Teaching online is becoming more and more popular as more and more learners are turning towards flexible and cost-effective means of acquiring new skills. Getting started is relatively easy and doesn’t require huge investments, but it can also be a tremendous waste of time if you don’t approach the topic the right way. Teaching online is not the easy path to wealth and passive income that many claim it is. It takes hard work and dedication to be successful – and failure is lurking just around the corner if you don’t have a plan.
Minimize your risk by following this list of best practices with a bit of lean startup methodology mixed in. If you keep these 10 points in mind, you’re off to a good start.
Choose the Right Course Idea.
We all have our interests, passions, hobbies. We also have knowledge acquired via education and training, as well as experience accumulated during our careers. All of these sources of knowledge can provide successful course ideas, and yet not all of them will. What may be an exciting topic for ourselves may be utterly boring to others. What’s more, if it doesn’t address any pain point or solve any difficulty, it’s unlikely that people will want to pay for it.
On the other hand, a course doesn’t need to be groundbreaking or even unique. The value of a course is in streamlined, curated content. Learners are willing to pay for a quicker way of getting results. They may be able to get the same kind of information contained in your course for free by reading 30 blog articles, but a month of research and a painful trial-and-error process may not appeal to them. Therefore, many will prefer a two-hour course which will get them to the same outcome with a lot less pain and effort.
The first step to becoming a successful online instructor is finding a course idea. The right idea has the following characteristics:
- You have the required knowledge
- You know the market
- People will pay for it
Now how do you find this idea? Start with a couple of course ideas, then research each idea using the following tools:
- Google Keyword Planner: Find out how often specific search terms are used
- Facebook Ads Manager: Specify audiences based on interests, age, education, etc. and see how your audience size changes based on your filters
- Amazon bestseller lists: What are people buying, and which issues can you identify in reviews? What could you do better?
- Quora: Which questions do people have? How could you help them?
Next, try to be as specific as possible.
- If there is already a great course on “gardening”, chances are that it doesn’t contain a lot of detail about planting tomatoes in a city apartment. A course about “Harvesting tasty tomatoes in your living room” might appeal to apartment dwellers. (Disclaimer: I have no idea if you can grow tomatoes inside. Sorry.)
- Find a difficulty your customers have, and address exactly that pain. If tomatoes are difficult to grow in living rooms, focus on it.
To find out whether people will pay for your course, you may ask yourself whether people might be in a position to make more money for themselves after taking your course. If so, there’s a chance they’ll be willing to invest in your course. Of course, people will often pay for courses that don’t afford them any financial gain, but this is harder to estimate in advance.
Validate Your Course Idea
In the lean startup methodology, you validate your “minimum viable product” (MVP) by selling it before it exists or by selling a very minimalistic version of your product. In other words, you produce the most minimalistic version of your product you can think of – and then you go and try to actually sell it to your audience. If nobody shows an interest, chances are the same will happen when your final product is ready with all its bells and whistles.
Why Don’t We Just Ask People?
We could also just ask people what they think about an idea, and that will tell us enough, right?
Unfortunately, that’s not how it works.
The reason for validating a minimal product (or a description of what the product would look like) by selling it, is that anybody will tell you they’re interested in your idea as long as it doesn’t cost them anything. It’s human nature: Most of us try to be polite if it doesn’t hurt us, but it’s a different story when you need to open your wallet.
Follow the same approach for your courses and validate the idea before you’ve spent months on building it.
Ways to accomplish this:
- Set up a landing page using your own WordPress installation or use one of the many landing page services like Thrive Leads or ConvertKit (some course hosting platforms will also allow you to do that directly). Ask for newsletter subscriptions in exchange for a lead magnet (related to your course). This is not as precise as charging actual money, but these days, people are reluctant to give away their email addresses. If they’re willing to give you an email address, this is much, much better than just a “like” on social media or a vague “yeah, your idea sounds interesting”.
- Actually pre-sell your course. A number of platforms allow you to do that. This is the real thing, and there’s the added benefit of actual revenue while you’re still building your course. Once you’ve pre-sold your course, there’s no backing out though, so make sure you can get to your finish line in a reasonable amount of time.
Build a List
“The money is in the list” is what online marketers say. Logics say they’re right. The “list” refers to a mailing list – a collection of subscribers who are interested in your services. A mailing list allows you to contact your customers directly and market your products to them. A course marketplace prevents you from doing that and might put you out of business with a simple change of rules. Your list is your list, and you make the rules. General wisdom says that a 1,000 dedicated subscribers who trust your services are sufficient to run a business (and are better than a list of 20,000 random subscribers).
What do you need to build a list?
