Want to learn how to create an online course? This is the guide for you. I walk you through all 7 steps in detail, from planning to launch. It's everything I've learned selling online courses since 2013 and generating millions of dollars in revenue.
Launching an online course is one of the best ways to monetize your website and generate a ton of revenue for your business. Online courses are huge right now, highly profitable, and probably aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
There's definitely a right way and a wrong way to create a course, though, so pay close attention.
If you do it right, you'll successfully launch a profitable online course with basically no risk and no up front costs.
Do it wrong and you'll waste months of time, effort, and funding.
Below are the 7 core steps that I follow each and every time I create a new online course and it's the same process I have my clients follow. It's the proven process that helps us find success time and time again across a wide variety of niches.
Ready? Let's go...
How to Create an Online Course (Step-By-Step)
Step #1: Choose 3 Specific & "Pressing" Pain Points Your Audience Has That Can Be Solved With an Online Course
I'm going to make two necessary assumptions here.
- You've already found your niche.
- You've already built some sort of audience (typically I recommend having 200 subscribers on an email list or a decent social media following).
If you can answer "Yes" to both of those things, you're ready to continue. If not, I'd highly recommend you pause here and focus on nailing those two things before you go any further into online course building land.
Once you have your niche and your base audience, the next step is to plan out 3 online course ideas.
These ideas need to target one specific pain point. Don't try to make a be-all-end-all type of course – that's more advanced and they're harder to sell.
For example, let's say you teach people flash portrait photography. Instead of creating a huge comprehensive online course like "flash portrait photography for beginners," try options like:
- One Light Portrait Photography – How to Take Professional Portraits with a Single Flash.
- The Art of the Beauty Dish – How to Create Stunning Portraits with a $50 Beauty Dish
- Outdoor Flash Photography – How to Mix Natural Light & Flash to Create Perfectly Lit Portraits Every Time
Notice some things about these three examples...
- They're unique. "Flash Portrait Photography for Beginners" is obvious. Everyone and their mom is going to sell an online course like that. The three examples above are SPECIFIC and UNIQUE.
- They control variables & encourage simplicity. Beginners will feel good about mastering "one light." But even with one light, there are still 100 different ways you could modify that light, so there's still a lot of complexity. That's where the idea for "Art of the Beauty Dish" came in – that course offers instruction on ONE LIGHT and ONE MODIFIER. And then the third option isolates the environment to outdoors, which is much different than using flash in studio. All three options simplify the topic in one way, shape, or form to make life easier on both you and your students.
- They still help you teach beginners how to use flash. Regardless of which online course you end up creating, you can still teach the fundamentals of flash photography!
- They create specific results. If I enroll in "Art of the Beauty Dish," I know exactly what equipment I'll need and by the end of the course I'll know exactly how to use that equipment. Same with the outdoors example – I'll know how to use my equipment in that exact environment. Perfect! That's what helps people buy.
- They leave the door open for more online courses. "One light" leaves the door open for multiple lights. "Art of the Beauty Dish" leaves the door open for other modifiers. "Outdoor Flash" leaves the door open for indoor flash. Natural follow ups that are much more specific and useful than something like, "Advanced Flash Portrait Photography" that would follow "Beginner" and still be all over the place in terms of what's taught.
Sit down and draft up three online course ideas based on what you know about your audience.
Your online course ideas need the following:
- A great brandable name (I created the names above in about 2 minutes – they're not amazing but they demonstrate the concept of naming your ideas versus just asking your audience, "do you want to learn how to use a beauty dish?")
- A subtitle. The subtitle brings clarity to exactly what the course will teach beyond the name.
- A compelling description. Think about the inside of a book flap – something that really sells it in one short paragraph (e.g. "You don't need a ton of expensive, fancy equipment to make stunning portraits. The Art of the Beauty Dish will teach you how to make professional portraits with your existing digital camera, one single light, and one single modifier that only costs $50. Simple, gorgeous results – learn to use a beauty dish just like pros.").
