If you’ve been flirting with the idea of selling an online course, you’re not alone. It’s one of the most powerful ways to monetize content.
According to Forbes, experts predict the global e-learning market will be worth $325 billion by 2025.
That’s a ton of money. It’s also a ton of opportunity.
The catch? There’s a lot to consider.
If you want to learn how to build an online course that sells, read on.
Step 1: Draft a list of relevant audience challenges
Your first barrier is figuring out what to teach.
It’s much easier to make money selling online courses when you aim to solve a problem for the intended audience. That’s why it’s one of our favorite online business models.
Instead of wondering, what’s a good idea for my online course?
Ask, what challenges does my audience face that I can help them with?
When framed this way, you’ll spend less time judging potential course ideas and more time focusing on the real goal: delivering something of value.
For example, go to when I go to Google and type in “WordPress plugins,” I get seven questions people are asking.
Seven problems that 100s or 1,000s of people have searched to find an answer to. This information is gold for a course creator.
This works in any market. Plus, it’s free and simple to start the brainstorming process.
So how can you determine which audience challenges might be a good fit for an online course?
Consider what you’re already paid for
Whether you’re working full-time on your business or part-time on a side hustle, your earning potential rests on your knowledge and experience solving a certain type of problems.
Take, for instance, Seth Godin’s spin on librarians:
The librarian isn’t a clerk who happens to work at a library. A librarian is a data hound, a guide, a sherpa and a teacher. The librarian is the interface between reams of data and the untrained but motivated user.
Where do you act as the interface? Start there to uncover genuine areas of expertise.
Scour Reddit and Quora to find market gaps
Some of the most viable online course ideas will come from your audience. This is why social networks like Reddit and Quora –– where opinionated consumers readily discuss their problems –– are another great source for market research.
If you can understand their challenges as they understand them, you’ll stand a much better chance at identifying meaningful ways to help.
Survey your audience
If you have an audience, don’t neglect to get their take. There are a few ways to approach asking your audience for their opinion:
- Include a question at the end of your next email blast.
- Post in your community forum.
- Ask for input on your social media feeds.
Use your industry knowledge as well as what you discover while trawling Reddit to ask the right questions.
For example, armed with a little research from the WordPress subreddit, I might ask my email list:
Hey, I’m thinking about creating a course to help you with the biggest frustrations you have around your website.
I know people are struggling with:
- Using WordPress plugins
- Setting up payment and checkout systems in WordPress
- Monetizing blog traffic
Hit reply and let me know what’s causing your website headaches.
I listed a few ideas to make it easy for people to send a quick response. But I also made it clear that I want to hear any other topics my readers are struggling with.
Step 2: Evaluate course ideas and commit to a topic
Want to know which ideas have merit? Research which courses already exist.
If you discover several courses around a promising topic, press on. If there are books, apps, or services devoted to an area of interest for your audience, take note.
As long as people are paying for help solving similar problems, there’s a market for your course.
Eliminate anything patently generic. An idea that’s too vague, too broad, or not tactical enough is less likely to make an impression that leads to sales.
Successful online courses are results-oriented and unambiguous.
They promise to:
- Solve a specific problem
- For a specific audience
- To achieve a specific result
When narrowing your options, ask, What should my students be able to accomplish when they’re done?
Step 3: Build course content around results
But being an expert can get in the way of being a good teacher. With so much knowledge, where do you begin?
A) Start with the end in mind
What should your students be able to do after the course?
Whether it’s growing their subscriber list or brewing the perfect cup of coffee, use the end goal as a compass to guide your course content.
B) Write a compelling “why”
This is the high level, intangible benefit of your course.
What value will your students ultimately gain?
Is it working from home in their PJs, improved self-confidence, or both?
No matter the topic, it comes down to achieving a sense of mastery and freedom. Open your course content with the why.
C) Provide the steps to get there
The meat of your course is the step-by-step instruction to ensure the end goal. For instance, if you were launching a course about how to write cold emails with better response rates, you might start by discussing the importance of choosing a profitable niche.
By the end, your students would have every trick and tool you’ve battle-tested at their disposal –– and, if they act on your advice, the response rates to prove it.
When creating course content, ask whether each module builds towards helping students achieve the promised end result.
Step 4: Write with radical empathy
You will be doing a ton of writing to create and sell online courses. There’s the actual course content, which can include video scripts, slideshows, and PDFs. Then there’s marketing content: promotional emails, social media ads, and ultimately, writing a sale page that converts.
For any of it to be effective, your words need to channel empathy. They need to echo your prospects’ reality enough to persuade them to purchase.
Here’s how to channel empathy:
A) Ask yourself why you care
For most entrepreneurs, selling online courses is about much more than money.
Why do you care about your prospects’ problem?
