How to set up your online course system to make a profit

The main challenge with creating your own online courses is making a decent profit from them. In this post I’m going to give you the top five mistakes I see aspiring course creators making so that you can avoid them and actually make some cash.

I used to teach people to make online courses and sell ‘done-for-you’* online courses for those people who didn’t want to record their own videos. I stopped teaching people to make online courses over a year ago because I saw a few problems:

  1. My focus was teaching people how to create the content when – to stand the best chance of success – they needed to be experts in their subject already. Content is important, but it’s only one part of the story.
  2. What course creators were missing was the system, tech and the all-round sales and marketing foundation to sell the courses once they’d made them. It was such a  huge effort for them to get the courses made alongside their own everyday business activities that the marketing got put on the back-burner and therefore they didn’t sell many courses.
  3. The online course experts out there made it sound far easier than it is. This meant that people often arrived at online course creation with unrealistic expectations and didn’t allocate enough time or budget to it. If you mix this in with point 2 you can get a vicious circle of not investing enough in your courses, then not seeing results, so investing even less and so on until you give up.

Instead, I switched to helping people with their systems, tech and marketing foundations. Because once you have that you can sell whatever you want – courses, products or services.

I’m not actively teaching online course creation now, but I do still answer questions from people who are making online courses alongside their business. Here are my top tips:

1. Allocate enough time and money to it

Yes, online course creation is much cheaper and easier than it was, but you’re still going to need to learn to record and edit videos, promote your course, build a mailing list, research and pay for a means of delivering the course (shopping carts, web pages, video hosts) as well as a way of taking payment (PayPal, Stripe etc). This takes time, effort, patience and a budget.

2. Set up a system, not a library

You could be forgiven for looking at a huge site like Udemy or Lynda and thinking that’s what you need to aspire to. When you see a library of courses you’re just looking at the tip of the iceberg. You need a system for getting a customer to make a first purchase, then regular repeat purchases after that. So yes, you really do need to be collecting email addresses and using email marketing as a minimum. Lynda has a subscription service, so people pay monthly for access, giving the owners (LinkedIn) a regular revenue stream. Udemy has a monster of a marketing automation system including Facebook ads and an affiliate programme.

For more on the differences between email marketing and marketing automation, see this post.

3. Don’t avoid training platforms just because you want people to stay on your own site

By training platform I mean sites such as Teachable, Zenler and Thinkific where you are completely in control of the content you upload. For this type of platform, the platform won’t do any marketing for you and it won’t promote other creators’ courses to your students.

You can re-brand training platforms so they look like your website and your clients won’t spot the join when they move from your own site to the platform. Training platforms make a newbie course creator’s life SO much easier. Here’s what I mean –  to sell online courses on your own site you need the following:

a) A place to host your videos and software to play it – Vimeo and Wistia do both, Amazon S3 will host and you’d need software on your site to play the videos.
b) Web pages to display your videos e.g. a WordPress site.
c) A way of controlling who gets to see which videos – often done with a WordPress membership plugin
d) A way of taking payment e.g. a shopping cart of some kind. On a WordPress site this tends to be an e-commerce plugin and it needs to work with your membership plugin so when someone pays for Course X they are given access to Course X automatically. You can do this in a simple way with a PayPal button but it won’t give you features like bundling courses and discount coupons, which are very effective ways to make sales.
e) An email marketing system (see 2). This needs to integrate with the membership plugin so that when someone joins a course they are added to a mailing list.

Setting this up and maintaining it is a lot of work, whereas the training platforms I mention above do a), b), c) and d) for you, and you can choose to link it to your own email marketing service (e) if you want to.

4. Build the course around the problems your students have

People go looking for online courses to solve a problem. They want their kid to pass a music exam or they want to get a new job. So build your course around the benefits they will get if they complete the course, rather than a broad-based education on your area of expertise. Instead of general job-search skills, teach them how to write a CV that will get them an interview.

5. Be careful who you listen to

I’ve seen some toe-curling advice on course creation in Facebook groups and sometimes from people who should know better, too. It’s common for US experts to teach techniques that are illegal in the EU. If you’re thinking that this is fine for them because they aren’t in the EU… it still applies to them if they are selling products and services to or gathering personal data from people in the EU. It’s just their chances of being caught are arguably much smaller than those of us in the EU.

And if you think that it doesn’t matter because you’re in the UK and Brexit is looming – do you have a system in place that lets you know every time someone in Ireland buys one of your courses so you can pay the appropriate VAT to the Irish government? And for France, Germany, Spain and the other EU countries? I don’t, but I use platforms that do it for me.

Did you know that if you sell anything online in the UK you need to give the buyer a refund if they ask for one in the 14 day period after the sale? If you don’t you’re breaking the law. More here.

It’s not just law-breaking that’s the issue. It’s fairly routine for people to recommend using YouTube as a video hosting service for paid courses. This is against YouTube’s terms and they will shut down your channel if they catch you.

Be very careful who you listen to.

I can help you set up your online course system, manage it for you or give it a revamp. If you’d like to have a chat, please just let me know.

*If you’re interested in done-for-you content I have a free newsletter where I share the latest deals – sign up here.


2 thoughts on “How to set up your online course system to make a profit”

  1. Thanks for sharing Helen, I get fed up with advising clients with courses on the legalities… It drives me insane as they assume that I’m just trying to bump up their bill. Actually, their bill will be a lot worse if they keep breaking the law

    • You’re welcome! It really does show how much misinformation is out there when people don’t believe someone who is telling the truth!


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