- A retail value of $97 or more. Anything less than $97 isn't worth it. Ideally this will be an online course that could sell for $197-$997 (even if you don't feel confident in YOUR ability to do that at THIS time), but I would say $97 is definitely the minimum.
Once you've got your ideas nailed down and fleshed out, you're ready for step two...
Step #2: Survey Your Audience & Find Out Which Online Course Idea They Love Most
Once you have your three course ideas fleshed out, it's time to get feedback from your audience.
Do not skip this step. Sometimes when people are doing step one they come up with an idea that they absolutely fall in love with and they make the mistake of discarding the other two options and running with the idea they personally like.
This is a bad idea. Just because YOU love the idea doesn't mean it's the exact idea the majority of your audience is going to fall in love with.
Let me be clear about this: You're not in business to make online courses you love, you're in business to make online courses that sell.
Sometimes the stars align and sometimes you just need to bite your tongue and create the online course people want even when there's an idea that you really love sitting on the table.
So, take ALL THREE IDEAS, and SELL THEM (metaphorically) to your audience.
You do this by creating a survey (a simple Google forms survey will do) and presenting all three options (with the title, subtitle, and captivating description).
You can ask a couple other clarifying questions that give you more market research as well, but the primary purpose is to find out which of the three courses people want most.
The goal is to get 50-100 responses. That can be tough depending on the size of your email list, so if you can't get at least 50 I'd take a follow-up step of surveying Facebook groups.
If you're going to go the Facebook group survey route, I would recommend surveying on the core idea and not the product name/subtitle/description itself. This is because you don't want to seem like you're just there self-promoting.
This also needs to be done in Facebook groups where you already have somewhat of a reputation for providing value and showing up. Don't just join a bunch of groups and blast them with surveys.
Once you have at least 50 responses, you should have a pretty good idea of which idea to target first. When this happens you're ready to move on to Step Three...
Step #3: Figure Out How You're Going to Market & Sell Your Online Course
Set the other two ideas aside now. It's time to go all in on your target idea.
This starts by creating a game plan for your copy and messaging. I have a free workbook that'll guide you through this process called How to Sell Anything Online.
This is the part people struggle with the most, but it's where the money is made so take it seriously and spend a good amount of time on it.
Some of the areas of that workbook may be hard to answer without going back to your audience and directly asking them or working to learn more about them. If that's the case, do the legwork. Again, this is where the money is made.
Here's the thing: if you don't know how you're going to market or sell your course, or you're struggling to answer the questions in the workbook, your launch is going to be dead on arrival.
Here are some critical things to know / figure out at this stage:
- What's the specific problem your course solves or the specific impact it has in your customer's life?
- Why should they care about this course?
- What are the three most important features?
- What are the three most important benefits? (The difference between features and benefits)
- Why should they learn from YOU?
- What do they need to believe about your online course in order to say yes?
- What do they need to believe about you in order to say yes?
- What do they need to believe about themselves in order to say yes?
- What do you think their three main objections will be?
- What is going to be your response to those three objections?
If you can't communicate that stuff clearly (and in language a fifth grader can understand), you're unlikely to find success when you launch.
Note: If you struggle to answer with specifics because your course does "lots of things" and "solves lots of problems," that's a sign that your course idea might be too broad and generic.
Step #4: Create an Outline of Your Online Course That Perfectly Fits Your Marketing & Sales Plan
Now that you're confident with how you're going to sell your course, it's time to get a more concrete outline together.
There are a lot of ways to structure an online course, but a basic, simple, effective format for online courses looks like this...
- SECTION #1
- MODULE #1
- MODULE #2
- MODULE #2
- WRAP UP
- SECTION #2
- MODULE #1
- MODULE #2
- MODULE #2
- WRAP UP
- SECTION #3
- MODULE #1
- MODULE #2
- MODULE #3
- WRAP UP
And so on.
That roughly translates to...
