The market for online courses is massive (predicted to reach nearly $400 billion by 2026) and there are thousands of people making a good, or great, living selling an online course. And the interesting thing is the huge diversity of online courses out there, in almost every niche you can imagine. In fact, “make money online” courses make up just a tiny fraction of online courses sold, and I’d bet you haven’t even heard of a lot of the niches online courses are sold in.
This piece will list some unique and interesting stories from course creators, as well as tips/advice different (successful) course creators have shared with us. To put this together, I reached out to a ton of different course creators and sent this query out on the journalism sites I belong to:
For people who have sold a paid online course in any niche on any platform, what’s your experience been, what advice do you have to share and are you glad you did it? Personal stories welcome, the more detail the better.
While most of the input I got back wasn’t worth publishing, there were some great responses to this, from a range of different people selling very different courses. This will give you an idea on the depth of potential courses one could create:
- A course helping physical, occupational and speech therapy professionals leave direct patient care and land non-clinical healthcare jobs (link)
- A course helping people control their spending and stop impulse purchases (link)
- Programming and technology courses created by a computer science professor (link)
- Courses on historical topics like the American Revolution, World War II, understanding Brexit and more (link)
- A course on photography and video production (link)
Of course, that’s just a tiny sample, and I’m hoping to hear from a lot more course creators (I welcome course creators to make a submission here).
Below are the submissions I’ve received so far:
I have had a wonderful experience selling online courses, and they're what have enabled me to succeed as a solopreneur! I can't say enough wonderful things about online courses, honestly, but I'll try...
I run a website that helps physical, occupational, and speech therapy professionals leave direct patient care and land non-clinical healthcare jobs. I originally created Non-Clinical 101 (my flagship course) because I got the same questions over and over during my coaching calls. These questions usually involved wondering what else is out there, what would be a good fit for different types of backgrounds, how to structure non-clinical resumes, etc. I would wind up spending most of these coaching calls just rambling through general content vs. actually coaching people. So, a friend said I should look into online courses, and I'm so glad I did! Now, I'm able to still coach people, but I will coach them after they have taken my course. And I liken it to physical therapy clinical instructors only taking students who have some foundational PT coursework under their belts.
What I think helped the course succeed was that I HAD been coaching clinicians on non-clinical careers for a few years before I launched the course. I was able to have a keen understanding of the main questions people had, and how I could do some preliminary guidance with them via self-study, then those who still wanted that one-on-one experience could work with me individually. And, I was able to use the language of the people I was already serving to reflect what they wanted from the course.
I also spent a lot of time building goodwill and building my email list, and not trying to sell anything. I mostly listened, created free content to get people thinking about what they needed to succeed, and then was very careful about creating lead magnets that transferred well to the content of the course.
Over time, I had more and more people asking me about how I was able to monetize my website, so I teamed up with another PT who left direct patient care to blog, and we launched a second course, Therapy Blogging 101. That, too, was successful, mainly because we focused on building a small, focused list of people who knew us from our existing blogs, and had followed us hoping to build similar online businesses.
My best advice for anyone creating a course is to make sure that you have identified a problem, and you can provide a system that will help someone solve it. You want your course to be organized and informative, without being overwhelming. And you want your sales and email copy to inform potential students of how your course will transform them. So, in my case, I was able to say that these overwhelmed, burned out PTs, OTs, and SLPs would have more flexibility, pay potential, and agency over their careers in non-clinical roles. And, in the case of the blogging course, I let them know that they could be their own bosses, work on their own schedule, and create integrity and a mission that fits their own values.
--Meredith Castin, The Non-Clinical PT
When selling an online course, 1 thing is the very most important:
The amount of time someone has spent getting to know, like, and trust you.
I tried selling my course to cold traffic that had never heard of me. 0 sales. This used to work for course creators. But now, people are more skeptical of course creators than ever.
That's why, I switched toward promoting free trainings that are packed with value before mentioning the course.
Each person who receives the course has now spent a full 90 minutes with me learning my very best material.
