The Key to Avoiding Online Course Failure

By Jeff Cobb.  Last Updated on June 12, 2023

Image of frustrated man at laptop - online course failure

Online course failure. I was prompted to write about this topic because of a conversation I had recently with the financial director at an organization that is not getting good sales results for its online courses. The critical part of the conversation went something like this:

Me: How did you know you had a market for online courses?

Financial Director: Well, we didn’t really. We just had a hunch, so we built them to see what would happen.

Me: Did you try piloting a course first?

Financial Director: Huh. No, never thought of that.

I keep thinking these kinds of conversations will disappear, but they never do. And, of course, you can replace “financial director” with “course entrepreneur” or just about any other role.

The fact is, if you are not piloting your course ideas before building them into scalable products, you are pretty much asking for online course failure.

This doesn’t have to be complicated. The basic steps for an online course pilot are:

  1. Outline the basic curriculum for your course (or, possibly, a module from a larger course).
  2. Pull together your basic tools for promoting – e.g. – a series of 3-5 emails conveying the value of the course, a decent sales page to point people to. (Note: You are going to charge for the pilot. That’s part of the point – i.e., answering the question “Wwill people pay for this?”
  3. Begin promoting to whatever audience you have. (You don’t have to have a huge audience at this point – just enough to get somewhere between 10 and 25 people into a pilot. Of course, you should always be working on building your audience.)
  4. Simultaneously, pull together any materials you may need for the pilot – e.g., slides, worksheets. Keep it very simple – go for “minimum effective dose.”
  5. For delivery, use a live platform like Zoom or Webinar Ninja. Yes, this will be a live pilot – that part is essential. You want to be able to interact with your students, change things on the fly, etc. And you don’t want the stress of committing your materials to a fixed, semi-permanent format.
  6. Run the pilot course over a period of days or weeks – whatever is appropriate for what you are teaching.
  7. Collect feedback from students both during and after the pilot, and use this to adjust along the way and for planning for your productized course.
  8. Collect testimonials from students – this will be invaluable in marketing your productized course.
  9. Assuming the majority of the feedback is enthusiastically favorable, and you can address any significant issues, proceed to creating the full course product. At this point, you may want to consider one of the many online course platforms available for selling online courses.
  10. If the feedback is not what you were hoping for, or you encounter challenges that you need to work through, run a second pilot to test out changes. Repeat (within reason) until you have it nailed. Alternatively, you may discover that you just don’t have a sellable course idea and it’s time to try a different idea.

Now, that’s all simple enough, but it is not necessarily easy. Which is why so many course entrepreneurs don’t take the time or make the effort to do it. My experience, though, is that the ones that do are the ones that achieve the biggest successes.

The fact is, even if you have an audience, even if you think you know what that audience wants, you don’t really know until you put something in front of them. And piloting an online course as a live offering is one of the most straightforward, lowest effort ways to do that, and ultimately, to avoid online course failure.


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