Online courses are here to stay. 10 years ago, this article might have had to answer questions like, "Are online courses legit?"
Not anymore. Online courses have become a fact of life, and there's a good chance you've taken one. Today, the bigger questions around online courses are things like:
- How do I make it stand out in a sea of other online courses?
- Which of the many platforms should I choose to host it on?
- How am I good enough to host the course when so many other people with amazing credentials are doing the same thing?
Add to this the fact that you've probably been exposed to an online marketer or YouTube ad telling you that if you buy their program you can make $75,000 in a weekend. This gets your Spidey senses tingling. Which it should.
With so many online courses out there, hopefully it's not a surprise that course creators have experienced a ton of different reactions to their courses. Sure, some people have launched and earned tens of thousands over a weekend. Many more creators have launched and earned enough to buy themselves a few Happy Meals.
So should you lose hope? Should you just give up on creating an online course?
In this ultimate guide to creating an online course, we want to walk you through everything you need to set yourself up for success.
And whether you earn tens of thousands and quit your day job, or whether you create a great side hustle that consistently brings a bit of extra income, you can experience the very best part of creating an online course: watching your course community go through a transformation.
Here’s the thing: Creating engaging online courses comes down to understanding why you’re building your course and who would get the most out of it. It’s finding the connection between a compelling topic, your ideal course member and your own story, and working smarter, not harder, to bring those three facets together.
Interested? Ahead, we’re diving into how to develop an online course, from ideation to execution. Let’s get started.
If you want more support in building your online course and community, come join OUR Mighty Community for free and meet other new and established community owners! We’d love to meet you. Join for free!
In this article...
Why create an online course?
There are plenty of reasons to create an online course. But typically, we see three reasons more often than not:
- To share your expertise, experience, or passion with the world. Whether you’re starting with an email list or social media following or not, creating an online course can be a great way to share your expertise, experience, or passions. It’s a great way to bring people together to master something interesting.
- To launch a new revenue stream. Whether you’re creating engaging online courses for your existing audience or hoping to reach new people, you can create course content that’s so valuable, you can charge for it.
- To repackage and/or monetize content you’ve already produced. If you play your cards right, you’ll be able to create an online course by dusting off older content you’ve created in the past. Chances are, people will be willing to pay a premium for online access.
What isn’t so obvious when thinking about developing online courses today are a few additional, awesome benefits:
- To meet and bring fascinating people together in a community mastering something interesting. In a course community, your members can learn from each other in a community that essentially runs itself. (Talk about a win/win).
- To generate more energy, joy, creativity, and passionate interactions in your own life and on your own entrepreneurial journey. Launching any kind of online business can be a grind, but when you create awesome online courses surrounded by a thriving community, something magical happens: Your members quickly build meaningful relationships and quickly get closer to achieving their goals.
Now that you understand why you would build an online course, let’s touch on how to create your own online course.
Secrets of a successful online course
In this article, we’ll talk through a lot of things that make a course work. So let’s start with some of the most important components.
Every great online course begins with a teacher who knows what their members want and need. But so many course creators start in their head and stay in their head. They think, “Hey, I’m going to create a course on X!”
And they do.
But they never validate the idea. They don’t find ideal members and see if it’s something they actually want. They don’t do interviews of potential students.
They guess, throw a dart, and hope it hits a target.
Every great course begins with research, ideally with talking to potential students. We’ll show you how to do this below.
Clear value proposition
The research should lead to a clear value proposition for the potential member. They should know exactly what they’re going to get out of the course and, therefore, why they should pay to take it.
Transformation not information
It’s been said that people don’t pay for information, they pay for transformation. At the end of the day, very few people take an online course because they want to take an online course.
They want some transformation.
Never get so fixated on your online course that you believe that it’s the thing people want. It’s not. It’s the vehicle to the thing people actually want: a transformation.
Great online courses take students on a journey of transformation.
A great platform
A really good course can still survive on a platform that’s not great, but a really great course platform will make your course sing, help your members connect and engage with you and each other, and it will ultimately create the success you’re looking for.
The right price
A great online course usually finds a good price balance in price. “The right price” here doesn’t mean “a low price.” On the contrary, your price should be high enough that members value your course, but not so high they can’t afford it. We’ll talk more about pricing below.
