If you want to be a successful online instructor, you’ll be dealing with two major activities:

  • Online course creation
  • Online course marketing

Online course creation deals with all the activities required to plan, create, review and publish your course. Online course marketing refers to all the tasks required to make your audience discover and actually buy your course. Both are undoubtedly important, so where do you put your focus?

There’s a rule of thumb that is being repeated again and again in online instructors’ circles. This rule advocates spending only 20% of your effort on course creation, and 80% on marketing.

Online marketers often have a remarkable ability to present products in an appealing way, an ease of connecting with an audience and a capability to sell. It’s only natural that they focus on their strengths, but when they see an online course as yet another product to sell, it may lead to problematic rules of thumb. Some marketers conveniently interpret this as advice against putting effort into course creation. “Don’t spend time on course production. Just get done with it.” After all, marketing is what brings in the money, right?

Well, here’s a hard truth: When there’s no solid product behind the best marketing, then great marketing becomes something else entirely: A scam.

If you’ve taken a few online courses, you’ll have come across some substandard examples. Despite an obvious lack of quality, some of these courses are at least moderately successful – so why should you bother to invest more than a minimal amount of effort? Let’s take a moment to think about what we want to achieve with online courses.

If you want to take a shortcut to ensure your course is great, there’s a free checklist for you right here:

What Is an Online Course?


How do YOU define an online course?

  • Is any collection of random videos a course, as soon as you bundle them up together?
  • Will any eBook become a course as soon as you call its chapters “lessons”?
  • Does a selection of blog articles deserve the name “course” if you hide them behind a pay-wall or record yourself reading them on camera?

I’ve recently learned that it’s naïve to assume everybody would answer all of these questions with “No”. There are plenty of marketers who will readily call anything a course, as long as they can put a price tag on it and design a pretty landing page for it.

These marketers like to claim that “learning is the learner’s responsibility”, and all course creators need to do is “provide content”. Well, sorry guys, but you couldn’t be more wrong.

If that was the case, your learners wouldn’t be looking for courses. They’d be fine with reading books or blog articles. They’d be fine with finding information online, sorting through it, and bringing their findings into a structure that works for them. They’d have to make sure they understand the content they’ve found and they’d go back and re-consume information whenever they found out they didn’t keep the relevant bits further down the road.

Sounds like they’d be creating a course. Isn’t that what you should be doing?

If learners pay good money for a course, they expect a shortcut. If they could learn the same thing in the same amount of time by reading blog articles or books, they would do that. They expect you to speed up their progress. They expect you to structure information, and provide it in a way that will make it easy for them to digest, learn and retain. If you’re calling your content a “course”, you’re implicitly agreeing to those terms.

Creating great courses relies on an understanding of basic principles of instructional design. A course needs to be designed as a course. It needs to support and facilitate learning. In order to do that, course creators need to be aware of how humans learn as well as teaching methods and tools.

An online instructor is responsible for their learners’ success. If you don’t want to assume that responsibility, please call yourself a blogger, an eBook author or a video creator – not an online instructor!

Of course, you may ignore this advice. If you do, here’s what’s going to happen.

What a Low-Quality Online Course Won’t Do for Learners


Here are some of the effects of a course created quickly and without adhering to good online course design standards:

  • Your learners will not learn faster than if they’d read a book (which was a major reason why they bought a course and not a book in the first place).
  • Without a well thought out structure and logical progression of content modules, learners will be unable to build a mental model of your content. This is not facilitation, it’s obfuscation.
  • If you’re not addressing all senses, you’re building information processing bottlenecks into your courses.
  • Learners will fall into a passive role where they will hear and listen to content much in the same way as one watches TV. There’s a reason why watching TV is not the default means of teaching in schools. Bloom’s Taxonomy tells us that only 20% of content presented in such a way will be retained. Keep in mind that your learners paid for 100% of the material.
  • Without exercises, quizzes and discussions, learners will consume content but they won’t know how much they’ve retained. They’ll, thus, be forced to track their own progress and assess their understanding by themselves – without having the tools to do so.
  • Learners will not find your content engaging, resulting in a high abandonment rate. Abandonment is not good for learning.
  • Learners may go through the entire “course” without having retained any knowledge at all. You might want to argue that they still have access to the content “for reference”. A course is not a reference – a course is a fast way to learning. Your learners didn’t buy a reference, but a course. Also, for most topics your course will have a hard time beating Google as a reference.

