Why Course Creators Are Struggling To Scale In A Multi-Billion Dollar Online Education Industry: Here’s what to do about it.

Published on October 27, 2020

The online education industry is set to top $325 billion (that’s billion with a B!) by 2025. Yet, so many course creators are struggling to sell their courses at all. One of the leading online education platforms, Thinkific, has seen a 221% increase in courses created on their platform since March this year. Still, people are struggling to build a sustainable online course business.

I’m going to breakdown what I believe are the three biggest hurdles that course creators are facing right now, and exactly what to do to overcome them.

HURDLE 1: Selling Courses Is Simple, But It’s Not Easy

You’re an expert, have experience, talents, skills, or knowledge that someone else doesn’t. They want to learn what you know, so you create a course that fills their need, and you sell your knowledge to them. It’s really quite simple. But the mechanics of actually marketing and selling a course is anything but easy.

“Build it and they will come”, is a terrible course sales strategy.

If you spend any time scrolling through support groups for online course creators, you’ll quickly find a bunch of posts like this:

“I’ve built my course, now how do I sell it”

“I’ve recorded everything, but I’m struggling to get people to buy it”

“I know my course is going to help people so much, but I just don’t know where to find people to buy it”

It’s devastating seeing people invest time, money, and tons of energy into creating their course only to launch it to a bunch of crickets. You want to eliminate the risk of failure here by adding in one simple step before you build your course… Validate it!

Make sure that you know there are people who want to buy your course BEFORE you even think of creating it. Collect their name and contact info so you can let them know as soon as the course is ready. Or you can even go a step further, and in some instances, you might be able to pre-sell your course before you build it.

Facebook Ads should be an accelerant for your sales strategy, not a replacement.

Time and time again, I see course creators pouring money into Facebook ads and not getting a single sale on the other side. And usually, in those cases, the ads are a desperate final attempt to scrape into the last of the budget in the hope of some miracle sales.

If you’re just starting out and you don’t know what you’re doing, then paid traffic (Facebook Ads, Google Ads, YouTube Ads etc.), is a very very expensive “experiment”. Even for the fully established online course businesses, they’ll usually have hired a specialist contractor or team member to develop the ads strategy and implement it.

What you want to do instead, is learn how to sell your course without ads first. If you can’t sell a course organically, you’ll find it impossible to sell it through an ad. Try building a community (like this one: onlinecoursecreatorshub.com), growing an email list, reaching out to your ideal students where they’re hanging out. And always remember, you’re selling a transformation, not an online course.

You’ll probably tank your course sales if you don’t get your pricing right.

One thing that so many course creators struggle with is how to price their online course. It seems like attributing a value to knowledge is one of the most challenging steps in launching an online education business.

The pricing of the course needs to be competitive, yet not unrealistic for the transformation or outcome the students will reach once they finish a course. A course on “How To Build a Million Dollar eCom Business” selling for $27 doesn’t quite feel right now does it? However, making your course too expensive might put off potential buyers.

Note: Expensive is relative. What you think is expensive might be rather inexpensive to others. Consider who your Ideal Students are to gauge the pricing ranges. Then once you have it set, hold your ground.

I promise you one of the most common objections that every course creator (at every single price point) hears is “The course is too expensive” and/or “I can’t afford it right now”. Don’t rush to slash your price. Don’t offer 80% off discounts, do not undervalue your knowledge. Ever!

You set a dangerous precedent when you offer insane discounts and slashed prices – your audience will learn to expect that from you and will hold off purchasing until you have another “flash sale”.

One last thing I want to add on this is discounted or reduced pricing is a great driver of sales. Everyone loves a good bargain, but just never let it cut into your profitability. Just like when stores have a 25% off sale, they are STILL making a significant profit on that item. Keep your profit margins healthy whenever you choose to offer a discount.

HURDLE 2: Focusing On Course Sales Rather Than Student Success Is A Fast-Track To Doom

There is a ton of content out online about how to sell online courses. Every marketer and their dog has a sales strategy and some fancy, whizzbang sales funnel idea. Selling courses is what most course creators focus on, but after the sale, what happens next?

Course creators invest so much time and energy into SELLING the course, but they spend very little in comparison to DELIVERING the course. And that is a very costly error in judgement.

When I work with clients, I help them focus on three core areas: Sales, Systems, and Students. When we combine all of those, what we’re really focusing on is something I’ve coined as the “Lifetime Student Value” or LSV for short.

We want students to buy your course as a stepping stone into your other products and services. That could be more courses or possibly even other high-end services like coaching, consulting or done-for-you packages. In this instance, each course almost acts as a catalyst to the next product – thus increasing the Lifetime Student Value.

People who buy off you are far more likely to buy off you in the future – so don’t screw it up.

We all have a favourite clothing brand or coffee that we are drawn back to. We love the products and we continue to buy from those businesses over and over again. Well, the same thing happens in the course industry. If you create a great course, those students will be far more likely to buy off you again in the future.

This means that it’s far cheaper (and more time-efficient) to sell to someone who’s already purchased from you before. Just look at those loyalty programs you’re a part of. Companies know that if they can retain you, it’s far easier for them to sell to you because you already trust the brand.

So, keep a list of all your paying students from all of your courses. That list (if you’re delivering a great product), is likely going to be your warmest set of leads. If you’re thinking about testing or beta-launching a new course, send it off to that list first and you’ll fill those spots in no time.

Don’t waste your first course sale. You never get a second “first time”.

Think about how much effort went into actually getting the course sale, all the time you spent marketing and preparing to launch – not to mention the financial investment. Then, the student opens up the course and it’s rubbish.