A great marketing strategy
If a great course lands on the internet and nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound?
Too many courses have been released into the wild with no results. Their teachers worked so hard to bring their vision to life, and nobody comes.
That’s why marketing is as important as creating the course itself. Although the word “marketing” sounds a bit intimidating, it doesn’t have to be. We’ll talk about this below.
What makes an online course fail?
- Too much information and not enough transformation: Resist the urge to throw everything you know at your audience and give them what they NEED.
- No clear value proposition: “Digital marketing course” is a fuzzy value proposition. “How to double your coaching clients with Facebook ads” is a clear value proposition. Make sure your course has one.
- Poor focus: Who is your course for? If your answer is “everyone,” you’re in danger of a course that fails. Get clear on who your ideal user is and what you’ll give them.
- No marketing: You don’t need a million-dollar marketing budget, but you do need a strategy for how to share your course with the world.
- Terrible platform
How to create an online course
To create online training courses, it’s actually not so much about what you’re teaching. It’s about what your students or participants are learning when they join or purchase your online course.
While this may not feel like much of a difference—aren’t teaching and learning opposite sides of the same coin?—people don’t actually learn by just watching your beautifully produced videos or reading your articles or posts. That might be what you teach, but it’s not necessarily how someone learns.
The best way to create an online course is to create a journey for your course members to master something interesting, together. What does that mean? It means combining a concept with actions and results—think class topics or homework assignments—then, offering all of it in a community of fellow students or members.
To take this approach to creating engaging online courses, start with three things:
- A compelling topic.
- Your ideal member.
- Your story or the reason why you are the right person to create this online course.
When you bring these three pieces together, you’re not just paying attention to your course content. You’re also focusing on how you’re going to attract the right people and bring to life something that most online courses miss out on: a quality community component.
Below, we’ll talk more about these points, and go through how to create an online course step by step.
1. Start with a compelling topic
Choosing a compelling topic is the first, essential step to creating engaging online courses. But figuring out what the heck you’re going to teach is often the first place creators get stuck.
If you have your topic picked out—perhaps because you already have a niche or an interest that people know you for—then you can jump straight to step #2, clearly defining what we call your “ideal member.”
If you’re looking to create an online learning course but you don’t yet have a topic, here are three not-so-obvious questions that can help you pick a compelling one:
What life experience have you gone through that you could take others through?
One of the very best ways to create an online course is to start with your own personal experience. You don’t have to just build an online course around a business or entrepreneurial topic. People are experimenting with how to develop online courses for a full range of life topics, too.
To spark your own imagination, consider your circumstances, identity, cultural background, where you’ve been and why, what you’ve achieved and how, who and what you’ve taken a stand for, and who you’ve helped along the way. You might be surprised, but there’s always something in our personal backgrounds that we can share with others.
What’s an area you’re curious about or studying today?
When you shift your thinking about how to create a course from putting together something perfect in advance of offering it to others to a true journey to master something interesting together, you open up the possibility that your online course topic can be something that you’re also learning about right now.
That’s right. You don’t need to be an expert to create online learning courses.
There’s no reason you can’t be a guide, sharing your own learning in real-time as you go. This live coaching model is a powerful and effective method of online course content creation.
What’s something you’ve recently mastered you could help others with?
You don’t need to already be leading a community or group today to create an online course that’s valuable to people. You simply need to understand as a member, what you and your fellow course members are hoping to master together.
Here’s an example. Let’s say you’re one year into a new career in finance right out of college. Sure, there are plenty of people with more experience who could create an online training course around succeeding in a finance career. But nobody is as qualified as you are to guide the class behind you interviewing for finance positions in a live, just-been-through-it, peer-to-peer community-powered online course named “Nailing a career in finance right out of college.”
In fact, your recent experience is MORE valuable to those just about to go through the interview process. After all, you’ve just lived it.
When you take any of these three not-so-obvious approaches to finding your topic, you give yourself the best opportunity possible to get specific and be authentic. And the more specific and authentic your topic is, the easier it will be to check off the next two steps of creating awesome online courses.
