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  • Writer's pictureNicole Papaioannou Lugara

BTS: What It Takes to Be a Course Creator (and How It's Different from ID Work)

Recently, there was a really fun discussion prompted by industry favorite Ant Pugh about the differences in designing for workplace learning versus online course sales. And it's no wonder the topic was popular. With the eLearning market BOOMING, more and more of us freelance IDs are getting these types of requests or trying to create passive income by creating online courses ourselves.

At this point in my own career, I've developed 3 online workshops and 5 self study courses (3 under the Upskill Experience brand) with a few more on the roster for 2021. I've also helped a number of course creators develop their own programs, mostly coaches and consultants. I've also helped a non-profit take their completely face to face retreat model and turn it into a profitable online course only program. It's taught me a few things.

So in this post, I'd like to go over what it takes to put out these courses, but I plan to continue with a follow up about the major differences in working with these kinds of clients because the process is not the same. So stay tuned for part 2!

So what does it take to make an online course?

Online courses are a two-part recipe:

  1. Marketing and sales

  2. Content that speaks to the audience

This is a big hurdle for IDs, as we're typically focused on the 2nd part. We know how to make great content and design easy to follow curriculum. We seem to think if we just make something engaging, people will want in. But that just isn't the case.

There are many great course products collecting dust on digital shelves because there is no marketing to back it up.

It doesn't matter how great a product is if no one buys it (If you don't believe me, ask Seth Godin).

I failed HARD first.

I made this fatal mistake the first time I designed a course product. I spent HOURS and thousands to create a brand and start publishing courses about teaching writing to undergrads. It absolutely bombed.

It absolutely bombed 💣

I had no mailing list, no audience, and quite frankly, since I had moved into the corporate ID world, I didn't really have any kind of recognition in Academia any more. I wasn't a trusted guide.

I also didn't do any type of validation, other than to ask a few friends who had gone through their PhD programs with me or worked in the writing center with me. And I should have known that OF COURSE, in hindsight, we would all think we needed this kind of training.

So I made not a single dollar and 6 months post-launch, I retired the brand.

Take Two

The second time out the gate, I stumbled onto the idea of The Upskill Experience, a learning network for instructional designers who want to grow in their careers. At first, I thought I'd be building something like IDOL, but after working with Dr. Robin and seeing her thoughtful approach, I didn't think it was a pond I wanted to be in. I wanted my own pond.

Person after person asked me about writing for ID, specifically about video, but also about storytelling, and about needs analysis. So that's where I focused my energy. I decided I wanted to be the go-to for the big picture stuff when it comes to creating and building an ID brand. I wanted to help people step into strategic consulting roles that would empower them to lead fulfilling careers and design more impactful learning.

I also really missed teaching and wasn't a particularly wonderful online course student myself, so I opted for short interactive live workshops instead of self paced eLearning.

These were the foot in the door I needed. Through running my workshops, I started to build an audience and I started to validate ideas, learn more about what people needed, and learn how I could best help. And more and more people started to say "I want to take this, but I'm never going to make X time," it pushed me to start moving in the self paced learning space, which DOES take a lot more time to create, as most IDs know.

The Process

1. Build the brand. I had to establish my brand, Your Instructional Designer, and the brand of my learning network, The Upskill Experience, before I could start putting out content or courses. This is an on going process and admittedly a lot of work. It's relationship building, websites, content, and so much more.

2. Define the course idea. When I build my courses, I started with a very focused performance-based concept, like Scripting Voiceover for Video. I decide on the transformation I want learners to acheive.

3. Validate the course idea. I started seeing if there's any interest. Sometimes, this is through posts or IG story questions. Sometimes, this is just by scanning what people are asking me or asking in online groups. Other times, it's more formal. I might set up Zoom calls or chats with people to ask about their experiences.

This is important. I've had other course ideas that have not been developed, and I realized through the process that they weren't what people wanted/were willing to pay for at this time.

4. Start mapping out the curriculum. I use backwards design focusing on what I want students to be able to do by the time they leave the course.

5. Build the funnel. Most of my courses have been small workshops and mini courses. For these, the funnel is essentially:

  • connect with me

  • find the way to my email list (different routes)

  • learn about the course either through my email list or social media

  • go to the course landing page for info

  • (hopefully) check out

  • get confirmation email

  • motivational emails to help you complete the course, if it's self study, or remember the lessons, if a workshop

For my big courses, however, the funnels are more sophisticated. There are specific freebies, media, emails, webinars, etc. I want to give people value and help them decide if my solution is the right one for them before they invest.

