My presentation training business has closed its doors. Shut. Forever. My foray into the “online course business” lasted 2 years. The course, marketing materials, and promotion cost me 13.200 euros plus my own labour. Over 2 years, the business made 2.257,76 euros from online sales and 14.238,50 euros from consulting gigs related to the topic of the course. That’s 6x times as much consulting vs. online teaching and I made a profit of 2.296,26 Euros. In this data, there must be a lesson and if there is one, you’ll find it in this blog post.
An online course is one of the simplest artifacts in the “online products” category right after the eBook. You don’t need to code, you just need to record yourself teaching something and then sell it online. Sounds simple, right?
Simplicity really stops there. Because once you have a course you need an audience. And even if you have an audience, then you need a marketing campaign. There are great solutions for each of these steps – don’t get me wrong – but getting the combination right is pretty difficult.
The path of online course bliss is the following:
- Find a niche
- Develop an email list of people interested in that niche
- Develop the content of the course
- Launch this course to the email list
This sequence of events brings me to lesson number one on online courses.
I. Building an audience while building a product is overwhelming
The skills required to build an audience are totally different from the ones needed to create an online course. And yet, these two activities are often started in unison by course creators.
If you already have an audience and this audience is asking you to teach them something, then you’re in luck. This is the only instance where you should go ahead and create a course.
If you don’t have an audience, it’s going to be extremely hard to build one just for your launch splash.
I’ve created a list of almost 3.000 prospects in the space of 2 years. It’s been hard and has required me to master all sorts of content marketing skills. It’s also been a full-time engagement at times and required me to hire and train a virtual assistant just to do outreach.
I did all this while at the same time, I was busy building the actual course. Yes. I made a fatal mistake. I didn’t want to wait until I had a big community and wanted to start making those $$$$$ online immediately. As a result, I got the worst of both worlds: exhaustion while creating the content and getting overwhelmed by growing the audience.
So, if you’re interested in thriving doing stuff online, don’t focus on the $$$$$$$, but just on the crowd.
For instance, through my blog posts, I am growing a mailing list that now counts 1,668 people and I have zero products to sell them. When the list reaches 1 million people and everybody is clamouring to buy something from me, maybe I will go back to online products.
Which brings me to the second reason why courses are almost never a good online product.
II. Nobody completes online courses
My course was completed in average by 8,5% of the people that signed up. But if you exclude my consulting clients (where I flew in and accompanied the course with in-person lessons) and if you exclude my best friend and my ex-boyfriend that heroically completed the course, this figure becomes much smaller: 1,9%. So less than 2% of the people that bought the online course actually completed it.
Breaking news: People that buy courses are digital hoarders. They don’t want the knowledge or the skill. They are afraid to miss out on your great content or your great deal.
Successful course creators are not educators, they are salespeople. They are not in the business of teaching, they are in the digital sales business. That’s the harsh reality of this world.
Now, this is my own experience and I am sure that if you dig deep enough, you will see bigger engagement numbers in smaller and more focused niches. But the industry overall agrees that online courses are not there to be actually finished by people.
Which brings me quite nicely to reason number three why you shouldn’t create an online course.
III. Everybody learns differently
I created a course that teaches people like me. But after creating the course, I realized there are different styles of teaching and learning.
I set out to create the perfect presentation course to teach people like me. How about other learning styles?!? No course available for them!
If you set out to create a course, you’ll need to have an audience, but not just any audience: an audience that learns in the same way. And you need to know this audience so well that you can create the exact type of content that teaches the subject in the way they learn.
Is this hard enough? Let’s get to reason number four you shouldn’t ever think about creating online courses.
IV. If you need a Launch Formula, it means that your product is ?
Everybody knows how online courses are marketed. Because they are all marketed in the same way. There is a sequence – it’s called the Launch Formula.
You have an exact sequence of emails that you send to your list teasing the launch, announcing the price, opening up to subscriptions and then closing signups by creating an artificial time limit.
The Launch Formula works. However, it’s a dishonest way of tricking hoarders into shelling out money and not a way to create engaged communities of learners. Launching will give you revenue, but it will rarely move the needle of course completion. Sure, a business is only as good as its bottom line, but are you seriously telling me that an online courses business is all about creating artificial scarcity (offer ends in 1 hour, act now), and selling out on the first day?
Now let’s go back to the revenue numbers at the beginning of this post for point number five.
V. Consulting beats online courses
Working on an online course gave me great clarity. I had to boil down my value proposition in such an understandable way that the offering became very appealing…for my existing and past consulting customers.
You see, I’m a digital marketing consultant trusted by companies and agencies of all sizes. When they saw that I was also offering presentation training, they welcomed the opportunity to have me help them with pitches, with training employees for specific public speaking occasions and even refining company presentations and company websites.
So I discovered that a ready-made presentation is way more appealing than a lecture on my “secret sauce” on creating presentations.
Listen to me: if you have a secret sauce, provide it to the world in the form of a solution.
