7 ingredients of a successful online course

7 ingredients of a successful online course

Creating an online course is an excellent way to build a solid passive income, especially because it’s a business you can start tomorrow with very few startup costs. But to succeed, you need a great idea that people will pay you for, and all the right components.

Here’s what you should know about how to create an online course that’s profitable and life-changing for your customers.

How to create an online course: 7 ingredients to consider

If you think you need expensive technology and a flashy website to sell a course, think again. While eye candy can get people interested, they won’t stay engaged if the content and added services you provide are underwhelming.  

What you do need is a good mix of:

  1. Written content
  2. Coaching
  3. Video
  4. Audio
  5. Worksheets
  6. Email
  7. Community

That’s not to say you need all of it — overwhelming your buyers with too many options can also be a turn-off. But understanding why each element is important can help you determine which ones belong in your course.

1. Written copy

Regardless of how you fashion your online course, having written copy is a must. If your course consists of just you in front of a camera or your voice, people may have a tough time keeping up with what you’re saying.

It can be an e-book, a short PDF summary, emails, or a PowerPoint presentation — anything that distills the most important information and enables your customers to look back to it when they need to.

Even my business school professors saw the benefit of utilizing PowerPoint and handouts to help us focus on what mattered most for exams. Obviously, you don’t want to put everything on paper; that would defeat the purpose of the rest of the course. But providing a readable summary can help your buyers remember what you’ve taught them long after they complete the course.

If you’re going to provide written copy, though, make sure it’s good. Have at least two editors look it over before you publish to ensure you don’t have any typos, grammatical errors, or subpar sentence structure.

We all know someone who skewers every person they meet online over minor writing errors, so it’s worth the extra effort to prevent them from diverting from your true message.

2. Coaching

It’s not easy fitting everything you know about a subject into an online course, so don’t be surprised if your users are looking for more. To satisfy that need, consider offering coaching services to add value and boost your profits.

Holly Johnson, who created the Earn More Writing course, offers a one-hour coaching session for $150 more than her standard package.

“It gives course members the opportunity to get very direct feedback from me,” Johnson says. “Having an hour to talk to me and ask questions can help people figure out their next course of action.”

Depending on the nature of your course, you can also offer to provide ongoing coaching, which can turn into a profitable revenue stream of its own. 

3. Video

Being on camera for at least part of the time can provide a personalized feel to your course. But that doesn’t mean it’s a good idea for everyone.

If the mere thought of it makes you anxious, for instance, that anxiety will shine through in your videos and won’t do you any favors. If, however, you’ve had experience being on camera and you enjoy it, it can help your course members see your passion shine through you.

Even if you don’t want to be the one in the video, you may still want to have video modules showing your presentation with you speaking in the background.

If you’re considering using video at all for your course, you’ll need some tools to do it right. Camtasia is a useful tool for recording your screen and voice at the same time. You’ll also likely need a video hosting site — we recommend Wistia — to have a place for your videos to live.

4. Audio

There’s a reason podcasts have become so popular. Whether it’s on video with your screen or in MP3 format, audio allows you to literally share your unique voice with course users. It also lets your customers listen to your course on their commute or while they’re doing stuff around the house.

Depending on your plans, you’ll need some good tools for audio editing. Again, Camtasia is great for this if you’re combining your voice with a screen. If you’re going full audio, though, Audacity is a decent free option.

5. Worksheets

Reading your content or listening to you talk may not be enough for your customers. At least that’s how Johnson sees it.

“Worksheets give course members a way to do some hands-on work,” she says. “They can also help people visualize their goals. Some of my course members even print out their worksheets and keep them in a binder to look back on later.”

Worksheets can help your course users tailor your message to their individual situation and needs. For example, we talk a lot in blog posts about how to create a low-cost business. But without our Idea Mapping Checklist, you may never have the system you need to decide which business idea is right for you.

6. Email

An email list is essential to building and growing your audience. Above all other marketing channels, email is the most reliable way to communicate and sell to your audience.

You can even build your entire course around email, though it should be used as a means to get people to buy your product rather than the end itself. Whatever you do, don’t build an email list and then do nothing with it.

A good email service provider is crucial to your online course. One example is MailChimp, which is free for up to 2,000 subscribers and 12,000 emails per month. If you want unlimited emails, paid plans start at $10 per month.

7. Community

Johnson doesn’t currently use email for her course, but that’s because she has a strong community on social media.

“My Facebook group gives my members the opportunity to ask questions and get real responses,” she says. “I answer almost every question posed and plenty of other experienced writers do as well.”

Johnson’s community also provides a benefit you won’t get with email: the opportunity for users to connect with each other. “We tell stories, share our frustrations about our clients, and share tips that have worked for us along with tips that haven’t worked,” she adds.

And the best thing? Facebook is free.

Hold off on starting your course

Learning how to create an online course is a helpful step to making it happen. But don’t break out the recording equipment and sign up for a Teachable account just yet. You need to invest time in establishing a foundation first, if you haven’t already. Here’s how to do it.

  • Conduct market research: Spend time in forums and social media groups to better understand what your target market needs and what their pain points are. We call this process “immersion.”
  • Grow your audience: Establish yourself as a trusted authority on your topic by writing about it on your blog, creating videos on YouTube, or participating in forum discussions as an expert.
  • Coach or freelance: Starting with a coaching or freelancing business can help you with your market research. You’ll get a chance to figure out what your target audience needs, while building knowledge and authority — and getting paid.

Whatever you do, don’t just launch your course and hope it works out. Take a significant amount of time to immerse yourself in your audience to fully understand them. It will help you not only establish yourself as an authoritative source of knowledge on the topic but also show you exactly what they’re desperate to know.

Written by

Host of Netflix's "How to Get Rich", NYT Bestselling Author & host of the hit I Will Teach You To Be Rich Podcast. For over 20 years, Ramit has been sharing proven strategies to help people like you take control of their money and live a Rich Life.