17 Trends To Watch In The Online Course Industry In 2021

Published on January 05, 2021

Creating a passive income stream selling online courses is high on the agenda in 2021 for many businesses.

For some it’s a necessity due to lockdowns, for others it’s an opportunity to scale quickly through a highly leveraged product. Either way, online courses continue to be one of the most sought out revenue streams for online businesses. 

Here are the top 17 trends I see making their mark on 2021.

1. There Is More Competition Than Ever Before 

As the online education industry exploded in 2020, we’re seeing the rush of course creators flocking to sell their knowledge online. With a projected market cap of over $325B in the next 36-48months, business owners are understandably seeing the opportunity. Those who act now will carve out a nice wedge of the market, but, that also means more competition is flooding in every single day. There is no time to put off launching your course in 2021.

2. Niching Down Has Never Been More Important

In 2009, Apple trademarked the phrase, “There’s an app for that”. The slogan implies an abundance of choice, and if you need an app for literally anything you can imagine, you can bet it will be on the App Store. Well, the online course industry is heading down the same path – if not there already. “There’s a course for everything”. Finding a niche, and serving a unique, targeted subset of people is how course creators are going to stand out in an ocean of online courses already on the market. 

3. Online Courses Are Becoming More Popular For First Time Students

As courses gain traction in popularity, we’re seeing a new wider audience approaching the online course space who are more likely to enrol. Up until recently, online courses were generally delivered by large companies and institutions and we’d never really seen the access to privatised knowledge online as we do now. This means that there is so much more opportunity to scale online courses as the market is continuing to swell and buyer confidence is growing with it. 

4. Expect To See More Apps & Tools To Support Course Creators

For years now, platforms like Thinkific have dominated course hosting, but this year especially, we’ll see a spike in related products and tools to help with course creation and marketing. One big space I’m watching right now is “community facilitation”. I have a hunch that this will be one of the most innovative areas to capitalise on in 2021. 

5. Scaling Your Online Course Business Will Be Critical To Survival

As we’ve touched on already, the market is growing exponentially, buyer confidence is at an all-time high, and competition is hotter than ever. 2021 will favour those businesses who can scale quickly and sustainably. In working with clients this year, my focus is on getting as many online course businesses to a minimum of $10k MRR in 2021 ($100k+ annually) as quickly as possible. I’ve been helping private clients do this for years, and 2021 is the first year we’ll be doing it at scale. (DM me the word “SCALE” for details if you’re interested in learning more). 

6. Students Want More Than A One-Off Course

One of the most exciting trends I see taking off this year is the fact that students seem to be wanting a more holistic online course offering – rather than just a one-off course to buy. Most of the success I’ve seen in the 2nd half of 2020 was from course creators who developed a number of online courses in a tiered structure. Students could pick and choose to stay within the “ecosystem” of the course creator. Lots of upsell potential and a great way to retain loyal customers. We’ll see a lot more of this in 2021.

7. eBooks Are Dead

This is probably more of a 2019 trend, but it’s still worth mentioning. If you’re planning on giving away an eBook as a lead generator, consider repurposing the content into something more consumable like a video series or a mini-course. You’ll find the conversion rate to be much higher into your paid products like courses and programs.

8. Video Content Is Still The Dominant Content Medium

There is a lot of hype with Clubhouse and audio in general at the moment, but I’m confident that video will still transcend those mediums. The trust, likability, accessibility, connection, and entertainment that video content produces is second to none. While podcasts are a fantastic staple to literally any business in 2021, my attention this year is doubling down on video. To hedge my bets, I’m taking the audio from the videos and dropping that into podcasts, but fundamentally, I believe video still has legs. So stick with it. 

9. We’ll See A Rise In Certifications & Accreditation Programs

I’ve seen this developing for some time now, but I believe 2021 will be the breakout year for certifications and accreditation offers. Education programs, courses, and online learning models heavily favour a certification pathway. It adds credibility, authority and market segmentation. Businesses who want to claim a strong foothold in their industry will be implementing clearly defined certification pathways structured around their courses and programs. 

