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.
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