Create an account
Access the Blueprint Tracker + gain inspiration from successful online course creators in weekly interviews.
Our content is reader supported, which means when you buy from links you click on, we may earn a commission.
In 2001, I had just spent about 1.5 years putting my first training program together and getting in the position to market it. I created a 3-page website and went live.
Now here’s where you may be thinking I sold 1 million dollars worth of that course in the first month. And you’d be wrong. I sold nothing! I had to put the course on eBay to get my first sale, and even then, it was rough. I believe it took two months to get that first sale on eBay!
I cannot even remember how long it took me to get my first sale from my website, but once it started, it did keep chugging along. I grew this online business, which was based exclusively around my course to the point where it made about 6-figures a year.
I’ve earned from online courses for nearly that entire time (that’s almost 20 years). Based on my experience, I’m in the position to give you some best practices on how to start selling and scaling your online learning business too.
There are a few keys to selling your online course. For one, you need to find your ideal customers. For another, you need to build up your brand (ideally well before you plan to launch). Finally, you'll need to start offering your course on your platform.
It's going to be a lot easier if you know your target audience and find them first vs. flail about later. You need to know things like …
Once you figure that out, and start growing an audience, you need to focus on building trust.
Build a relationship and present yourself as an authority. It's not that hard; it just involves providing your audience with the information they need.
It helps to have a practical, user-friendly presentation. The presentation can be text-based or video, but it must be effective.
Your target audience won't take you seriously if your site looks terrible, or your video looks awful. Or if there's grammatical errors, typos, or you don't come off as professional. So you have to have all that in place.
Although it's a lot of work, selling your course will work out a lot better if you start building your platform before it's completed. That means you need a bare minimum website, some quick traffic wins, and a lead magnet to entice subscriptions.
At that point, you will start getting some traffic to your site and can build up your email list. That way, you'll have an existing audience built up for your launch once you've finished creating your course.
I realize this is easier to say than do, but it will pay off. And it might mean launching your course later then you want, but when you launch it, you'll actually sell some courses.
I interview course creators and I have a lot of success stories where they make selling sound easy. Often these are bloggers turned course creators. They already had a platform, and then they added on a course. Service providers who then created a training product can often turn it around and start selling courses like hotcakes too.
Again, in both cases, they already had a platform.
With my first course, I did not have my website built. Instead, I created the site after I spent about 1.5 years creating the product! It didn't go well.
Luckily I was kind of stubborn and figured it out.
But the idea of creating it first, then worrying about building a site and learning how to sell it doesn't work out for everyone.
Some course creators develop a great course, but they lose interest, get sidetracked, and stop trying to sell their course anymore.
Even just getting 100 subscribers on your email list will take you some time. At the very least, I suggest you try for that before launching your online course.
I put together a guide on creating an online course, including tips on how to organize your course platform. Also, if you haven't yet decided on the learning management system for you, I offer the ultimate guide on how to select the best online course platform. Many platforms offer a free plan, which makes deciding even easier.
It will help if you have your course ready to go and you have the tech stack for selling it. Otherwise, you need the tools in place to take payments as well as give your new clients access to your course.
Fortunately, many popular online course platforms offer more than just hosting for your online course and the materials within it. They also include marketing tools, a shopping cart, and many other add-ons. For most, you will only need your domain name, maybe a hosting account, and an email marketing solution to connect to it.
You need to review the key features of each and choose the best platform for your needs.
Once you have your course uploaded, you should begin going through the sales process.
You can start this before completion of your course (which I advise); otherwise, you may see a lag in time between your launch and your first sale. That can be extremely hard to take and sap your motivation. So if you get some of this done before your course is created, you'll have more luck when it comes time to sell your course.
Your sales process must include a sales page, a lead magnet, and an email marketing sequence. I'll go through each of these in this section.
A sales page (also called a landing page) serves a few purposes. For one, it usually has a link to the checkout page, which is where the prospect enters in their credit card information and pays for and enrolls in your course. You definitely need that!
The sales page helps prospects identify what the course covers, what the transformation or end goal is, and provides any other necessary details. These details might include information on the instructor, a money-back guarantee, items included (like coaching, books, supplemental materials), testimonials, and more.
