If you are wondering how to sell courses online, you are in good company – and a lot of it. The capability to sell online courses grows each day and the number of tools at your disposal has expanded at a near equal pace.
The global e-learning market is projected to reach USD 390.6 billion by 2026, growing by 11.7% annually. (GMD Research). Within that overall market, the self-paced online learning market in the US is estimated to be worth $15.86 billion in 2021. (Source: Statista)
In other words, there is plenty of demand for online courses, and with the global pandemic having created a surge in e-learning that is unlikely to snap back to former levels, it’s a pretty good bet that online courses are a permanent part of the learning landscape.
But knowing there is demand for them and knowing how to sell online courses are two different things.
So, in this article, I’ll draw on more than two decades in the e-learning industry – most of it focused on helping organizations grow their education businesses – to give you the insights you need to succeed in the current market for online learning.
Is selling courses online really worth it?
As already noted, there is a huge global market for e-learning and online courses. While that sounds promising, it also means that the market has become massively more competitive in recent years.
As I wrote in Leading the Learning Revolution, the barriers to entry are now extremely low. Pretty much anybody with expertise can use free or low-cost tools to create digital content, set up an account with an online course platform, and start delivering courses globally. A lot of experts who saw this shift coming five to ten years ago jumped in early and made serious money with online courses.
But this isn’t five to ten years ago. These days …
… the market is much, much more crowded. It used to be somewhat unique to offer online courses. No more. Now everyone and her mother has a course.
… the attention of potential buyers is fragmented – and probably waning. Because online courses have become so common, and there are so many choices, it’s getting harder and harder to get potential buyers to notice any course, much less your specific course.
… there’s continuing downward pressure on prices. Basic economic principles dictate that as supply goes up, prices will come down. And, as I have noted many times before, sites like Udemy, while useful in many ways, have contributed greatly to turning online courses into a commodity.
So, before you dive into selling online courses, it really is important to stop and consider, “Is it still really worth it to create online courses to sell? Does it make sense for me?”
If you own or represent a business that shares expertise and knowledge as part of its primary, revenue-generating activities, then I’d argue the answer is almost certainly “yes.” These sorts of expertise-based businesses include:
- Consulting firms
- Training firms
- Authors (including bloggers)
(They also include groups like trade and professional associations that offer continuing education, but I do most of my writing for those groups on Leading Learning.)
So, why does it make sense for these types of expertise-based businesses to create and sell courses online? I see three major reasons:
- Online Courses Build Your Value Ramp
They create an additional channel for accessing the main value you offer – your expertise and experience – and help you meet your customers where they are in their journey. They may not be ready for full-on consulting or coaching, for example, but an online course provides them with a way to go ahead and engage from you and benefit from what you have to offer. Basically, online courses can play an important role in your Value Ramp.
- Online Courses Expand Your Reach
No matter how big your expertise-based business is, you can only reach so many customers if you rely on traditional methods of delivery – e.g., individual consulting or coaching engagements, face-to-face seminars, training, or conferences. Online courses enable you to scale while simultaneously elevating perception of your expertise and building your brand.
- Online Courses Are a Business Asset
One of the potential shortcomings of expertise-based businesses is most of their value is attached to specific experts – especially the owners – and that can make them very hard to sell. Online courses typically provide a form of recurring revenue generation that, once the courses are created, is not heavily reliant upon a specific subject matter expert. Having assets that can produce repeatable, scalable revenue makes your business much more attractive to potential purchasers down the road.
So, consider those reasons carefully. If they align with your business, then it probably makes sense for you to pursue online courses. That doesn’t mean selling courses will be a slam dunk – as we’ll discuss, there will still be hard work to be done – but it does mean that the effort is likely to be worth it.
Are online courses profitable?
If you are still reading, then you have probably decided that to sell courses online is worth it for your business, but you may still be wondering “Are online courses profitable?”
My view is that unless you see a clear path to profit, you shouldn’t try to sell online courses. (You may consider giving them away as part of your content marketing strategy, but that’s a different article.)
