The Year of Online Courses (The Results. The Good. The Not so Good.)
Last year, when I was setting goals for 2017, I knew that a primary strategy for my business was going to be creating and launching effective and in-depth online courses for the SPI audience. One of the motivating factors for this was to significantly transform the way I generate income.
You see, for the past eight or so years of running Smart Passive Income, I’ve generated the majority of my income from affiliate marketing. I wanted to change that in 2017. I needed to add some nuance and diversity into my income portfolio. I needed to add different, and significant, pockets of value.
Now, I still think affiliate marketing is a fantastic way to generate income, and every business owner who has an audience online should participate in affiliate marketing. I mean, it’s exactly why I created my latest online course, an affiliate marketing course, at 123AffiliateMarketing.com.
But there should be a balance. I knew I couldn’t rely on affiliate marketing alone. If you build your business entirely from recommending the products or services of others, you’re putting your business at risk. At any moment, the relationships you have with those product owners and services owners can go away. I’ve had that happen before. It wasn’t fun.
By creating my own products (online courses in particular), I can better serve my audience because I have full control over the product; I can better craft the product for my target audience. It’s a better experience with the Smart Passive Income brand as a whole. It allows me to keep the SPI community within my ecosystem, and continue to foster that relationships by sharing new products I think they can benefit from.
So, that’s when it hit me. After all of these thought experiments in my 2017 goal planning, I decided that I was going to break through my fear and just create it.
I was going to create online courses.
Giving My Audience Opportunity
Here’s the thing: Change is hard.
Even though I knew I needed to diversify and create my own products, it took time to let that thought settle in. I was making “enough” money after all, through affiliate marketing. Why would I need to change?!
That’s a rhetorical question. 😀
Adding to my hesitation to create online courses (or any product) was the fear that I’d be doing it for the wrong reasons, and that’s how my audience would see it too. I didn’t want to just make something in order to make more money. That’s never the way to go, and that’s not who I am.
I heard from a number of smart people who told me I was actually letting my audience down by not creating online courses. One person, in particular, told me that they’d heard me talk about an online course I took once that had had a deep impact on me and my business. And so, by not creating online courses for my audience, I wasn’t paying it forward. I wasn’t giving my audience the same opportunity to discover that deep impact for themselves.
So, in October 2016, I beta launched my first online course, Smart From Scratch. We had over 200 students in the beta launch, and I was able to get feedback and adjust the course for the public launch in March, 2017.
Here’s a brief timeline:
- October 2016: Beta launch of Smart From Scratch
- March 2017: Public launch of Smart From Scratch
- March 2017: Beta Launch of Power-Up Podcasting
I beta tested this in front of a live audience at Chalene Johnson’s Marketing Impact Academy. If you want to take a deeper dive, I spoke about it at length with Chalene on the SPI Podcast, Session 274.
- June 2017: Public Launch of Power-Up Podcasting
- September 2017: Public Launch #2 of Power-Up Podcasting
- October 2017: Public Launch of Build Your Own Brand
- November 2017: Cyber-Week Relaunch of Smart From Scratch (I relaunched Smart From Scratch with a discounted price starting on Cyber Monday for the week.)
- November 2017: Pre-sales of 1·2·3 Affiliate Marketing (This is my new course. It’s now closed for new students, but you can sign up for the 123 Affiliate Marketing waitlist here before its February 2018 launch).
January 2018 and Beyond
On January 2, 2018, 1·2·3 Affiliate Marketing will go live for the limited beta group of students who took advantage of a small presale that I ran on Cyber Monday in November. We’ll walk through the course together, and the students will provide feedback along the way like previous beta releases.
That’s four online courses created and announced in 2017. When I initially told my team and a few other people this plan, they thought I was maybe biting off more than I could chew. And they’re right; four courses in a year is kind of bonkers.
Not only is it just a ton of effort to put out four in-depth courses, there’s also the risk that you’d be overloading your email list. A number of people expressed that concern when I told them I was going to create four courses. I knew I had the team in place to make it happen. And I told them, as I am telling you now, that I had planned for this scenario.