Here's a brief overview for designing a sales page:
You can put this together as text, video, or include a mixture of text and video.
When your prospects click on the link to buy you need to send them to a nice, easy to understand checkout page. Sometimes the checkout page can be embedded right into the sales page, and that's fine too.
If it's a separate checkout page, it's great if you can add in a couple of your best testimonials or success stories. Also include the money-back guarantee, as well as the list of the materials they get. You can even work in that main benefit again.
Then make it very clear what amount they're paying today. Once prospects buy, you need to take them to a thank-you page that lets them know the order was processed.
The sales page, checkout page, and thank you page all make up your sales process. Make sure you have created those.
To maximize the sales process, you need a reason for prospects to opt-in to receive more information from you.
It can take people a while to get comfortable enough with you and your business to pay to enroll in your course. You may also need to help them understand why your course is worth it. For example, I have people sign up for a lead magnet, and then two years later, they finally enroll in my paid course.
The ability to collect email addresses and then follow up over time puts you in a position where you can get compounding sales. Over time, the number of sales you get each month grows. You're not only reaching people who landed on your site this month but people who landed on it months ago and still open your emails.
Hopefully, you already had this in place well before launching your course.
If you only have a few subscribers, even one sale can give you the momentum you need. In that case, the start to your funnel is your lead magnet; it could be a PDF report, a video, a collection of articles or podcasts, etc …
Other times, you're going to have a lead magnet or funnel that starts with a piece of your course. And since you only just created it, you can't release that until now.
These are often offered as a free trial, a few preview videos, or maybe a sequence of videos that walk prospects from point A (why do they need your course) to point C (buy the course) and everything in between. You will have to decide what will work best for your particular business.
Also, don't be afraid to offer multiple lead magnets plus a funnel (or even various funnels). Your prospects are not all starting at the same place. Some need more information while that additional information will bore others to tears. Having multiple lead magnets addresses that problem because they can pick and choose what they want to sign up for.
If you want to offer a tried and true funnel that will lead people right to your course, then creating a trial offer or having a collection of preview videos is a great start. In this case, you will not put the video previews right on the sales page, but offer them to folks who give you their email address. Once they give you their email address, you can deliver the videos or the trial in a couple of different ways.
One way is to send them straight to a particular page that's not password protected. Having an unprotected page like this is easier, but not as effective.
The more effective way is to send them login information to your online course.
You offer them access to the course, but only give some of it away. Often you'll have to recreate the entire course and then disable access to the material you don't want prospects to have. But you want them to see that it is there, even if they can't access it until they upgrade.
This type of trial version allows them to see some of the videos or part of the course and sample it, and then they also understand they haven't unlocked the rest of the course yet. And it all entices them to buy so they get all the material.
I've been doing this for about ten years, and it works great. I did have to create two versions of my course, which is time-consuming. Although, with some online course platforms, you click once on a clone course button, and it's done for you.
You will also have to disable access to portions of your course, but that won't take you too much time. If you ever update anything, make sure to update it in your trial, as well as the paid version.
At any rate, that's one example of a funnel. Once people opt-in, you have their email address and make sure you have permission to follow up with them. Then follow up with them in your email sequence, which we'll get into next.
Ideally you need two email sequences. The first one is for the buyers of your course. You should welcome them into your course and walk them through it.
I notice a lot of course creators don't offer this, and I think it's a big mistake. You don't want to drop your clients the second they buy your course; you need to keep serving them.
The second one is part of your funnel.
If you have a lead magnet like a PDF report or free trial, then you need to send them information that will move them from email subscribers to paying customers. Ideally, you connect that free subscriber-only content to your paid content and get them to enroll in your course.
There are two main ways to launch your course over the long haul. You can use an evergreen strategy or an open/close cart strategy. I’ll walk you through each here.
I've only ever sold my courses on an evergreen model, which is where the course is always available for sale. When I first started, that was the way everyone did it, and then somewhere around 2005 or so, Jeff Walker came out with his Product Launch Formula.
That's when things started to shift, and a lot more course creators moved to an open/close cart type of launch. That's because it works really well.
I've made a lot of sales following Jeff's formula and earned a lot of money from them, but I've never just closed the cart on any of my courses. Instead I've used his formula to run promotions.
