Selling Online Courses to Businesses
Clearly the opportunity for individual subject matter experts and small businesses to create and sell online courses has grown dramatically during the last decade. With the emergence of easier course creation tools and lower-cost delivery platforms, it’s now possible to reach a global audience with your expertise.
That’s the good news.
The less good news is that the market for online courses has become very crowded. It’s much harder than it was even just a few years ago to launch a course and expect a significant number of people to pay for it.
So what’s an edupreneur to do?
In this article, we’ll take a look at what is probably the biggest current opportunity for online course creators: selling online courses to businesses.
The Issue with Consumer Sales
Don’t get me wrong: there is still plenty of demand for online courses. In fact, the global market for e-learning is more than $200 billion and it is projected to hit nearly $375 billion by 2026.
There are a lot of learners lined up behind those dollars, but the issue is how to get to them and convert them into your learners. That’s because the number of available online courses has grown exponentially. Just take a look at the home pages of sites like Udemy (130K+ courses at the time of this writing) or consider how many course creators are using platforms like Thinkific or Kajabi (Thinkific alone claims 50K+).
That’s a lot of creators angling for customers, and a growing number of them are probably competing directly with you.
And all of this is happening in a market where there is continuing downward pressure on prices, especially for on-demand online courses. Unless you can manage to create and maintain a strong brand, you can expect the market to chip away at your prices over time.
Really, at this point, the online course market is not terribly different from the traditional book publishing market. In the world of consultants, speakers, and other experts everyone has a book, but only a select few who either have done the work of building a sizable audience and/or whose publishers have actually invested in promoting the book win big. The rest make little, if any, money.
Unless, of course, they learn to sell their books in bulk rather than one-by-one—which brings us back to selling online courses to businesses.
The Benefits of Selling Courses B2B
Given that selling courses from your business to individual consumers (B2C) can usually be automated to a high degree and can still produce revenue, there is no reason to abandon this approach. But there are clear benefits to also selling business-to-businesses (B2B).
You sell many seats at once
The clearest is that B2B 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.
You dramatically grow referral power
And it gets better: that first B2B sale can be the basis for significant referral leverage. Word of mouth marketing among individuals is valuable—particularly if you can manage to get one or more influences to recommend you—but corporate referrals scale much faster because they lead to the type of multi-seat sales just referenced. One or two solid business referrals, and you are suddenly growing revenue by leaps and bounds rather than incrementally.
You boost cashflow for growth
Too often entrepreneurs live from sale to sale, rarely having excess cash to plow back into the business for growth. I can vouch personally for the fact that the first two benefits above can lead to what feels like a miracle from a cashflow standpoint. In my first e-learning business we managed to snag a major business customer that (a) licensed a large number of courses from us to feed into the platform we provided them and (b) became a major reference and source of referrals. That meant we were able to invest significantly in growing the company without having to take on debt or venture capital.
You enhance your brand greatly
To be able to say Jane Doe is your customer is helpful, but, again, unless Jane is a big influencer—i.e., Jane Famous —the impact is limited. Once you start listing multiple businesses as customers though, you start to look like the real deal. And to the extent those business have any brand recognition, your own brand recognition goes up.
You significantly increase your business value
Last, but far from least, if your aim is to someday sell your business or—if you need even more fuel to grow—the get a loan or attract investment, having a proven ability in selling online courses to businesses will almost certainly increase your valuation and, as a result, the range of choices you have available to you.
So, those are some of the major upsides of selling courses B2B, but of course, realizing those benefits takes some work.
What Selling Online Courses to Businesses Takes
If you want to get serious about gaining business customers for your online courses, you will almost certainly need to make some changes.
Check your content
The best case is that one or more of your current courses is already appropriate for use in a business context, but review the courses you think are good prospects for B2B sales and make sure that the material, the tone, and the target learning objectives all seem right.
In some cases, you may find that selling into a business context will require a major revamp of a course, and you’ll have to run the numbers to see if the effort really seems worth it. On the other hand, in many cases simply swapping out an element or two – a video here, some text there – or adding in some relevant elements like downloadable job aids (e.g., checklists) or case studies may be all you need.
The key, of course, is to understand the needs of your business audience, which leads to the next point.
Understand your buyer
The B2B buyer for your courses is different from your individual buyer. There is a good chance they will never even participate in your course. Rather they are buying for other people and with goals in mind that go beyond whatever the individual learner’s goals may be.
And keep in mind that the person you negotiate with and/or who makes the purchase may or may not be the economic buyer – i.e., the person who actually controls the budget. Ideally, you want to get to that person just as you would in selling consulting services. At a minimum, you need to do everything you can to understand that person’s goals and the factors that will influence her decision.
All of which leads into the next point…
Communicate value appropriately
Because you will be selling to people who are different from your individual learner and who have other goals in mind, your value proposition will need to be modified to speak to those people. And you will need to communicate that value proposition through channels that work for reaching and influencing those people.
You’ll need to do some research to figure this out, but chances are those channels are not social media or a pop-up on your website.
Possibly, depending on the quality of the list you have built, there is some segment of your e-mail audience that represents the right prospects.
Most likely, you are going to have to do more direct selling if you want to get serious about B2B – i.e., identify the strong prospects and engage them directly via e-mail, phone, web conference, and – one of these days – even face-to-face again.
Keep in mind that if you are a consultant or speaker, you probably already have some of the right prospects in your database of customers. Just like a book can often be sold in bulk as part of a speaking engagement, a course or courses can also be sold as a way to enhance or broaden a consulting or speaking engagement.
