Selling Online Courses: How to Attract Your First—Or Next—5, 50, or 100 Students
- Lexi Rodrigo
Written with inputs from Danny Iny, Mirasee founder and CEO, Lizzie Merritt, Director of Education, Hanna Woodside, coach, and Diane Holmes, Evangelist.
You feel lied to, deceived, betrayed.
They said it would be easy and fast.
But making money from selling online courses has been anything but.
Instead, you’re exhausted, discouraged, disillusioned.
You’ve poured your heart and soul into creating your course. You’ve done the research and people said they wanted it.
But when you opened your online shopping cart, they didn’t buy.
Everyone keeps saying, “Facebook is the place to sell. It’s like printing money.” And so you created your ads. You gave it 3 months and a modest ad budget… only to get just a handful of students.
That was nice.
How to Sell Online Courses When You Don’t Have an Audience
“Obviously,” you say to yourself, “I need to reach more people.”
And so, you buckle down to build your audience.
You blog. Post. Share. And like. You comment. Send emails. And go live.
You buy one program after another, trying one tactic after another.
You do all that on top of doing your job and taking care of your family. Because that’s what it takes to find your 1,000 true fans, right?
But it’s been hit-or-miss, expensive, and a whole lot of work just to figure out what works. No surprise there: you’re an expert in your field, not in marketing. On top of that, you really don’t like selling. Makes you feel like a used-car salesman. Ick.
You know they’re out there, the people who want your online course and will happily open their wallets for it. If only someone would put up neon signs to point you in the right direction.
Why Being Popular Is Not Enough
It’s easy to think that the more traffic you have, the more students you’ll get.
But that’s not necessarily true.
It’s possible to get a lot of traffic—people who encounter you and are exposed to your marketing messages—and still not get a lot of students.
Reaching an audience isn’t the end-all and be-all of selling your course. It’s a “necessary but insufficient” factor, as my economics teacher used to say.
Traffic is only half of the equation. To sell your online course, you need one other thing: conversion.
A conversion is when somebody takes a “profitable action” (hat tip to Andy Crestodina for that definition in his book, Content Chemistry).
What’s a profitable action?
It’s either an outright purchase or something that leads to a purchase down the road: When someone subscribes to your email, follows you on LinkedIn, joins your Facebook group… those are all conversions.
People rarely buy from you the first time they’re exposed to you. A sale is often preceded by several micro-conversions. They warm up to you gradually…
People rarely buy from you the first time they’re exposed to you. A sale is often preceded by several micro-conversions. They warm up to you gradually until, one day, buying your stuff is the easiest, most natural thing for them to do.
Here’s the formula for selling online courses (or anything else):
traffic x conversion = sales
While you may have been focusing on getting traffic, I suspect you’ve been overlooking the conversion part of the equation. That’s an easy mistake to make.
“The challenge isn’t getting traffic,” says Danny Iny, founder and CEO of Mirasee, “it’s converting that traffic in a way that is affordable and cost-effective. If you fix conversion, then you can keep driving traffic to it and sell your course.”
Ponder that for a minute. (I’ll wait.)
Overlooking conversion is like standing in front of a stadium full of people during a football game and trying to sell them a Magic Chopper. You have all the traffic right there, but few of them will buy your kitchen gadget!
But the Gurus Said So!
By now you’re probably thinking, hey, I’m trying something that worked like gangbusters for this or that person. They’re now making a gazillion bucks and now they’re sharing their blueprint, step-by-step, tried-and-tested, and I’m doing exactlywhat they’re doing.
If it worked for them then it should work for me… right?
Well, that depends.
As you’ve already discovered, there are many ways to get traffic and there are many ways to get a conversion.
To sell your online course, you need to choose the traffic and conversion approaches that are appropriate to you and your business.
If you’ve been trying a lot of things, but nothing’s been working well or consistently, then you’re probably using the wrong strategies for where you’re at right now.
You may be copying the tactics of other entrepreneurs who are successfully selling their courses and still fail to sell your course. Why? Maybe they have a bigger email list, to begin with. A bigger budget. VAs, graphic designers, and other outsourced help. Connections with A-listers. Better copywriting and sales skills.
Given all that, would you get the same results by doing what they do?
(When I was starting out online, it took me a while to realize why the guru methods I was following didn’t work for me. They were men who spent 16 hours a day in front of the computer. I was a wife and mom of three children, including an infant who was still breastfeeding, snatching minutes here and there to work.)
