Running any type of business is work, but just how much work is relative depending on the type of business you build. For anyone with valuable knowledge to impart, one possible business model to consider is using online courses to earn passive income.
An information-based business is one that sells knowledge rather than physical products. Entrepreneurs that go this route are sometimes called infopreneurs.
While online courses aren’t the only format option you have for building a business based on information products, they’re one of the most common you’ll see. And for good reason.
Why to Consider Selling Online Courses
Online courses are valuable for customers because they pack a lot of information, and can help someone get a thorough primer on a subject they’re interested in within a contained amount of time. And being valuable to customers makes them a smart choice for infopreneurs as well.
Some good reasons to consider basing a business off online courses include:
You can earn (mostly) passive income.
While creating an amazing course takes work, a lot of that effort happens upfront. Once you’ve put together the content and structure for your course, the hardest part is done. You can continue to sell and profit off it for months and years to come.
Passive income business models usually translate to less ongoing work overall than running a business based on providing a service or selling physical products. But to be clear, you should anticipate having to continue working to promote your online courses after they’ve launched. And your product will be considered more valuable by many students if the course includes personal feedback and/or community-building elements, like a Slack or occasional real-time virtual meetings.
Most good businesses based on a passive income model aren’t entirely passive. But with information products, you can potentially make more for less work once your business gets off the ground.
Courses typically cost more than other types of information products.
While you can find shorter courses (usually a few hours long or less) on online marketplaces for under $50, if you put time into creating a more thorough course that genuinely teaches your audience a valuable skill, you can potentially charge $100 or more for it. According to a study by Podia, the average course price is $182.59.
Your students may become a valuable part of your network.
If you’re an established professional in your field, this is part of the value your course will offer to students—access to someone further along in their career or hobby than them.
But it’s also a value to you. If your course is amazing, it will launch your students on the path to becoming experts and influencers in the industry or community you’re a part of themselves. A larger network of smart, experienced colleagues is undeniably a good thing.
Courses can double as a marketing tool to attract the right audience for your product or services.
Courses can be products in their own right, or they can be used as marketing tools to attract people in your target audience. Some businesses offer free courses as a lead generation tool.
HubSpot’s free courses serve as a form of content marketing to help the company increase interest in their software product. Whereas CXL offers a mix of free and paid online courses. The latter serve as a product in their own right, but both types work as a form of marketing for the company’s conversion rate optimization training and managed services.
How to Create an Online Course in 10 Steps
Step 1: Determine the topic(s) your target audience needs help with.
The first step to creating an online course is the same as it is for any information product: you have to figure out the overlap between the knowledge you have and information your target audience needs.
If you haven’t already, this requires doing some research into who the people in your target audience are and what their needs are. Some needs can be met with informational blog posts or podcasts, but for online courses you want to pinpoint the needs that are about both doing and knowing.
And you want to find a topic that benefits from a deep dive. If the topic you choose can be learned in a 1,000 word blog post, it’s not deep enough. Why would a student commit their time and money for your course, rather than seeking out a free blog post on the same thing?
Bonus points if the topic is something that will help people profit. You may be able to attract some customers that want to improve their skills in a non-paying hobby, like gardening or sewing. But you’ll be able to charge more for your course if it teaches a skill that will help people make more money in their career, such as programming or copywriting.
Step 2: Research other online courses in your space.
This step accomplishes a few important things:
- It helps you look for gaps in the market. If you offer a course in a topic that more established brands have already covered, you’ll have a harder time convincing potential students to choose yours. Try to identify a niche within your topic area that’s underserved. Maybe people can find 100 courses on making great floral arrangements, but you notice a dearth of courses on how to effectively market a florist business. That’s the better topic to cover.
- It gives you an understanding of the typical rates in your topic area. Deciding what to charge for an online course is difficult (more on that in the next section). A good starting point will be looking at what similar courses are charging. That provides knowledge on what people in your target audience are likely to be comfortable spending.
- You can analyze what’s commonly included in the courses currently available. This gives you an idea of what your audience is likely to expect from your course. But it can also give you ideas for how to improve upon the courses currently available in your area. If you see a lot of online courses that provide content, but without any interaction or community element, that’s something you can add to your course to make it more valuable.
Researching the industry you’re in is an important step in any business. Don’t skip this. It will put you in a better position to create a course plan that makes sense for your target audience and the market you’re joining.
Step 3: Determine your pricing.
Picking the actual number to charge may make more sense once the course is created, but you at least want to start thinking about it at this stage. Based on what you learned in your research, consider what’s normal, what the market will bear, and what your pricing model options are.
Unless you’re offering considerably more information and features for your students than similar courses, you’ll likely want to stick within a comparable pricing range. If they’re charging $80 and you’re confident your course is better (and can make a compelling case to that effect), you may charge $100. But jumping up to $500 would be a stretch.
You may also attract more students if you provide a range of pricing models. Maybe access to the content comes at one rate, and getting personalized instruction and feedback from you comes at the premium rate.
Over time, if you build up a library of information products, you could consider offering a subscription model as well. Instead of having to buy each course individually, students that want access to more can pay a set amount monthly or yearly to gain access to the full catalog of courses and other information items.