Adjust your pricing as needed
It’s just a reality that once customers start buying in bulk they are going to want some sort of discount. At least that’s the usual approach, but I would advise against starting there. To the extent you can, adjust your offer to add some value – perhaps some live Q&A or coaching Webinars to go with your corporate licenses – rather than cutting price.
That said, there will be plenty of situations where discounting seems well worth it, so run the numbers in advance and figure out how deep you are willing to go and at what volume levels. In general, I’m not a fan of giving any discount until courses purchases hit double digits, and even then I’d offer only a modest discount – e.g., 5 to 10 percent – until the volume gets to a much higher level. (That’s a bit vague, I realize, but pricing really depends on the specific circumstance. I recommend reviewing some of my other writing on pricing.)
Implement the right delivery capabilities
This may be the biggest challenge for many edupreneurs and will impact how, and how fast you go about growing your efforts for selling online courses to businesses.
For better or worse, most course entrepreneurs create, sell, and deliver their courses in platforms that weren’t really designed for serving individual customers. That may be fine if your business customers aren’t concerned about where their employees take online courses – i.e., if they are willing to send them to your course website, perhaps with a special code (that you provide to the business buyer for distribution) to enroll themselves.
Some platforms – Thinkific, for example – also have good capabilities for creating and managing cohorts of learners. So it may work to organize learners you sell to into these cohorts.
All of that will work with some businesses, particularly smaller ones that are less sophisticated about their training efforts. However, if you want to sell to larger business – the ones that can really purchase a lot of seats – then you are likely to run into one or both of the following needs:
Dedicated Portal for Course Access
In this case, the business customer isn’t satisfied simply with a cohort inside of your course website. They want a dedicated space, with their own – usually branded – entry page specifically for their learners. And, typically they want access into the back end to manage users and courses and to be able to report on learner performance.
This is a capability typically referred to as “multi-tenancy” – i.e., each business client is a “tenant” on your course platform and you are essentially the landlord. You maintain high level control, but each business customer has control over its specific space within your platform (and can’t access any of the other customer spaces on the platform).
The majority of the platform that cater to solopreneurs and very small business do not have these capabilities, so if this is looking like a need your market has, you will likely need to jump to a platform like TalentLMS or one of the others covered here.
Ability to Access Courses Through Buyer’s LMS
Many business – especially larger businesses – will already have their own learning management system (LMS) and will want to be able to deliver your course on that LMS. If you have built your courses on the typical solopreneur platform, that simply won’t be possible. Those types of courses can only be accessed on the platforms where they were built and they cannot be easily exported. (See Will your online course be held prisoner?)
There are a couple of solutions to this issue. The starting point for either of them is to build your courses in a tool that conforms to e-learning industry standards. This might mean an installed solution like Articulate Storyline 360 or a Web-based solution like isEazy. Either way, you create content that can be exported in a form that can be imported into any standards compliant LMS.
You then have a couple of choices.
First, you can simply zip up your course files and send them over to the business that licensed them. This can work – especially when you are just starting out and testing the viability of selling online courses to businesses – but it has obvious downsides. For starters, you are handing over your intellectual property (IP). You then have no real way of tracking usage and managing updates to your courses can become a real bear as you scale.
The second approach is much more scalable, secure, and trackable. Namely, you can use a “dispatcher” type platform like Course Container. This type of platform serves as a central repository where you store and maintain all of your courses. You then give your business clients the ability to “call” any courses they have licensed from this repository into their LMS.
On their side, it looks like they are hosting the courses themselves and they are able to track and report on usage just as if they were actually hosting the course. On your side:
- You protect your intellectual property – the customer has no direct access to your files.
- You are able to make all updates in one place and have them immediately distributed out to all customers making use of the files that you updated.
- You are able to track usage of your courses on a customer-by-customer basis.
Basically, you set yourself up as a course software-as-a-service business (C-SaaS) with all the potential benefits that being a successful SaaS business can provide.
Pretty exciting, eh?
Build for growth and scale
One final point to make is that all of this will change the capabilities you will need to grow your business.
As already suggested, selling online courses to businesses is different. You will likely either need to boost your own sales capabilities or find someone with those skills. And you may need to explore marketing channels that have not previously been on your radar – like for example, involvement in events hosted by trade associations.
Support for B2B courses sales is also different. Often it involves supporting a person or team at the client – i.e., an account – rather than individual learners. This doesn’t necessarily mean a larger team – it may even be smaller, but it will need to be somewhat different, built around managing and building long term relationships even as the points of contact at your business customers change.
There are obviously financial implications to selling online courses to businesses as well.
Most B2C sales are e-commerce based. In the B2B world, you will have to deal with invoicing, purchase orders, and other standards of corporate purchasing – including, possibly, dedicated purchasing departments. This may or may not represent a significant change for your company, but it is important to be aware of it.
That’s not an exhaustive list. As you start to shift toward selling courses B2B, be sure to pause periodically to review your operations and be sure they are actually aligned to support a business-to-business strategy.
The End Result
As already noted, the move to selling online courses to businesses is akin to becoming a B2B software-as-a-service provide. This positions you to be a different, and usually, much larger revenue business.
It’s important to note that this move in and of itself will not necessarily create “blue ocean” for your course business. There is already plenty of competition in the B2B online course business. Still, it is currently much less noisy than the B2C market, and its possible that the opportunity is wide open in your particular niche.
Regardless, building a successful, sustainable B2B course business requires the same type of strategic focus and discipline over time that selling course to individuals requires – and, of course, you will likely continue to both.
The main thing, as with any opportunity, is simply to get started.
Table of Contents