Back in 1996, I started offering online writing courses through chat rooms to a handful of students. At that time, there weren’t as many online course options out there and what I and others were doing was still groundbreaking. Today, you can find courses on multiple platforms, sell them on your own website, or offer them through a setting such as Udemy.
The thing I love about online courses today is that you have a ton of options in how you get the material out to your students. The thing I hate about online courses today is that there are so many different types of options that it can be really confusing. Fortunately, I’m here to help you navigate through your options and also to help you stand out from the crowd.
This article is in two parts. The first part of this article will go through everything you need to know in order to get your first course up and running, from idea to promotion. The second part of this article will delve into what others who’ve created courses have to say. Learn from their mistakes and successes.
Step # 1: Choose a Topic
Your first step in creating an online course is to choose a topic to teach. This should ideally be:
# 1: A Topic You Understand Well
If you are going to teach others, you need to understand the topic inside and out. Imagine if you were standing in front of a room full of people and they were asking you questions about this topic. Would you be able to easily answer those questions or would you feel at a loss?
It is fine if there are other people who understand the topic just as well or maybe even better than you do. What is important at this point is that you understand it well.
# 2: Better than Other Courses on the Same Topic
Once you have a topic in mind, check out what other courses on that same topic are already available. What all does the course cover? Does it come with videos or extra materials? Thoroughly study the other courses out there.
Now, try to find holes in those courses. Are there topics that are not completely explained or skipped over? Would adding a video enhance the course? What extra can you offer?
Although it is important to pick a popular topic, don’t choose to teach a course on how to change a tire if you think that is the stupidest thing anyone could ever do and you would never change your own tire. You might know a lot about the topic, but if you aren’t passionate about it and teaching others about it, then the course will fall flat.
Have you ever sat in a class where you could tell the professor really didn’t want to be there either? It wasn’t much fun was it? Now, think about teachers you’ve had who were passionate about sharing their knowledge with you. More than likely, you got a lot out of those classes.
# 4: Something People Are Interested In
It goes without saying that you should pick a topic that has a large number of people interested in learning more. If you choose a topic that is extremely unique, you may have narrowed your niche too much to attract an audience. For example, you might offer a cooking class on how to turn eel into appetizers.
You can be certain not many people want to eat eel and that you’ve just limited your audience.
On the other hand, if you offer a course on how to create unique appetizers and have eel as one of them but offer some more standard choices as well, then you’ll attract a wider audience.
You can research topics through Google Keyword and SEORush to get an idea of what people are most interested in learning more about.
“Generally those with very large followings on social media who can mobilize their own audience to buy – can generate six figures annually from their courses,” writes Dorie Clark, author of “How to Create a Money-Making Online Course.”
Although it would be impossible to list every option, I’ll explore some of the more popular ones available.
Udemy is an online delivery portal for courses. As mentioned above, some instructors are earning thousands of dollars a year on this site. One of the unique things about Udemy is that it has a built-in audience of around 12 million potential students. There are over 4,000 courses on the site already, which means students searching for courses are driven to Udemy. In addition, Udemy offers sales that drive even more traffic, such as $19 or less courses.
Moodle is an Open Source software that you can install on your website to offer online courses through. It allows you to admit certain students, set up password protected folders, and create courses, add videos, and have chat rooms all in one convenient location. Of course, you’ll be reliant on the traffic that you can generate to your own site in order to find students, but if you already have a large mailing list, this option might be the perfect one for you.
Teachable is another online option for creating a course. There are both individuals and companies that offer courses on this platform. One of the key features of this site is that courses are very easy to create. You can customize courses to create branding. Use your own domain if you’d like. The platform will also work with both mobile and desktop devices, which can expand your target audience.
If you want to offer your courses as webinars that users can download on demand, WizIQ is a great option. You can add slides, share info from your desktop, and include audio and video files. WizIQ offers an online marketplace that can help you gain students from their traffic. Even better, WizIQ integrates with Moodle and Blackboard Learn.