- A so-called “autoresponder” or mailing list provider, such as MailChimp, ActiveCampaign (price-value recommendation), ConvertKit (feature recommendation), AWeber, and others.
- A free giveaway, called a “lead magnet”. This can be a free course, a PDF report, a checklist, or an eBook. This should be something that is interesting for the same customers as your product’s customers.
- A landing page where you offer your lead magnet in exchange for mailing list subscriptions.
The details aren’t difficult to implement. Autoresponders offer sign-up forms which you can copy and insert into your landing page. Alternatively, you can use a number of plugins (such as Bloom, ConvertPlug, Thriveleads, OptinMonster, etc.) which generate opt-in forms automatically. If you go for a plugin, make sure it’s compatible with your autoresponder.
If you stick to marketplaces, you won’t absolutely need to build your own list, but I’d still recommend it. Your list is your list. A marketplace’s customers are the marketplace’s customers. If you leave a marketplace, you’ll leave your customers behind – unless they’re on your list.
Plan Your Course
Just getting started without a plan is not the swiftest way to finishing your course. If you don’t know where you’re going, it’s really difficult to choose the next step. You might find yourself working on the same course 5 months later and still not know how close you are to the finish line. You definitely don’t want that.
Plan your course like a corporate instructional designer:
- Who’s your target audience?
- What’s the transformation your course offers? What will your target audience learn?
- How do you subdivide the transformation? What are your classes?
- What are your class-specific learning objectives?
This should give you a rather specific idea of what you need to do in order to finish your course. It is really important to have this overview. From now on (and only if you’ve completed the previous steps) you can
- Estimate how long it’ll take you to finish the course (these estimates will get better and better the more lessons you’ve made).
- Plan your course creation tasks, such as video shooting, video cutting, slides design, technical set-up, marketing, etc.
- Define a launch date and start pre-selling your course.
If you don’t make a plan, how are you going to pre-sell your course and know if your launch date is at least somewhat realistic? Make a plan, and your users will thank you (and you’ll sleep better)!
Learning objectives are an important tool in corporate eLearning design, and you should use them for your online courses as well.
- Learning objectives define what you will teach. You can focus on getting to these objectives along a streamlined path, and you can avoid getting sidetracked. They’re the basis for planning and tracking course creation progress.
- Learning objectives are also items you can use to communicate your course content to your learners. (E.g. on course sales pages and within class modules).
- Learning objectives define a common understanding of what is going to be taught and are useful to set up the right expectations (and avoid disappointment).
Read this article by Paula Guilfoyle of e-learningeducators.com to find out how to write learning objectives.
Create a Course Outline
Before you start producing, create a course outline. A course outline is a table that lists what you’re going to teach in which course unit, and how you’re going to achieve that. It will help you plan your time commitment, and it will prevent you from losing focus.
Here’s a simple example that participants of Skillshare challenges receive in order to plan their first courses.
Create the Best Course Possible
Do you think you’re alone out there? You’re not. Did you really find a topic that nobody is teaching yet and that an audience is still waiting for? Then you’re very lucky. For the 99% of the remaining instructors, I’d suggest you try to convince your audience with the best course you can create.
What can you do better?
Start by taking a closer look at your competition and related products. This is a similar activity to finding your course idea, but now we’re focusing on research that’ll show us how to provide a ton of value by focussing on what our audience needs.
- Have a look at Udemy courses in your niche and see what reviews say about them. What did people like, but especially, what was missing? Then try to add the missing parts to your own course.
- Find discussions related to your course topic on forums, reddit, Google+ communities, Facebook groups: What are people struggling with? Help them with their challenges.
- Read reviews on Amazon for books in your niche: Why do people dislike books? What is missing? What could you do better?
Once you have a precise idea of what you’re going to create, focus on the “how“.
Great Courses Offer More Than Passive Videos
Many courses and articles for online teachers seem to focus on marketing and profitability. These are important aspects and without them, your course won’t do well as a product. However, I am often surprised by the lack of focus on course content and course quality in most of these resources. After all, you’re still selling a product, and great marketing for a mediocre product isn’t exactly a recipe for happy (and returning) customers. I want you to understand this:
A great online course is more than a collection of videos.
Even though it has become popular to publish a series of videos and call it a course, I think this is a bit of an exaggeration. I’m not saying that learners won’t benefit from your video content, but if you want to call it a course, you need to do a little more planning and provide additional material.
I can’t go into all the details in this article, but to create a great course, keep the following items in mind:
- Use learner’s feedback for initial course creation, launch and continuous improvement. Get my feedback workbook to implement feedback early on, find out what your learners expect, and improve from there.