Don't hold back on the value and the information that you provide for people. The more you deliver for free, the more likely they are to buy.
While a lot of people use webinars, I actually run paid ads with 90 minute trainings. Even though a small percent watch all the way through, it's still under 50 cents to get someone to watch a full 90 minute training.
While copywriting, the offer, and video are important, the more time people spend with you, the more likely they are to buy.
--Jacob Landis-Eigsti, Jacob LE Video Production
I founded a company called Atheneum Collective, an online education platform for the advertising, marketing and media industry. We have worked with professionals in the industry to create online courses from a range of topics from Digital Production, Media Planning, Media Sales to Cannabis Marketing and Influencer Marketing.
You can have the best content in the world but if you can’t hold someone’s attention they won’t be able to learn what you have to offer. Production matters. We have found that people lose attention on courses where an instructor talks the entire time to a powerpoint or when the instructor is a talking head with no visuals. These courses are hard to retain attention for a sustained period of time. There needs to be be a balance approach. It requires creativity to bring your ideas to life. Don’t skimp on your production and use a good editor to help you create a more dynamic course.
We believe that you need to teach people what they need to know, why they need to know and how to apply it.
We design our courses with the following in mind:
1. Substantial Content
The most important aspect of any class is the content. Did you learn something you did not know from a trusted thought leader? Did it transform your knowledge in an actionable manner? Can you now do something you could not do before? This course should provide consistent value across video lessons, not just one piece of helpful information.
Classes that are broken down into stackable, bite-sized videos are much easier to consume, especially on a busy schedule. You should have the opportunity to learn what you want, when you want, and wherever you are. You shouldn’t have to match your learning style or pace to other students’.
You don’t need to know everything the expert knows, but you do need to know what is important. Courses that get to the point and tell you exactly what you need to know in an actionable manner are worth the investment in time and money.
Effective classes provide context and storytelling. The best courses are designed based on the context of the student, the expert, and the subject—not a one-size-fits-all model. They provide meaningful examples to provide context to help you retain and engage with the content.
You know you have made a wise investment in yourself when at the end of the course you have not only gained new skills and knowledge but also have the confidence to apply it in work and life. This empowerment may be personal or professional, and often comes from a positive and encouraging instructor who communicates the exciting ways in which you can apply this new skill.
--Lisa Solomon, Atheneum Collective
I highly recommend including feedback forms on your courses. We evaluate the feedback forms monthly and are able to continuously improve the overall experience for our users. As a result, we consistently get 4 and 5 star ratings of our courses.
Another suggestion I have is to make your course as actionable as possible. There are a ton of free and low cost courses out there, and we hear from people all the time why would I pay for your course when I can get it for free? My answer always is - because the free courses are often about theory but not action. So you'll walk away thinking hmm that was interesting, or even entertaining but you'll be left with the question what am I supposed to actually DO? Our courses are designed with supporting downloadable resources including checklists, quickstart guides, tips and tricks, and action planners. Our users love the resources because it gives them something tangible to print out and work on.
Another thing that works great for us is offering 1:1 office hours with our certification courses and all access pass. When our customers schedule the office hours, they are pleasantly surprised that the person on the other end is the same person they've been watching on the online training videos. I recently worked with a client who was so excited to see me on video because he said it confirmed that we were the real deal and he was excited to ask direct questions about specific areas of the training that I teach.
--Allison Chaney, Boot Camp Digital
My name is Jen Smith. I'm the creator of Modern Frugality ( ModernFrugality.com) and I sell a course called 5 Weeks to $500. It's a five-week course to help people identify problem spending habits and control impulse buys to better be able to reach their financial goals.
After years of writing about frugality I wanted to write a course but always found something more important to do. January is always my busiest month for traffic so I new selling a course around them would be most successful so at the beginning of December I decided to launch a course after Christmas. I had some idea what it'd be about and I had the idea for the name but that's it.
So I took a survey of my email list to see what they wanted and made the sales page reflect the responses. I charged $39 and ended up enrolling 90 students without even having a course written! I wrote the first three weeks of the course around those answers and released each week's lesson on Friday. Midway through the course, I did a check-in survey to see if there was anything they needed help with that hadn't been covered and I incorporated those answers into the last two weeks.