# 5: Other Options
Of course, there are dozens of course management platforms. Some are free, some are paid. If you don’t want to mess with a software platform, you also could offer your course via a mailing list where the user is sent a new lesson every so many days. Another option is the old fashioned online chat room where you meet with students online on a certain day and time and present your class. Students then ask any questions they still need answered.
Step # 3: Write Your Course
Once you’ve chosen a platform, it will be easier to write your course, because you’ll know what format you need to create the course in. For example, if you’re planning to offer a video course, then you’ll need to write a script to follow and practice recording lessons.
Some things to keep in mind as you’re writing the course:
The person taking the course doesn’t know what you know. He or she is a beginner, so start at the beginning.
Make a glossary of terms and define them. Make sure you also define them in the course the first time you mention them.
Create content that is easy to skim and absorb. Use headers, bullet points, and break content up whenever possible.
Have someone read your work to help you catch typos and fix them.
Enlist a beta group to view your course and let you know if you have any holes of information that need to be filled in.
Writing the course, and possibly recording it, is one of the most time consuming parts of selling online courses. Remember, though, that you are creating something you can sell over and over again in the future. So, while you’ll be putting a lot of effort in right now, you’ll gain profit from it for a long time to come.
Step # 4: Edit for Readability
By now, you likely have a really nice course designed. This is where you should set your project aside for a week or so. Then, come back and look at it with fresh eyes and make sure everything reads easily.
Read the entire course out loud or have a reading program read it to you. This will help you hear any issues with the wording and catch any awkward phrases or weird typos.
Even if your prose is grammatically correct, it is important to complete this step. Your course can read in a way that makes it hard for the student to understand what is going on.
Step # 5: Add Extras
Now, it’s time to add in some extras. Remember that you want your course to stand out from the crowd. If you’ve picked a topic that people are interested in learning more about, then there are likely already other courses on your topic out there. What is going to make yours unique? Why will people want to sign up for your course over the others?
Interviews with other experts
Bonus material on a related topic
List of Q&As from previous classes or workshops
Links to additional resources such as books or websites that the user will find helpful.
Be careful when linking out elsewhere from your course, though. You don’t want the user to start reading another website and never come back to yours. Be very selective and share only what truly enhances your material. If it is something you can write yourself and offer to readers, it is better to create the content yourself and keep the traffic on your course.
Step # 6: Market Your Course
You can build the best course anyone ever created, but if no one takes the course it won’t do you much good. Marketing your online course is absolutely essential. There are many ways to market your online course.
Create a website dedicated to explaining what your course offers potential students.
Post articles on your blog that are related to your course, but don’t give the content in the course away.
You’ll also want to think outside the box. For example, can you offer a guest post on a site that is not in competition with yours but has a similar target audience? Another idea is to attend conferences where you can network with potential student.
Step # 7: Interacting with Students
Once you sell a course to your first students, you’ll want to provide the most excellent experience they’ve ever encountered in an online course. This is what will encourage them to tell their family and friends about your course. In addition, you’ll have a captive audience should you write another course in the future.
Set up autoresponders so that the minute a student registers for the course, he gets details on when it starts and how to access the course.
Set up reminders along the way so the student dosn’t get distracted and forget to complete the course.
Unless you have thousands of students, which is unlikely starting off, touch base on a personal level and make sure the student is enjoying the course. It’s a good idea to touch base after the first portion of the course is completed, again halfway through, and at the end of the course to ask for an evaluation.
Encourage students to sign up for your mailing list so you can stay in touch even after they’ve completed the course. This may also give you the opportunity for future add-on sales. For example, if you offer a course on starting a new business, you might add personal coaching as an add-on. We’ll talk more about adding additional services to up your income below.
Remember to be polite, professional and accessible to make a lasting impression on your students.