The open and close cart model works so well because you're giving people an actual deadline to buy. You can do this in an ongoing way with a tool like Deadline Funnel. That way you're not closing the cart, but people can get a lower price (which closes at a certain time).
People can opt in to get your lead magnet or start your funnel, and then based on when they opted in, you offer them a promotional deal for x number of days after they entered your funnel.
This type of sales model is the best of both worlds, in my opinion, if you're OK being aggressive about selling your course. And there are all kinds of variations to how this can work.
You can start the timer right after they opt-in or maybe wait to start it until they've taken a specific action (like watched the last video in your video funnel series). Then you can say something like “to reward those who take action; you can get a discount on the course for the next three days”.
You can include a countdown within your emails and try to sell your course before the sale closes. This type of sales model is aggressive and not for everyone.
An Evergreen sales process can also be where you offer your course all the time and are not using deadline funnel or anything like that. It's just the price it is all year round.
You might offer a sale around New Year's or Black Friday or some other special day, and then that's it. Or you never offer your course for a sale price, and that's fine too. But you do continuously offer your course for sale year-round.
I like this model because, as a consumer, I want to be able to enroll in a training course on my terms, like when I want. I may not want to learn about a specific topic right now, but maybe if the course creator keeps following up with me, I'll sign up in 2 months.
And on the flip side of that, if I want to learn about that topic right now and the course isn't for sale because you're doing an open/close cart model, I'm just going to buy it from someone else.
An evergreen model is also a lot less stressful. If you're getting into digital training as a lifestyle business (where you're looking to run it on your terms) then this will appeal to you a lot more than the open/close launch model.
This strategy is where you have a big launch, and then you sell the course. I know I talked it down a little in the previous section, but it is a very valid model.
People make millions of dollars following this model, so it works. You might spend 11 months of the year getting subscribers to your list, organizing affiliates, coming up with a great sales page and videos, and then that last month you launch it.
The open/close model is stressful, but when done right, it can be very lucrative.
No matter how you plan to run your business, I do think this may make a lot of sense as your first launch.
For instance, if you've been working on building a list of subscribers and want to presell a course, then you may need to run an open/close launch.
You may have a week where you tell your subscribers about this new course you've got in the works, and they can get a great deal on it. You may be running it live and recording it, or you may be creating it one week at a time and try to stay ahead of them.
Either way, this is great because you can get a group of ‘beta testers' for your course. That's where they get it for less because you're trying to work out the issues as you earn a little money while creating your course.
Preselling is a great way to validate that your course idea is on the right track. You can also implement their suggestions as you go.
Another option is where you're not preselling your course, but you spent the last month or two creating it. Now you want to give it a try with your first batch of clients. So you offer them more coaching or more one-on-one time with you and you get feedback, as you launch.
You could even charge more for this first round since they have access to you, so there's a real reason to close the cart. Then after that, you collect and then implement the feedback into your next version of the course. Now you release version 2.0 with all the input.
Version 2.0 is even better than the first version because you saw exactly where your clients had issues and you fixed it. You release this version on evergreen later on and offer less coaching.
There are a lot of ways this can work. Just get clear on what you're planning to do.
Those are the two basic models. If you have no platform, no list, and you just spent a lot of time making your course, then you have to get all this together now. And that's OK, know that it will take you some time and don't give up.
You will have to sort through building out your sales pages, funnels, and promotional strategy.
But mostly, if you're at the place where you have your course created and don't have much else yet, you need traffic. So I've got to cover some traffic strategies to help you sell your course!
Traffic is often a significant problem for anyone selling products, services, or online courses. Bringing in traffic is a skill all on its own and one that a lot of folks underestimate.
There are dozens of different strategies for gaining traffic, but in reality, there are only two main types; free and paid. I’ll go through each of them here and give you a summary. You can learn more about the Traffic to Courses program.
In most cases, you pay by the visitor with paid traffic.
One benefit of paid traffic is that you typically don't have to create any additional content to use it. And since you already spent the time creating content for your course, not creating other content may be very appealing.
|Pros of Paid Traffic||Cons of Paid Traffic|
|Quick||No long-term effect|
|Close to autopilot||Rules can change|
|Ad costs can be high|
|Watch conversions closely|
The primary sources for paid traffic consist of Google Adwords and Facebook Ads. There are also a few other ad platforms, including; Bing Ads, LinkedIn Ads, Twitter Ads, YouTube Ads, and Instagram for Business.