I planned to launch the course again at the end of April and while I was hesitant I went through with it and I'm glad I did. 37 students enrolled and that's 37 sales I wouldn't have gotten, and help those 37 people wouldn't have received, if I hadn't fought my insecurities and launched.
My advice would be to write a course for the people who'll pay you, not for the people who just want your free stuff. Whenever I launch I lose a lot of email subscribers and I'm actually grateful for the purge because while I love what I do, I can't afford to do it for free and I want to keep people around who value my knowledge and respect that this is what I do for a living.
--Jen Smith, Modern Frugality
I am a computer science professor at BPP University, London and a fellow of the Higher Education Academy (HEA). I also sell courses on programming and technology on my website at www.pikuma.com.
My experience has been incredibly rewarding not only financially but also from job satisfaction. When you sell courses online, you get honest feedback almost instantly, something you do not necessarily get when you work at a university or other institution. This way you can adapt as you go along. For myself, to see the direct impact I had on students from their honest feedbacks has been my greatest reward.
Also, I am able to reach far more students than I would by simply teaching at a traditional institution. I feel I can share knowledge faster, and the feedback has been extremely positive.
As a course creator, my best advice would be to not “park” your course. “Parking” is a common phenomenon where instructors assume that once they have published a course, their job is done and they can just enjoy passive income without lifting a finger. It is important to understand that answering student’ questions and participating in their progress through the course is a vital part of the package. You would need to build your reputation in the market by providing outstanding service and always delivering on your promise. You should never use gimmicky marketing tactics to get students by claiming something you cannot deliver, that is the fastest way to ensure student dissatisfaction and join the ranks of “internet gurus” everyone hates.
Reputation is key in this industry; I get most of my new students through word of mouth alone. When I first started, it was just a hobby but within a year I had more than 30,000 students, which tells me that there is definitely demand in the market.
--Gustavo Pezzi, Pikuma.com
I am a historian, and I’ve been conducting paid online classes since 2017 on historical topics. I have done single-session and multi-session classes on the American Revolution, World War II, understanding Brexit, an analysis of Vladimir Putin, the history of climate change and several others.. Right now I’m doing an in-depth class on the history of the Vietnam War. I don’t use a platform like Udemy; I conduct my classes usually via Zoom and collect fees directly via PayPal or check. Word of mouth and referrals are the main way I find my students.
My experience has been very positive. The online format allows me great flexibility to teach what I want to teach, and do it the way I want to do it—I have a very signature style that I call “geohistory.” There is a learning curve in presenting online classes, not just learning to use the technology, but also experimenting with the ideal class length, the times to offer it, how in-depth to go, and how to engage your students. The ones who join up really do want to learn and usually have great questions and feedback. Engaging them in dialogue is important. My advice is, keep doing it and don’t expect gangbusters results right away. If online teaching is for you, eventually you’ll get better at it, it will become easier and more streamlined, and you’ll begin to grow a fan base who takes (or at least considers taking) everything you offer. But also, know your stuff. Be an expert and make sure your students know what your expertise is. Engage them, don’t just be a “talking head.” There are many webinars and online classes out there that are just disguised sales pitches; actually offer something of real value.
My first classes were just sort of online video lectures. They were interesting, but nothing special. (This was also before Zoom was developed; trying to do a class on Google Hangouts was a nightmare). When I was planning a class on the Second World War, I harked back to an idea I had years ago about how great it would be to take a package tour around the world to see the major sites where the war took place, from the Polish frontier to Hiroshima.. Then it hit me: with the magic of map software like Google Maps, I could do exactly that. So I began planning the class as much of a virtual tour as a history class. In our first session I was able to show, through Street View which puts you “on the ground,” the birthplaces of Roosevelt, Churchill and Hitler all side-by-side. It was amazing how much understanding was communicated by just that alone. This was a great course and most of the students who were involved have returned for more classes, making them repeat customers.