- IMPORTANT LESSON #1
- IMPORTANT LESSON #2
- IMPORTANT LESSON #3
- WRAP UP / PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
For the photography online course, it might be...
- Setting Up Your Flash & Beauty Dish
- Flashes & Lightstands
- Attaching Your Beauty Dish
- How to Trigger Your Light
- Wrap Up – Testing Your Light!
- Camera Settings for Flash Photography
- Shutter Speed vs Aperture
- Flash Settings
- Putting it All Together: Creating a Good Exposure
- The Beauty Dish
- How a Beauty Dish Shapes Light
- How a Beauty Dish is Different From Other Modifiers
- Classic Positioning of the Dish
- Putting it All Together: Your First Beauty Dish Portrait
- Etc. Etc.
By going sub-topic by sub-topic and breaking each sub-topic out into three lessons max, it makes the online course easy to follow and easy to consume.
As you can see, I try to make sure there's a specific accomplishment at the end of each section. By the end of the first section they have a flash on a stand with a beauty dish attached that fires when they press the shutter on the camera.
They aren't really taking a photo, but they just moved beyond a big tech/setup hurdle where people who aren't following a course tend to get confused and ask tons of questions. That's a win!
By the end of the second section, they can use aperture, shutter speed, ISO, and the settings on their flash to create a good exposure.
That doesn't mean they've taken a good picture, but it means the photo is exposed properly. That's a win!
See how this structure leads people along naturally, actually teaches them relevant stuff, and builds up their confidence as they go?
This is very important and it's very different from how you were taught in schools. In the average public school, the course might start out something like this...
- The History of Flash Photography
- Great Flash Photographers of the 1800s.
- Great Flash Photographers of the 1900s.
- Flash Technology Then & Now
- Flash Photo History Quiz
Fuck. That. Noise.
Don't do that nonsense to your buyers. Don't teach them anything they don't need to know to get the result they want.
As you outline, be thinking about unique or hidden gems that you can include. What are the shortcuts that will accelerate people's results? What are the trade secrets that most people don't like to disclose? These can go directly back into your marketing of the course and will make your online course much more valuable to people.
Once your outline is done, move on to Step Five...
Step #5: Pre-Sell Your Online Course to Your Existing Audience
Now the fun starts.
If you thought you were going to do all the work to build an online course and THEN sell it, you're Crazy with a capital C. That's the best way to lose your ass (months of time, effort, and funding).
If you want to do this with zero risk and zero cost, you need to sell your course first and then build it.
Pre-selling your online course accomplishes a few important things:
- Validates the idea (for real this time because an idea is never validated unless someone has their wallet out).
- Gives you the funds to build the course (always nice).
- Lights a fire under your ass (no more procrastination, Susan!)
Here are the bare bones needed to pre-sell your course:
- Promotional content.
- A details page.
- A Teachable account.
Here are some things you DON'T need:
- A professionally designed sales page.
- Expensive software / complicated platform.
- A DSLR camera.
- An expensive, complicated checkout system (yet).
- A complicated custom membership platform.
You're going to pre-sell this primarily through email. I'd recommend using whatever social channels you've built as well, but the primary selling will be done through email.
If you're not great at email marketing, brush up on my email marketing best practices and tips.
Basically, though, you're going to write a series of launch emails over a 1 to 2-week promotional period. These are designed to build hype, provide value, position for the sale, and then convert.
The promotional period will be followed by your "open cart" week. Your "cart close" day is usually the day where the most buyers jump in, so try to schedule it on a day where they'll actually be paying attention (Thursdays and Mondays are usually good).
During your open cart week you'll continue sending emails and the copy in these emails will be more aggressive at generating the conversion. They'll also focus on things like FAQs, guarantees, logistics, etc.
Almost all of this can be pulled directly from the How to Sell Anything Online Workbook that I mentioned earlier.
Before you launch your pre-sale, set a [REALISTIC] goal for how much you want to make so that creating the online course feels worth it to you.