Step 4: Determine what content formats your online course will include.
Courses typically include a mix of different types of content. This may include:
- Written content like chapters or articles
- Video content such as tutorials that walk students through how to do specific things, video lectures on relevant topics, or Q&As with experts in the field
- Audio content like podcasts
- Interactive content like quizzes, webinars, or video calls students can join in real-time.
- Community elements such as a shared Slack or online forum where students can interact with and learn from each other
Once you know which formats will be included, you can start to better visualize what your course will look like. This step will also help you figure out which tools you need to invest in to create your course, which brings us to our next step.
Step 5: Invest in recording equipment.
If you’ll be including video tutorials, you’ll need a good recording software that will allow you to capture your screen view, and you may want one that also makes it easy to capture video of yourself as you talk. Or if you’ll be making video tutorials on a subject that’s not computer-based, like how to build something or sew something, then you’ll need either a camera to shoot your video with, or should do some research into how to use your smartphone to shoot videos that look high quality.
No matter how you shoot your video, you’ll need to edit it as well, so look into and invest in video editing software. Note that some types of screen recording software will also include an editing component, so if you’re doing screen view-style tutorials, you can probably find one product for both recording and editing.
If you’ll be incorporating interactive elements, you’ll need to make sure you find the right tools and software to enable them. For webinars or video calls, look into web conferencing software like Zoom or GotoMeeting. For quizzes, WordPress plugins like Quiz Maker and Quiz and Survey Master may do the trick. Or if you’re not on WordPress, Typeform or Google Forms could work.
Having the right tools to create a high-quality product is important, but if all this is sounding expensive, don’t worry too much. For the most part, you should be able to get by with affordable products and may even find free ones for most of what you need.
Step 6: Break down the creation process into steps.
Creating an online course is a big task. To go from a general idea to a finished product, start by breaking it down into a series of specific steps.
Create an outline for your course so you can lay out what you want to cover. For each section, include the types of content you need to create. Use this as a starting point for creating a timeline for getting the work done. Give yourself specific deadlines for each step.
For each section of your course, create an outline for the section itself. Then divide the work for creating the content in that section into specific steps. And allow yourself plenty of time for research. Even though you know the subject you’ll be teaching, you likely still have a lot you can learn about it. And if you’re new to making online courses, you definitely have a lot to learn about how to do it well!
With a plan and structure in place for your online course, you’re ready to get into the work of building the course itself.
Step 7: Create your online course.
Now create all the content and start to get it into the final format of your course. Record and edit your videos. Write your text. Create your quizzes.
This step will take a lot of time and work to do well, especially if you’re building a course that’s in depth. But it’s the most important step to completing a finished product that will provide value to your customers.
Step 8: Review and improve.
Before you launch, you want to make sure you got it all right. For all the written portions of your content, proofread it at least twice and consider if it’s worth hiring a professional editor to give it an additional look.
For your videos, make sure they’re well edited. The video software you chose should let you cut sections and move pieces of the video around as needed to get it right. Watch over all the videos you’ve created and make sure the information is clear, they visually look good, and the audio works well.
Consider hiring beta testers, or at least having friends go through the course for you. You want someone with more distance from the content to review it with fresh eyes. Collect feedback and make any updates needed before you move onto the final steps.
Step 9: Launch your online course.
You have a few different options at this step. You can list your course on an online learning platform like Udemy or Lynda. This has the benefit of meaning you don’t have to build a website yourself to sell your course, and it can be easier for potential customers to find since Udemy and Lynda have name recognition beyond what a beginner course creator will.
But the downside is it doesn’t help you build your own brand. If you want your online course to be the beginning of building a larger information-based business, or if you want to use it to help you sell your other products or services, then you’re better off launching your course through your own website.
Luckily, building a website isn’t nearly as hard as it used to be. You can use a simple website builder or content management system like WordPress, which makes the overall process relatively user friendly. With WordPress, you can choose from a number of learning management system (LMS) plugins that will make creating and selling your course easier. Some are paid, but a few are free. Or you can look into online course platforms that work with any type of website like Podia or Thinkific.
Step 10: Promote your online course.
This is the final step of any information product you create. When you take the time to put a high-quality information product together, you need to put at least a comparable amount of time into getting it in front of people or what’s the point?
If you’re building an information-based business beyond this one course, work its promotion into your larger business marketing plan. Share it on social media. Make use of content marketing to drive relevant traffic to your site. Work on building an email list so you can do email marketing. And consider if it’s worth using paid advertising on search engines or social media sites to expand its reach. If your brand doesn’t already have an audience, paid ads will be the most effective way to start reaching people.
Get Started With Your Online Course
If your online course solves a problem your audience has that no other course covers as well, then yours is likely to gain some real traction and bring people to your business. By helping them, you’ll be helping to build your infopreneur brand. And if your course delivers on its promises, students will start talking it up and drive more students your way. Over time, your business and profits will grow.
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Kristen Hicks is an Austin-based freelance content writer and lifelong learner with an ongoing curiosity to learn new things. She uses that curiosity, combined with her experience as a freelance business owner, to write about subjects valuable to small business owners on the HostGator blog. You can find her on Twitter at @atxcopywriter.