Overall, learners won’t be happy with such a course – regardless of how well your sales copy was written and how pretty your visuals are.

What Bad Courses WILL Do to Learners


You’ve decided to finally learn more about knitting socks. The courses you find online aren’t cheap, but they seem like they may be worth it. After days of selecting, you finally choose the course you want.

You’re excited, and you go through the first lesson. It’s kind of okay, but not very special. You move on to the second lesson, and it becomes clear that the first lesson got all the attention (probably so that it could be used for marketing purposes). The quality goes down the further you get into the course. You expected an actual ‘course’. What you get is a bloke raving about past accomplishments on video and while there’s the occasional useful hint, it feels like there’s a lot of hot air. There are no exercises, no discussions, no way to make sure you’ve understood. You watch one video after the other, but your concentration is fading. It’s boring, and you find your thoughts wandering off. You didn’t expect this to be so much like watching TV. The interaction within the course is restricted to clicking the next button, and even that goes away once you choose “autoplay next lesson”.

You’re frustrated. The course wasn’t cheap. You feel that you didn’t get your money’s worth and may ask for a refund. Even if you get your money back, you now have a solid idea of the instructor’s work and trust him not quite as far as you could throw him. You will tell the instructor just that – and anybody else who wants to know.

When you’re asked to write a review for the course, you don’t think twice. You want the world to hear how disappointed you are – so you tell everybody. In public, and with colourful words. What you don’t do is tell your friends and family about the course – at least not in positive terms.

When you receive an email a couple of months later by the same instructor, telling you about a new course, your course of action is clear: Unsubscribe. Delete email.

Do you want to go through this experience as a learner? Is this what you want to offer to your learners when teaching online? I didn’t think so!

What Bad Online Courses Do to Your Business and Reputation


In our scenario, you (the online instructor) got:

  • An unhappy customer
  • A bad review and declining sales
  • No revenue, since you had to give a refund

It doesn’t end there. There are a couple of long-term, lasting effects:

  • You’ve annoyed this learner. There is no hope of doing business with this learner in the future. Returning customers are a great thing. In fact, they’re part of the magical “passive income” or “recurring revenue”. Not having returning customers is bad for your revenue.
  • One bad review doesn’t hurt? Well, if your course isn’t good, then the one bad review won’t stay single for long. You’ll get more bad reviews. A lot of them.
  • Online sales rely on social proof and testimonials. People want to hear what people who’ve already bought think about the product. What are you going to tell them? (without lying!?). How will you sell future courses or other products?
  • You’ll find it harder and harder to convince potential buyers to trust you.
  • Even if you’re still selling courses – do you want to be busy half your day handling complaints and refunds? Or would you rather spend the time building quality products and improving sales?
  • Maybe you’re a great marketer and you can counter this effect with great marketing tactics – but do you really want to be that guy?

Online courses build your reputation and authority. What you’re doing if you’re marketing a bad product is building your fraud status.

What Bad Online Courses Do to the Public Perception of Teaching Online


People who’ve bought just one bad course may shrug it off. When they buy another bad course, they’ll start to doubt the value of online courses. By the third mediocre course they’ll stop trusting online courses and will tell anybody that wants to know that online courses don’t work.

The same has happened to corporate eLearning over the past decades. Technology was quickly adopted and less-than-ideal courses were pushed out to learners. Bad eLearning courses have taught learners (who didn’t have a choice and mostly had to take these courses as part of their jobs) that eLearning is boring, cumbersome – a chore best avoided. Today, it can be hard to build momentum for corporate eLearning endeavours due to that learned scepticism.

Let’s not let that happen to online courses! There is so much potential, but if the market is flooded with bad courses, the good ones will have a really, really hard time of making learners trust them. Even more so, as one could assume that the bad quality courses have a bigger marketing budget (if not in terms of money, than in terms of instructor’s time) and will, thus, overshadow better courses.

Please don’t create a mediocre online course and then come up with a high-quality marketing plan! That’s not a good match. Create a great course, and then create a great marketing plan! Those two make for a happy couple.

Create a 100% high-quality, premium online course. And then, once you have such a great product, market the hell out of it. You may be able to sell your course for a long time. If you do a count at the end of your course’s lifetime, maybe you will have spent 80% of your total time on marketing. However, that’s never the thought you should set out with. The effort is only worth it if you started with a great course.



Do you want to make sure you won’t leave a bad impression on your learners? Make sure your learners will love your course in 5 minutes or less with this free checklist!