Keep in mind that you can do millions of dollars from an online course that only does a couple thousand dollars during a pre-sale launch. This is a long game thing. The goal of the pre-sale is validation and to get paid to create the course. Then you can sell it on an ongoing basis after that and continue to make money.
The easiest way to come up with a realistic goal is to do a simple calculation of typical conversion rates against the size of your email list.
You can expect a 1-4% conversion rate from your email list, so if you have 1000 people on your email list and your pre-sale price is going to be $197, expecting around 20 sales is realistic. That would be about $4k in revenue.
If that's worth it to you, then go for it. If it's not worth it to you, you may need to reconsider the price of your offer or how you're going to grow your list quickly before you launch your pre-sale.
Create your online course in Teachable and grab the link to the checkout page. You can create a basic sales/info page if you want, but it's usually not necessary. Your emails will do the selling and Teachable will make it easy for you to collect the payments and organize the delivery of the course.
Step #6: Create Your Online Course With the Help of Your Early Adopters
Let's assume your pre-sale goes exactly as planned (or close to it) and you're ready to move forward and get your online course built. What now, right?
First, you want to set clear expectations with clear and consistent communication with everyone who purchased.
Once the pre-sale ends, send an email out thanking everyone for being part of your inaugural group and give them a rough outline of when they should expect access to each part of the course.
As an experienced course creator, I'm able to build on a fairly quick timeline of one section (3-4 modules) per week.
I typically give myself a two section buffer before releasing the first section, so my first email would tell them to expect the first section to be available in 2-3 weeks with additional section being released each week thereafter.
A typical 5-7 section online course would be completed (version 01) in 8-9 weeks (from when they purchase), including all the infrastructure and companion materials.
One of the benefits of having a pre-sold inaugural group is the ability to collect their feedback as you release each section. Since they're early adopters and you've positioned the pre-sale in a way where they know they get to participate to help make the course great, this first group is typically very willing to help you make tweaks and adjustments.
You don't want to redo anything as you build, but you should definitely be recording detailed notes about changes you want to make for the next round of updates to the course based on the feedback you're getting.
Remember, we're only building a MVC (minimum viable course) at this point. You're not making everything perfect yet, you're just getting the meat of the content out there so people can take action and get results.
How to Create Your Online Course Fast
The fastest method for building Version 01 of your online course is to use slide-based video. You'll record one video for each module of each section. So, 3-4 videos per section.
Use Keynote or PowerPoint or Google Slides to create all the slides for a section. You'll want to create all the modules/slides for each section in a single file (instead of multiple files for each). This makes recording and organization much easier.
Create a title slide for each module and then indent the module slides underneath it so it has a consistent, hierarchical structure, like this...
I take a very "Apple-esque" approach to my slides. I keep things very clean and simple which makes it easier for people to focus and faster for me to develop the content.
When all your slides are done for a section, collapse all the modules except the first using the arrow to the left of the title slide in the navigator. Only the slides for the first module should be visible.
Next, hit "record slideshow." Present your module, following the slides, as you would if you were speaking to a group in person.
The only thing I'll say about recording is that the audio MUST be high quality. The one thing that will DOOM your course is poor quality audio. Thankfully, it's EASY to get high quality audio for cheap. Purchase this microphone and you'll have great audio and never need another mic.
When you're done recording a module, go to File > Export to Movie > 1080p. This will create a video file that combines the audio with the slides.
Congrats, your first module is recorded!
Repeat those steps with the remaining modules until all the modules in that section are recorded.
Once you have an entire section recorded, you need to upload it to a secure area where people can login and access your course, mark modules as complete, and so on. This is precisely why I already had you setup your Teachable account. You can take your recordings and go right into Teachable to start the course buildout.
Follow this same process for all the remaining sections and don't forget to create any companion guides such as checklists, cheat sheets, and other bonus materials.
Tip: If you want to spice things up with imagery, I have a list of sites where you can get high quality cheap stock images.