Besides, even if a certain tactic does work for you right now, that doesn’t mean it will still be a viable way to generate sales six months from now. “My list is burned out,” is a common complaint among people who’ve been marketing for some time. It’s a sure sign that you need to switch to other strategies.
The Secret Weapon to Sell Your Online Course, No Matter Your Audience Size
The late copywriting legend, Gary Halbert, used to teach copywriting and direct mail classes. He would ask his students, “If you and I both owned a hamburger stand and we were in a contest to see who could sell the most hamburgers, what advantages would you most like to have on your side to help you win?”
They would answer a variety of things. The best burger. The best buns. The best location. The best price.
Gary would say, “O.K., I’ll give you every single advantage you have asked for. I, myself, only want one advantage and, if you will give it to me, I will (when it comes to selling burgers) whip the pants off all of you!”
What was the advantage Gary would want?
A starving crowd!
In the same way, the secret to selling your online course is to find a starving crowd and sell to them.
This is also what Dan Kennedy calls message-to-market match. In terms of selling online courses, it means making sure you offer what potential students are already hungry for. One of Dan’s 10 Things to Do Each Month is “Find people with unmet specialized needs and match yourself to them.” Notice, you identify the unmet need first and then match it.
Don’t create your product first and then find the people who want it, which is what most of us tend to do.
Step 1. Create a Great Online Course
I’m assuming, of course, that you have a pretty darn good online course, to begin with. If not, take a step back and learn how to create a great online course.
The process we teach of piloting your course before creating your full course is powerful and sets you up for successful marketing. It helps you find a starving crowd and, based on their feedback, create a course that matches their hunger. Because you’re letting your students co-create the course for you, they’re likely to become happy students who will gladly spread the word about your course.
And the success of your pilot students will speak volumes about the ability of your course to deliver what it promises. It means you’ve gotten as close as possible to creating something you know people want. Proof that you’ve got the hamburgers!
But if you haven’t piloted your course yet, then neither you nor anybody else knows if you’ve got “the goods.” You would be like the rabbit in this poem for advertisers:
A Lion met a Tiger
as they drank beside the pool.
Said the Tiger to the Lion,
“Why do you roar like a fool?”
“That’s not foolish,” said the Lion,
With a twinkle in his eyes,
“They call me the king of beasts,
Because I advertise!”
A Rabbit heard them talking,
And ran home like a streak.
He thought he’d try the Lion’s plan,
But his roar was just a squeak.
A Fox then heard the Rabbit.
He had dinner in the woods.
So when you advertise, my friends,
Be sure you’ve got the goods!
If you’re just starting out, and you’re offering your course for the first time, you have no track record or proof that your course will deliver the outcome you’re promising it would. You’re like a rabbit trying to be a lion.
In this case, you’d have to rely completely on the power of marketing to convince people to buy your course. And you can expect marketing to be extremely hard, and that’s okay. You must squeak before you can roar.
In other words, first, validate the demand (Is there a starving crowd?). Then, validate your ability to meet the demand (Do you have hamburgers?).
And when you have a solid course to offer that people are interested in, then you can…
Step 2. Choose Your Conversion Mechanism
“Conversion mechanism” refers to how you will present your offer to potential students and inspire them to buy your offer.
You can choose from many conversion mechanisms, and we’ll go through some of them in detail below.
Whichever conversion mechanism you choose, you’ll follow the same basic steps:
- Give valuable information around your subject matter. Attract the right people by talking about or creating content related to your online course.
- Build rapport with you, the expert. Position yourself as the knowledgeable and approachable expert on the topic. A good way to do so is by giving helpful tips and advice.
- Highlight the problem or desire of the customer. Remind the prospect of how much pain, aggravation, and trouble they’re experiencing due to the problem or unmet desire (that your online course addresses).
- Educate them about the transformation that is possible. Talk about your online course and how it can move your prospect from someone experiencing a problem (or having a desire) to someone who has solved that problem (or achieved what they desire). If you’re offering the course for the first time, talk about how you achieved the transformation yourself.
- Ask for the sale. Tell them how much your course costs and how they can pay. Accept their payment. You may find it extremely helpful to first create an offer outline, which you can use as a script or structure for your conversion mechanism.