Aside from potentially being inundated with refund requests, if you underdeliver in the course, you’re pretty much shooting yourself in the foot. Don’t hold your breath expecting that student to buy something from you again down the line. Think about it. If you purchased a product, and it didn’t live up to your expectations, would you buy another similar product from that business again? Highly doubt it. You don’t usually get a second chance.

So what you want to do is always be listening to feedback and updating your course. Do plenty of research before you sell your course and make sure it’s something that your students actually want to learn (kinda how we were talking about “validating” your course earlier on).

Build a system on the backend that sells your products for you.

So you’ve got the sale, students enrolled in the course, how do you move them onto the next product at the right time? It’s all in the preparation. When you record your course, having a clear understanding of where this product lives in your product suite will help you clearly communicate with the student exactly what the next pathway looks like and what action to take next.

For example, if you’re a personal trainer and you’re selling a “30 Day Keto Kickstart Course”, the next possible step for a student at that point might be some personalised fitness coaching. If the foundations of their diet are set, doesn’t it make sense that now they could focus on exercise?

So leveraging the Lifetime Student Value framework I mentioned earlier, we want systems on the front and backend to identify and prompt students at just the right time. We also want to incentivise students personally to make them feel special and appreciated, i.e. “Hey, it looks like you’re just about finished wrapping up the Keto Kickstart and I wanted to offer you a huge secret discount on my 1:1 personal training packages”.

When you plan ahead and record these upsell pathways into your course, you’ll discover that it provides a professional polish to your online education business. It implies that there was thoughtful planning involved in creating the course, and the content is premeditated and purposeful.

HURDLE 3: If You’re Not A Great Teacher, Your Courses Will Fail

There used to be a cruel saying that I hated when I was a high-school teacher, “Those who can do; those who can’t, teach.” Wow, it used to make me wild. Being able to teach someone effectively is a lot different from just being highly-skilled in a subject. And in some ways, I would say it’s more difficult.

That being said, there is a huge difference between teaching live in-person vs teaching effectively in an online course. When teaching in-person, you can answer questions, pick up on body language and cues where learners might be dropping off, you can pace your lesson based on how the students are progressing etc. In an online course, you don’t have those luxuries.

Be careful not to fall into the trap of “more content = more value”.

One of the biggest mistakes I see course creators making when they’re building their course, is they try to dump in way too much content. There doesn’t seem like there is a real considered approach to how the curriculum would be consumed and the success of the student at times feels like an afterthought. By dumping in content, the course quickly becomes convoluted and irrelevant. Be careful not to fall into the trap of “more content = more value”, it doesn’t.

When you’re at the point in your process where you are starting to develop the course content, ask yourself, “What is it that students will have successfully learned once they’ve completed your course, and what are the steps they need to take to get them there?”

You want to curate your content; not just brain dump it all in at once. A good online course curriculum is generally sequential and incremental; meaning that students should start from the beginning and work their way “up” to the desired outcome or transformation (just like we learned to crawl before we walked).

Even with the worlds best course content, your students still need support.

So many course creators miss this critical “hand-holding” element to their online courses. Regardless of how much effort you put into creating the most well-structured lessons, it’s inevitable that your students will still get stuck along the way – that’s just the nature of the learning process.

It might feel like “a lot of work” at first, but skipping the student support step is going to backfire quickly. Unsupported students generally feel like the course creator just wanted the sale rather than actually helping them. Your unsupported students are likely to have poor results and might even complain to others about your course.

By offering a group or community alongside your course content, you’re opening up an entire world of support for your students that will propel them to success. The more successful students you have, the better your testimonials will be, and those testimonials are what will sell your courses long into the future.

On average only 3% of enrolled students will finish a course, 97% will drop off.

That is not a typo. Industry standards estimate that ~97% of students will never actually complete an online course. They give up, check out or just lose interest. If you’re losing that many students, you’re hemorrhaging future cashflow in your business.

The number one way to keep students engaged is to incentivize and gamify their experience. Companies like LinkedIn, Facebook and Google spend billions on implementing ways to keep you engaged on the platform for longer. Your attention is their currency of choice. When it comes to the online course space, I call refer to it as momentum. If your students feel a sense of momentum, they’re far more likely to continue. As the momentum slows or stops, students are much more likely to check out or give up.

Create simple, early wins in the very first lesson. Hook them in from the beginning as that’s when you have the most forward energy in motion. From there, look at integrating a points system, prizes, certificates, badges, levels and more to sustain the momentum throughout the entire course.

Aside from all of the above, there is arguably an even bigger driver to student retention and that’s accountability. If you tell yourself you’re going to go on a diet or stop drinking for a month, the likelihood that you’ll succeed is quite low. Our inner-voices are easily convinced to give up when things get tough. But if you publicly join a group of others and announce you’re all dieting or not drinking for a month, then the stakes are much higher! No one wants to let another person down, right?

Again, that’s why a community alongside your course is so impactful. It creates accountability and support, which are the two fundamental ingredients that shape an environment for success.

So Where To From Here?

With $325 billion on the table, then chances are you’ll eventually find success in some form. It’s almost impossible not to earn a living from an online education business right now. A client of mine recently shared this with my community:

“I reached my “dream goal” of being able to pay my Silicon Valley mortgage on what I’m making as an online teacher this year, and I’m absolutely convinced I couldn’t have done it without Paul’s coaching last year. I learned and grew SO MUCH during that six months, it’s unbelievable.” – Tien

I compiled a full overview of all my Case Studies and you can check them out here if you’re interested in hearing more stories just like this.

If you’re ready to scale up your online courses, now is the time to do it. The world is already embracing the online learning pathway and we’re at the very beginnings of a dramatic shift in how our society operates.

I’d love to open my inbox to anyone who’s established an audience and a client base and now wants to develop and scale through online courses.

Connect with me and send me a message with the word “scale” so we can chat about what next steps could look like for you.