There are many different types of free traffic opportunities. Free traffic sources mainly include social media, content creation, Q & A marketing, and outreach.
With all these methods, you'll be creating more content, whether it's bite-sized or much more significant.
Traffic from free sources typically takes longer to generate than that from paid, but once you start getting the traffic, you'll usually keep getting at least some overtime.
Pros of Free Traffic
Cons of Free Traffic
Can outsource if you have the money
Takes longer to get traffic
No expenses if you do it yourself
May not be as targeted as paid traffic
Leverage your time
Difficult to track conversions
Traffic may be longer-term.
Social media traffic is a popular form of getting traffic. Many online course creators are willing to create small pieces of content to place on social platforms to drive visitors. Here are the leading social platforms:
Question and answer marketing is where you pass your knowledge onto people who are asking questions and starting discussions on your topic. Answering questions is popular for course creators because you're likely already an expert in your market. That means answering the questions will be easy for you.
The main types of activities that work well for this include:
Since you've already created a course, you'll likely excel at content creation. Here are the main types of content creation, traffic-driving strategies:
With outreach marketing, you're mainly reaching out to others, often publications or a community, and telling people about your product. Here are some common outreach strategies:
Collecting your prospect's email address so you can follow up with them is the best traffic strategy.
I suggest using all these other methods to drive traffic to your site and then funnel as many people as possible to sign up for your lead magnet, free trial, or newsletter so you can keep in touch with them. Email marketing allows you to send traffic to your landing pages on demand, it's the traffic strategy every course creator should be using.
Rather than give you the list of tactics here, I'd like to walk you through what has worked well for me. Please note that my business will be different than yours, just like my strengths and weaknesses are also different.
So even if a tactic worked well for me, it might not work as well for you. That said, I have been running digital training programs since 2001, and my first course is still running.
Without a doubt, this has been my most significant driver of traffic over the years for any of the digital products I've ever sold online. And for this, I don't just write a 500-word article; you see what I do from looking at the content you're currently reading.
These are not just posts, but pillar content full of advice and useful tips organized nicely.
I try to add in graphics where I can, and I use a page builder to create these, not just the WordPress post box. That way, I can add some excellent design features.
I created the first set of these on one of my sites about ten years ago. I still update them, and they still rank high in Google. They have resulted in a lot of links from other sites and direct traffic.
Sometimes visitors land on my site from other keywords. Then they find these guides and are blown away. When starting a digital training company, displaying your expertise is very important. Nothing shows that better than in-depth content like this.
So it's worth it.
I try to only write pillar content on keywords with searches. I don't typically worry about the competition when it comes to these. I don't usually try to get links to them either.
I have gone with pillar content that wasn't for a highly searched for a keyword when it made sense. I try to link to these either on my homepage or from my navigation menu.
For coursemethod.com, I may wind up with so many that I will have to link from them from an internal page, but that's because this is a competitive market.
Selling online courses is enormous, so I need a lot more pillar content for this topic. In many cases, you may be able to create 3 or 4 pieces of pillar content and grab a significant market share. Start with one, but this strategy is so good I just had to share it first.
Search engine optimization (SEO) feeds off the first strategy I mentioned. Mainly, I work on improving my user experience for all the pages of my site.
I also create free content around highly searched for keywords as well as long-tail keywords. Going after long-tail keywords is a way to get some traffic through search rankings faster.
SEO has resulted in many of the sites I've built over the years bringing in tens of thousands of unique visitors a month. I'm sure 80% of the money I've earned has been a direct result of SEO and content marketing (which are essentially the same anymore).
Adwords search works well when there are specific keywords your target audience searches for, and you want to rank high immediately for those words. The trick is you need to make enough money from the sales to afford those ads.
With Adwords, you create a text ad first. Make sure you're tracking your spending along with your conversions. It's possible to lose a lot of money with Adwords, but if you're tracking correctly, you should have a great idea of when you're overspending and when you're making a profit.