2. Find your ideal member
A topic for your online course is only as good as the people it attracts and serves well. The most valuable online courses are those that deliver results and transformation for their students. Think about results or transformation as taking someone from “point A” to “point B” in pursuit of a lifestyle shift, a career move, an interest, a passion, or a goal.
People are motivated by transformation and they are willing to pay for it when it comes in the form of an online course (delivered by the right instructor, as you’ll see in the next point). Therefore, it’s not just the topic or content of your online course that matters. It’s how that topic or content attracts the most motivated people to it.
Your ideal member is the person who most needs your online course topic taught by you. They are motivated by what the topic will help them achieve and the way that your story makes it feel accessible and doable for them to achieve it.
The more specific you are with defining your ideal member when you create an online training course, the better. Be clear about your ideal member’s demographics, cultural background, identity, circumstances, where they’ve been and why, what they want to achieve, and what’s gotten in their way.
Do your research to find your ideal member!
The best way to find your ideal member is to go and talk to them. Here’s a secret to a great course that too many creators skip. Set up anywhere from 10-30 quick chats with potential course members. Get clear on what their pain points are, and listen for their needs and hopes from a course.
Here are some questions you can ask:
- What are you struggling with in X that you’d like to learn?
- What do you wish you could be doing with X in a year?
- How valuable would it be to you to learn X?
(So, for example, if you want to create a course in photography, insert “photography” into each of these questions. E.g. “What are you struggling with in mastering photography that you’d like to learn?”)
3. Tell your story
By now, you have a compelling topic. You have a clear picture of your ideal member. The last piece of the puzzle around how to develop an online course is your story. In other words, it’s figuring out why you are the right instructor for this topic and ideal member.
We mentioned this before, but it’s worth repeating: You don’t need to be an expert to teach an online course. What we mean is that you don’t need to have a fancy degree, a huge following, or online accolades to be the right instructor or mentor for your topic.
You are an expert on your background and lived experiences, and, as such, you have the unique opportunity to not only see compelling topics that others may miss but to make results and transformation accessible to your ideal members.
It’s your journey that makes you the right instructor or mentor for this topic and your ideal member. You are showing people who join that it’s possible to achieve what they want.
That’s more powerful than any highly produced video or snazzy website. It’s the difference between creating an online course that thrives and grows and one that falls flat on its face.
4. Check your gear
If you’re thinking you need a ton of video gear, lights, cameras, think again. It doesn’t take much gear to create a great online course.
If you have access to professional video gear, that’s cool. Most of us don’t. And that’s okay too. Any modern smartphone or webcam probably has a camera that’s HD and more than powerful enough to build a great online course.
The trick to great video isn’t gear–it’s lighting. And one of the simple tricks to get great lighting on a budget is to set up in front of a window with the light on your face. Take a quick look to make sure your background is clean. You’re good to go.
One more reminder, if you have a slide show and your video feed will be appearing as a small box on the corner of it, make sure your face is close enough to the camera to be seen.
There’s a famous saying among YouTubers: People will watch a terrible video with good sound, but they won’t watch a great video with terrible sound. That’s why sound is probably more important than the video itself. (If you’ve ever tried to watch a lecture with a scratchy audio feed, you know what we mean.)
It’s here that sitting 3 feet away from your laptop as you record your online course probably won’t cut it. You’ll get that scratchy sound nobody wants to listen to.
You might have a headset with an existing mic that does a good job. Test what you have to see if you can get a good quality recording on playback.
If not, it might be worth investing in a lapel mic or desktop condenser. They aren’t expensive, and will make a huge difference to the quality of your course.
Pro tip: If you’re delivering your course over Zoom or some other streaming platform, capture a backup via a desktop audio recorder. This means that even if you have feedback or connection issues, you’ll still have a good quality recording you can match to the video after.
5. Choose your platform
Now that you know how to create an online course step by step, let’s talk about the best online course creation software. After all, there are so many platforms that it can be scary to pick one to go all in on. So let us tell you about what we’ve built here on Mighty Networks and why it’s the perfect place for your course.
First of all, it will grow with you! It’s got a ton of options, not only for launching a course, but for creating a business around it if you want to branch out into paid memberships, virtual events, and so on.