So, the question isn’t really whether online courses are profitable, but rather how profitable are online courses, and profitability is based on four factors – all of which you can control to certain degree:
This really comes down to your brand as an expert and level of confidence you are able to build with prospective customers. The more it seems clear that you’ve got the goods, the easier it will be to attract people to you and the more you will be able to charge. In my experience, most course sellers don’t put enough effort into influencing perceived value (for example, by building their personal brand and elevating their expertise). As a result, they damage their ability to attract an audience and charge premium prices.
Naturally, how much you charge for your course directly impacts your profitability per course sale and overall. My experience has been that most course sellers do not charge enough, mostly because they have not convinced themselves of the high value their courses. I encourage all course sellers to try the Triple Your Price Exercise as a direct path to higher profitability.
Cost Per Unit
One of the main upsides of selling online courses – especially on-demand, self-paced online courses – is that they are digital products. This means that the cost of delivering each additional instance of the course after the first one is small – often close to zero. Seems like an obvious point, but I continually see course sellers overlook it as they obsess about saving a few dollars on their online course platform or refuse to invest in high quality instructional and graphical design.
It’s true you don’t want to over-invest in creating your courses, but if you have the confidence to price appropriately (discussed above) and you have confirmed, as much as possible, that there actually is an audience for your course, then you should be a position to invest appropriately while maintaining strong profit margins.
Volume of Sales
Of course, “that there actually is an audience for your course” is a critical factor. You won’t get very far – and certainly won’t make a profit from selling online courses – if the size of the market you are targeting isn’t large enough to cover your total costs. We’ll look more closely at assessing and validating your market in the next section, but a key point I’ll make here – again, based on a lot of experience – is that there is nearly always a viable audience if (a) you make the effort to boost perceived value and (b) the course is positioned correctly.
By “positioned correctly,” I mean (a) that the topic is not so narrow that very few people care about it and (b) that you use language to title, describe, and promote the course that will resonate with the people you are trying to reach – language they would even be likely to use themselves in searching for information related to your course.
Again, the main thing to recognize about each of the factors above is that you have a degree of control over each of them – and probably more than you realize.
Two of them – your price point and your costs – you control completely. The other two – perceived value and volume of sales – can’t be controlled directly, but you can influence and manage them significantly through tried-and-true methods.
Obviously, there are no guarantees when it comes to launching any sort of new product in any business, but the bottom line is that if you do your homework and go about it methodically, you can be reasonably sure of creating profitable online courses.
For More on Pricing Online Courses, See:
How do you create a successful online course?
Now, let’s continue on from looking at profitability to considering what it takes to create a successful online course. After all, when the aim is to sell courses online, a profitable course implies a successful course and vice versa.
So, what does a successful online course require? Once again, it helps to break things down and, in this case, consider five stages of success.
1. Choose the right online course to create
The most important step to create a successful online course is the choose the right course to create. By “right” I mean right for your audience and right for your business.
The right course for you and your business
Keep in mind that creating a course can be hard work. And, beyond the initial creation, you are going to need to be able to promote, maintain, and deliver it over time. So, it’s worth making sure a particular course is the right fit for you.
To do that, I recommend reviewing Hitting Your Strategic Sweet Spot with the 3M Model. In it, I go over a simple approach to assessing your market, your means (i.e., your capabilities and expertise), and your motivations. It can be very clarifying and will help steer you away from investing time and money in projects you may not be willing or able to sustain over the long term.
Also, consider your Value Ramp and where online courses best fit into it your portfolio of offerings. You can read about the Value Ramp in more detail here, but the general idea is that you should think in terms of providing a portfolio of products and services to your customers. These vary in value and price, with lower value, lower priced options falling toward the bottom, left side of the ramp and higher value, higher priced items falling toward the upper, right side of the ramp.
Whenever you introduce a new product or service, you should consider where the gaps in your portfolio are. Where does it make sense to introduce something new, and is an online course the best option to fill that specific gap (as opposed to, for example, a book, a coaching offering, etc.) and, if so, what course makes sense for that part of your Value Ramp?