Choose your conversion mechanism depending on the scale of reach you already have and your level of marketing sophistication. Below, I’ve grouped the conversion mechanisms based on audience reach. Within each grouping, you’ll find options ranging from simple to more complicated.
Another thing to consider is the mechanism’s suitability to your course. For example, if you have a low-cost, uncomplicated course, it’s probably not a good idea to use a complex conversion mechanism, no matter how sophisticated a marketer you are.
Note: You can use conversion mechanisms recommended for someone with a smaller scale of reach, but it doesn’t work the other way around. Someone who’s a minor influencer cannot use conversion mechanisms appropriate for major influencers.
Here’s an at-a-glance view of the various conversion mechanisms we’ll be exploring in the rest of this post:
Conversion Mechanisms If You Only Have Personal Reach
When your audience reach is mostly just personal networks and relationships and you have fewer leads coming in, you need higher-touch conversion mechanisms. This means you’ll have to give potential students more personal attention to convert them into buyers.
Use these conversion mechanisms even as you’re building your audience reach:
- 1-on-1 conversations – Reach out to contacts who may be interested in your course. Here’s a step-by-step guide on how to sell to personal contacts. You can also do sales calls without being obnoxious.
- Hosting or attending local meetups – Go to networking events attended by people who may be your ideal students. Danny, an introvert, used networking to build his consulting business. You can adapt the same approach to sell your online course instead of services.
- Conference booth – Get a vendor booth at an event related to your course and meet prospective students. It’ll probably be too busy for you to make a sale there, unless someone’s clearly ready to buy. Focus on starting a dialogue, get their contact information, then follow up with them later on with a 1-on-1 conversation.
- Small group presentations – Look for opportunities to address small groups of people might be interested in your course. Give great content related to your course, then offer the course to those who want to learn more from you.
Conversion Mechanisms If You Have Minor Influencer Status
You have minor influencer status if you have a small list and an engaged audience. You can use medium-touch conversion mechanisms, such as:
- Speaking at a conference – Similar to small group presentations above, but this is to a larger group.
- Email sequence – Set up an email sequence that will warm up readers to your online course over several emails. Pitch your course towards the end of the sequence. This sample email sequence will give you an idea of how this works.
- Sales page + video – Drive your audience to a sales page for your course with a video embedded on it. You’ll need to have copywriting skills, or be willing to hire a copywriter, to do this effectively.
- Bootcamp/challenge (e.g., in a Facebook group) – If you have sizeable social media following, host a free bootcamp or challenge where you support people to implement practices related to your online course. Give participants the option to get even more support from you by joining your paid online course.
Conversion Mechanisms If You Have Major Influencer Status
If your audience is large and engaged, then you have major influencer status. You can use low-touch conversion mechanisms that are more automated and sophisticated, like:
- Email sequence
- Sales page + video
- Email + video – This is a combination of the first two. The email sequence eventually leads to a video on a sales page
- Bootcamp/challenge + free consulting calls – In this hybrid approach, you provide free consulting calls to people who participate in your bootcamp/challenge. After giving valuable advice during the call, you pitch your online course.
Once you have a conversion mechanism that’s working, then you can figure out how to get more traffic to it.
If you’re ready to jumpstart your online course, then join our Course Builder’s Bootcamp-FREE!
Step 3. Choose Your Traffic Strategy
The right traffic strategy depends on your sophistication as a marketer.
Below are a few suggestions for marketers of varying experience. Sophisticated marketers can use any of these strategies. If you’re a new marketer and you want to try a more sophisticated strategy, we recommend signing up for a course on that specific strategy first. Alternatively, you can hire someone who is an expert in that strategy.
Traffic Strategies for New Marketers
You’re a new marketer if you’re new to online marketing and have few resources, especially a small marketing budget. You probably have more time than money to put into attracting traffic.
In his book, Content Chemistry: The Illustrated Handbook for Content Marketing, Andy Crestodina writes:
Content marketers create and promote useful, relevant information with the goal of attracting and engaging website visitors, and then converting those visitors into leads and customers.
Both inexperienced and sophisticated marketers can use this strategy.
- low barrier to entry
- requires little to no investment, depending on the content platform you use
- fun for most
- requires that you know your customer well
- requires content creation skills, such as writing and image creation
- takes time and consistency to get traction
5 Steps to Implement
- Choose a platform. A blog is the most common platform, but depending on your audience, other platforms may make more sense, such as a podcast, YouTube channel, Instagram, etc.
