With just a laptop and access to the internet, your online course can enroll students around the world, helping them master important skills for much less money than traditional education.
This article will take you through a 10-step process of how to create your own online course, while making money and having an impact on your customers in the process.
You’ll walk away with a blueprint on building a new course that positions you as an expert in your industry, generates a meaningful amount of money, and sets your students up for success.
How to create an online course in 10 steps
- Choose the topic of your course
- Conduct customer research
- Select the format of your course
- Test if your course has high market demand
- Pre-sell your course
- Outline your course content
- Set course pricing and sales goals
- Choose the right course platform
- Launch and advertise your course
- Collect feedback and testimonials
1. Choose the topic of your course
The rise of the e-learning space and the benefits of creating an online course should signal something important: You’ll have competition when bringing your online course to the market. There is no shortage of online courses available on topics ranging from digital marketing and video editing to online writing and entrepreneurship.
When considering how to create an online course, choose a topic that you’re uniquely suited to teach, where you have industry insight, credibility, expertise, and passion. Plus, ensure the course topic has high market demand.
Industry insight, expertise, and credibility
Novices want to learn from an expert who is steps ahead of them on the learning journey. Learners also need to know they’re hearing from someone with credibility who is highly regarded in their field. Here are a few signs that this is you:
- You’ve worked in the industry for years or decades and have a high level of familiarity with your field.
- You’ve cultivated knowledge or skills on the subject of your course over years or decades.
- You have historical context on the industry.
- You can make well-informed predictions on the future of the industry.
- You have above-average knowledge or skills on the subject matter and can communicate this information to others.
- You’re familiar with common mistakes or pitfalls and can mentor novices on avoiding them.
- You can readily answer the questions of a beginner.
- You have credentials or accolades that signal you’re an expert in your field.
- You have a proven track record with people who can speak to the quality of your work and the level of your expertise.
- You’re seen as a thought leader in your area and regularly tweet, blog, or share your knowledge to a sizable audience.
- You’ve appeared on podcasts or been featured in articles and/or books about your area of expertise.
Putting together a comprehensive and useful course requires a meaningful amount of time and energy. Here are signs you have the passion to sustain the endeavor:
- You have deep enthusiasm for your subject area and can get students excited about it too.
- You have a genuine desire to help people acquire skills and knowledge in your field.
- You’re willing to put in the work to provide a better course offering than competitors.
- You’re excited at the prospect of organizing a curriculum around your knowledge and expertise.
- You’re working toward continuous improvement and mastery in your field.
High market demand
While your expertise and passion are important things to consider when choosing your course topic, your course will need to have a high market demand to succeed. Here are a few signals your course has enough interest:
- Your course topic is within a growing industry rather than a contracting industry.
- Your course topic has a high search volume on search engines like Google.
- There are similar courses in your niche developed by competitors.
- Your course teaches a skill set that’s in high demand.
- You’ve identified an underserved audience for the topic and you’re filling a market gap.
While your course topic doesn’t have to check every single item on this checklist, having some level of industry insight and expertise, credibility, and passion in your subject area will make all the difference in creating a course that stands out from the competition and has a unique value proposition for prospective students.
Additionally, it’s also important to research and test whether your course topic has market demand. Niche course topics like “making authentic maple syrup” or “producing ska music” might not have enough demand to make creating a course profitable. (We’ll dedicate an entire section of this guide to how you should validate the market demand of your course.)
2. Conduct customer research
While choosing the topic of your course is key, you’re still a few steps away from jumping into creating course content and diving into the sales cycle.
First, it’s important to understand your target audience before you even begin planning content for them.
Here are a few reasons for taking the time to conduct user research and define your ideal customer at the start of your online course creation journey:
- To put yourself in a beginner’s shoes. Being an expert in a field often means succumbing to the curse of knowledge, a cognitive bias where you assume that who you’re communicating with has the same background knowledge as you do. Speaking with prospective users will help you return to a beginner’s mind, and help you tailor your course accordingly.