Mighty Networks is cultural software platform, that's unique for courses. Mighty's mix of content, community, courses, and commerce means that creators can bring their community, online courses, and membership subscriptions together in one place under their own brand instantly available everywhere—the web, iOS, and Android. And Mighty's flexible Spaces let you mix your courses with live streaming, discussion forums, live events, chats and messaging, and more.
When you use a Mighty Network to create an awesome online course, you can:
- Connect online courses to an amazing course community
- Create amazing posts, events, live streams, polls, and more!
- Offer your online courses and course community on both the web and native mobile apps, which means people are 65% more likely to engage with your online courses, complete your online courses, and buy more online courses from you
When evaluating your alternatives and choosing a software platform for your online courses, consider just how much more successful you can be when you bring your online courses, course community, and payments together in one place – ensuring your students grow quickly and you can charge more money for your online courses, generating more income as people get results from your online courses faster.
We know you’ll love it, and you can take a look around right now. It’s free for a 14 day trial–no credit card required.
6. Get the pricing right
Finally we get to the fun part. How much money can you make off this thing? Will it be enough to earn you a living? Let you quit your job and do this full time?
Obviously, it’s impossible for us to tell you exactly how to price YOUR online course, although if you want to drop into our community and get some advice from people who have done it, come on over!
Here are some things to think about when it comes to pricing.
Do charge something. Your time is worth something, of course. But also, your members will value what they pay for.
Charge enough that it hurts a bit
If you’re creating a course for the first time, you’ll have a tendency to price too low. Most creators do. It’s normal.
That’s why you should charge enough that it hurts a bit. This isn’t to say it hurts your audience a bit; it hurts YOU a bit. When you’re thinking, “oh gee–that feels like too much,” you’re probably in the right territory.
This isn’t to say you’re going to gouge your audience. Of course, you’d never do that. But the point is, people do value what they pay for. And they value things in proportion to how much they pay.
The less they pay, the less they’ll value something.
Let that sink in. If you’re promising your audience the transformation of a lifetime, and you charge $3.99 for it, you’re signaling to them that this isn’t worth much. And they’ll believe that signal and won’t spend the time to get the results.
Something we learned from studying successful creators and community hosts: when you charge a reasonable price, people value it so much more.
This means that what you might lose from those few customers who say, “Oh, that’s too expensive,” you’ll gain from the people who take it seriously, show up, and do the work.
After all, they’ve got skin in the game now.
And as a bonus, you’ll have a way better chance of earning enough income to actually support the work you do.
Don’t outprice your audience
Having covered the IMPORTANT stuff in the last point, let us also say that you need to be careful not to outprice what your audience can actually afford. This is SUCH a hard balance, and it may take you time to find the sweet spot for your niche.
If you’re creating a course for unemployed single parents trying to find a job, it’s probably not reasonable to charge $4,500 for your course–even if it might be worth that. You’ve got to make a reasonable guess as to what your audience can actually afford, or else you’re not going to sell your course.
Don’t try to underprice your competitors
When you take a look around and see what others are charging, you can absolutely let that inform what you should charge. But don’t get in a race to the bottom.
People equate price with value. If people were always looking for the best bargain, Whole Foods would be out of business. Often in online courses, as in groceries, people are willing to pay more for quality. They even believe that paying more signifies that they’re getting quality.
You’re delivering a quality course, so don’t signal otherwise by trying to undercut everyone.
Don’t race to the bottom on pricing.
Try value-based pricing
Part of your pricing strategy can and should be about value.
It’s common to think of pricing as a factor of what we put into something, usually measured by an hourly rate. “Oh, I only spent 5 hours making this… even if I charge $14 and get 20 customers, I’ve made $56/hr–which is pretty good.”
Don’t price like this.
Price based on the value to the audience. What is a transformation worth to them?
One way to think about it is the time they would have to put in to learn something. If you’re teaching them something in a week that would take them a year to learn on their own, that’s worth a lot.
Another way to think about this is, what money could they earn from the skill you’re teaching? If you can teach a business owner to make an extra $1,000 a month from now until forever, that course is probably worth a $1,000 price tag at least.
