How to Create a Popular Online Course [7 Steps]
Looking to turn your expertise into a highly profitable business? In this article, I'll show you how to create an online course that can generate income for you 24 hours a day. I'm the creator of Write Gripping Stories, a learning platform for writers with three online courses. I'm going to sum up the key takeaways I've picked up into 7 simple steps for you.
1. Focus on what you know and like for the course topic
When choosing a topic for your online course, you want to tap into a skill you already have. Ideally, this would be a skill you're already using in a professional capacity.
For instance, launching an online class about playing the guitar would be a good fit for an instructor who's in a band that plays professional gigs, or who currently charges for in-person lessons.
The level of knowledge you have in your topic is important, as is the level of affinity you have for the topic. Popular online courses are taught by people who love doing the thing they teach.
Most of the students who pay for courses love the topic too, and want to learn from someone who shares this interest. Almost all successful online courses are mostly formatted in video. If you don't enjoy the stuff you're talking about, that's going to show on camera and the course is going to come off as flat.
If you love what you're talking about, the opposite will happen, and your course will have an engaging feel.
2. Determine the course's market potential
Just because you know and like a topic, doesn't mean you can turn an online course on it into a viable business. First, you need to make sure the course would have a big enough market, which comes down to two questions:
For many topics, you can rely on intuition to estimate possible-customer count. You may not know exactly how many people would pay for an online course on playing the guitar, however, since the topic has a lot of interest among the population, you could assume a course would have a lot of potential students.
You should also do a Google search for "topic name online courses" and see what comes up. If multiple courses already exist on your topic, don't be deterred. In fact, this is a good sign. It means the market has already been "validated," ie, customers are out there willing to pay for this type of material.
For a more precise answer on customer potential, you can leverage Ahrefs, which has a free tool that lets you type in a keyword to see how many times it's Googled per a month. Enter "topic name online courses," plus additional keywords related to your intended topic.
When you do your Google search for "topic name online courses," check out the classes that come up and see what they're charging. The prices might vary a bunch, but that's okay. Get an idea of the range.
Were you unable to find any online courses on the topic? Possibly you can find classes on related topics and see what they're going for.
If you can't find any pricing at all, consider how much money your course can earn your students. In general, students are willing to pay more for an online course if the lessons can directly lead to a profit.
For instance, many courses on financial trading cost a lot of money. The lessons can be applied to financial markets, and students can profit directly from them, immediately after finishing a class.
Courses on leisure topics that can't translate into earnings tend to cost less. You can still build a business from a low-priced course, you'd just need to sell a lot of them.
The "students and price" equation
Let's say you have a financial goal of making $100,000 a year from your course business. Apply the "students and price" equation to assess the various paths to reaching that goal. If none of the paths seems realistic, you may want to dial down your earnings goal, or consider another topic for your course.
Here are some possible paths to $100,000 a year:
As you can see, you can also build a solid business with a small number of students, as long as your class's price tag is high.
3. Find a unique value proposition for your course
A unique value proposition is a draw your business has that competitors lack. What will make your course stand out versus others on the market?
To come up with a unique value proposition, start by assessing the courses that show up on Google for the phrase "topic name online courses." For each, make a note of these characteristics:
You want to find a pocket in the market that no other course covers, a unique combination across the dimensions above. You don't need to be wildly different, however, you need to stand out in at least one category.
Unique value proposition - examples
Notoriety vs. support
Let's say a world-renowned expert in your field teaches an online course. The videos and supporting PDFs look great, however, the instructor offers zero human support.
Though you may not have the same level of notoriety as this famous expert, if your course offered 1:1 support from you, it would stand out against the other instructor's.
One sub-topic vs. multiple
Let's say the most popular course on your topic is predominantly about sub-topic X. You can consider addressing sub-topic X in your material, while also covering sub-topics Y and Z in just as much depth.
High price vs. low
As for price, if you're going to charge considerably more than the other providers in the market, you better be offering considerably more material, support, and/or be a well-established expert in your field.
Another strategy is to charge much less than other providers, or even offer a class for free. However, I would not recommend this if you're only planning on offering one course. This can be a good tactic to "get people in the door" if you'll be creating additional, higher-priced courses in the future.
Students who take and like your first course could be inclined to purchase your others, despite the higher prices.
4. Consider the scalability of your course
Scalability refers to how much your customer base can grow with you still able to provide the promised level of service to everyone. For instance, for a certain course, an instructor may be able to easily support 10 students, struggle with 100 students, and find 1,000 impossible.
When putting together your unique value proposition, if you decide 1:1 instruction will be a key part of your offer, think about these questions:
The answers to these questions should give you a sense of how many students can enroll in your course without you maxing out your allotted time for support.