Instead of dealing with hundreds of prospects that pay you very little, you will work with a few clients that value your work a lot and are ready to pay the right price. You will have human relationships instead of email lists and launch formulas. And the output of your work is not just a sale, but an actual company success.
This is why I made 6x more money by selling consulting services related to my courses, than selling online courses.
I know what you’re thinking. Online businesses are all about “passive income”: making money while you sleep. Instead, consulting is all about early flights, sweat, and hard work. I hear you. Let’s go to lesson VI.
VI. Done for you solutions are better than consulting
If you’re able to synthesize your knowledge into a course that teaches how to create – let’s say – a website, probably you can also breakdown the complex process of creating a website into single steps. In this case, you could teach those steps to your employees and sell websites to the world. You don’t need to code them yourself.
You will just need to find the right people, give them the right training and establish a marketing funnel that brings in new customers.
That’s as close as you can get to real passive income in a consulting line of work. Things would be different if you were able to create an actual product but we’re talking about pure knowledge here. Making a process out of your knowledge is the best way you have to leverage it.
Try to google “productised consulting” and you’ll find a ton of examples.
VII. In case of emergency, write an eBook
Did I just pivot back to online products? Yes. But bear with me.
In order to create an online course, you will have an effort that is 10x what it takes to create a simple 30 to 50-page single topic eBook.
Ebooks are easier to create, edit and update. They can have – depending on the perceived value – very different price points and can easily cater to all sorts of audiences. You can use well-established distribution platforms like Amazon or distribute independently on Gumroad and similar sites. There are no fixed costs and no websites to maintain and if you have a loyal audience, chances are a percentage of them will be happy to support your writing with a few dollars.
Online products live in a hierarchy. The growth of MOOCs and the offering of platforms like Udemy may lead you to think that we’re in the golden age of online courses. If you ask me, we are in the twilight of such courses. Especially for those who don’t have big established audiences, it doesn’t make sense to create, develop and market these online juggernauts.
Solutions sell much better than consulting and consulting sells much better than online courses. Trust me. I’ve tried both consulting and courses. Consulting wins. Stop dreaming of passive income and get your hands dirty with real problems for real clients. I leave you with the words of Peldi Guilizzoni. “Focus on one problem, then provide one solution for one type of customer” this is how you make money, online or anywhere.
Take a look at the Peldi Test: find a problem that you love to solve, find an audience that you love to interact with and go solve their issues. This is a real formula. Follow it and all the riches of the entrepreneurial world await.
Keep in touch?
Here’s the best way: subscribe to my email list.
YES! Thank you so much for your honest and forthright analysis. I am trained as an educator and taught college courses both online and in person and in the end, it is about relationships. I changed up my lifestyle a few years back, left my career and urban life for a rural setting and now live for my garden, writing and art. But I still need to make some income and have a started a website with the intention of selling a course on starting a food garden. I have taken a dozen webinars, read countless articles – on how to sell a course and it all seems so fake. I am moving forward with your two ideas – an ebook and consulting. People need food gardens in their lives but I don’t think a course will get them there!
Thanks so much for this post – I feel released!
I love the lifestyle change that you did. It takes a lot of courage and focus. So I feel that you already reached the most important goal. Please let me know how it goes. I am excited for you and I wish you all the success possible.
I’ve been watching the trends with interest but also skepticism. Your post is timely and very informative and helps me with my decision-making process regarding online course building. I am a former educator with lots of experience building courses, but never online. I’m going to rethink entering this market and your experiences give me much food for thought.
If you have an audience or are able to demonstrate that you can capture some real world demand (online or off) please go ahead. But if you are in the position of creating value in a different way, or having an institution pay for your course then try those options first.
Having gone through the same exercise as you, I can tell you, you hit this nail right on the head.
Sorry to hear it didn’t go well. What are you focusing on right now?
Sue, Roger and Jay – Thank you for the comments. I’ve been hesitating. Taught k-12 and college – and I agree, it is not about education sadly! It is about relationship building.
“People that buy courses are digital hoarders” – that is brilliantly said! I have two courses as well and that is exactly what happened to them – people signup and 75% of them never start. Oh well
Thanks for confirming this. Unfortunately course completion is extremely rare. I wish online educators would just focus on that. If that was 100% I bet the course would make a ton of money too.
Great article. I love your emphasis on building human relationships and providing a solution. I love how it ends as well, especially that part “find an audience that you love to interact with and go solve their issues”
I see your points. But also, the title is misleading a bit. This is only your story and your experience about online courses, there are several success stories as well. Is creating online courses heavy? Yes. Are people hoarding courses? Yes. Do people have different learning styles? Maybe. I like it that you are realistic about your income and what works for your business. But I have to say that you just found 7 reasons why you failed and want to justify it. Sorry, I don’t see how this article is meant to help others or new online instructors.
I don’t have the data to tell the story of other people’s success. I understand your point and I wish I could include the exact elements that distinguish a success and a failure in online learning. For what I hear though these are some of the most frequent reasons why course creators fail.
