How To Create and Sell an Online Course: The Ultimate Guide
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Online courses can help you make more money, save more time, and help more people. In 2017, I hit one million dollars in revenue from online courses alone! And I’ve made lots of money serving as an affiliate for other people’s courses too.
Today, I want to share the keys—the three crucial psychological principles, plus the ten practical steps—that will help you do the same.
This post has been crafted to be the ultimate guide (it’s there in the title!) to creating and selling your own online course, so it’s a bit of a long one. But if you’re looking for a one-stop shop on what it takes to create and sell a great online course, stick around, because you’re in for a treat!
Why You Shouldn’t Create Your Own Online Course
Before we get into it, though, we need to talk a little bit about why online courses are great—as well as who they’re not for and why you shouldn’t do them. The truth is, courses really aren’t for all people and all businesses. I think the most important thing is to first realize: what are the problems and the pains and the needs of your audience? And then ask yourself, “Does it make sense for me to build an online course, and to sell it in order to help them through those problems?”
I hesitated for so long to build online courses because I was too afraid to sell to my audience. Here’s the big realization: you can sell and serve at the same time. The other part of this is, I realized that by creating courses for people who just wanted to go deeper with me, I wasn’t taking anything away from that segment of my audience who is more keen to take advantage of my free and lower-cost material.
That realization was huge for me. It pushed me past my fear of selling my online courses to other people, which was a huge relief, and allowed me to create better courses to better help and serve my audience. Now I see that I’m able to serve even more people, especially those who are willing to invest in themselves to achieve their goals. And for each course I create, my newfound confidence shows through in my sales pages, emails, and in the course material itself.
Okay! Now that’s out of the way, let’s cover the three psychological principles behind why people buy online courses. These are the things you have to know about the psychology that motivates people’s purchase decisions, before you try to sell any online course of your own.
The 3 Must-Know Principles of Selling Online Courses
So, you want to learn how to sell online courses? Maybe they’re your own courses or you’re an affiliate for somebody else’s courses. I’m really excited for you, because there’s an incredible amount of opportunity with online courses!
Over the years of building and selling my own courses, as well as promoting other people’s courses, I’ve learned a ton by experimenting with different ways to promote online courses. There are lots of tactics to choose from when it comes to promoting an online course, from emails to funnels to Facebook ads to podcasts, blogging, videos, and more—but the tactics don’t matter unless you get three things right. These are the three psychological principles you need to bake into everything you do, or you’re not going to be selling anything.
And they are . . .
#1: Sell Outcomes, Not Courses
People don’t want to buy online courses. Wait, what? It’s true, though. Nobody wakes up and says “You know, I think I’m gonna buy an online course today.” What people really want are the outcomes and the results that an online course can potentially give them. And so, the secret to selling anything, is to convey the results, the outcome, the way someone’s life will be different after taking your course. If those outcomes are not clear, then your work promoting that course is going to be much harder.
For your sales page, don’t focus on the features of the course, but the outcome. For example, with my Power-Up Podcasting course, I promise students they will have a podcast up and running with subscribed listeners on the day they publish their podcast. It’s a very specific and achievable outcome.
#2: Trust and Proof Are Key
Selling an online course is not easy. When it comes to selling online courses, trust and proof are going to be your best friends. Let’s take in contrast, for example, something like a software application that does a specific job in a very convenient way. If a potential customer has the problem that software can solve, that customer will be able to easily imagine using that software to get the result they’re looking for right out of the box. But with online courses, which is usually information, you can’t really demonstrate that and the results aren’t clear and people aren’t necessarily going to get results the moment they buy. They have to actually take action to see the results.
Now, when you’re selling an online course, you need to build trust before selling your course. You can do it over a long period of time, through content marketing, for example. You can also do it in a shorter period of time, perhaps through ads or webinars. Whichever option you choose, the proof is really important. You need to demonstrate real-life evidence that this course actually works, and the best way to do that is typically by sharing testimonials and success stories of previous students who’ve taken the course.
