Online courses won’t save your business

As someone who works directly with people who want to create and launch online courses, I’ve noticed some troubling assumptions and want to set the record straight.

The biggest misconception is that people get swept up in the idea that selling online courses (or products) is a silver bullet for their business.

It doesn’t help that there’s an overwhelming amount of misinformation available that preys on the desire to easily make passive revenue.

Courses are a wonderful addition to businesses that are brimming with client work. If you’re turning down client work because of time constraints, courses can be an excellent way to serve more people, especially at a more approachable price-point.

Courses won’t save you if you don’t already have a successful business. They also won’t help you if you don’t already have sufficient experience.


Online courses are not really passive

I’m saying it: There’s nothing passive about creating an online course.

Leveraged, Yes. 
Passive? No.

It can be easy to get fooled into thinking that online courses are a passive income dream. There’s an unfortunate amount of bullshit advice online that serves only to make the average enterprising business owner feel wildly incompetent for having not made 6-figures with their courses.

From content creation to testing, marketing, audience growth, customer support, launching, technology, and logistics, there are so many steps involved in the entire process of creating and launching an online course.

In my experience, it can take the average course creator several years to recoup their expenses and experience any real traction or success with their course. That’s not really passive income is it?

The truth is, massive online course success takes time and effort. Lots of time. There are exceptions to this rule, and they tend to involve: already having a pre-existing audience, solving a very specific problem for a very specific niche, and having extra cash to spend during course creation.

If you’re going to create an online course, be prepared to set aside a substantial amount of time not just for your course creation, but on all of the surrounding activities required to bring your course to market.


An online course is not a business model

An online course can be a great source of additional revenue, and in very rare cases, can comprise a large percentage of your total income.

Last year I turned down a consulting engagement because the client stated that there was no room for failure; they were going all-in with their savings to make this course happen. In order to not go broke, they needed to create and sell over 100 courses in 2 months, starting with no client base and no audience. They saw this online course as a way to save their business because they weren’t experiencing any traction with their services.

I realized that they were mistaking a course for a business model.

Here’s the reality: unless you run an education empire, an online course is a revenue stream, not a business model. Your course isn’t your business; it’s simply one way that you can bring in revenue. Is it the easiest way? Not by a long shot.

Don’t be fooled into thinking a course will replace one-on-one services.

Instructional designer Stacey Howe-Lott says that your course naturally falls out of your client services. When you’ve aced your client services—your processes, procedures and methodologies—you’re likely to find yourself providing the same advice over and over again, and you begin to understand your client’s problems inside and out. Courses become a natural evolution to the client work you’ve done over and over and over again.

Marketing strategist Halley Gray also shares this harsh truth:

“If you can’t sell services, you can’t sell products.”

If you are struggling to sell services, and think that creating information products will create sustainable income, consider this your reality check. If you can’t sell to one client, how are you going to sell to 10, or 100?

Those that truly succeed with their products have done the work relentlessly with real people. They’ve gotten feedback, iterated, and evolved their services to adapt to the needs of their clients, and they understand those needs inside and out.


There is no shortcut to audience growth

Creating the course is only half the battle; most people underestimate the sheer effort required to bring their idea to market, and they don’t realize that the marketing takes place long before the course is available for sale.

You won’t experience success with your course without an engaged audience. There is no “build it and they will come.”

Audience growth is something that happens when you show up consistently to create immense value for a specific group of people by addressing a core need or desire. You’ve proven again and again that you’re able to bring insights, perspective, and solutions to their specific pain.

Building trust takes time.

You don’t want the first time your audience hears from you to be when you ask for the sale. That means building trust over time by providing a ton of value.

In his book Authority, Nathan Barry recommends creating three epic blog posts that contain the most valuable thing you have to teach. These are highly valuable in-depth posts with 1,000–5,000+ words that specifically address the topics you want to teach.

These posts are a chance to show your unique style, opinions, approach, and at the end of the day, build trust with your audience.

Creating these posts—and ensuring that they are truly valuable to your audience—takes time and it takes practice. Lots and lots of practice.

No one hangs around on your website because they just can’t wait to give you money; they’re seeking a solution.

Make sure that anyone discovering or visiting your website or landing pages knows that you’re able to provide that solution. Blog posts and resources are a great way to build trust while collecting interested leads through a related call to action.

Let people know what you’re up to

We do so much behind the scenes in our business, we forget that most people don’t really know what we’re up to unless we let them know.

Consider your existing reach: friends, acquaintances, colleagues, email list, social networks (Facebook friends & groups, Twitter followers, Instagram), your blog, other blogs, influencers, forums, affiliates, etc. Do these people know what you’re working on? Do they know what problems you’re trying to solve for your audience?

You have to make it known to those who most benefit from your course that you have a solution for their Job To Be Done. And for that, there is no shortcut.

It means showing up again and again, having conversations, providing value, and being an expert in your space.


You can’t compete with Google

Courses are not simply a way of packaging up information that is widely available. You will lose to Google every time if you do this.

Information alone does not create transformation. Courses require your learner to apply and integrate new skills and knowledge in a tangible way.

The market has also changed immensely over the last few years. Online courses have become so commonplace, it can be hard for people to discern which ones are truly valuable. This means customers are more skeptical than ever, and you need to be ready to deliver.

Your course must transform your learner in order to truly succeed. 
Think 90% action, 10% information. Yes, really!

Anyone can create a course. Not everyone can create a course that creates true transformation.

Don’t mistake information for transformation. Information alone doesn’t scale, because if an audience doesn’t experience transformation, they won’t be spreading the word about a product. In fact, you might experience the reverse, where people complain that they didn’t get anything from your course, and they tell their communities not to waste their money!

When your learners experience transformation and can do things that they couldn’t do before, they will sing your praises to their network and communities.

Online courses are just another way to solve your audience’s problem. If you haven’t tapped into that and aren’t already solving that problem (and already getting paid for it), courses won’t save your business.

When you start with solving your learners needs through client services, you’ll learn a lot more about what your audience is truly seeking, so you can build a product that solves real-world problems.

All this being said: I love courses, and I believe they’re are an excellent way to introduce people to your higher-end services. But they’re not a magic wand that will fix a business that isn’t already providing value for an engaged audience.

Marie helps people diversify their offerings by teaching them how to translate their services and products into transformational online courses and programs. Learn more at

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