Step #7: Officially Launch Version 01 of Your Online Course to the Public & Prepare to Scale
We made it to the final step!
Once your entire course is created and setup in Teachable, you're ready to do another two launches.
RE-LAUNCH #1: The "The course is finished and the price is about to go up by XX" launch.
RE-LAUNCH #2: A full price, full scale launch.
The purpose of RE-LAUNCH #1 is to get another round of funding so you can go in and make the necessary adjustments from the feedback you got from your inaugural group.
This first re-launch should be at a higher price than your pre-sale peeps paid, but still not as high as full price.
For example, if pre-sale peeps paid $197 and your eventual online course price will be $497, this re-launch #1 price should be about $297.
Once re-launch #1 is in the books, go through the entire course and make the necessary improvements to prepare for the real, public, official launch.
The good thing about the slides-based video method is that it's VERY easy to go back, make adjustments, and re-record things without the style/audio/setting/etc. changing.
If you record a "talking head" style video (where you're talking to camera), you can't easily go back and make adjustments.
If you *want* a talking-head style online course, your final edits should be focused on transitioning from the slides into the talking-head style videos. By following my method, by the time you record the talking head videos, they won't need additional changes and edits later 🙂
Once the course is officially "done" (for now), you're ready to jack up the price and start planning a full launch. You can also start recruiting affiliates to help promote the course if you'd like.
Congratulations, you've created a new online course FAST!
How to Create an Online Course FAQ
Should I use Udemy to create and sell my online course? What's the best software or platform?
No, I wouldn't recommend using Udemy. There are a lot of downsides, most of which involves the inability to control pricing and the fact that they take a hefty cut of every sale.
The platform I recommend for almost everyone is Teachable.
How long does it take to create an online course?
If you're fast, like me, you can create one section (3-4 modules) every week. So an 8 section course (pretty large) would only take 8 weeks. For a first timer, you're probably looking at 2 weeks per section.
How much does it cost to create an online course?
Assuming you already own a computer with either Keynote or PowerPoint, the only costs will be a good microphone and Teachable. So ... less than $100? And keep in mind that your pre-sale will pay for everything so you really won't come out of pocket a dime.
How much should I sell my online course for and how should I structure the pricing?
This really depends on the online course, but I would definitely read this article on Value-Based Pricing before pricing your course just so you better understand pricing theory.
At minimum, I wouldn't mess around with any concept that can't be sold for at least $97.
Do I have to use video in my course modules?
No, you don't have to, but video creates the best user experience possible and allows you to work more quickly and efficiently (believe it or not). Review my slides-based approach above – it's by far the fastest way to build a high quality online course.
Should I offer some type of support to people who purchase my online course?
If you feel this makes sense for what you're offering, then yes. Offering support or some form of personalized help component is very beneficial to buyers and can help increase conversion rates. Just make sure you price accordingly.
Should I offer a money back guarantee for my online course?
Yes, 100%. Either 30-day or 60-day.
What is an LMS? Do I need a Learning Management System?
An LMS (learning management system) is a system that specifically tracks progress throughout a course. Some "membership" platforms are NOT LMS capable. Teachable is a membership platform as well as an LMS, so if you use my recommendation to go with Teachable, you're covered.
What happens if my launch fails?
If your launch fails, it's important to uncover exactly why it failed. A failed launch DOES NOT mean that your course idea is bad or invalid or that people won't pay for it. It *might* mean that, but it's not always the case.
Other reasons for failure:
- Poor timing.
- Poor sales copy.
- Lack of "know, like, trust."
- Selling to an unengaged list.
- Incorrect pricing.
If your launch fails, you'll want someone with experience to review your course idea and your launch materials to try and determine what went wrong.
Don't worry about failing, though. Failing is a possibility of anything you do when growing your business. Focus on executing consistently and pivoting along the way. If you go "all-in" on creating an online course you're likely to win. If you hedge, you're likely to fail.