A special note for establishing trust with affiliate courses: The most important thing to do is to convince your audience that the person creating the course is the right person to teach them that material, and that your audience can trust them. There are a few ways I like to do that it. Most of the time, I promote courses that I’ve used myself, so I can talk about my own experience and what I loved about it. I’ve also interviewed the founders or creators of courses on my podcast, which is a great relationship-building tool. And again, proof and testimonials from other people too, specifically those in your audience, is valuable here.
#3: It’s Not About the Information
When it comes to most online courses out there, the information in those courses can be already found elsewhere on the internet. So why would people ever buy these courses? I learned this important lesson back in 2008 when I sold my first online product, which was an ebook study guide to help people pass the LEED exam, a specific exam in the architecture space. That e-book was comprised of 95 percent of the same material that could be found for free on my blog. In fact, right before I sold that product, I remember being scared to death thinking that every person who bought it would ask for a refund and complain about that very fact. Not one did. Not one person out of tens of thousands ever complained about it.
So does this mean people are just too lazy to complain and ask for a refund? Not at all. Trust me: if people are unhappy with their purchase, they’re going to be quick to ask you for a refund. A big reason people buy online courses is because they’re convenient. You’re saving people time by having all that information they need, and only the information they need, collected and compressed in one place for them to take action and get results.
Also, people often want their hand held, and they want accountability through the process, whether it’s through things like weekly office hours, or just structurally through the framework of the course. When a purchase is made and dollars are spent, it’s that person saying, “Yes, I want to do this. I’ve put skin in the game, and I’m going to make it happen.” And it’s your responsibility, as a course creator or as the person who’s promoting another person’s course, to make sure that they achieve that result.
The 10 Steps to Build an Amazing Online Course
Now that we’ve covered the psychology, let’s get into the nuts and bolts of creating your course! Here are the ten steps you need to follow to create an online course from scratch that people will love.
Step #1: Define the Transformation
In the beginning, you might not know exactly what to do. The best thing you can do is start to have conversations with your audience, to understand exactly what they’re going through and where they could use your help. This will help you understand what you can potentially create a course about.
The key here is to know and define the transformation that your customers are going to experience when they take your course. What will your course help them achieve? Once you know that, you’ll have your selling point. You can draw a clear picture in the mind of the customer of, “Wow, if I get this, then I get that.”
For example, here’s the transformation I promise people when they take my 1·2·3 Affiliate Marketing course. I promise they will earn their first dollars through affiliate marketing, which is generating an income and a commission by selling and recommending other people’s products rather than products of your own. The people who take the course will see a direct impact in their earnings and income as a result of promoting specific products in specific ways. If you do the work, you follow directions, you’re going to earn your first dollars through affiliate marketing. If it does not do that, the course will have failed.
Whatever the course, it doesn’t matter how great the information is; if it doesn’t provide that transformation, then what is the point and why would people buy it? If you’re having a hard time defining the transformation for yourself, well then, there’s a problem, because guess what? Your customers are having a hard time understanding it too. I think of Ramit Sethi’s courses, such as Earn Your First Thousand Dollars, or Land Your Dream Job. Those are very clear promises about what will happen if you follow the course correctly—and they’re baked right into the name.
Step #2: Brainstorm the Content
We started at a higher level, identifying our audience’s pains and problems and figuring out the transformation we want to help them achieve. Now we have to figure out the steps they need to take to get to that transformation. Once you’ve defined the transformation your course will provide, you can start to define the pieces that lead to that transformation. What stories do you need to tell? What facts and case studies do you need to share? What exercises does the student need to do to get on the path toward that transformation?
To do that—to reverse-engineer that transformation and figure out exactly what needs to happen for them to achieve that transformation—we first have to do some brainstorming.
You may have some ideas in your head about what should go into your course, but unless you do this brainstorming stage the right way, you’re either going to miss a lot of things, or you’re going to go out of order. The way I would recommend doing this is with my favorite tool in the world: Post-it notes. Post-it notes are my favorite tool for brainstorming, because they’re great for getting what’s in your brain out onto paper, and they’re small (so you can only include one idea per note).
Our brains do a great job of coming up with new ideas, but a terrible job at organizing and prioritizing them. Writing down those ideas on Post-it notes lets you bring them out into the world, where you can see them and start to organize them. Just remember, in this step, you’re basically “throwing up” the contents of your brain onto these notes—you’re not organizing yet!