- Inform learners clearly about what they’re going to learn (learning objectives)
- Provide small chunks of information (instead of huge units)
- Give your learners a way to track their progress (mark learning objectives as “completed”)
- Make courses interactive!
If you want to read about why video lectures alone are not the key to success, I suggest you check out this article.
Provide a Shortcut
A common mistake for new online teachers is trying to squeeze all your knowledge and all the details into one course. After all, we just said that you need to make the best course possible. However, the level of detail is not what decides how good your course becomes.
Instead, focus on your learners’ transformation: Getting them from point A to point B with the least effort in the least amount of time.
Most likely your customers aren’t taking your course because the information you’re providing isn’t available anywhere else. More likely than not, there are a ton of options of getting the same information. Your learners want to take a shortcut, so help them do just that. Shorter is better, but this doesn’t mean that half the transformation is sufficient: Create a great course and get your learners to their goals – but if you can do it with half the steps, then do that.
Teaching online starts by picking the right online course platform so that you don’t have to deal with complicated technology. Here’s a free guide to get you started!
Publish on the Right Platform
Use your time wisely – as a course creator, you should be focusing on creating course content. What you shouldn’t be spending a lot of time on is technology. There are hundreds of options available to you: Learning management systems, WordPress plugins, course hosting platforms, course marketplaces. As a newcomer, you may spend a lot of time on researching the right way to publish and you may still make the wrong choice. Here are my recommendations:
- Don’t use your own LMS or WordPress plugins unless you require specific features that aren’t offered by alternatives. You would be spending too much time on setup and maintenance, and the benefits would be negligible. Read more in this article.
- Decide whether you want to be on a marketplace or on a white-label course hosting platform. Read this article to find out more.
- Choose the marketplace or course hosting platform that fulfils your requirements and get started. My guide to course hosting platforms helps you do that very quickly.
The recommended platforms come with reasonable fees, and in most cases they just take percentages of your sales, meaning that there’s zero risk for you. Using WordPress plugins will not be a cheaper option since you’ll be paying for support.
Engage Your Learners
Engagement refers to your learners leaving their passive, content-consumption role and assuming an active, participatory role. This can be achieved with a number of tools:
- Engagement within the course (interactive elements)
- Social components (discussions, feedback on exercises, etc.) in the course or in parallel
- Getting feedback and taking it seriously
Why is engagement important?
A successful learner is a happy learner, and a happy learner will recommend your course to friends.
Interactive course elements will push your course from passive learning to active learning. Retention rates for active learning are much higher than for passive learning. Who’s more likely to recommend your course – a student who barely remembers 30% of your course content, or a student who remembers twice as much?
Course communities allow you to interact with your students. A living community and direct contact with an instructor will create a much higher value for students. Help them with feedback on actual problems they have and their impression of your course will improve a great deal.
Being in contact with your students will also let you upsell, cross-sell and keep them warm very easily for further, future offers.
Interactive Course Elements
With interactive elements, your students will have an easier time completing quizzes and applying newly learned concepts. They will have a better impression of your course and that’ll help in making your course more successful.
There are a number of ways to make courses interactive. What works best for you depends on
- Your course topic
- Your audience
- The amount of time you can invest (both for setup and continuous monitoring)
Here’s a list of ideas and potential tools for you to choose from:
- Use short quizzes in between units (not just a final test). Force your students to become active and think about what they’ve learned before moving on to the next unit.
- Use small exercises within classes. Depending on your tools and platform, these may include:
- Sorting and matching exercises
- Cloze texts
- Little games (e.g. hangman style)
- Hotspot exercises (these work both as explainer tools and for self-assessment)
- Use instant feedback-on-demand if your platforms allows it (once a question has been answered or an exercise has been completed, provide additional explanations)
- Use course projects to apply your course directly. Skillshare‘s business model runs entirely on short courses built around class projects.
- Add a social component to your course: Facebook groups are popular, some platforms allow for integrated discussions within classes, and there are all kinds of further options (forums, Slack groups, etc.). Discuss course projects, provide feedback to learners or solve exercises together.
- Animate processes instead of describing them textually.
- Pull, not push. Build your course structure so that learners pull content instead of you pushing all of the content to them.
For more ideas about creating an engaging course that doesn’t require technology for implementation, have a look at Breanne Dyck’s article on activity driven training.
Be a Swift Course Producer
“You don’t learn until you launch”
is the subtitle of Dan Norris’ book The 7 Day Startup.
Dan’s theory is that planning, business plans and market research ultimately won’t help you if nobody will trade money against your product. The idea is very similar to the lean startup method of creating a minimum viable product (MVP), but Dan takes it to extremes by launching within 7 days. You don’t necessarily have to stick to 7 days, but try to apply the principle to your course.