Now, multiply the intended price of your course by how many students you can enroll, and compare the number to your broader financial goal.
Let's say you want to make $100,000 a year selling courses, yet you can only support 200 students a year based on the level of personal help you're promising. This means you'll have to sell your course for at least $500. If that price makes sense, you're good. If not, you'll need to make an adjustment.
Does $500 seem way too high based on other courses' prices in the market? Here are some adjustment options:
5. Create the course material
Once you've established your unique value proposition, you should have a strong sense of the following:
Next, you want to create a content outline for the course. For every sub-topic, break it into sub-sub-topics, with at least one video dedicated to each. Consider which sub-topics would benefit from supporting material, and make a note of files you'd need to create.
I find students prefer watching multiple short videos to one long one. I like keeping my videos around 10 minutes or less. For example, five 8-minute videos would be preferable to a single 40-minute video.
Try to keep the videos simple. You just want to get across the information in a straightforward way.
Often, the videos in online courses just feature the instructor sitting down, discussing a concept. You can film them on a cell phone. You'll need a tripod to keep the camera steady, ideally with a light on it to assure your video is properly lit, plus a microphone.
Though modern cell phones have high video quality, you may want to invest in a camera for a wider range of filming options. Here are a variety of affordable video cameras on Amazon.
Possibly, to effectively cover a lesson, you'll need a video that features more than you talking.
Is your lesson about sports, for instance? You may need to hire a videographer to film you demonstrating a technique. Is your lesson a software tutorial? You should purchase a screen-recording app that'll film you going through the software.
Once you've recorded your videos, you'll need to edit them. You can either do this yourself, or hire a freelancer.
If you do want to edit your own videos, you'll need a video-editing software. An easy-to-use one is InVideo.
If you don't already have video-editing skills, I recommend you take an online course. It'll be well worth the money. Here's one from Skillshare on InVideo. If you plan to use a different editing software, Skillshare offers various classes on others.
For freelancers, I recommend finding a video editor on Fiverr.
Making supporting files
Each piece of non-video, supporting content should accomplish one of two goals (possibly both):
For example, if you're doing a video lesson that covers math equations, a PDF document that lists all the mentioned equations would help students better understand the material because they wouldn't be forced to memorize all the equations, which could lead to a mistake.
Or, let's say you're doing a video lesson that teaches students how to write an effective e-commerce product description. Possibly, you can include a Microsoft Word template, with pre-labeled sections and sub-sections. A document like this would help students put the lesson into practice, creating their own product description.
6. Choose an online teaching platform
Once you've made your course material and decided on a price, you're ready to go live with your class. Manually managing sign-ups, payments, and file storage and delivery would be extremely time-consuming and error-prone. Instead, you'll want to create an account on an online teaching platform.
For a monthly fee, these software platforms will handle the end-to-end process of students finding out about your course, registering, paying, and going through the material.
I recommend Teachable.
The plans are well worth their cost and come with powerful features for marketing and delivering your class.
7. Market your course
Once your course is live for sale on Teachable, or a similar platform, don't expect a surge of people to immediately open up their wallets for it. For results, you'll need an effective marketing strategy.
To successfully market an online course, I'd recommend the same method for successfully marketing any online business, a digital funnel.
How to create an online course - frequently asked questions
How do I create an online course?
How can I create an online class for free?
You can create an online class for free with Teachable. The platform offers a free plan, which allows you to create a single online course. However, when it's bought, you'll need to pay a transaction fee of $1, plus 10% of the purchase price.
How much does it cost to create an online course?
To create an online course, you should buy a subscription to a teaching platform, like Teachable, and integrate email marketing, which can cost about $50 per month, total, to start. If you create the course content yourself, you'll need video-editing software, which starts at around $15 per month.
What software do I use to create an online course?
To create an online course, you'll need software to edit the course videos, such as InVideo. To organize your videos, and other material, into online lessons, manage registrations, and payments, you'll need an online teaching software, such as Teachable.
Is creating an online course worth it?
In general, yes, creating an online course is worth the money and time investment. Making the material may only take a couple weeks. You can run a course for less than $100 a month. Yet, the profit potential is high, especially if you teach skills that can generate income for students.
How do you create an sell an online course?
You create an online course by recording and editing videos, and making PDFs and other files. Upload the content to an online teaching platform, like Teachable. People can visit a landing page for your course, buy it, and access the material, via Teachable or a similar system.
Are online courses really profitable?
In general, yes, online courses are really profitable. A course creator only needs to make the educational material, like videos and PDFs, once. Students from all over the world can purchase and access the material, which carries no delivery fee, since it's digital.
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