My favorite info products to create are online courses. As a consultant or freelancer, you already know enough about your industry to create one or more amazing online classes. Creating a course may sound difficult, but it’s really not.
In this article, I’m going to teach you how to plan, create, and sell an online class that will generate passive income for you for years or decades to come.
What Do I Mean by “Online Course?”
The first question I want to answer is what I mean by an “online course.” Simply put, an online course is a class that you teach via the Internet to participants (students) who pay to attend.
Online courses come in all shapes and sizes. Some classes consist of webinars, others are based on written materials, some use videos and podcasts, many use a combination of these elements to teach their content.
As a consultant or freelancer, you already know lots of things about your industry. You’re already working with clients and either showing them how to do certain things, or you’re directly doing those things for your customers. You can take that knowledge and package it into online classes that you can sell over and over again – while you sleep – to thousands of customers all around the world.
How I Got Started with Online Courses
When I first offered information products through my consulting business’ website, I didn’t start with online classes. The first product I ever offered was an e-book. The book was called How to Win Any Election, and it sold well… proving to me the power of passive income for my consulting business.
As I thought about other passive income products I could create and sell on my website, I noticed that there were lots of authors and speakers in the sales and marketing space that were offering online classes at premium prices… and they seemed to be getting lots of customers. I wondered whether the online class format would work for my political consulting business.
I decided to give it a try.
My plan was to convert my book How to Win Any Election into an online class with 6 webinars, where I would walk participants through the steps they needed to take to win their next campaign. Each webinar was based on a section of my e-book, and focused on one particular area of campaigning such as fundraising, advertising, working with volunteers, grassroots politics, etc.
I put up a sales page for the course and offered it to the e-mail list I had built for my consulting business. The sales promotion worked… we generated dozens of class registrations, and so I went ahead and created the class (my suggestion is always to pre-sell your course before you create it. More on that below).
Since then, I have created over 30 different online courses across three different consulting businesses. The courses have taken all different shapes and sizes and have become my number one method for generating passive income for my businesses. I know they can do the same for you.
Why Online Courses are a Fantastic Revenue Stream for Your Business
As I mentioned above, of all of the different types of passive income streams you can create for your business (including e-books, webinars, online classes, advertising, membership programs, etc.) online courses are my absolute favorite.
Online courses are a great option because they have a high perceived value for your customers and thus can command relatively high prices. Sure, some people will pay $499 to attend a 90-minute webinar, but that’s not the norm. In my experience, the vast majority of webinars sell for under $100 and most sell in the $20-$60 range. E-books have an even lower perceived value, so most e-books sell in the $2-$20 range (though some can sell for much more).
Online classes, on the other hand, often sell for anywhere from $50-$500, or more… depending on the class presenter and the topic. Even in the non-profit fundraising space, there are online classes that sell for $2,000… though classes selling in the $97-$197 range are more the norm.
The biggest reason why online courses can sell for so much more than webinars and e-books is because the format allows you to cover much bigger topics. For example, in my fundraising consulting business, we could offer a $57 webinar that is focused on raising more money through e-mail… or offer a $157 class that is focused on how to raise more money online, with modules focused on e-mail, your website, social media, crowdfunding, and more. Online classes allow you to tackle bigger topics, and thus charge higher prices.
3 Rules for a Successful Online Course
After creating over 30 online courses across three different consulting businesses, I have found that there are 3 primary rules that you need to follow if you want to be successful with selling classes online:
Rule #1: Pre-Sell Your Course
This just might be the most important rule for selling online courses: always pre-sell your classes. Pre-selling means setting up a sales page and allowing people to register (and pay) for the class, with the understanding that the finished class with be delivered by a certain date in the future (or that you will start posting class modules once per week beginning on a certain date in the future).
Pre-selling allows you to test your course idea before spending the time to create the class. If the class sells well, great… you can go ahead and create it. If the pre-sale doesn’t go well, then you can refund anyone who purchased it, and not spend the time to create the class.
If you validate your class idea with a pre-sale, and then go on to create the class, you’ll be able to sell the class over and over again for many years to come (more on this later in the article).