- To understand your customer's pain points. Your course should help a buyer solve a problem they’ve been facing, support them in acquiring knowledge they’ve struggled to find elsewhere, or assist them in learning something more quickly or efficiently than available alternatives. For your course to accomplish this, you need to know precisely what pain points your prospective buyer is facing and how to address them within your course.
- To learn what a student wants to achieve. The most important part of your course for students is the transformation: the state they achieve after they’ve completed your course. Speaking to prospective customers will help you uncover what they want to achieve.
- To know how to sell to them. As the saying goes, “If you sell to everyone, you sell to no one.” It’s important to build an “ideal customer” profile so you can tailor your course content and marketing in a way that speaks directly to them. Learning the precise messaging to relay to your ideal customer will inform everything from the headlines you include on your landing page to how you promote your course across social media.
In defining your ideal customer, step beyond assumptions and casual conversations. Instead, approach defining your ideal customer like someone conducting methodological user research. Here are a few different ways to conduct user research:
- Research Google Trends. Use Google Trends to search for your topic and see whether it’s increasing or decreasing in interest. You can filter by country and timeframe.
- Search Ubersuggest. When you enter the keyword for your course in Ubersuggest, you’ll gain insight into just how many people are searching for the term. For instance, if you’re thinking of creating a course on cooking, the keyword phrase “learn to cook” will also have suggested and related queries like “learn to cook beginner” and “learn how to cook healthy” that can help you tailor your course offering based on what people are truly interested in.
- Browse Reddit and Quora. On Reddit, navigate to subreddits that are related to your course topic and browse through threads that could help with course content. On Quora, look for questions related to your topic and identify what challenges people are facing and what they want to know.
- Scavenge social media and forums. Follow prominent people in your industry across social networks like Twitter and LinkedIn, paying attention to the conversations related to your course topic.
- Set up phone interviews. Aside from doing secondary research on social media, connect with and contact prospective customers directly to see if they might be available to answer a few questions for a research call.
Conduct interviews with at least 10 people, sharing that you’re starting a course and would like their answers to a few questions, including the following:
- What are the problems I can help you solve?
- What are the challenges I can help you overcome?
- What would your goals be in taking this course?
- If you were to complete the course, what is the outcome you’d hope to get?
Keep user research interviews short and use them as an opportunity to inquire about preferred course format and pricing, too. Consider incentivizing interviewees by offering them the course for free once it’s complete.
Use the following script to ask prospective customers if they would be willing to sit down with you for a user research interview:
“Hi. I’m creating a course on _____ and want to make sure it’s incredibly valuable for learners. I’m wondering if you’d be willing to give me 15 minutes of your time for a short video call, where I can find out how my course might be able to help people just like you reach their goals. If you’re interested, I’d love to give you the course for free once I’m done, to show you my appreciation.”
Taking the time to conduct user research will make all the difference in crafting a high-quality course that can be promoted to an ideal buyer and that provides a transformation for students.
3. Select the format of your course
Courses can come in a range of different formats and mediums. How you structure and deliver your course will determine how you market your course to buyers, how much content to include in your curriculum, and how much money you can reasonably sell your course for.
There are three main types of courses: mini-courses, multi-day courses, and masterclasses.
A mini-course generally requires an hour or two to complete. It can take on different mediums—for instance, a series of emails or a playlist of 10 short videos.
Mini-courses are generally offered at a low price point (e.g., under $100), or may even be free, to serve as a marketing tool or lead magnet for a more in-depth and pricer course offering. A mini-course is a great way to get started as a course creator to test the market and learn how to create a larger course.
Multi-day courses are intermediate digital educational products that generally take students several days to complete.
They might include pre-recorded videos that break down the course into different levels or modules and include supplementary materials like worksheets and checklists. They may also have quizzes to test learners along the way.
These courses often fall into the price range of $250 to $2,000. A multi-day course is ideal if you’ve already validated your idea through a mini-course.