- Do keyword and audience research. Find out what topics your audience is actively looking for and engaging with online. Use tools like Google keywords and Buzzsumo.
- Create high-quality content to address your audience’s questions and needs. Build an editorial calendar, monitor your results, and stick to it!
- Publish three types of content. In his book, KNOWN: The Handbook for Building and Unleashing Your Personal Brand in the Digital Age, Mark Schaeffer says you need 3 types of content:
- Hygiene content, which answers your audience’s common questions
- Hub content, or addicting content that inspires your audience to consume everything you create
- Hero content, or something so brilliant and spectacular that it goes viral
- Extend your reach. Get yourself out there. Nurture relationships with other content marketers as well as your potential students, gently promote your best content, and promote other people’s content, too.
Networking means meeting people face-to-face, usually at industry events. Look for in-person events where your potential students already congregate. This is a good traffic strategy if you’re outgoing, love to meet people, and enjoy putting yourself out there.
- still the best way to make strong and lasting connections
- can be fun, a break from work, get to visit new places
- get people’s reactions in real-time
- takes a lot of time and energy, can’t be automated or delegated
- not for the shy and introverted
- can take longer to make a sale
5 Steps to Implement
- Get compelling business cards made. Pass on the free business cards that look like everybody else’s. Make yours stand out with a good design, unusual material (have you seen those metal business cards?), and an irresistible call to action. But give your card only to those who ask for it.
- Prepare a meaningful answer to “what do you do?”. Be ready with a good, concise elevator pitch that entices the right people to continue the conversation. You can use Danny’s Instant Credibility Formula to create a ready answer to this question.
- Don’t try to sell. Meeting someone for the first time at a networking event isn’t the best environment for making a sale. Instead, focus on the next step….
- Set up a future conversation. If someone appears to be a strong candidate for your course, then arrange to meet again after the event.
- Follow up. Email potential students soon after the networking event to make sure they remember you, and to firm up the details of your meetup.
Be ready with a good, concise elevator pitch that entices the right people to continue the conversation. You can use Danny’s Instant Credibility Formula to create a ready answer to this question.
Traffic Strategies for Sophisticated Marketers
You’re a sophisticated marketer if you have a few years experience in marketing. You have a good handle on what’s likely to work, and you have the budget to test your theories. You’ve also established yourself as a knowledgeable person in your field.
Joint Venture Partnerships
According to Investopedia:
A joint venture (JV) is a business arrangement in which two or more parties agree to pool their resources for the purpose of accomplishing a specific task.
In a joint venture, you partner with another business owner to get your course in front of their audience in exchange for something else. For example, you could offer your partner a commission (50% is typical with an online course) from every person in their audience who ends up buying your course. Or, if you have your own audience, you could agree to promote their product to your audience.
This traffic strategy is best for someone who has connections with people who reach the same kind of audience you want to reach, but whose products don’t compete with your course.
If you don’t have connections yet, the prospect of finding joint venture partners is a good reason to start working on those networks ASAP.
- low up-front costs
- your partner endorses of you to their audience
- a good way to reach new people and to keep them, if they join your list
- requires you to have connections in the first place
- if you give a commission, then you won’t keep all your sales
- you can’t control everything your partners say about you or your course, or how they promote it
6 Steps to Implement
- Identify potential partners. Make a list of people who would make good JV partners. They should share your values and reach the audience who are a good fit for your course. And they should be either at the same level as you are, or a little farther along in business. Don’t start with the A-listers–yet–you can approach them as your business grows later on.
- Outreach. Reach out to the potential partners, beginning with those you already know. For others, see if someone you do know can make the introduction. This increases the likelihood that you’ll get a response. Introduce yourself and suggest a few ways you could work together, emphasizing what’s in it for them.
- Outline the deal. If they agree to be a partner, write down what each of you agrees to do, including how much commission will be paid, and what the key dates are for promotions and so on.
- Establish your selling method. Set up the logistics for how’ll get sales from the traffic your partner refers. This will depend on whether your course is evergreen, which means people can enroll anytime, or if it opens only on specific dates. Make sure you can accurately track traffic and sales from your partner.