The right course for your audience
In tandem with determining the right course for you and your business you need to home in on what’s right for your audience. As already noted, that starts with understanding whether there is even a market for your course. Do people seem to be seeking out the types of knowledge and/or skills you plan to share in your course, and do they seem to be willing to pay for it?
Beyond that, you need to get as much insight as possible into:
- the specific sub-topics you’ll need to cover in your course
- the level at which you should address them (e.g., beginner, intermediate, advanced)
- what type of course might work best (on-demand, live online seminar, etc.), and
- how best to position your course in the market (who to target it at, what language to use, whether it should be a premium or budget offering, etc.)
Naturally, you won’t be able to get exact answers to all of that in advance – otherwise everybody would be making a killing selling online courses! – but there are good ways to get as much insight as possible.
These begin with learning as much as you can from whatever audience you currently have. Even if you have only a handful of followers, talking with these people individually and in groups (e.g., in a Zoom session) is essential for understanding what their challenge really are and how a course might help. If you have a larger audience, you still need to talk with them, but may also take advantage of approaches like surveying.
In addition to engaging directly with your audience, I’ve written in detail about a range of steps you can take to validate your online course idea by leveraging searching, listening, asking, and testing techniques. Be sure to check that out.
2. Build your audience
You need to have a plan for this from the beginning. It’s true you don’t need much of an audience to sell some initial registrations, but realistically, you have to build up a decent sized audience over time if you expect for selling courses to be more than the occasionally extra pocket cash.
The best advice I can give to any aspiring course seller is to start that process early.
Because it is a process. There is no guaranteed path, in spite of whatever the latest guru may say.
3. Build your online course – in phases
Course creation is a big enough topic that I’ve actually written a separate, extensive post on how to create an online course to sell. I encourage you to read that, but I’ll also run through a few of the key points here.
The most important is that design matters. By design, I mainly mean instructional design (though graphical design is also important). This may seem obvious, but you don’t have to look very far to see examples of course creators who haven’t done much more than sketched an outline and then started shooting talking head video, resulting an ineffective – and pretty boring – learning experience.
As noted at the beginning of this article, competition in the online course market has gone way up, and so have the expectations of the average learner. While your brand and promotional efforts may be what initially makes it possible for you to sell online courses, good design is what will keep customers coming back.
Another critical point is that you usually shouldn’t try to launch a completed, polished course into the market. Instead, piloting an initial “minimum viable product” – often by just using a Webinar platform – is one of the best ways there is to avoid online course failure. It’s possible to do this profitably while using it as one of the best ways to get valuable feedback on what your audience really needs from the course
Finally, I’ve seen again and again that aspiring course creators get hung up on technology – the tools you’ll use to create your course, the online course platform you will use to deliver. While these are important, you really shouldn’t make decisions about them until you understand what you are trying to achieve for your business, what you course design requires, and what your learners really need. These are points I go into in much more depth in The Key to Choosing an Online Learning Platform to Sell Courses.
4. Deliver your online course
While course creators often put a lot of thought into whether their course will sell and how to create, I find that delivery often gets a lot less attention. By “delivery” I’m not just talking about whether you have a good online course platform. That matters, but what matters much more is how well you support your learners during the learning process.
For example, how much access to they have to you, and by what means? Will you hold regular live Q&A sessions? Be available on discussion boards or chat?
Have you set up regular messaging, whether by e-mail or some other system, to provide learners with guidance and resources as they go through the course?
Do you have a FAQ (frequently asked questions) area set up for the course? What other ways can students get questions answered?
What it there are technology problems? How will those be handled?
You get the idea. There are no pat answers to any of these questions – the answers will depend on the nature of your course, your audience, and your business. But you need to figure out what the answers are for you. Successful online courses are designed and marketed well, but they also tend have a very clear plan for delivery, assuring that learners will be well supported.
5. Produce – and show – positive impact
Last, but far from least, the hallmark of a highly successful online course is that it actually leads to learning. That may sound obvious, but if you don’t really understand what your learners need, don’t take instructional design seriously, and don’t have a solid plan for supporting learners throughout the learning process, then the likelihood of the experience really having an impact is low.