Why does it bother you on a personal level?
B) Look for language
One of the best ways to engage an audience is using their own words. Find book and course reviews on your topic to unearth those gems. Reviews are flush with opinions about what worked and what didn’t.
Market research from Reddit or Quora can also help here.
C) Identify shared “villains”
This could refer to actual bad guys (like mediocre course creators who make big claims), but it can also refer to any obstacle, limitation, or struggle your audience encounters. Bonus points if it’s a shared obstacle.
D) Try Problem-Agitate-Solve (PAS)
This classic copywriting formula does well selling online courses. The genius lies in its simplicity.
- Problem: Describe the problem your course will solve
- Agitate: Rub salt in the wound –– what pains does the problem cause?
- Solve: Present your solution
Step 5: Choose an online course platform
The best place to sell online courses is the one that meets your business needs with minimal fuss.
We use Podia for all our online courses because it is built by a small, hardworking team who we admire — and they have built a beautiful, intuitive platform for independent course creators like us.
That being said, look at all the options in this section and choose the best fit.
Here’s the scoop on three of the most popular online course platforms.
Teachable is a simple, straightforward way to sell online courses –– sort of.
With Teachable, you can:
- Build a sales page with your choice of colors, logo, and typography
- Offer 1-step checkout, 1-click upsells, and an affiliate system
- Send course updates and announcements
Things get tricky when you need to do anything else. As a standalone platform, Teachable’s simplicity comes with a lack of sophistication:
- You can’t change the appearance of individual courses
- You can’t use your sales page to collect leads out-of-the-box
- You can’t send drip campaigns without additional third-party software
Adding to the list of cons, you’ll need at least a Professional plan to access live chat support, which is only available during normal business hours.
Finally, Teachable charges transaction fees and has a complicated payment scheme that involves waiting 30 days for course revenue.
Teachable is great for anyone who wants an online course sales page without built-in marketing. It’s also fine for someone who doesn’t mind pasting code snippets from various marketing tools (and having that data spread across systems).
For those who’d prefer native email marketing, centralized data, and design and product flexibility, pass on Teachable for an all-in-one platform.
If you’ve done any research on online course platforms, you’ve probably heard of Kajabi. It’s a robust, complex, and customizable all-in-one platform that can do a lot more than sell an online course.
With Kajabi, you can:
- Collect leads with a purpose-built landing page
- Sell standalone digital products (e.g. ebooks or videos that aren’t a part of your course)
- Create and sell membership sites (where you store and add premium content)
- Use a library of different product and website themes to differentiate offerings
- Build email sequences to nurture leads before your course opens
- Automate pre-recorded webinars
- Lock course content
Unlike Teachable, Kajabi doesn’t charge transaction fees and offers 24/7 live chat support.
Kajabi positions itself as a toolkit for building your online business for a reason. If you want to do more than sell online courses, it’s a solid option –– but its useful features don’t come cheap.
Right away, Podia feels different. Its purpose is clear, its website is friendly, and it has all of the marketing power of Kajabi, save for a few integrations. It’s also way more affordable.
Other benefits of Podia:
- Free migration of existing courses from other platforms
- 24/7 live chat support
- Zero transaction fees and instant payments
- The ability to sell product bundles
- Unlimited bandwidth: file size, number of courses, customers, sales, etc.
- Available in multiple languages
- Supports custom analytics and tracking
Like Kajabi, Podia has built-in email marketing and supports multiple use cases. It allows creators to easily collect leads pre-launch as well as sell one-off digital products or membership sites.
Podia is more affordable than Kajabi, and possibly more specialized. This is a great option for anyone on a Teachable budget who needs more than a simple sales page.
Step 6: Use goals-based pricing
Forget about finding the “perfect” number. It doesn’t exist. And fretting over price will delay progress. You can’t launch without it.
Here’s an easier way to price an online course: Define your sales goal and let that inform your strategy.
- If you want to maximize the total number of sales, make your course so affordable the right people won’t be able to resist. Research similar courses in your niche to find the sweet spot.
- If you want to maximize revenue, don’t hedge. Pack your course with enough value to warrant premium pricing and prepare to deliver first-class treatment. People who spend upwards of $1,000 for an online course expect one-on-one time (and courses that sell include it).
- If you want to generate leads, give it away for free. It doesn’t have to be about how much you can make selling online courses. You can market other products to your students once they’ve completed the course.
Pricing will vary somewhat on your niche, so note the costs of similar courses to confirm what constitutes high and low. Just don’t overthink it.
Take the next step towards selling your online course
There’s never been a better time to transition from selling your time to selling your knowledge. An online course is a great way to do it. And getting started is a matter of asking the right questions.
Do you want to learn how to make more money from online courses? Check out this step-by-step guide from Podia.