For a few years, I’ve been collecting specific data from my audience, and separating my list into specific interests, and what levels they are at in their business. So, for example, I knew going into it that specific people on my list wouldn’t see my emails about Power-Up Podcasting because they had been tagged as not interested in podcasts. Those who already had a business or something up and running would never see the promotions for Smart From Scratch, for instance—or at least that was the idea.
Did it all happen the way I wanted it to? Well, keep reading this post because I’m going to outline what went well, what could have been improved, and what I plan to do moving forward.
The Results. The Good. The Not So Good.
My plan was to launch four online courses in 2017. Did it all go according to plan? How well did it succeed? To start, I just want to say that overall it went extremely well.
Our goal for the year was to generate about $400,000 in sales from online courses, which would be a solid increase in my diversification of earnings related to what it was the previous year with affiliate marketing. Again, my goal was to add more balance to where my income was coming from.
Did we meet our goal of $400,000?
Well, there are still sales coming in for some of these courses because I’m testing certain things and some of them are ongoing. But the number we’re at, as I am writing this is . . .
. . . Over $900,000 in course sales for 2017!
This blows my mind! But it also shows you that my audience has been hungry for this. There was a need, and I was able to meet that need. In addition to the value created for the students of the courses, we’ve created quality assets and information that will generate income for SPI and my businesses for years to come.
That’s a good feeling.
(Looking ahead, there will be more courses created, but I don’t plan on creating four courses in 2018. Phew!)
In the Year of Online Courses, here are some of the things that went well.
Crash Course in . . . Course Building
Obviously the strategizing, building, and launching of the courses was a big win. The team and I are also enjoying a good rhythm as we provide updates and upgrades to the courses. Caleb, my videographer from DIY Video Guy, and I are also in a good rhythm, efficiently and strategically setting recording dates for any video assets that are needed for the courses. We had a crash course, so to speak, in launching courses. And I think we’ve done an amazing job, from creating all of the assets to building the course curriculum to setting up the landing pages. We did it efficiently and with quality in mind.
For example, Power-Up Podcasting was sold on stage to 165 people out of 700 in the room. That’s a high percentage for basically pitching an online course to a crowd. I was incredibly thankful for that opportunity (thank you, Chalene!).
From the time that was announced, my team and I had about two weeks to put the course together before the new students arrived. When we were building Smart From Scratch, the first online course, we learned a lot about what it takes to do it right. We applied what we learned to create Power-Up Podcasting and it became a much more efficient process, from creating outlines to filming videos to getting the course into Teachable (Teachable has been an incredible partner in our success; thanks, Teachable!). [Full Disclosure: I’m a compensated advisor and an affiliate for Teachable.]
In the end, we were able to create what I feel is the best podcasting course out there that walks people through the entire podcasting process, step by step. Not only that, it helps them market their podcast too! The results I’m seeing from students is amazing. I’m so proud!
Promoting Through Email
Another thing that went well are the email promotions for each of these courses. As I mentioned before, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy segmenting my email list, doing my best to share the content people actually want to see—based on interests and where they’re at in their entrepreneurial journey. Having those assurances in place was comforting, knowing that I’d be sending out emails throughout the year promoting and selling the courses.
Plus, the more positive results and testimonials I heard from students of the courses, I felt validated and more comfortable in promoting the course through email. It made me want to get the course into even more hands, help even more people launch a podcast or business.
Nitty Gritty Numbers
More good things! The numbers. I’m very proud of the fact that for those who have taken action in my courses, many of them have seen great results. From what I understand about the online course completion rates industry wide, the completion rates for my courses are trending a little bit higher.
One of the worries that people have in creating online courses these days is the lack of people who actually complete the courses. When we launched Smart From Scratch, our first course of 2017, we learned that students needed a little bit more hand holding through the process. So we adjusted, and helped them through it by sending out an email when they completed a lesson that shared tips and frequently asked questions.