You can get very detailed with how much you want to spend per ad per keyword and hopefully ramp up from there.
Adwords display works quite differently from the search version. For display ads, you create an image or video ad and then decide on the site placements.
You can let Google pick for you, and you can also set it up so that when someone has visited your site before, the ad will follow them around.
You can also select specific sites to show your ads. These sites might include a particular forum or website related to your topic.
Adwords has worked out well for me over the years, but you do have to watch it and be willing to spend some time on it. It will also work better if your course is on the more expensive side (like a few hundred dollars or up).
I love lead magnets and email marketing in general. Whatever you can do to get more people subscribed to your list will move your business forward.
Since your site visitors are in different places along the journey, I've found it's worth it to have multiple lead magnets. You can just put them all under a resource heading on your navigation bar or get detailed and show the lead magnet that matches the content on a specific page. Any of this will increase your opt-ins.
Over the years, I've created a lot of PDF's. Many of these were pretty straightforward and covered necessary information on a particular topic.
I have also done video funnels (but these were not my highest producing lead magnets, which was a surprise). I've also just offered newsletters as well as a few video series sent through email. Finally, I've also provided mini-courses and free trials.
I like the free trial lead magnet, but this will only work for people already sold on enrolling in a course.
So if you've got a mobile app course, if people are at the stage where they're shopping around, then a free trial of your course will be great. If they haven't yet decided to create a mobile app, then you need to educate them first.
You can get even more sign-ups and likely more conversions by offering one of the other lead magnets as an intro, then funnel those people to your trial once they are clear on the fact that they need a course.
Your homepage is the most visited page on your site, so it's wise to spend more time on it. You can spend a lot of time coming up with a very succinct headline summing up the essence of what you do—the more concise, the better, in my opinion.
If you can make it simple enough so that anyone will instantly know what you offer, then that is great. ‘Learn how to play guitar' is boring, but just fine as a homepage headline in my opinion.
If you have a blog, I'd suggest putting your latest blog posts on the home page as well as links to your best content.
I like to create pillar content, so I usually have space on my homepage to showcase that also. You can link to paid courses from your homepage, as well as to lead magnets. Don't be afraid to make improvements to your homepage and keep refining it to show off your site.
It's worth reviewing your sales page every few months (and even more when you're just launching).
You may include dates on your sales page that you have to update. People want to know that your training is current.
Honestly, this has driven me crazy in some markets (like SEO) because I was trying to make a simple course that would work for the long term (which I feel it did) . Then I would always hear from prospects that they wanted to know if it accounted for the latest algorithm update.
So you have to update any dates on your sales page; otherwise, people will get upset. It's a little thing, but expect some maintenance on your sales page.
I'm guessing a page with dates will work better than one without as long as those dates are current. So take the time to update it. Check it and recheck it for clarifications as well as typos.
If you get an email from a prospect asking you about your money-back guarantee, then it's probably not crystal clear on your sales page. You need to take the time to update it.
Add in any FAQs you may keep getting to help make it as clear as possible. These simple tips will do a lot more good than trying out just about any new sales page tactic.
Spending time putting yourself in someone else's shoes helps you get your sales letter and email sequences right. You can definitely ask your prospects about their pain points, but also just thinking about them helps.
Thinking about questions like these will help you develop an understanding and empathy for your learners. Make sure to address points like these in your sales material and within your course, if possible.
Come up with content that will help your learners overcome these issues. I've found that all this is well worth the time.
I spend time upgrading the design of my site often. Back before WordPress, I use to design them all by hand with Dreamweaver. I switched to WordPress once I was able to get the same look and feel. Sometimes I'll change out my themes, but anymore, many of the top WordPress themes are completely customizable.
I use the Elementor page builder on some of my sites as well as Leadpages. It's worth it to use a great page builder for your opt-in pages and sales pages.
In addition to your site design, thinking about how you can best organize the content for your visitors is worth the effort. You can categorize your posts, make beautiful category pages, and customize the lead magnets that show up on individual pages to maximize your conversion rates. It's worth the time to make a nice footer with links to relevant pages.
Having a more polished site will likely lead to an increase in your course sales.