10. Quality Is More Important Now

I used to advise clients that “done is better than perfect”, and while I still lean in that direction, the quality of your content game needs to improve to stand out in the crowd in 2021. There are so many apps, tools, plugins, and templates to use to lift the quality of your content game, there really is no excuse. And if you’re at a point in your business where you have the resources, outsourcing to creators will help keep your content at the top of the game. Get a good mic, get a good camera, follow a brand style guide and you’ll be a step ahead of the rest. 

11. Students Are Expecting More Support

Selling a course without some level of ongoing support is like sending someone flatpack furniture with incomplete instructions and two missing screws. The experience will be frustrating, long, stressful, and they might get there in the end but they will have needed additional outside tools and resources to ultimately succeed. In 2021, students are expecting course creators to support them throughout their entire learning journey. 

12. Money-Back Guarantees Are Becoming More Common Practice

Your competitors are already doing it, and if you’re not offering a money-back guarantee, you are probably putting your conversion rates at risk. Statistically speaking, the likelihood of someone actually following through with a refund request is quite minimal compared to the number of overall sales. In 2021, I see this being a staple ingredient to any launch plan and sales page. 

13. We’ll See A Rise In Flexible Payment Options 

With 2020 being such a hit on the economy, many potential students won’t have the same deep pockets that they might have had in the past. Spending on courses and personal education/development could be seen as a luxury in most cases which is why in 2021, we’re going to see a lot of course creators offering flexible, multi-part payment plans and subscription models to entice new buyers. The benefit of this to the business is a very healthy monthly recurring revenue which is great. 

14. Webinars Are Still Going To Be Effective, But Attendance Will Be Lower

It’s probably been the better part of a decade since webinars really took off, and in 2021 they’re still going to be a solid ingredient into any good marketing plan for selling online courses and programs. But we’ll see the trend continuing this year with attendance rates gradually getting lower. This isn’t something to shy away from, in fact, it could be argued that of those who are attending, they’re even more likely to buy off you if you rock a great webinar. 

15. 2021 Will Be The Year Of Online Communities & Tribes 

Influencers have been nailing this phenomenon for quite some time now, and I can see many industries following the same path this year. Building a community or tribe online is like attaching a rocket to a race car – tremendous growth, very quickly. Online course creators will naturally be carving out specialised niches for their course offerings, and with that will come a wave of hyper-targeted students who share the same interests and aspirations. The businesses who succeed will be the ones who nurture that community and capitalise on the momentum of the tribe. 

16. We’ll See More Structured Frameworks Being Taught In Online Courses

When this is done well, it can be extremely profitable for the business, and very insightful for students to learn from. Distilling complex knowledge & systems down into a concise framework is the secret sauce that course creators have been leveraging for years now. However, I see this becoming a dominant trend in 2021 as it sets courses apart from the competition. Whether its fat loss, business growth, leadership or marketing, having a unique framework is going to be key to success this year. 

17. Availability Of Free Content Is Going to Make Course Sales More Difficult

YouTube reported over 500 hours of content is uploaded to their platform every. single. minute. Now also consider Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, blogs, Vimeo, TikTok, websites Medium and Clubhouse… With an abundance of free content being published every second of every day, course creators are really going to need to double down on their messaging and offers in 2021. Positioning paid courses as more valuable than free content is going to become increasingly more difficult as access to free content continues to grow. 

So where to next? 

With a market cap of $325B and growing, the online course industry is only getting bigger. As we dive into 2021, I’m filled with hope, excitement, anticipation, and confidence that this space is going to be one of the most innovative industries to continue to grow exponentially this year and beyond. 

We’ve only really just started to dip our toe in the water and the opportunities for what’s to come are unfathomable. 

If you’re just getting started, and want to launch your course successfully – start here.

If you’re ready to scale an automated online education business to 6-figures+, head here and write the word “SCALE”

Wishing your all the best this year, fam! 🚀