--Sean Munger, SeanMunger.com
I’m a photographer, video producer and YouTuber running a video blog for my business and Instagram feed. I’ll include biographical info below.
I have an online course I started selling last year where I teach people photography and video production. You can see examples here:
As a video producer and content creator, I know a lot about video production and filmmaking. It’s been my career for my entire adult life. Also, I started taking photos a kid.
I had an uncle who used to take photos as an amateur and I became interested in photography because go him.
When I was about 9 - 10 years old. I received an old Kodak 110 camera form my mother who wanted to encourage my interest.
I used to build Estes model rockets that launch into the air. I’d use my old camera to practice my timing. Sometimes I’d miss the rocket launching and just get a stream of smoke from the little launch. Other times, I’d get it right and catch a tiny flame shooting out of the rocket while it was still on the launch pad. Oddly enough, this made a difference in improving my skills.
As I practiced more, I noticed that I had a knack for “seeing” light and shadow and lines and shapes. It’s hard to explain, but I learned early on that I can “see” images in my head. They way light hits something or is framed. I can see the image in my mind before I snap the shutter.
Because I was taking decent images with my old 110 film cartridge camera, I had another aunt who also sought to encourage my hobby so she game me her old Nikon FM from 1977 so I could up my photo game.
It absolutely did. I grew up in New York City, and I used to walk around with my camera all the time. Now, of course, we all have decent cameras in our smart phones stuck in our pockets. Back then, walking around with a camera was a unique thing to do.
I took thousands of images and was able to capture a unique time in the cities history.
At about the same time, aged 10 or so, I used to visit with my cousins in the summer who lived on Long Island. We used to stay up way past bedtime on Saturdays to watch SNL. Without the internet or video games we needed to learn to entertain ourselves. On one of our adventures, found an old 8MM film camera and we decided to make our own little film. W wrote skits, filmed them in one take because w had no way to edit the film and when it was all said an done, we had a little e “premier.” Much to my surprise our parents and family actually laughed in some of the right places. While everyone was watching the screen, its watching them. I was hooked. I know that somehow, I wanted to do something like this for the rest of my life. I didn’t know exactly what back then, but something.
I took every opportunity I could to practice filmmaking and photography. I joined my high school yearbook committee and shot an overwhelming majority of the images all four years of HS, for example.
When I went to college, I took photography classes although by that time, I had decided to study television and film production as my major because these are related careers. I have worked in this line of work (both photography and video production for my entire adult life. I approach my video production the same way I do photography. I look through my camera lens and I try to shoot in a cinematic style as if I was shooting photos.
Things were going great for a long while, but, like any business were subject to the whims of the economy. I knew I needed to try to recession-proof my business with other income streams. I was researching and I actually found someone online, Sunny Lenarduzzi, who teaches people how to use YouTube to grow their business and about creating online income including course creation.
I followed her advice to the letter and I have been growing and selling and I’m happy because with the pandemic, I’ve been able to stay afloat even though video work had been scarce due to lockdowns. My course is on learning video editing software to create online videos such as those in my video blog on my channel.
This is how I use social media to sell the course I created based on the traing from Sunny and my own trial and error:
I leverage YouTube to grow my videography business. Basically, I provide informational and training videos on topics related to my business and skills and monetize the viewership. The videos teach people how to take better videos, photos and to learn filmmaking. My blog is designed to establish me as an authority in the field.
I use Leadpages to gather leads in this way and I’m very happy with them. They have templates available so it’s just a few clicks and your lead magnet is online and ready to go.
After they sign up, I send them the freebie and once I have their email, I can market my video training programs and video production business services.
The freebie listed above teaches people shortcuts for the video editing software, Adobe Premiere Pro CC, & if they are interested in it, I can then market to them my training course in the software. I have other freebies related to photography and video production and I can send them information on that training and/or my business services.