Rule #2: Don’t Overdo It
This is another key rule for creating successful online courses. When creating classes, it’s easy to go down the rabbit hole and try to include every single possible idea related to your course topic. I’ve made this mistake with classes in the past: trying to cram everything in so that my class would be as comprehensive as possible.
This was a big mistake for two reasons. First, because it made creating the class feel onerous… I kept adding and adding and adding… and the class modules took forever to finish. Second, because my class participants didn’t want that much information. They wanted to get answers to their questions, but they didn’t want to spend hours and hours searching through class materials. In short, I learned that there is such a thing as too much information. So make sure your classes are complete and do everything you say they are going to do, but don’t overdo it or try to tackle every single angle of your topic.
Rule #3: Don’t Worry – You Can Do This
If this is your first time creating an online course, you may be worried about whether or not you can actually do it. You may be confused about the technology you will need or concerned about your ability to produce the content. My advice is: don’t be worried or concerned. The technology is all figure-out-able (check out the information below!) and as a consultant, you already have the knowledge you need to create the content. Now, you just need to get started!
How to Plan Your Online Course
Now that you know the basics for creating great online classes, it’s time to plan out your online course. Here are the steps you should go through:
#1: Choose Your Topic
The first step is to choose a topic for your online course. In picking a topic, you’ll want to think like a salesman: what topic is most likely to make your audience jump up and take notice? Which topic will get them to take out their credit card – right then and there – to register for your class? That’s the type of topic you want to focus on.
There are three main types of course topics for online classes. You learn about them – plus get other helpful hints on selecting a great topic – by reading our article Bestselling Online Course Ideas for Consultants.
#2: Choose Your Title
Once you’ve chosen your topic, it’s time to choose your title. Again, think like a salesman: what title would most excite your audience to take immediate action and buy the class? You can also create a subtitle or tagline for your class, if it adds to the marketing value.
For example, I once created a course on the topic of board fundraising (getting a non-profit’s board of directors ready to help raise more money for the organization. The title I chose was The Board Fundraising Blueprint: How to Motivate and Equip Your Board to Raise More Money than Ever Before. The title was long, but it worked, because it appealed to fundraisers who knew exactly what they wanted: getting their board to help them raise more than ever before.
There are tons of different titles you could choose for any single topic – so don’t agonize too much over choosing the perfect title. Just do your best and move on to the next step. Remember, while your title is important, your marketing strategy is really what will make or break your online course.
If you’re struggling to find a title for your class, here are a couple of ideas to help get you started:
- The Expert’s Guide to X
- The Complete Guide to X
- How to X: A Step-by-Step System
- 30 Days to X
- 10 Ways to X in Half the Time
- Everything You Need to Know to X
#3: Sketch Out Your Course Structure
The next step is to create your online course structure. This means figuring out how many modules you are going to have in your class, and what you are going to include in each module (webinars, written guides, podcasts, tools and templates, etc.).
For a comprehensive look at figuring out your course structure, read our article How to Build a Smart Online Course Structure for Your Next Online Class.
Figuring out your course structure is important because you’ll use an outline of your class and bonus items as part of your course marketing strategy and sales page.
#4: Choose Your Price
Once you have sketched out your online course, it’s time to choose a price point for your class. The three primary considerations when choosing your price are (a) what value will your audience get out of taking my class? (b) how much time will it take you to create your class? and (c) what will your audience be willing to pay?
Value to Your Audience
First, figure out what value your audience will get out of taking your online course. Will your students be able to double their online sales? Increase their client list by 20%? Build their own website? Code their own apps? Fix their own cars?
Figure out what your audience will be able to do once they complete your course and ask yourself what that is worth to them. You should price your class so that you capture a portion of that value. For example, if you are creating a class that shows people how to find more patients for their orthodontic practice, you may believe that the average participant will be able to earn $80,000 more per year if they complete your class. That’s a ton of value, and you should price your class accordingly
Time and Effort to Create Your Class
The second key consideration in pricing your class is the time and effort that will go in to creating your online course. Creating info products takes time, and online courses take more time to create than almost any other type of passive income product.
As a consultant or freelancer, you’ll need to take time away from client work in order to create your class, so be sure to price it accordingly. If you normally earn $250 per hour for consulting work and you estimate that it will take you 20 hours to plan and create your class, that’s $5,000 of consulting revenue you need to make up in order to make your class worthwhile.