This has always been an important point for ensuring that your students will return to you for additional courses, but it’s also becoming much more important in attracting and converting first-time students. If you can’t show prospective learners – and in many cases – their employers – that the learning experiences you offer actually move the dial, then it’s going to be harder and harder to get them to pay for your online course – especially when there are so many free options out there.
Demonstrating impact doesn’t have to be complicated. I offer some guidance in this article on demonstrating educational impact. The main thing is to make it a clear goal from the very beginning, and then make it a habit as you continue to create and sell online learning.
Where can I sell my courses online?
Okay, so you have decided online courses are worth it. You’ve done the homework to map a path to profitability. And you’re clear on how to create a successful online course.
The final question to be answered is “Where can I sell my courses online?” Once again, you have choices – and, truth is, you may want to pursue all three of them.
Sell online courses from your own website
There are many options to enable you to sell online courses from your own website.
For some of these, “your own website” will mean your current, home base website. Popular website builders like Wix and SquareSpace offer basic options for protecting your content and selling it as courses. Stepping things up a notch, there are a range of powerful learning management system (LMS) plug-ins for the popular WordPress platform – like LearnDash and LifterLMS – that give you sophisticated abilities for creating, delivering, and tracking online courses.
Another approach to sell online courses from your own website is to use one of the many standalone online course platforms now available to create a website for your courses. We’ve reviewed many of these on Learning Revolution, including:
Sell online courses in a marketplace
Selling from your own site is just one option. Another way to sell online courses it to put your courses into a marketplace site – that is, a site that offers a large catalog of options for learners who are looking for online courses. Examples include sites like Udemy and Skillshare. (For a range of options, see this post on Udemy alternatives.)
The obvious upside to this approach is that the site hosting your courses is geared to marketing them – and many course creators are uncomfortable with marketing or simply don’t know how to go about it. If you are just starting out and trying to figure out whether online courses are really a fit for you, these sites can be a low-risk way to dip your toe in the water.
The downside to them is that you have to operate under their terms. That means you often lose control over your pricing and you may not get access to contact information for people who buy your courses. Technically, your students are customers of the marketplace site, not you.
Also, even though these sites are set up to be marketplaces, that doesn’t guarantee your course will be marketed effectively. If your topic is in demand at all, then you are bound to have competition within the marketplace site. If you want to sell your online courses successfully, you’ll have to do some marketing above and beyond whatever the site does for you.
One of the best ways to use these sites, in my opinion, is for content marketing. Use them to host smaller, lower cost courses that can be used as a gateway to courses you sell on your own website. The main trick for doing this is to make sure you provide resources related to your course that require sign up. That way you get contact information for your students and are able to use that information to upsell them into the higher value and higher price options you offer on your own site.
Sell online courses to businesses
Finally, one of the biggest opportunities currently available to course creators is to sell to businesses. It doesn’t take much effort to see why.
If you sell courses one by one to individuals, it can take a long time to get to the point where you have enough volume to make your course business profitable and sustainable. On the other hand, selling B2B (business-to-business) usually means you sell multiple seats – sometimes hundreds or thousands – in a single deal. What may take weeks, months, or possibly even years to do through individual transactions on a website can be accomplished in a few minutes in a B2B online course sale.
I go into much more detail in Selling Online Courses to Businesses, but the bottom line is that you really should think through the possibilities for selling to businesses in any markets where your courses might be a fit.
As I noted, you may want to give all three of these approaches to selling a try, if not at first, then eventually. They can easily go hand in hand, and having all three options available to you will greatly increase your potential for making a profit with online courses.
So, Ready to Sell Courses Online?
Just like not everyone is cut out to be an entrepreneur, not everyone is cut out to become an edupreneur and sell online courses. Hopefully this article has helped you understand whether it is the right opportunity for you.
By this point, you should have a solid idea of why you may want to take the idea seriously, what it takes to create a successful online course, and what your options are for selling. The rest is up to you, but if you would like ongoing support as you build your online course business, be sure to subscribe to Learning Revolution for regular resources and updates.