Cool things happen when you are in that kind of creative mindset—you can just let your creative brain get into the flow. I like to structure my brainstorming according to what I call the “triple 10” exercise. In this exercise, you spend ten minutes brainstorming as much as you can, then you rest for ten minutes. Then after that rest period, you come back to where you were, and brainstorm for another ten minutes.
I’ve found that the final ten minutes in that total thirty minutes is often when the best ideas come out. Why’s this? What happens during that break? Yes, you are resting, but your brain is also absorbing and processing everything it’s just done. When you come back from that break, your brain has just processed it in a way that you couldn’t have if you hadn’t taken the break.
So Step 2 is to brainstorm, using Post-it notes, by letting anything in your brain come out then posting those ideas onto your table or wall. Just let it happen.
Step #3: Organize Your Thoughts
Now, you need to take all those Post-it notes and put them into some kind of order. The key in this next step is to organize the notes into different clusters or hierarchies related to your core topic.
Eventually, you might find that these clusters essentially become modules in your course, and each of these Post-it notes will become your lessons. That’s the magic of this process. This process also makes it easy to find the right order of all the pieces. You can ask, “Would it make sense to put this before that, in the eyes of my customer?” That’s the beauty of Post-it notes again: you can simply move them around on the desk or whiteboard to reorder things.
As you go through this process, you’re going to have a few Post-it notes that will make you say, “Why did I even write that?” Just throw them out. You’re also going to find where there might be some holes, some things missing. In that case, just create more Post-it notes to cover those missing topics and add them to the appropriate clusters.
Step #4: Make the Outline
Now you’ve gone through the brainstorming and organization phases, you can create an outline for your course. The work is mostly done; you just need to review the re-ordered Post-it notes and “extract” the details of how you’ve organized them to create your outline.
The key here is what you do with that outline. And what’s that? You’re go to share it with others to get their feedback. Perhaps you have superfans, people in your audience who would benefit and feel great with you trusting them with this, and could provide some amazing feedback. Maybe it’s people in your mastermind group, or other colleagues or friends who might be looking for the kind of transformation you’re offering with your course. Whoever it is, share your outline with them and say something like, “Hey guys, here’s the tentative outline for this course that’s going to help you [transformation]. Look over it, and let me know what you think. Does it make sense? What else would you include? What would you remove?”
Now, you’re going to get feedback, and some of it you might not want to hear. Your team might suggest cutting things you really like. That’s a hard thing to do. This is what in the book writing space is called “killing your darlings.” And you have to be willing to do the same thing with your courses. You’re going to have to kill the lessons that aren’t necessary in order for that transformation to happen.
So it’s super important to ask your reviewers, “What lessons in here are not necessary to achieve this goal?” That allows you to make sure you only have what you need in your course. Doing the sometimes painful work of identifying and cutting unnecessary material helps in several ways. It’ll save you valuable production time, and it’ll help the course participants by reducing the amount of unnecessary fluff they have to wade through in the course.
Step #5: Pre-Sell the Course
You have an outline, and you’ve collected feedback to validate the concept and the outline. Now, you’re going to pre-sell this bad boy to a limited number of people in your audience, if you have one already. If you don’t, it’s going to be a little bit harder, but you can still do things like run ads for webinars to promote your course.
I talk about validation a lot in my book Will It Fly?. If you want an in-depth treatment of validation, check out the book. But today I’m going to keep it higher-level, so you know the steps. If you have an audience already, you can simply let them know, “Hey, I’m coming out with this course. I haven’t made it yet, but I want to share a little bit about the course and how it might be helpful for you.”
Then you can go on to pre-sell it, explaining, “I haven’t made this yet, but I’m going to give access to twenty people who are willing to work with me as I build this course, so I can make sure it meets your needs exactly. I’m also going to give you some extra time with me to help you through this content. If we get twenty people, I’m going to create it. If not, don’t worry. I’ll refund your money.”
Pre-selling in this way lets you validate what you’re trying to do with your course. If people are willing to buy at this early stage, this information helps solidify that you are going in the right direction. It allows your audience and your potential customers to vote with their dollars that it’s something they want, and something you need to do.