Masterclasses can be anywhere from weeks to months long and aim to provide buyers with a complete system for success. These types of courses are generally sold to professionals and have a price point ranging from $300 to $5,000. If it’s your first time creating a course, you generally shouldn’t start with a masterclass. Instead, build up your experience creating mini-courses and multi-day courses first.
Jean-Martin Former and Suleyka Montpetit, the founders behind The Market Gardener Institute, offer a range of courses, including The Market Gardener Masterclass.
The course takes 40 to 60 hours to complete and includes more than 40 modules, over 50 videos, more than 45 technical sheets, and more. A community component is part of the offering. The course is priced at $1,997 and includes a downloadable syllabus you can review before buying, which provides information on everything the course covers.
Select the type of course you create based on your experience with creating courses, the breadth and depth of the content you’ll create, and your target buyer’s willingness to pay.
4. Test if your course has high market demand
In business, it’s helpful to validate your idea before you launch your product to the world. Before spending money and time building a digital product that people may not buy, test whether there’s truly a market demand before going full steam ahead with your idea.
One way to do this is building a minimum viable product (MVP), a concept coined in Eric Reis’s The Lean Startup. An MVP is a product you release to the public with just enough features to validate your assumptions. When considering how to create an online course, create a minimum viable product version of your course, such as a mini-course or a free webinar to validate your idea.
Create a mini-course
Mini-courses generally take less than two hours to complete and narrow in on a specific topic rather than attempting to cover a broad range of ideas. A mini-course could eventually be a module or lesson in a multi-day course. Here are examples of taking a broad course topic and narrowing it into a mini-course MVP:
Multi-day course Topic
Marketing for startups
Organic social media strategies with $0
Email marketing 101
Email segmentation in Mailchimp
How to write a nonfiction essay
Crafting the perfect opening hook
Photography lighting and shadows
Leadership and people management
How to run an effective 1:1 meeting
A mini-course allows you to choose a topic you know well and package your expertise or repackage your existing material (e.g., blog posts, tweet threads, email newsletter) into a format like an email course. An email course also lets you capture the emails of people who you’ll eventually market your bigger course to. Someone signing up and taking your mini-course is validation of market demand for a larger course on a broader topic.
Create a free webinar
Another MVP strategy for validating the market demand of your course is creating a webinar with an upsell. The average conversion rate of a webinar can be around 20%.
Seeing a conversion rate like this is validation that there’s market demand for your bigger course. Spend the majority of the webinar providing valuable information on your course topic, but make sure to gather feedback from participants on what they found valuable and what else they want to learn.
These methods of validating your course idea will save you the experience of creating a course that nobody actually buys.
5. Pre-sell your course
Pre-selling a course means selling your course before you’ve actually created it. This is another mitigation strategy to avoid creating a course that nobody wants.
Other advantages include stress-testing your concept, tailoring your content to early feedback from buyers, and raising money through pre-sales to actually fund the creation of your course. Plus, having a few early student sign-ups will likely serve as a motivator for finishing and launching your course to the world.
Getting your very first cohort of customers to sign up for a pre-sale (or pre-order) can be done by creating a pre-sale landing page and incentivizing buyers with a discount.
For example, use Shopify to create a pre-sale page and collect payments for your course. To add pre-order functionality to your store, download an app from the Shopify App Store like Pre-order Now, Pre-order Manager, and Crowdfunder. Shopify also integrates with a number of course platforms, like Thinkific and Teachable.
To pre-sell your course:
- At the very least have a title, topic, and course outline that gives early buyers an idea of the curriculum they’ll learn down the line
- Have a goal in mind of what a successful pre-sale might look like
For instance, your aim might be to make 25 pre-sales of your course. If you make less than this in a given time frame, it’s worth carefully thinking about whether you want to continue with creating the course or opt to refund customers what they’ve paid and go back to the drawing board.