You can’t break down every course subject into absolute value. Things like oil painting or learning to play guitar are probably more for fun than anything. But these have a psychological value too. If someone has always dreamed about playing guitar around a campfire, and they’ve never been able to do it, what would that be worth to them?
Figure it out as best you can and price accordingly.
Choose the right payment structure
Last but not least, figure out the right payment structure for your pricing. If you create a course on getting a job and charge $10/mo for access to a course and community, what if all your members start getting jobs after a month and leave? This is where membership churn factors in, and your success might turn into a failure of your business model.
In courses where your members can take in value quickly, you probably don’t want to give monthly payments over a long period of time (unless people are locked in– but even then, who wants to pay for a full year for something that took 3 days to learn?).
In instances where your online course takes a while to complete, and you know people are going to stick around in your community to get results from it, it might be worth offering a payment plan to make it more affordable!
7. Market your online course
Stay in touch with your ideal members
One of the best reasons to interview as many potential students as you can possibly find is that some of these will become your first customers. That’s not to say they all will, and you shouldn’t expect them to. But once people talk to you about their challenges, see you as the right person to help them fix them, and they hear you’ve created a course exactly around those challenges, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that some of those people might want to buy.
You can reach out to them as the course is launching with an email like this:
Thanks again for your amazing insights in our interview–they were so helpful in creating my course: Watercolor Brush Techniques. If you’re interested, I’m launching it next week for $59, but here’s a coupon code for 50% off as a thank you for your time. And no pressure if it’s not the right time right now. Hope to see you there!
You don’t have to give a coupon code, but it’s a nice touch. So is offering people an out; after all, it’s nice if they buy your course but they aren’t obligated to.
Still, many creators find that their first students come from those ideal members they interviewed, which is great!
Use all your social channels
If you have any sort of social media presence, talk your course up on social! You could even use a scheduling tool (if you don’t already) to make sure that you’re consistently reaching any followers you have about the course you’re creating.
And you don’t need 50,000 followers to launch a successful course. Work with what you’ve got.
If you have an email list of any kind, it’s a great way to promote an online course. People on your email list are already looking forward to hearing from you on a regular basis, so promote your course to them!
One thing to remember. It’s very unlikely that all of them will buy. More likely, a fairly small percentage of them will. That’s okay and totally normal! Don’t get your feelings hurt if you have 100 people on an email list and only 5 of them buy on your launch weekend. As far as email marketing goes, that’s a pretty good response!
Host a webinar
Webinars are a tried and true way to market an online course. A great webinar sets you up as the expert, shows that you’re a great presenter, and gives people a taste of what it would be like to join a course with you.
A few things to keep in mind:
- The webinar should be a taste of the course, it should give value but leave people wanting more.
- Don’t make it a straight marketing pitch. Make sure people get some actionable advice in the webinar.
- A webinar is just as much about establishing you as the expert as it is delivering material.
You can choose live or recorded webinars, there’s no wrong answer. HOWEVER, a lot of people run pre-recorded webinars, and it shows. If you can make it live, it’s a nice touch.
8. Figure out your winning edge
As we’ve said a lot, there are a lot of online courses out there. If you want to make sure people buy yours, it’s important to identify what you have that others don’t.
And if you choose to host on Mighty Networks, you can give some amazing value added to your members.
- “This course will be taught live with community breakout sessions after.”
- “Come build meaningful relationships with fellow course members.”
- “I answer questions in the discussion section live.”
- “Office hours every Thursday.”
People love this stuff! And in a world full of hit it and quit it online course marketing, where people tell you to just throw your course up and forget it, the winning edge is bound to be the connections people can make in your course.
You can read more tips on marketing an online course here.
Online Course Checklist
- Identify a clear topic
- Understand your ideal member
- Tap into your unique strengths and identity
- Find your tech & platform
- Figure out pricing
- Develop a marketing strategy
Conclusion- Come build with us!
From the outside, it may look like you need a ton of experience in building online courses to create an online course that works.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
In reality, all you need are these three simple things to create an online course: a compelling topic, a clear ideal member, and a story that makes people see how they can achieve results and transformation in their lives just like you’ve done in yours.
And we can’t wait to see what you create.