That being said, remember that your goal is to make your online course evergreen. This means that you want to be able to create your class once and then sell it many times over many years, either by having it always available for sale on your site or by launching your class several times per year. You don’t need to recapture all of your lost consulting income the first time you offer your class for sale. If you do, though, then every time you offer this online course in the future the income will be pure profit.
What Your Audience is Willing to Pay
The final consideration as you price your online class is what your audience is willing to pay. Every industry is different… online marketers will often pay thousands of dollars to take a class, while hobbyists like knitters may only be willing to pay a small fraction of that. You need to know what the market will bear when it comes to your particular industry.
Take all three of these considerations into account as you price your online course. Start by figuring out the value your class has for participants and using that to gauge how much to charge. Then, make sure that amount covers the time and effort required to create your class. Finally, look at other online courses offered in your industry to make sure that your audience is willing to pay for online training in the range you are considering.
Ultimately, don’t agonize about your pricing. If you’re worried about your course price, create a range and start on the lower end (but make sure your class is still profitable for you). Then, if the class sells successfully, increase your prices the next time you offer the class.
#5: Create Your Course Graphics
Once you have your course outlined and you know your price point, it’s time to create your course graphics.
Creating images for your online class will help it feel like a “real” product to your audience and will go a long way towards helping them make the decision to buy your class.
For many years I didn’t create images for my classes, but when I started to do so I dramatically increased my revenue.
My suggestion is that you create an overall course image that shows everything your participants will receive as part of the class. I also usually ask my designer to give me images of each of the individual items that appear in the overall class graphic so that I can use those in my marketing as well.
I highly recommend that you outsource this and hire a design professional to create these images for you. Personally, I use KillerCovers (affiliate link) to design all of my info product images, including my course images. You can also outsource it to a designer on UpWork or use a service like Canva to create your own.
#6: Select Your Course Platform
While you’re having your course images designed, it’s time to select your course platform. This is the place where your course will live. You’ll need to have a place to house all of your lessons (no matter the format) and that is password protected so only your paying customers can access the class lessons. Ideally, once someone pays, they can create a password and access the classes, without you having to add them manually.
The Way it Used to Be…
When I first started out creating online courses, there weren’t many good online platforms that made the process easy. My initial classes were run right on my website – I created a class page for the class, added links to the page, used the WordPress password protect function, and created a password for the page. Then every time someone paid for the class, I would e-mail them the link to the course page as well as the password (everyone had the same password). It was a real pain.
The Way it is Now…
Thankfully, there are now dozens of great platforms that you can use that make the whole process easier. The platform that I use for all of my online courses is ClickFunnels (affiliate link). ClickFunnels allows you to build sales funnels (sales pages and landing pages) for all of your classes, accept payments via credit card or PayPal, and build great looking password-protected class pages.
Best of all, everything happens behind the scenes… once someone pays, ClickFunnels handles the rest, including letting the person create and change their passwords whenever they want. I use ClickFunnels as the backend of my info product businesses… if you’re interested in building sales funnels and class pages for your online courses, my suggestion is that you sign-up for the One Funnel Away Challenge via ClickFunnels – this challenge will walk you through how to set-up your sales pages and course membership page in 30 days or less (plus you’ll get a free 14 day subscription to ClickFunnels to try it out for yourself.
If you choose not to use ClickFunnels, there are several other good online course platforms you can use, including Teachable.
#7: Decide – Will You Drip Your Content or Offer All at Once?
One final decision you will need to make as you plan at your online course is whether you will drip your content out to your students or post it all at once. For example, if your online class consists of 5 modules, will your students get access to all 5 as soon as the sign-up, or will they get one per week for the next 5 weeks?
When you are first creating your course, my suggestion is that you drip the content out week by week. This will allow you to pre-sell your class and then create one module per week, which should be a very doable schedule.
Once you have created the entire class the first time, the next time you sell your course (or if you plan to always have it for sale on your website) you can tell people that when they sign-up they will get immediate access to everything in the class. I have found that people like to hear that they will have access to everything all at once… but I also like to be able to take my time creating the content. Offering one module per week the first time you sell the class and then access to everything for future class sales has proven to be the right mix for me.