6. Outline your course content
Outlining your course content, coming up with the contents of your course and logically dividing it into lessons requires you to put yourself in the shoes of a student. Start from the desired end state of a student and work backward from there.
Break down content into modules and lessons
The amount of content in your course and how many lessons you include will be determined in part by the type of course you create (e.g., mini-course, multi-day course, masterclass) as well as the associated completion time and cost.
Once you’ve sorted that out, break down the course into distinct modules and lessons or sections and subsections.
For instance, if you created a course on content marketing, here’s what breaking down that course into five modules might look like:
MODULE 1: Setting a Content Strategy
MODULE 2: Writing Content that Converts
MODULE 3: Search Engine Optimization
MODULE 4: Managing a Content Calendar
MODULE 5: Content Distribution
From there, you can break down your modules into a series of specific lessons that go into detail about a given subject matter and set your students up for success. Here’s how you might break down the above modules for the same course:
MODULE 1: Setting a Content Strategy
- Lesson 1: Determine your editorial objectives and goals
- Lesson 2: Define your target customer and reader personas
- Lesson 3: Outline your customer content journey
- Lesson 4: Conduct competitor content research
- Lesson 5: Decide on content formats
MODULE 2: Writing Content that Converts
- Lesson 1: Choosing the right topics
- Lesson 2: Researching and outlining
- Lesson 3: Crafting the perfect lede
- Lesson 4: Drafting compelling content
- Lesson 5: Efficient editing
MODULE 3: Search Engine Optimization
- Lesson 1: Keyword research
- Lesson 2: On-page SEO
- Lesson 3: Technical SEO
- Lesson 4: Offsite SEO and building backlinks
- Lesson 5: SEO tools and measurement
MODULE 4: Managing a Content Calendar
- Lesson 1: Selecting your content calendar tool
- Lesson 2: Categorizing content on the calendar
- Lesson 3: Setting a regular content meeting
- Lesson 4: Keeping your content calendar organized
- Lesson 5: Maintaining an idea bank and content queue
MODULE 5: Content Distribution
- Lesson 1: Promoting content on owned channels
- Lesson 2: Content refreshing and repurposing
- Lesson 3: Pitching to publications and newsletters
- Lesson 4: Syndicating your content
- Lesson 5: Paid advertising and sponsorships
Once you have a clear outline that details the topics for each module and lesson, you should have a clear direction to start building your course content, one lesson at a time. Each lesson should have detailed steps, information, and exercises for students to work through. Within each lesson, aim to have clear learning objectives that students who buy the course will walk away with.
Determine the course formats of your lessons
Depending on the type of course you decide to create, the medium of your course could take many different forms. For a mini-course that’s free or low-priced, you might opt for an email format where you limit the formats you use to text and some illustrative images or screenshots.
However, for more intensive and higher-priced courses, it’s best to use multiple formats to keep your students engaged throughout the course. For example, rather than using only text or exclusively video, use a mix of formats to keep your students engaged. Here are a few popular course formats and their benefits:
- Video content: great for portraying ideas simply and time effectively
- Screencasts and walkthroughs: ideal for processes where students need to see the exact steps
- Text content: best for explaining concepts in more detail, giving step-by-step information, and linking to other resources around the web
- Downloadable content: excellent for cheat sheets, glossaries templates, and other tools that set learners up for success
- Workbooks: valuable for helping learners internalize concepts
As a best practice, keep videos under 10 minutes long and aim to create content that’s focused and actionable. During your research phase, look at what formats your competitors are using and consider asking prospective students about what course medium they find most engaging.
7. Set course pricing and sales goals
The price of your course will vary based on the type of course you create: a mini-course is free or low-cost, a multi-day course is mid-cost, while a masterclass is usually high cost. However, the pricing of your course will depend on a variety of factors you should consider:
- Niche and course topic. Consider the industry your course falls in and how price sensitive your customers might be. Customers buying a course on investing likely have a higher willingness to pay than customers purchasing a digital course on social media marketing.