In doing this, we’re providing the solutions they need before they even ask, which makes the process for them (and us) much more efficient
An Amazing Community
It warms my heart to see how helpful and supportive the community of students has been for each other as they work their way through the courses.
For Power-Up Podcasting and Smart From Scratch, we created private Facebook groups for the students to share and engage with each other. I pop in here and there to provide updates, answer any questions, and have my office hours. Each time I do, I’m always so happy to see how much of the time I am not even needed—the students are answering each other’s questions, inspiring each other, getting value from each other. It’s awesome!
Even though the students have been amazingly self-sufficient at times, the regular office hours I hold have been of great help. What I love about that is it helps control the emails and questions that are coming in. It allows questions to come in, but on my time, and the students seem to like having direct access to me to answer more specific questions.
When I was taking courses back in the day, having that little bit of attention from the course creator to get a question answered here or there was very integral in pushing me over those hurdles. Thankfully, that’s been true for my students too.
Typically I’ll have anywhere between six and eight sets of office hours per course launch. And a number of students have said that they’re getting more value from the office hours alone than the courses they’ve taken from other course creators—where, in a lot of cases, there aren’t any office hours. I think people love knowing that I’m there for them and they could see me and talk to me. And this won’t change as I continue to create courses for my students.
Collecting testimonials has been a joyful and successful process. Whenever I ask for them, students have been more than happy to share their thoughts about the courses. I think one of the things I know I can improve on, is simply asking for more. But I definitely have plenty in hand for the courses that I currently offer, which is a great way to help convince those who maybe are on the fence about signing up.
The Not So Good
In the Year of Online Courses, what could we have done better?
Mid-year, I started trying out Facebook Ads to promote the courses. I utilized a separate team to help set those up. So far, it’s just been so-so.
To be honest, I don’t know much about Facebook Ads, and by utilizing a different team, you never know exactly what to expect. I’m not sure if I should spend more time learning about Facebook Ads before hiring a team or what. I just don’t know yet. What I do know is that I’m learning as I go, and the next time we do this, it will be better—and so on and so forth!
The bonus: We’re seeing a profit. We’ve spent probably around $30,000 on Facebook Ads and have seen 3-4x profit as a result of just those ads alone. As my Facebook Ads team tells me, because the promotions are only open for a short period of time, it’s difficult to hone in on the most effective copy and specific offer to the right audiences in that short period of time.
Ideally you want these things to be ongoing and continually tweaked to decrease the number of dollars you’re paying per lead and potentially increase the number of conversions. Going forward, we’ll continue to explore Facebook Ads, and I’ll learn more about Facebook Ads so I can share that knowledge with you later!
Different Ways to Promote
For 2018, I’d like to explore different ways to promote my courses. I think there was a lack of attention in promotion, aside from email (and the small amount in Facebook Ads). I think that limited the number of sales.
One area that could be improved is to utilize the content that I’m already producing (podcast, blog, video) to cross-promote the courses; to create a better cross-pollination among all of the content I’m creating. It’s a good lesson for any content creators out there. If you are creating value on other platforms, make sure those platforms are connecting in some way, promoting each other in some way.
There was one instance where it did work well though. I had a Smart Passive Income Podcast episode where I interviewed three students from Power-Up Podcasting. They talked about their experience as new podcasters and about their experience with the course. After that episode came out, I saw a significant bump in sales that week. I also received a bunch of messages from people who told me specifically that the episode inspired them to sign up for Power-Up Podcasting.
Next time, I plan to try more of that type of promotion.
Pricing is another thing that’s hard to figure out. I feel like I did an okay job pricing the courses, but there’s always room for tinkering and testing.
At $197 for a beginner course, it’s not an insignificant amount, so it feels like an investment, especially for beginners. It’s also high enough to potentially weed out the people who are just looking for a magic button.
For some of the higher premium courses, like $697 for Power-Up Podcasting, it seems like that’s a solid price point, as I’ve heard from a number of students who have taken the course, have seen great results, and have told me that I could probably charge double. For now, I’m quite happy with the $697 number, especially as it compares to some of the other courses and offerings that are available in that space right now.