I do use Linkedin, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and MeWe to cross promote my video releases and my training program. Everyone should do this as this leverages your other fans/audience and turns them into YT viewers (and potential customers) also. I release new videos every week on Wednesdays. Once published live on YT, I link to the videos on my other social media sites to draw traffic to my channel and, ultimately to my business and services. Having a regular release schedule is critical. You must think of your channel content like your favorite TV show. It airs at the same time every week on the same network. Your channel releases should do the same. It gets people/subscribers on a regular schedule and looking for your new content regularly.
I also gather leads via Facebook. I started a private Facebook group for photographers, videographers & filmmakers where I share other pro tips & tricks on those topics. I request, but do not require your email address to sign up for the group. Maybe 1/3 to 1/2 of those who join it provide their email address. Once I have it, the process is the same for marketing to them.
Noe of this had been easy. I’ve been running my blog about 2 years and it took about 11 months to get my course off the ground. My YouTube channel is growing as is my private Facebook group. Success doesn’t happen overnight. Slow and steady wins the race. I spend time each day responding to questions from subscribers and followers. It’s important to keep at it every day. Growth comes, but not overnight. You need to stick with it and success will come.
--Jim Costa, jimcostafilms on YouTube
Interestingly, I created my first online course during the GFC when I lost all other forms of employment. I was unemployed and unemployable. All I had was the knowledge, wisdom and life experiences I had gained. So I sat down with my iPhone and shot my first course that week.
That course has gone onto make hundreds of thousands of dollars and help 1000s of women all over the globe start their passion business.
I realised I had a real skill for creating life changing courses so I repeated that process.
I now have four 6-figure E-Courses and I got paid over $100,000 to create my latest E-Course. You read that write, I followed the formula that I teach in Freedom Funnels and pre-sold that course before creating a piece of content or shooting a single video.
This alone is the single greatest piece of advice I can give to any potential course creator: you MUST pre-sell your course and you MUST validate the concept before creating any content. I call this the MBP method and its where you create a Minimum Bankable Product to sell first BEFORE creating your Signature Program. This is where I see most course creators going wrong…they try to create their Signature program first.
My lifestyle now is one of true time, location and financial freedom. I work wherever there is wifi, and chase endless summers.
I truly wish this life for everyone…whatever their version of a freedom lifestyle is.
--Amber Renae, amberrenae.com
I’m a time management and productivity coach and I have created 2 online courses. What I love about online courses is that they allow me to reach so many more people than would be possible in my 1:1 practice, and they allow me to have an offering at a lower price-point so that I have a way to help people at every level.
- I started in online courses with Udemy, which has been a fantastic platform. You have built-in traffic on their platform which allows you to gain traction with your course and reach more people that you can imagine. My first course has been live for about a year, and I've had over 8,000 students through the Udemy platform. It's unlikely that I would have been able to have reach like that if marketing the course by myself, especially as a brand new course creator.
- Take the time to script out your videos. It may seem like it will be easier to speak off the cuff, but if you've scripted, you won't babble and you'll have far fewer takes and less editing to do.
- Plan for short attention spans. Keep your videos on the short side; under 10 minutes if possible.
- Include practice activities. Make sure your students can apply what they are learning.
- Respond to your students. I reply to all of the questions and all of the reviews to make sure they feel heard.
- Keep making relevant content. When the quarantine started, I knew from my coaching clients that the ability to work from home productively was a huge challenge. I decided to create a new online course to address the changing needs of my clients, and reach many others.
--Alexis Haselberger, alexishaselberger.com
I work as the Director of Interactive Media Development at Moxie Media, an employee training company that has produced over 500 online courses. In other words, I am the lead course designer, giving me a unique perspective to share with those who are interested in developing their own online course, regardless of subject. Below is my expert advice:
-- Incorporate videos. More and more content is being consumed via video, and online courses are no exception! You should find it easier to attract an audience and keep them engaged by incorporating videos into your course. Video allows you to show people how to do something rather than simply telling them, so you can appeal to visual learners while also sharing better demonstrations. To help stand out from the crowd, find good lighting, shoot high-quality video, and pick a relevant location to shoot. Show learners how to address common issues in a familiar setting, or else shoot in a comfortable, attractive background that appeals to your target audience.
