order it. What ideas don’t fit? What can be left out? What order should it be in? If you get stuck, run it by someone else (like a member of your audience) to see if it’s something they’d want to learn and if they think any steps are missing.
Step 4: Write and record your course content
Once you’re happy with your outline of lessons, before you start writing them, determine:
- What is the ONE thing a student will learn in each lesson?
- Why do they need to know this ONE thing (and what happens if they don’t know it)?
- How will they able to do this ONE thing, after you teach them?
- What steps will they take after learning this ONE thing?
Each lesson should cover a single idea. Ideas are muddied when too many of them are presented at the same time, so laser in on what the focus of each lesson in your online course is. Do this before you even start thinking about how your online course will be taught or presented.
Once you have the answers to the above questions, write them down in a draft for your course content. Write them roughly, even in bullets. Then start to flesh out the content of each lesson, again in rough point-form. You aren’t trying to write the final script for your course, you’re just trying to get the ideas on paper. Once you’ve written down everything you can think of that should be part of your lesson, again take a step back and leave it to settle. You’ll probably have a few more ideas for it later on, so don’t finalize or solidify anything yet.
For each lesson, think about the simplest way to explain the concepts to someone with almost no knowledge on the subject, to understanding the point of the lesson. Do this in baby steps, because people can get overwhelmed (like adding “write a book” to your todo list). So break things down into simple steps.
Once you’ve got a solid but rough first draft of a lesson written in point form, start pruning, editing and arranging it in a way that makes sense. You can even leave it in bullet points for now.
Run through this process for every single lesson you’ve got in your outline:
- Write out the one thing they’ll learn, what they need to know, how they’ll be able to do it, and what steps they’ll take after learning it. This is the framework for bulleting out the lesson’s teaching.
- Write out every point you want to make for the lesson, in bullet form.
- Step away, then come back to it and make sure you didn’t miss anything.
- Edit, organize and prune until the bullets for your lesson feel like they include everything you need to share.
Once every lesson has been bulleted out, then it’s time to think about how you want to teach it. See, we leave this step until after you’ve got a point form course ready, because you won’t know the best way to teach it until you know what you’re teaching (this is where a lot of first time course creators mess up).
There are several ways to teach an online course, a few of which are:
- Videos of you talking over slides with writing on them (this is popular)
- Videos of you on camera talking through your lesson (this is a lot of work)
- Videos of your screen, with you talking through what you’re doing on your screen (this is useful for technical teaching of things like software or design)
- Audio only (I’ve done this before and it’s worked)
- Written only (either via a private website or delivered via your email list)
Videos with you talking over slides, plus some written content and downloads of the transcript (i.e. the written content, saved as a PDF), are definitely the most popular, but you still have to consider, what’s the best method to deliver your lessons? What will help your students understand what you’re teaching? What are you able to do, and most comfortable doing?
You can even blend the methods—for example, for my Chimp Essentials course, which is fairly technical, there’s a small picture-in-picture video of me in the corner, and a screen recording. This is what makes sense for my students so they can see exactly how I set things up and click around in Mailchimp, but also see my face for parts when I’ve got to explain something without clicking anything (so the video doesn’t look paused on a screen).
The best method to deliver your course to students is the one that will help them learn the lessons quickly and easily. There’s no “right” or “wrong” method. You don’t have to be a professional designer to make a successful course. Pick one main colour, one font/typeface, and you’re good to go (seriously, Chimp Essentials is very successful and uses yellow and black, and a single font, that’s it).
If it’s your first course, the easiest way is to create a template in Keynote (Mac) or Powerpoint (PC). Then record yourself talking over the slides. In Keynote, you can select Record Slideshow and Keynote will record your audio and the slides for you! You simply save the recording as a movie afterwards (it’s literally one-step). Take the bullets from the lessons and make one slide per bullet. That’s it, super simple.
Recording yourself talking can be useful to build a connection with your students, but editing video is very time consuming and can cost a lot if you hire a professional to do it. It’s also quite difficult (I’m talking about myself here) to memorize a lot of bullets at a time. This method of recording yourself can add a lot to how much it costs to develop an online course. For myself, in the beginning I started with just a short (10-20 second recording) of me on camera welcoming students to a lesson and then cut into the slideshow. That felt like a good mix of both to me, and worked well.
Step 5: Deliver your course content online
There are endless ways to sell and deliver a course to students through various online course platforms. The main options are:
- A hosted marketplace, like Udemy. My point of view is why put your course in a place where there are thousands of other courses?You want yours to stand out.
- A hosted platform, like Thinkific. If you want to save yourself some setup work, these are fine, but you also pay a premium for them to take care of setup for you, and you have to hope their setup is how you want to sell and deliver your courses.
- Your own site, using WordPress. This is my favourite method because it’s easy to do with a little setup, and gives you the most flexibility and profit.
- Your own list, using Mailchimp. If you’re just sending out a course via an email list, use Mailchimp.
I’m biased because all my online courses are on WordPress. They are all video courses with a bit of content and some bonus downloads. I like WordPress because I can control everything about my course, from how it looks to how it works, to how students can go through the course. Plus, I get to use my plugins like WPComplete and WPHelpful, which help get every student the momentum they need to finish each course.
I list my full setup for creating an online course in WordPress, but the gist is:
- WordPress powers my courses
- Restrict Content Pro helps me sell and give access to students
- Mailchimp delivers the emails
- WPComplete let’s students track their progress through the course
- WPHelpful let’s students give feedback on the lessons
- Vimeo hosts the video files
- Stripe and Paypal for payment processing
That’s it. This whole setup costs less $1,000 a year to run (including hosting). If my courses are about $300, then I need to sell 4 to be profitable, which is totally doable for me (and for you!).