- Reciprocate. Go beyond what you’ve agreed on to help your partner out in return. Pay the commissions that are due them and see if they have something they’d like you to promote to your audience.
- Repeat and scale. Keep repeating the process with other partners. As your business grows, you can approach “bigger” partners. Eventually, the A-listers will want to partner with you, too.
Advertising and funnels
Advertising means paying a communication platform or medium to get your message across to their audiences. And a funnel is a way of automatically moving those people through a process that warms them up to buy from you.
Here’s an example:
Advertising is best for you if you have more money than time. Results rely as much on your budget as on your marketing skills.
- enables you to reach a very specific, targeted audience
- if online, you can measure and track everything
- good for testing marketing messages and offers
- costs money
- requires technical skill to optimize returns
- traffic flow stops as soon as you turn off the ads
3 Steps to Implement
- Choose a lead source. This is the platform or medium where you want to place ads to get traffic. For example, you may choose Facebook, Google, or an influencer’s website that accepts ad placements. A lead source can also be offline, such as a trade journal or industry event.
- Design the funnel. Devise a marketing funnel or process to turn the cold traffic from your ads into warm traffic that’s ready to buy from you.
- Optimize. Run your advertising campaign and funnel and track your results. Tweak your ads so you get more people clicking on it. Adjust your landing pages so you get more people opting into your list. And keep changing your offers until you have more people converting into leads and sales. You’ll want to see your return on investment (ROI) going up until you’re making a good profit.
Speaking is similar to networking in the sense that you meet people face-to-face. The key difference is, when you’re speaking, you’re at the event as a presenter because you’re recognized as an authority in your field. Whether you’re delivering the keynote, a member of a panel, or guest lecturing, speaking automatically builds your credibility.
Speaking is best for you if you have some clout in the industry and are comfortable with public speaking.
- puts you in a position of authority and thought leadership
- some event organizers will allow you to pitch your course from the stage and you can make sales at the back of the room
- address a group of people, not one-to-one
- requires good public speaking skills
- not for beginners; you must have legitimate authority
- risk of coming off as too salesy
5 Steps to Implement
- Brainstorm topics. Make a list of topics that are valuable on their own but also naturally lead to your online course.
- Find speaking opportunities. Look for events where your expertise will be highly regarded. If you’re not yet an experienced speaker, start small. You can begin by speaking to small groups of not more than 10 people in your locality.
- Set up your payment portal. Decide if you want to accept payments right there and then, or if you want to direct people to a sales page for your course–or both. Set up whatever facilities you need to be able to sell your course (Important: Get the organizers’ permission first before pitching your course!).
- Tweak. Record your presentations, gauge the audience’s reactions, and keep improving your content and delivery.
- Level up. Rinse and repeat steps 1 to 4, gradually moving onto larger industry events, including those that are outside of your city or country.
How to Choose the Right Strategy for YOU
You’ve just read through a ton of options, both for converting people into students and getting your course in front of people.
No doubt you’ll come across many other strategies, including those from people who claim that their way is The Best Way.
To help you evaluate your options, ask yourself these 3 questions:
1. “Is this strategy right for me?”
Considering your resources, audience reach, and marketing sophistication, gauge if the strategy will jibe. For example, if a strategy requires paid advertising and you don’t have the budget for it, then it’s not the right strategy for you.
2. “Which activities build on my existing strengths and skills, and are easiest to do on my own, without additional help?”
Begin with the low-hanging fruit, or those strategies that you can easily implement on your own, right away. As you get more students, you can invest in your own training to learn other strategies or in hiring people who can implement them for you.
3. “Which type of marketing aligns with my audience and industry?”
As the saying goes, “fish where the fish are.” If your target market is made up of millennials, then Instagram is probably a better audience source for you than Facebook.
Answering these questions truthfully and logically will help you resist the shiny, new objects in marketing that are popping up all the time.
I hope this post helps you get your online course in front of a starving crowd and get more paying students.
If you’d like more help from Mirasee, you can join our weekly live webinars, hosted by Diane Holmes, Mirasee’s evangelist and a successful course creator herself.
If you’ve been thinking of creating and selling online courses and want to jumpstart the process, then register for the Course Builder’s Bootcamp. You’ll be learning by doing and getting your hands dirty.
Either way, these options are free!
Tell me, which conversion mechanisms and traffic strategies appeal to you the most that you weren’t even considering before you read this post?
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