What do you need to do to pre-sell? A number of people I’ve interviewed on the podcast have simply pre-sold their courses by saying, “Hey, if this is something you want, shoot this much money over to my PayPal, and I’ll put you in a Facebook group to communicate next steps.” That’s one way to do it. You don’t even need a landing page or anything like that.
Step #6: Communicate
Step 6 builds on what we just talked about in the pre-selling step. The last thing you want to do when you sell anything is to have a person buy it and then not know what happens next. No matter what, always make sure you have a great onboarding process. You want to make sure your customers know you didn’t just take their money and leave.
So, once you pre-sell the course, you have to make sure that you keep your customers up-to-date. Communication is crucial. For instance, if you’ve promised entry to a Facebook group to communicate with people as you are building the course, then set that up.
With 1·2·3 Affiliate Marketing, because I have a team and a lot of resources in place, we created a landing page with a video that explained the transformation, what people are going to get, the fact that it was a beta launch, that it was going to be pre-sold, and that there was nothing to get access to yet. We had a button on there that connected to a shopping cart through Teachable, where the course was hosted. Once they got access to the course, they saw one lesson in there, a welcome video thanking them for being in the course and telling them what would happen next.
Follow through, stay in touch, and most importantly, be honest. Simple, but crucial.
Step #7: Build the Course
Finally, we’re on to product creation! You’ve validated the course through pre-selling. Hopefully you still have your Post-it notes, because they’re going to be your guides for the next step here. This stage—production—is a difficult one, because it takes the most work.
My first recommendation is to plan ahead in terms of how and when you’re going to create your course content. Whether you decide to use video, audio, text, or a combination to create the content for your course, you need to plan what needs to be created, and when. Then, make sure to really honor that time.
Even if it’s just one lesson per day because you’re strapped for time, really honor that time you’re blocking out to create those course videos and lessons.
The best tip I can offer you related to the production of these lessons is to take things one lesson at a time, and plan out how many you’re going to record or create in a given time period. Depending on the length of your course, the amount of time to produce all the course material could range significantly. We recorded the videos for 1·2·3 Affiliate Marketing over the course of two days that we blocked out just for creating the course. It was great to batch-process it that way, because I’d wake up each day and know exactly what that day would be about.
Now, let’s talk production. Quality-wise, video is generally the form of media for most of your course material. But if video is out of your budget, you can create audio versions of the lessons, or simply written ones. In terms of other things that can go into your lessons, you may want to add worksheets to certain lessons to help reinforce the material. Another thing I like to do in all of my courses is have a list of action items at the end of each video the participant should complete before moving on to the next one.
Next, you should also consider what needs to go into the creation of the beta version of your course—the one you share with the early adopters, the ones you pre-sold the course to—compared to the final version that most people will be experiencing. Thankfully, you can get away with a “lighter” version of your course for the beta, which you can then enhance later on to create the final version.
There are a few ways you can get away with going “lighter” in the beta, particularly when it comes to video. If you’re going to create videos, you don’t need the highest production values in the beta. When I create final versions of videos for my courses, I do them in my video studio with a high-end camera. But for the beta versions, I typically record in my home office, just using a basic DSLR camera. You can even use a video camera from your phone, as long as the audio quality is good. You could also use a portable recorder such as a Zoom H4n or a Zoom H6 to record audio separately could benefit you. You could also run a wired mic to your phone using a Rode smartLav or something like that.
In the beta, I also don’t include a lot of elements in the videos other than just me talking and what’s on my Screenflow on the computer. In the final version, though, I might add things to the videos like layovers (text that pops up when you say certain things) and B-roll (camera footage that demonstrates things you’re talking about). But these things take time and effort to create, so it doesn’t make sense to create them until you have all the inputs and feedback you need to make them perfect. So, in the beta, as long as the videos and the lessons do what they need to do to help a person achieve that transformation, then you’ll be okay.
Finally, although Step 7 is all about content creation for your course, you also want to make sure during this whole time that you’re keeping your pre-paid students updated. You can share tidbits and little hints of the course content. You can even give them a little “homework” to help them prepare for the first lesson. I actually did that for 1·2·3 Affiliate Marketing, and a lot of the students appreciated being able to get a head start on the course.