For 1·2·3 Affiliate Marketing, we went with $497 for the limited Cyber Week run. Although that course has not yet been distributed to those who purchased the presale, I know that people who take action will likely get that money back in a relatively short period of time if they implement what I’ll be teaching within the course.
The thing that I know I could improve on is helping people understand why those are the price points before they buy. This involves price juxtaposition and really being confident in sharing those price points on the sales page. If I want to adjust the price, I need to have clear reasons, and explain those reasons well. For Smart From Scratch, I did actually increase the price point from $197 to $247, due to feedback from the students who thought we were underselling the course, and because I wanted to offer a higher perceived value of everything that was offered.
Too Much Customization
At the beginning of the year, we attempted to customize the sales page on Teachable a little bit too much. That really didn’t work out in our favor. We tried to make the sales page look like what you’d find on SmartPassiveIncome.com, with the same stylings and fonts. Through that process, we ended up breaking a number of things that were really important.
For example, one of the things in Teachable that people loved is the fact that it tracks your progress. Every time you complete a lesson, it shows that you’ve increased in progress. But, because of our sales page tinkerings, that function was broken for the first three launches, including the beta launch.
So we decided to scrap everything and revert back to the standard Teachable code base, and take advantage of their built-in customization options. It’s a bit more limited but it’s working out much better. I think we got a little bit too ambitious and wasted a lot of time on things that actually didn’t really matter in the beginning. Maybe down the road, more customization can be done, but to start it’s best to stick with the foundational elements.
And, if you’re ever going to create a course, there’s no better platform than Teachable. It works perfectly, their team is amazing, and, if you have multiple courses, you just need one login for all of them! I love being an advisor for Teachable.
If you’d like to create your own online course, go to SmartPassiveIncome.com/teachable.
[Full Disclosure: I’m a compensated advisor and an affiliate for Teachable.]
Online Courses in 2018
In 2018, one of my goals is to work on the funnels, and better integrate course content with other content I’m creating, especially the videos I’m creating more of on YouTube. Video is a big part of the SPI strategy moving forward, so please be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel at YouTube.com/smartpassiveincome.
I love the community aspect of the courses, and will continue to emphasize that. There have been so many amazing students who’ve completed a course, and have stuck around in the community as alumni to help, encourage, and inspire the students that came after. It’s so cool to see! I didn’t expect that, and I am so grateful for it. So, I want to continue to focus on that and encourage that. One way I’ve done that is by sharing custom-made pins created for that specific course with the students.
A little token of appreciation, but those types of gestures can go a long way toward keeping student morale up, encouraging, and inspiring them to finish the course.
Then, finally, one thing that we tested last year was a live workshop. I actually had fifteen people pay extra to come to San Diego for some in-person podcast training for two days in my hometown. It was a remarkable experience!
And, guess what? We’ll be launching a new Power-Up Podcasting live workshop in May 2018!
Power-Up Podcasting Workshop
Yes, that’s right . . . in May 2018, I am holding my second ever live workshop. Here are a few ways you can benefit from signing up:
- Get immediate feedback on your podcast topic from me and your classmates. Many students at the first workshop made significant changes to their ideas or their audiences based on class discussion.
- Watch me record a sample podcast and ask lots of questions as I record and edit.
- Meet with a graphic designer to create your podcast logo.
- Build a support network with your classmates. This has been so valuable for the first group of students! They continue to support each other with launches and feedback after the event, through the workshop’s private Facebook group.
The Year of Online Courses—Final Thoughts
So, for your reference, here are the four online courses we created this year:
I’m excited about where things are headed, into 2018 and beyond. I’m going to try and get a little bit more advanced in how my courses are pushed out there, with funnels and webinars and exciting things like that.
As always, I’ll keep you updated on what’s working and what’s not—sharing the tools and strategies along the way that I figure out because this is all new for me too. A lot of you who are reading this probably have had courses for much longer than me. I’m learning a lot as I go. Thank you so much for an amazing year. I’m looking forward to serving you again next year!