Step # 8: Finding New Topics from Questions
You can also create shorter courses that complement your initial topic. One of the best ways to find these topics is by looking at the questions your students ask and answer those questions in depth.
For example, if your course is about how to paint a room and your students keep asking about the best way to paint the ceiling, you might want to add a separate follow-up course on painting ceilings.
Sometimes, a question will lead to something so in-depth that you’ll be able to add a full blown course and have a second course for your students. Most of the time, though, questions will lead to short add-ons for your initial course. These bonus materials can keep funds coming in that you otherwise might not have gotten.
Step # 9: The Power of Residual Income
You’ve likely heard about residual income before. This is basically when you do the work once but you keep earning money indefinitely. For example, if you write a book, you put it up for sale and you earn royalties on that book for as long as you offer it for sale.
Online courses are somewhat similar. Once you’ve created the course, it will continue to bring in money over time.
Keep in mind that residual income does require that you continue to market your website and products. Otherwise, potential customers will have a hard time finding you and your sales will stagnate over time.
Residual income is vital to the strength of your business. You can only write courses so fast, but because a course will earn money even long after you’ve finished writing it, you can exponentially increase your income by writing a second course while the first one is offered, and then a third course, and a fourth and so on.
Over time, you should build a steady stream of income without having to do much additional work.
Step # 10: Other Ways to Monetize Your Courses
You’ll also want to look at other ways to monetize your courses. I’ve already mentioned that you can offer add-ons and spin off courses. You also could offer one-on-one coaching. This would give students private coaching sessions to help them really grasp a concept.
For example, I used to offer writing and English courses for home schooled students. I offered courses both online and in-person. At first, I just taught the courses, but then I started to offer some additional add-on services, such as one-on-one tutoring, help with college admission essays, and coaching students through novel writing.
Think about how you can add additional value to your courses. Coaching is the most obvious choice, but think outside the box and see what else you can come up with.
Step # 11: Ask for Feedback
If you want your online course to really sparkle, you need to ask for feedback. Send your students a survey once they complete the course. If you allow them to complete the survey anonymously, you’ll get more honest feedback most of the time.
Really pay attention to complaints. You can easily solve problems in your course by addressing any issues that students bring up. Perhaps there is too much work outside the classroom, the video lessons aren’t loading quickly, or parts of the course are confusing. Whatever the problem, the feedback your students provide is invaluable.
Ideally, you will write your course but then you will continue to refine it until you feel it is perfect. This is the best way to make sure your content is better than anyone else’s out there.
Step # 12: Ask for Help
Getting the word out about your online course isn’t going to be easy or happen quickly. It’s a good idea to ask for help. Word of mouth is one of the best and cheapest forms of advertisement.
Ask family and friends to tell others about your courses.
Post on social media and ask your followers to share info on your course.
Build a street team to help you promote your course. Offer them a free course if they’ll talk it up.
Trade with other instructors (not competitors) and talk up their courses while they talk up yours.
Ask influencers on social media if they’ll consider trying out your course and recommending if they like it (make sure you establish a relationship with them first).
You’ll be surprised how many people will be willing to help you out if you just ask for some help.
Online Courses with Impact
Writing an online course isn’t hard, but writing an online course that impacts people is challenging. By paying attention to all the elements that make up an excellent class, you can develop a reputation as a good instructor. Not only will your students love you, but they’ll recommend you to others.
As your reputation is developed, you’ll sell more and more courses, creating that residual income we talked about above. In the second part of this article, we’ll look at some tips from others who’ve created successful online courses. You will learn from their mistakes as well as their successes.
Article by Lori Soard
Lori Soard has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 1996. She has a bachelor's in English Education and a PhD in Journalism. Her articles have appeared in newspapers, magazines, online and she's had several books published. Since 1997, she has worked as a web designer and promoter for authors and small businesses. She even worked for a short time ranking websites for a popular search engine and studying in-depth SEO tactics for a number of clients. She enjoys hearing from her readers.