How to Sell Your Online Course
As mentioned above, the best way to validate your online course idea and make sure that you don’t waste time creating a class that won’t sell is by pre-selling your class. You can do this by holding a “class launch.” This is a short window (usually somewhere between 5-14 days) where you open up your class for paid registrations. During this time, you will need to market your class heavily through your website, your e-mail list, and your social media channels.
The best way to sell more classes is by marketing to your own e-mail list. For more info on how to build your e-mail list to help you sell more classes, read How to Sell More Online Classes and Webinars.
Here’s how I normally run a class launch on my websites:
#1: Sales Page
First, I create a sales page for my online course. As noted above, I use ClickFunnels to do this. You can see an example of the sales page for one of my classes (The Fundraising Strategy Masterclass) by clicking here.
#2: Blog Post
Then, I create a blog post on my website announcing the class launch and encouraging my visitors to register. I make sure that readers know that registration will close on a certain date, so they need to register before that date in order to participate.
#3: E-Mail Campaign
Next, I create my e-mail marketing campaign. I use AWeber to manage my e-mail list (affiliate link). Your e-mail marketing campaign is the single most important factor in whether your online course launch will be successful or not. Hopefully, you’ve spent time building up your e-mail list (more on how to do that here). Now, it’s time to use your list to drive registrations for your online course.
The biggest problem most businesses have when trying to sell online classes is that they don’t send enough e-mails. Believe it or not, I like to send out one e-mail per weekday during my class launches.
These aren’t all “hard sell” e-mails. The first e-mail announces the class and tries to sell people on registering. Other e-mails can be content e-mails, which include both a helpful article and a small pitch for the class, or e-mails with more information about the course, or samples of some of the great content people will get inside the class. Then, on the day when registration closes, I will generally send out two e-mails… one in the morning and one about 3-4 hours before registration closes. Both of these e-mails remind people that it is the last day to sign-up.
People won’t get tired of getting e-mails from you as long as the e-mails are valuable and info-packed. The only two days when I send sales-only e-mails during my launches are the first and last days. All of the other days, I focus on giving people valuable content, while also mentioning the class and telling them where they can get more information or sign-up.
#4: Social Media Marketing
You should also market your online course on all of your social media channels. I would suggest doing this at least daily on each channel for the entire launch period. You can also test advertising your courses to see if it drives sign-ups. One thing that I have found helpful is paying to advertise to my own followers… this helps reinforce the e-mail messages they will be receiving, since many of my social media followers are also subscribers to my e-mail newsletter.
Whether you pay to advertise on social media or not, you should be posting regular on your social channels about your online course launch.
Other Online Course Marketing Methods
In addition to the four-step online class launch formula outlined above, there are lots of other ways to market your courses. These include:
Affiliate Marketing: Signing up affiliates to market your class to their own networks in return for a commission when people from their e-mail list, website, or social media following purchase the class. (ClickFunnels allows you to create an affiliate program for your courses if you upgrade to ClickFunnels Platinum. There are also a number of other platforms and even WordPress plugins that will help you create your own affiliate program).
Online Publicity: You can appear on other people’s podcasts, write guest posts for their blogs, and ask them to include info about your class in their e-mail newsletters even if you don’t have an affiliate program. One great way to do this is with a swap… they promote your course and you agree that when the time comes, you’ll promote their online course, e-book, or webinar.
Creating Your Class Modules & Bonus Items
When it comes to actually sitting down and creating your online course modules and bonus items, my strategy is simple: I like to create an in-depth outline for each module and then keep drilling down until I feel like I have enough information to both create good content as well as fill the time or space allotted.
For example, let’s say I’m teaching an online class about how to build a strong fundraising strategy for a non-profit. I decide to offer 5 modules in the class. The general topics for the modules are:
- How to Find New Donors
- How to Communicate with Your Donors
- How to Ask Donors for Money
- How to Raise Money Online
- How to Build a Great Board that Helps You Raise Money
Let’s assume that each module will be a 45-60-minute recorded webinar, which is usually the length I am looking for my online courses. When it comes time to create my first-class module, I’ll try to break the module up into 7-10 key topics. Thus, for my first module, my outline might look like this:
- How to Find New Donors
- How to Identify Your Ideal Donors
- How to Find New Donors through Referrals
- How to Find New Donors through Direct Mail
- How to Find New Donors Online
- How to Use Non-Ask Events to Find New Donors
- Should You Ever Use Cold Calls to Find Donors?