I’m standing for 92 minutes of applause. 🙂
(Quotation that only Italians understand)
Grazie di cuore! And thanks for quoting one of my favorite movies <3
Great article! The key point for me from the article is that you need to have a large audience of paying learners to make money. How do you get that audience? Teachable recently published a white paper on the state of the business of online courses and showed that less than 5% of course creators make serious money. So it is indeed an uphill battle to make money online without a captive audience. That’s the key.
It’s funny that online course creators are toiling away individually in their own little sphere. My latest thinking is to form a consortium of many educators/authors, each with a captive audience. i.e., their own students, to whom they can cross-sell English-language teaching materials.
I feel that there are multiple skills that need to come together:
– matter experts
– education experts
– marketing experts
– large targeted and focused audiences.
I believe this can be achieved only by important influencers or if you focus on teaching something that demonstrably can make money to your audience (teach a profession, a job, a freelance skill).
Thanks for responding with specific points. The niche I’m working in is English language teaching which represents a worldwide audience but tremendous online competition. Any Tom, Dick and Harry can get into the game because the barrier for entry is so low.
– I’m the subject matter & education expert/consultant as it were —with my 30 plus years of teaching & writing experience.
– I intend to work with educators who already have students, so I won’t be doing the marketing myself
– These educators would already have a targeted and focused audience of ongoing students
– I have an important influencer on my side—a well-connected colleague who believes in the project
– The potential to teach English language skills is enormous relating to reading, listening, writing and even speaking.
Seems you have an ideal setup there and you should really go ahead and enter the market. Competition is good, in this case is a great way to validate the existence of a high level of demand.
Oh my gosh. YES. I’ve spent close to $1500 in online courses and I haven’t finished a single one. I’m a digital hoarder, and the more courses I buy, the more I resent the fact I’ve been sold to.
Don’t feel bad about it: it’s a machine that is geared to have you fear missing out on something great. It’s a sophisticated machine and frankly at times it’s irresistible.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Matteo. Your wisdom will help many others,
Thank you Geetesh!
Hi Matteo. My take away is that vetting a need for your main offer (regardless of what that is) is one of the most important things in building an engaged audience. Having done my ideal client research, learning their struggles and hopes, I have a better idea of creating my marketing mix…AND boiling down the value proposition in an appealing way. Shared this on CBL’s public group with more input, but wanted to share it here to… This is a great article and superb business advice for a former organizational learning leader! Thank you friend.
Thank you so much for taking the time to comment here as well. I owe you!
I think you are right about a lot of these points. There are many myths in this arena. I’m a freelance online course designer, I mostly create e-learning for internal companies to use, but I have some clients who fit into the model described above. Despite having good profiles and reasonable sized email lists, the only money they have made is when they’ve been able to sell their product in bulk to an organisation. If you want to make money from online courses you need to “hunt antelopes, not field mice”. If you’re a credible expert in a certain niche, you can still sell online courses and make good money without a massive email list, but you have to sell consultative solutions to businesses not course hoarders.
Sam, I think your words are a superb example of clarity, focus and knowing your profitable market. I have been an organizational trainer, manager and director in past organizations, and you are right…volume licensing of courses is the ‘hunt antelopes’ format. Thanks for your honest insight. I greatly appreciate it.
I love your honesty here. I’ve been creating courses for over five years now. It took me two years to really start getting the traction I was hoping for (with reaching numbers). My courses then circulated to 40+ countries. That was when I really started to realize that my drop-out rates were super high. Unacceptably high. Not as high as you’re saying here, but it made me dig in and start improving my creations.
For the last three years, I have been on a mission to figure out how to create the ultimate student learning experience online. My business partner and I created a super fun website called http://www.CoursesWorthSharing.com that explains the key things we learned on our great eCourse adventure. The bottom line principle that has made all the difference in the world for us and our students has been to treat building courses like it’s an art-form.
Movies are art. Music is art. Games are art. eCourses must be art too. Too many people come into the game with dollar signs in their eyes (I was one of them), but there is a much bigger game to be won here. Help people transform. To do that, we must make something that truly captivates them and inspires them to wanna show up to do the work.
Thanks for writing such an honest post about your experience. I think a lot of people need to hear this so they don’t get into the eLearning industry with the wrong ideas or expectations. It’s incredibly difficult to make a remarkable online course and most folks just don’t have it in them to put in the necessary thought, consideration, creativity and work to make a course worthy of sharing, purchasing and completing.
Well said. As an educator, educational consultant, trainer and consultant manager for 50 years there is much truth in your document. Your comments on teaching / training using Your own learning modality resonating with those of like modality is so very true and so very difficult for many to view honestly. The hard lift comes in creating for more than your own learning modality. In most cases so difficult it is impossible for many. Learning to do so moves one to a much higher level than the competition. Being empathetic and a careful observer and student of how others learn are crucial in appealing to a broader spectrum of learners.
Thanks Greg, I do believe that what we invest right now in online learning is going to be laughed at in the future. There is so much potential available if we embrace the fact that each student will learn in their own way.