- Marketing. How much do you plan to spend on marketing campaigns? Ensure that the cost of spreading the word about your course is reflected in your pricing.
- Authority of the course creator. Buyers will pay more for a course created by someone who is considered a proven industry leader. Take your perceived authority into account while pricing your course.
To get an even better idea of how you should price your course, conduct competitor pricing research to see how other digital course creators in your niche are pricing their own digital offerings. Ensure you’re not selling yourself short by pricing too low. On the other hand, remain realistic and avoid pricing too high. Don’t be afraid to study what competitors are offering, add more value to your own course offering, and price your course accordingly.
Alongside doing dedicated pricing research around your course, set a sales goal that will also inform how you price and market your course.
For example, if your sales goal is $50,000, there are several ways to price your course:
- Goal: $50,000 in course sales
- Course price: $20
- Buyers needed: 2,500
- Goal: $50,000 in course sales
- Course price: $250
- Buyers needed: 200
In scenario one, you price your course lower and need a higher volume of customers. In scenario two, you price your course higher and need a lower volume of customers. So, which scenario is better?
Generally, pricing your course too low is not a good strategy. For one, you’ll need to spend time and money marketing your course to drive traffic to your course page.
Assuming 1% of the customers who land on your page buy the course, you’ll need to drive 250,000 visitors to your page in scenario one and 20,000 visitors to your page in scenario two. Secondly, it’s often favorable to have customers who are less price sensitive.
Consider these factors when pricing your course, and avoid pricing that’s too low and forces you to market more aggressively. Put the time and energy into creating a course that you’re proud to value at what it’s worth.
8. Choose the right online course platform
Next, decide on exactly where you want to host your course content online. There are a range of different course platforms with unique features, but there are three basic types of online course platforms: standalone, all-in-one, and online course marketplaces.
Standalone platforms give you a lot of control over your content and data. Examples of standalone platforms include Thinkific and Teachable, both of which integrate easily with Shopify.
Here’s a list of standalone course platforms:
All in One
All-in-one solutions put your marketing tools, website builder, and content delivery platform in one single place. Generally, all-in-one course platforms are the most expensive, but can be worthwhile because they let you sidestep using multiple tools to accomplish the same thing.
Here’s a list of all-in-one course platforms:
Online course marketplace
Online course marketplaces offer a platform that comes with a built-in audience that can help surface your course more easily than you could on your own. However, you generally have less control over your pricing and data.
Here’s a list of online course marketplaces:
Don’t succumb to analysis paralysis when it comes to choosing your course platform. The actual content of your course is more important than where it’s hosted online. If the course platform you select lacks the features you need, you can always switch.
9. Launch and advertise your course
Creating your course is one part of the equation; launching it to the world and marketing it to buyers is the other.
After putting in the work to make your course as good as possible for potential customers, it’s important to get it into their hands through marketing. Here are a few ways to sell your course and earn money:
- Run a weekly webinar. Webinars are generally low cost and a good way to generate leads for your course. If someone sits through a 30- to 60-minute webinar, there’s a greater likelihood they’ll purchase your course, too. Learn how to host a webinar that attracts clients.
- Prioritize email marketing. Building an email list of prospective buyers is a powerful way to share updates, information, and discounts related to your course. While someone might not buy your course when they first arrive on your landing page, asking for their email and setting up an email marketing funnel may convince them to buy down the line. Additionally, you can use email to create a mini-course that promotes your main course. Learn more about using email marketing to boost your business.
- Appear on a podcast. Appearances on podcasts are a great way to increase your authority and naturally demonstrate your expertise through conversation. Pitch yourself to podcasters in your niche, explaining how your expertise fits with their show and could be valuable for their listeners. Most hosts will allow you to pitch what you’re working on to their audience near the end of the conversation, or even offer a discount to listeners.