Don’t get stuck trying to get an individual lesson a 100% right before moving on to the next, and don’t try to get the overall course right before publishing it. This is a recipe for wasting time.
Push through course creation and get your course out there!. You probably won’t get everything 100% right the first time anyway. It is important to listen to feedback, improve, and launch again. The only way to do that is to launch.
Imagine you want to create a great course within 3 months. Have a look at the image below! Which approach is more likely to yield a great course? I think it’s obvious.
There no such thing as perfection in online courses – and even if there was, you don’t know what perfection is: It may not correspond at all to your own ideas of the perfect course. You absolutely need feedback from your audience to find out what you should be creating. The very best way to get accurate feedback is to get your course out there, and then see what participants say.
Once you have planned your course, try to create the first version of your course as quickly as possible. This doesn’t mean that you’ll leave it at that, but an iterative development approach will get your product out there much faster, and the end result will be much closer to learners’ expectations.
Be a Trustworthy Authority
Nothing will help your course sales more than being seen as an authority in your field.
Becoming an authority involves building trust and a following, getting social proof, and getting your name mentioned everywhere (without spamming!).
I highly recommend Nathan Barry‘s book Authority if you’re interested in the mechanisms and tools of becoming an authority. Nathan has published several eBooks with great success (he’s also the founder of the popular ConvertKit), and even though his book’s target audience are eBook authors, the principles apply to online instructors as well.
There are countless means of taking steps towards that goal, and what will work for you will depend on your field. Some steps Nathan recommends include:
- Producing high-quality content
- Guest posting on high-quality sites
- Giving talks (and speaking about them)
- Joining organizations in your field
You don’t need to be the world’s most well-known expert and talk on TV shows. When people make a decision about whether to buy from you or not, they’ll look for signs that they can trust you. Testimonials and “featured in” buttons can go a long way towards positively influencing that decision.
Launch Like Hollywood
Many people confuse a launch with mentioning a finished product once or twice on social media.
In The $100 Startup, Chris Guillebeau describes how the movie industry launches major products: You hear about a new James Bond film a year in advance. The trailers make you want to see the movie right then, and you hate having to wait around for a year. You don’t ask yourself anymore “do I want to spend money on this” – the question becomes “when can I give you my money? Why so late?”
This is the same way you should launch your course. You won’t be able to run trailers in movie theatres, but you can follow the same strategies on a smaller scale. Try to make your audience anticipate your launch anxiously. You’ll probably find it difficult to build up some actual hype, and you may not be launching a tech product that will make people camp out in front of shiny glass-walled stores, but you can still make them long for your product.
The launch is one of the main reasons why we started building a list in step 3. If you don’t have a list, who are you going to launch to? Big corporations buy an audience by pumping a ton of money into advertising. You can’t do that, so you need to be smart about it. Your list is your audience, and you can interact with them as much as you want – for free.
Chris recommends these steps for product launches:
- Provide an early glimpse into the future: Say what you’re working on and why it’s going to be important for your audience.
- Plan your launch and publish that plan. What’s going to happen when? Will there be any kind of bonus for early buyers? Let your audience know early enough.
- Send out last-minute reminders just before the launch.
- Create urgency: Provide incentives to buy now (not later).
This is a very short summary and you’ll find much more detail in Chris’ book. Chris also provides excellent additional resources (such as a product launch checklist) on the book’s associated website.
Follow these steps, adapt them to your situation, but don’t make the mistake of silently launching and expecting automatic results!
Deliver What You Said You’d Deliver
Another popular hint from the startup crowd is to “under-promise and over-deliver”. I think I first read this quote in The 7 Day Startup, but I’ve come across it many times since.
Not everyone agrees and some argue that over-delivering is a waste of effort.
What every trustworthy entrepreneur will agree on though is that you shouldn’t under-deliver. If you said that you’d solve a particular difficulty, then you need to solve it. It may help your initial sales to make big promises – but if you can’t deliver on them, it’ll hurt your reputation and your business in the long run. Don’t listen to gurus that tell you otherwise – a reputable business does what it says it will do, and no less.
Whether you over-deliver, and do more than you said you would, is up to you. I would assume that the benefits (and lack thereof) of over-delivering depend on your product/topic and your audience. It can probably work well for some audiences, and not at all for others. My personal opinion is that throwing in an additional checklist or two can’t hurt, and you can avoid wasting effort by re-using the checklist as a free giveaway for your list-building efforts.
Teaching online starts by picking the right online course platform so that you don’t have to deal with complicated technology. Here’s a free guide to get you started!
Please note that the links contained in this article may be affiliate links. If you click on them and buy the linked book afterwards, you’ll be helping me run this site at no disadvantage for yourself.