-- Explain why it’s important. Sometimes, we don’t know what we don’t know. Even if you think the benefits of learning what you have to teach are obvious, it helps to lay them out for your audience. Explain why the information you’re sharing is relevant and important to them. This can help bring more users to your course, keep them invested while completing your course, and result in more positive outcomes after your course if you explain how they should use this information moving forward. Whenever possible, use specific, relatable examples to illustrate how your course information could benefit them.
-- Plan for mobile accessibility. Just like with video, mobile is taking over as a preferred way to consume content. If users can access your course from their phones, it will be easier for them to fit it into their busy lives and enable them to reference your material while on the go. It can be challenging to add support for mobile devices, so plan for this early if you’re tackling it yourself or be sure to take it into consideration when choosing a platform for your online course.
-- Offer a free demo, trial, preview, or tip. The best way to convince someone that you have valuable information to share is to let them judge for themselves. You don’t need to give it all away for free—just enough to show that your course is worth it. Consider offering a free demo or trial for select parts of your course, cutting together a video preview for your course, or just writing up a few tips from your course and making them freely available on the course page.
--Jason Wong, Moxie Media
First off, let me just say... We are very glad we created an online platform for our courses.
Yegi Beauty is an eyelash extensions company that trains and certifies students to become lash artists. We already had on-site courses (still do), so the transition was a little easier than starting from scratch. Our courses teach students how to apply eyelash extensions. We knew as long as we provided the student with the right supplies to use during the course, then they could follow along with the video. We have improved everything over time and now are getting more and more students enrolling virtually every day.
Although that’s not where we started, it was a process, and we had to figure out on our own what teaching techniques would work best for our subject. At the time, no other business in eyelash extensions was offering online courses, but we saw an opportunity and needed to take it.
We started off small, creating an online course just for our Lash Lift and Perm course (a simpler course we thought would be easy to follow along with), and it did all right. We were getting a few students enrolling in the course and profiting on a video that they could download. We then decided to adapt all our courses for an online platform, since we started to get more requests for them from customers.
We set up a camera and, for one week, recorded separately all the sections of the class: Part 1: Theory, Part 2: Intro to Products, etc. We then introduced those videos in our on-site course to test it out and see if students would be able to follow along and still learn—and they did! With minor adjustments, we edited the course in its entirety and prepared to launch our official Online Eyelash Extension Courses.
It was scary at first, but we didn’t have anything really to lose, other than the time it took to record the courses. So, how do you create a course that is intended to be mostly hands-on and make sure the customer still feels like they are getting their money’s worth? We want everyone to learn and enjoy it so they will tell their friends! Also, we knew we couldn’t just have the video be downloaded as we had mistakenly done with the lash lift/perm course. We needed a platform intended for this type of business. Here are a few tips we have to set something like this up:
Tips for Online Classes:
Think of your class as an actual class—divide the course into lessons; when students get through each chapter, they will feel like they have accomplished a smaller goal towards the finish line.
We use Thinkific, which is an online platform where you can customize and host your course. We personally sell the course through our website, then send them access through Thinkific once students have signed our necessary release forms—this is a great way to market and sell your class through your website and still be able to direct your students to a more professional space for your online course. This way, you don’t have to worry about developing your own program when there are ways to already use what is out there! We used to upload our courses to YouTube as private videos and would send students access that way, but we came across so many glitches that it was worth investing in the monthly fee on Thinkific to make our online class look way more professional and clean!
Don’t be afraid to add in lessons or changes as you move forward — the best way to get feedback is to actually put the class out there. Of course, you want to put out as great a product as you can, but when we first started our online courses a year ago, we didn’t really realize what was missing until students kept asking the same questions over and over again. We were able to film and add in lessons as we got more feedback, thus improving the class for newer students.
--Yegi Saryan, Yegi Beauty
RELATED: We recommend using Teachable to sell your online course — read our Teachable review for a rundown on it, including some great user reviews. Other course platforms you can use to sell your online course that we’ve covered on OutwitTrade.com include Podia, Kajabi and Thinkific.