- Use social media marketing. Identify the best channels to speak to your prospective followers, hone in on them, and build a social media strategy that prioritizes adding value consistently. Avoid the trap of using every social media platform—it’s unlikely you need to have a presence on TikTok, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, and Snapchat—and instead, focus on a few. Learn more about creating a social media marketing strategy.
- Run paid ads. Running paid ads, like Google Ads or Facebook ads, to your sales page can be a powerful strategy to target your ideal buyer and get them to convert to a customer after seeing an ad. With a paid channel like online advertising, make sure you’re making a return on investment—your cost of acquiring a customer should be less than the price of the course. Learn how to grow your business with Facebook ads and Google Ads.
- Adopt SEO tactics. Optimizing your website so it’s surfaced in search engine results is valuable for having customers discover your course. Learn how to rank your site with this SEO checklist.
- Build a content marketing strategy. Creating free educational content about your course niche can build your authority, help your course and content get surfaced through search results, and get free readers to convert to paid customers. Learn how to drive more customers with content marketing.
Successfully selling your course through marketing takes some experimentation. Start with a few marketing channels to see what works. Double down on the strategies that are effective at bringing in customers and ditch the tactics that are more time, effort, or money than they’re worth.
10. Collect feedback and testimonials
While customers may take your word for it, having real customers singing the praises of your course is even better. Collect feedback and testimonials from happy customers who have seen results from your course. Having positive anecdotes about transformations on your landing page and throughout your marketing is a powerful way to convince prospective customers of the value of your course and the results it can help them achieve.
To collect customer reviews and testimonials, ask for feedback from buyers who have taken your course. Ask customers who provide glowing feedback whether they would be willing to provide a testimonial to feature in your marketing material.
Be specific in providing direction to customers about what you want in their testimonial. Rather than simply asking for a blurb about their positive experience with the course, ask more targeted questions like, “How much new revenue have you seen through taking my course?” or “How prepared did you feel for taking the real estate licensing course before my course versus afterward?” Specific details on how your course was helpful are more powerful than vague generalizations. If possible, ask for a video testimonial rather than a text one.
Of course, asking for feedback should not be about only testimonials. Use positive feedback to inform what parts of the course are resonating with students and use critical feedback to revise course material that is under-performing. Taking feedback to heart with each cohort of students that buys your course will allow you to gradually improve it over time and give your students the best learning experience possible.
The benefits of creating an online course
With no inventory issues or supply chain problems to solve, selling online courses is an online business idea with benefits worth considering:
- Online courses are scalable. It takes a lot of time and effort to create an online course. However, with digital products, you can create a single resource and sell it to hundreds, thousands, or even millions of people around the world. This process can be entirely automated so anyone can buy your course with a few clicks.
- Online courses are low cost. Depending on the type of course you create, you may just need a few software subscriptions for hosting your course to send emails to prospective buyers and build a community of learners.
- Online courses have high margins. After the costs that go into production and marketing, the remaining revenue from a course can be profit. While many traditional entrepreneurs selling physical products have slim margins, digital products like courses can have margins as high as 85%—for instance, selling a course for $100 and keeping $85.
- Online courses generate passive income. While passive income is never truly passive—there’s upfront time, money, and effort—successful online courses are close. Once you’ve created an online learning course, you can generate income from it continuously. This is especially the case if your course is download-only and isn’t a cohort-based course with a live or community component.
Further reading: What is Passive Income: Income Types and Examples
Sell online courses as a creator today
Reflect on the unique insights, valuable knowledge, and marketable skills that you can share with the world through your first online course.
- If you’ve taught yourself how to create inspiring illustrations on an iPad, there’s a chance you can teach others to do it too.
- If you’ve helped companies grow an engaged social media across brands, there are likely buyers interested in learning how you did it.
- If you’re a product management leader and mentor who has helped others enter the field, you should consider doing the same on a wider scale through a course.
Creating an awesome online course means packaging your passion into a digital product. Starting on your journey as an online course creator will set you up to earn money through your enthusiasm and expertise, while helping others learn what you know in the process.