By using this method to deliver online courses, people can learn about then purchase the course using Stripe or Paypal. Then they get instant and forever access to all the lessons. For each course I also include a Slack chat to answer questions and build community (so students stick around after they do the lessons and most of the time, help new students). I use free Slack plans, so the only caveat is that the archive of messages only holds 10,000 messages. This is a small caveat though for a great community platform.
First time course makers also fall into the trap of “it’s gotta have more if it costs more” and add far too many features, plugins, downloads, etc. Most of the time though, students just want simple and easy. That’s why my lesson pages in my WordPress site are remarkably simple (and students tell me often how much they appreciate it):
- There’s a huge video player, where my Vimeo-hosted video lesson lives, right at the top of the page.
- Under the video is typically a written blurb about the lesson or a full transcript.
- Under the text is a WPComplete button so students can track their progress.
- Under the completion button is a small form asking how the lesson could be made better.
- There’s also a list of other lessons in the section, so students get a sense of their progress (completed lessons are crossed out, which WPComplete takes care of).
In the navigation there’ll be a link to their lesson dashboard in their account and the Slack group, but that’s it. Very straightforward and easily buildable in almost any WordPress theme.
Step 6: Start selling your online course
This is the last step, which means you’ve taken your course idea, created it and set it up on a website. Good job! Now for the home stretch, selling and marketing your online course.
A note on pricing
Online course pricing can be tricky because it’s a mix of art and science. It’s often hard to know what someone will pay for what you’ve created, and like I mentioned, just because a course is long doesn’t mean it’s worth more.
Start with logic: you know who your specific audience is because you created your course for them. What’s their financial situation? How valuable will the course be to them, and how much could they make by taking it? Be realistic here. What other courses are there in the same market, and how are they priced? How large is your audience? Often times you can charge less with a huge audience because of volume: Think about how much you make per sale vs your potential sales. If your list is 100 people and you charge $10, you won’t make more than $1,000 total in the absolute best case scenario, which will unfortunately never happen.
Once you’ve determined your online course price, you need to start thinking about how you’re going to sell it. If you took the advice earlier on in this article about the easiest road, you’ll have started to build an audience through communication and trust through a mailing list.
The value of testimonials for online courses
If you know who the course is for (your specific audience) and talk to them (through a mailing list or groups or social media), then what I like doing and have done in the past is offer a big discount for a very limited time. People will be taking a bit of a risk to take an “unproven” course, so you want to reward early adopters with a lower price. By doing this, you’ll get people in the door who you can learn from to make the course even better (even if it means re-filming a few lessons or parts of lessons). And, by paying attention and making sure they are learning, you can ask them for a testimonial at the end. Testimonials are great to help build the social proof you need to sell an online course.
Over time, if you connect with previous students, you can see how well they’re doing as a result of your course. My favourite emails are ones from past students telling me that they landed a huge client or are selling freelance services setting up Mailchimp accounts for their clients. I ask past students like this if they’d be willing to jump on a quick video call to record a few words from them (as video testimonials are the best way to tell a transformation story).
How to write an online course sales page
My simple trick for writing any sales page for any product is this: I get a customer or member of my target audience to explain back to me what the product is and why it’s valuable to them. I do this several times and look for patterns in words and phrases they use, and then use that to build a sales page.
Once you’ve got a sense of how your specific audience is describing it, use those words and phrases to answer the following in your sales copy:
- Who specifically is this course for? Call them out by name, like “freelance designers” or “personal finance nerds” or “quilters”. Make them instantly know that this course is for them (since it is).
- Explain the outcome, how will they be transformed if they take it.
- Why is having this information valuable and what could it lead to?
- Why are you the right person to teach it (it’s ok to brag a little here by explaining how you got this expertise and how it’s benefited your life or business)?
- Obviously the price of the course and a button to buy it.
- Some social proof, like embedded tweets, video testimonials, or even links to success stories.
- List what’s included in the course: lesson list, bonuses, how the course is delivered, if there’s a community, if there’s access to you, etc.
Use two of my course sales pages as examples of what type of information to include:
- Chimp Essentials, a course teaching online business owners how to use Mailchimp to build sustainable revenue.
- Creative Class, teaching freelancers the business of freelancing so they can go PRO with their careers.
Neither sales page is fancy or complicated, but they tell a story, mention who specifically the courses are for and illustrate the possible transformation if someone buys.
Selling an online course doesn’t have to be complicated. Sure you can have sales funnels, A/B tests, timers, and more – but all those are accoutrements to selling, they aren’t the main course. The main course is explaining the benefits of taking the course and why you are uniquely qualified to be teaching it.
The end (this is actually the beginning)
Creating an online course is fairly easy.
Creating a decent online course, one that generates sustainable revenue for years to come is still fairly easy, but it requires a decent amount of (totally doable) work.
The truly easy part is reading about creating your first online course. The next part is harder, but much more rewarding – actually creating it.
As I mentioned at the start, creating online courses have changed my business and have been responsible for the majority of my income! Yes, I invested a lot of time into my courses, but if you take things one small step at a time, you can totally do the same.
I think everyone has something to teach. And more importantly, everyone has expertise that’s unique to them, their past experiences and ways they went about gathering knowledge.
You’ve now learned the broad steps to go from idea to launch. I hope you enjoy making courses as much as I do, and if you are using WordPress for your course, I hope you’ll check out the two plugins I co-created, WPComplete and WPHelpful.Return to articles