Step #8: Collect Feedback
Once the course is up and running, you want to have a way to collect feedback from your students to improve the course. Email and surveys are two good ways to do this you wanted to do that, but honestly, the best feedback has come from one-on-one conversations and group conversations, like those that take place during group office hours.
It’s important to collect both positive and constructive feedback. This lets you identify what’s working well, what’s not so great and needs to be fixed, and what could be added to make things even better. Something I’ve gotten better with over time, thanks to student feedback. is not including too much information in my courses. I got a lot of great feedback from my students saying, “You know what? I didn’t feel like I needed this to help me get there.”
Your students are the perfect ones to provide this feedback, because they are your target audience, so listen to them more than anybody. They are the ones who need you to make this great, but your audience out there who wants this course, you’re going to get that greatness coming from the voices of your current students. Collect that feedback.
In addition, some of the best feedback I’ve gotten is simply from direct messages on Facebook. Sometimes I’ll just direct message somebody and say, “Hey, I saw that comment you made on Facebook earlier, and I just want to make sure you’re good. What else could I do to improve your experience with this course?” A lot of great feedback can come from a simple action like that.
Finally, as you’re collecting feedback, be sure to ask for testimonials too, because those are going to come in handy in the next step. The best way to collect testimonials, in my experience, is to just approach someone individually and say, “Hey, if you enjoyed this, and you’ve gotten some great results from it, I would love it so much if you’d take a few moments to leave me a testimonial.”
The more testimonials you can get, the better. The more diverse those groups of people who are leaving testimonials, the better, because they’re going to be able to help relate to more people. And people are not likely to give you testimonials out of the blue. Some may, but most people will only give you testimonials if you ask, and it is 100 percent okay to do that.
Step #9: Refine the Course
This one might seem obvious, but once you’ve collected all that great feedback, the next step is to refine the course. Redo the videos that need to be redone. Add worksheets where they’d be helpful. Remove anything that need to be removed. Add text, animations, and B-roll to your videos to spice them up. Refine the course and make it great so that when you go public with it, it’s going to rock.
This step also that includes refining the sales page. You’ve already gone through one round of sales, and you’ve likely helped some of your early students achieve those transformations. Hopefully you’ve also collected some great testimonials by now, and you can use them to adjust the messaging on the sales page. You can even include a new section with some of the best testimonials. Remember what we talked about in the first part of this post? When it comes to selling an online course, trust and proof are key, and testimonials are a great way to demonstrate that proof and cement that trust.
Step #10: Be Confident
The tenth and final step is a small one, but a very important one. It’s a tiny phrase you’ll take with you moving forward, and it’s a big, big deal. What’s that phrase? It’s this: be confident. Through this whole process, you’ve created a lot. You’ve brainstormed and organized and outlined. You’ve done a ton of research. You’ve collected feedback. You’ve created a huge amount of content. You’ve done a lot of work to make sure that this course is something that can truly help people, that it’s a great solution for the problem you’re trying to help them solve, and that it can help them achieve the transformation you’ve identified.
That transformation you promised them is now your responsibility, and you need to have the confidence that you can deliver that transformation for them. If you had a cure for a disease, wouldn’t you want to make sure that you get it in front of as many people who have that disease as possible? Obviously, you haven’t created a cure for a disease, but you’ve still come up with a way to solve a specific problem through your course. So you should approach it in the same way, in terms of your certainty that it can help, your drive to make sure that as many people as possible can find it, and your confidence in the messaging you use to sell it.
And guess what? Some people are not going to be a good fit, or be ready for your course. And that’s great. When you can confidently say, “This is what my course will do for you,” you make it easier to weed out those who won’t benefit from it. You won’t be wasting anyone’s time, or upset anyone when they realize they’re getting something different from what they initially thought.
But when you mess around with the messaging, and try to please everybody, the result is that nobody will understand if the course for them. They either won’t buy because they’re confused, or they’ll buy and say, “This is not what I signed up for.” You have to make it crystal clear for them, and that requires confidence in what you have to offer.
So go out there, and be confident. Make some sales, and then serve. Remember, you can sell and serve at the same time!
Now, go forth and create some amazing courses!