- How to Approach New Major Donors for the First Time
- When Should You Ask a New Donor for their First Gift?
Then, once I have build the entire class outline like this, I’ll go back in and add another level to the outline, with the key points I want to make. Thus, for part (a), my outline might end up looking like this:
- How to Find New Donors
- How to Identify Your Ideal Donors
- Developing donor profiles
- Looking through your database: who is already giving?
- What types of people love your mission?
- Figuring out how to reach “your people” / donor profiles
- Figuring out if the people you are trying to reach have the capacity / wealth to give
- Taking the path of least resistance to reach your donors
- How to Identify Your Ideal Donors
Presenting from an Outline vs. Writing a Complete Script
As you can see, once you outline your online course this way, it will become quite a long outline. When I first started out with creating courses and webinars, I preferred to write out the entire module word for word before recording it. This was incredibly time-consuming, but it made me feel more confident when presenting the class. Now, I just create an outline and deliver it on the fly, based on the outline.
If you do decide to write out the entire class word for word, you can get a good idea on how long it will take you to read the content (the length of the module recording) by using a words to minutes calculator.
As I said above, my class modules are usually recorded webinars, which are accompanied by bonus items like written guides and templates that participants can use to help them jumpstart their efforts (e.g. sample fundraising letters, or sample political yard sign designs, etc.)
To record my webinars, I create the slides in PowerPoint. You can also use Keynote or Google Slides. I then record my webinar the same way I present my live webinars, using ClickMeeting (affiliate link). You can also use Camtasia to record your screen or you can use platforms like Google Hangouts or WebinarJam to record your webinars. I prefer ClickMeeting for its ease of use and the quality of the recordings it produces.
I then host the videos on Vimeo Pro and embed them into the password protected class pages I create on ClickFunnels. (You can also use Youtube to host your webinar videos, but make sure they are marked as private. I find that using Vimeo looks more professional and gives me greater control and security over my paid class modules).
Note: If all of this seems confusing, don’t worry… the tools I mention above make it really easy. My suggestion is to sign-up for the One Funnel Away Challenge to learn how to use ClickFunnels. Once you do, you’ll be able to create an amazing sales page and password protected class page for your class.
Then, sign up for ClickMeeting – it’s intuitive, and you’ll be running and / or recording webinars in no time. Then you just need a place to host your recorded webinars – my suggestion is to sign-up for Vimeo Pro (you can’t use the free version of Vimeo if you are planning to sell your content, as it is against Vimeo’s terms of service).
Launch Format vs. Evergreen Sales: Which Will You Choose?
Once you’ve pre-sold and created your first online course, the only question is: what will you do with this class in the future? You have two primary options:
First, you could make this class an “evergreen sale,” meaning that it is always available for purchase. If you choose this method, you’ll need to create some prominent links to the class sales page on your site, and remember to promote the online course often to your e-mail list and social media network.
The main benefit of an evergreen sale format are that your class is always available and you will hopefully generate a small number of sales on an ongoing (weekly or even daily) basis.
The second main option is to use a “launch format” for your class. Under this format, after your first class launch you close up shop and don’t accept any more registrations until the next time you launch the class. Using this method, you’ll run a launch campaign like the one described above once or twice per year, each time posting a clear deadline when your registration page will close. After that time, no one will be able to register until the next time you offer your online course.
The main benefit of the launch format is that you create scarcity for your online class… if people want to register, they need to do so before the deadline, or else they won’t be able to get access until the next time you open the class.
In my businesses, I normally use the launch format for my courses.
I have found that this really drives sales of my online courses. When using the launch format, you’ll generate a ton of sales during the week or two that registration is open, but then obviously not generate any sales for that class during the weeks when registration is closed. The solution, of course, is to create another class that you can launch!
In one of my consulting businesses, I ended up with 24 different classes, and we launched each class twice per year. Of course, this is an unusual number of online courses, but you can be very successful with this strategy even if you only have 2 or 3 different classes and you launch each one 2 or 3 times per year.
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