Even if you're in an evergreen course topic, it's going to be worth it to improve on your courses continuously. At some point, you may feel like you've created the best course possible on a topic, but that will only be after several iterations and feedback from clients.
So keep working on it and add in improvements.
My courses have changed drastically. My first versions are typically more like a minimum viable product (MVP), which is fine.
Having something to sell is ultimately the best way to validate it, so don't put all the bells and whistles into your first version. Save those for later. It's always worth the time to make your course better.
If you're using a custom LMS, then you will have a lot of options as far as your user interface and how you present the material. If you're sticking with a cloud or corporate LMS, then you may be more limited, but you can still add in content, update it, and include supplemental materials.
A community is also a nice touch if you can run it properly.
New technology is always in the works, so you can upgrade based on anything new that may be available to you. And creating new courses or adding in new trends are still a possibility. Microlearning is an example of that. Gamification is a new trend that's arising that may make sense for you to jump on too.
By differentiating your course, I mean look at the competition, see what they offer, and then come up with something that may be missing. This missing piece needs to be something your clients would appreciate that isn't available right now.
You can look at the trends in eLearning for your inspiration, ask your clients, as well as just think about it from their viewpoint.
What would help them move forward?
What is missing?
A simple example is offering a workbook or action plan that breaks down the steps. Or if your course boundaries exclude some clients because you don't cover enough early material, you could add in that material (even if it's supplemental material).
You can also offer physical products in addition to your course. Or coaching. Consider whatever helps you stand apart from the competition.
I find that reviewing the competition every year or two and seeing what exactly they offer is worth the effort. That way, you know the current market trends in your topic area.
Sometimes plans don't go as expected. I've noticed challenges nearly almost always arise when I'm looking for shortcuts that don't serve anyone. Here are a few strategies I've tried that had terrible results.
In full disclosure, link building, and trying to game Google did work, really, really well for at least a decade, maybe even longer. I made hundreds of thousands of dollars building sites outside of offering courses and digital training (like Adsense and affiliate sites). They actually offered good content, but I built backlinks in a big way back to them.
At the time, no one thought much about the fact that we were gaming Google. I think we all thought (or at least I though) the links would stop counting when Google figured out we were building them to our own sites. That's not at all what happened. I had manual penalties handed out to some of these sites and lost about 80% of the income overnight.
And again, these weren't for my course sites.
I'm thankful I had several things going on as I know some people lost their shirts during this transition. Anymore, I suggest working on keeping your site an authority and providing a good user experience for people. That will keep you on the right path and you'll do fine.
For long video sales funnels I'm talking about the formula where you create 3, 20 minute or longer videos with a pitch at the end. I've seen some success with this, but for the amount of time it took to create it and for all the fanfare with this, I thought it would work a lot better.
I've tried this for two different training products. Honestly, I think a simple lead magnet, like a short video series with good content, a PDF, or a trial work better at least in the markets I've been involved with. Plus shorter lead magnets take less time to put together than a long sales funnel.
Maybe it’s just my strengths and weaknesses. You may see different results, but those are mine.
I seem to have a good feel for what people in my markets are looking for and try to stay consistent with my tone. I'm not too fond of flash and try to avoid it if possible.
In the past, I read as much as possible on increasing conversions, and was never able to out-do some of my oldest sales letters. Sometimes I'll re-organize a sales page and add in testimonials or success stories along with keeping it updated. And that's about it. I've not had much luck with some of the sales tactics that come out and try to keep it simple.
I find myself considering, ‘What would I respond well too if I had the problem my course solves?' Often I've been in the exact position of my buyers and in that case it's not too hard to come up with answers. Spending time on questions like these have increased my conversions more than anything else I've ever done.
If you look back through my guides, there's one to help you select your online course idea, another to walk you through how to create your online course, and finally, this one, on how to sell courses online.
A lot of effort has gone into these guides. I've sprinkled in tips and strategies I've learned throughout my nearly 20 years of experience in the digital training business.
I hope you've learned enough to get started or grow your online course business. Once you've had some success, be sure to get in touch so I can interview you for the successful course creators series!
Access the free Blueprint Tracker + gain inspiration from successful online course creators in weekly interviews.
Access the Blueprint Tracker + gain inspiration from successful online course creators in weekly interviews.