Funnels take quite a time investment to set up, and this is where my investment in automation really comes in. If you bought my course and had to wait for me to allow you into the course, or if you downloaded my freebie and had to wait for me to send you an email manually to allow you access, you'd probably be annoyed or, even worse, lose productive momentum. Thoughtful funnel design isn't just good marketing, it's good UX!

6. Build the content. While I'm working on the marketing, I'm also building the content. Quite frankly, there are many times where I've sold a course that has only been partially developed. I NEVER do zero development before going to market, though there are people who do and do it well.

I don't wait to create a course product before selling it because I'm focused on the money. On the contrary, I'm focused on creating a GREAT course. As people buy the course, I'm able to have conversations that enable me to tailor the content to their needs. I also find that in selling the product, I often refine my focus in ways that I just couldn't when I was brainstorming. Preselling also tells me the idea has legs AND forces me to complete my course. I'm a perfectionist and would just sit on an idea forever if I wasn't accountable to others.

7. Launch, reflect, and launch again. Basically, every time you do it, you get a little better, and you make something a little better for your audience.

The ROI & The Cost

To date, I can't say I've made millions or that I'm ready to leave consulting behind. I've made a few thousand dollars...

BUT I've also SPENT a few thousand dollars. I've also spent countless hours bootstrapping 95% of what I deliver, outsourcing only the occasional email copywriting or the graphic design done for From Data to Design.

Here's a glimpse:

  • Mailchimp: $24.99 per month and counting... cost grows as my list does

  • Zapier: Free but I'm about to exceed my limit

  • Zoom: $19.99 - $58.99, depending on whether I use just meetings or add webinars

  • Demio: $99 per month, when I'm running multi-session scheduled webinars

Other costs that get absorbed into my freelancing business:

  • Camtasia license: $249 per year

  • Articulate 360 license: $999 per year

  • Freepik license: $29.99 per month

  • Storyblocks license: $39.99 per month

  • Audioblocks license: $9.99 per month

  • Adobe Creative Cloud: $52.99 per month

  • G Suite accounts: $13.99 x 2 per month

  • Wix Premium account: $181 per year

  • Ascend Account: $12 per month

I'm sure there are a few I'm forgetting.

I have a very high standard for what my content looks like. I'm not willing to just throw up videos and system quizzes or put everything in a FB group. I want to create an experience and that takes money.

Yes, there are cheaper ways.

Yes, people are doing cheaper ways successfully.

That's simply not my way or my brand.

The hard work and the big investment comes up front, though. As my courses start to see multiple runs (or evergreen, which is now the case for Scripting Voiceover for Video), I can do less work on the courses and allow them to start recouping their costs.

And I get to enjoy working with the students instead of on the content and watch them blossom. That's possibly the real reward for me.

So... should you do it? Should you build your own courses?

I would say yes ONLY IF you meet these criteria.

  • You are willing to devote at least 15 hours per week to the development of your content and managing the business side of online courses. It takes a lot of work up front to make a great course and to get the word out.

  • You have an email list of at least 300 people. If not, this is where you should start.

  • You genuinely want to serve your audience and aren't just looking for a get rich quick/passive income scheme.

  • You have the tools you need at your disposal or can afford to outsource. The more you grow, the more you'll need to invest to scale. It's fine to start off with a free Thinkific account on day 1, but you'll quickly find that, without automation and smartly constructed systems, you'll be overwhelmed by the number of tasks you have to do to make your courses and course marketing run smoothly.

  • You won't quit if you don't launch successfully the first time out the gate. Launching is a process. Your first time out, you'll be working without any testimonials and with some kinks in your system, as it runs for the first time. As you build your program, it will get better. If you quit because you imagined hundreds of people in your program, but only have 10, you will never see ROI.


Want help starting your online course program? Contact me!

Ready to upskill? Check out my favorite courses:

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2 comentarios

Sara Pehrsson
Sara Pehrsson
08 jul 2021

For anyone who has seen and fallen for the many "create an online course, it's easy money!" ads (as I have), this info from Nicole is a must read. This is the real work and investment it takes, with no guarantee of success. One other thing I've noticed as an ID: designing courses for a captive audience, as one does in the corporate world, is different than designing for people who are truly interested in a topic. On the one hand, they're interested so you don't necessarily worry as much about designing for "engagement" like when you're trying to make a company policy interesting and relevant. On the other hand, people are paying for the course so you better deliver…

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Gabby Grimaldo
Gabby Grimaldo
01 jul 2021

I just wrote an article about this on Medium! I've taken a few of your courses and have loved them. Other courses....not so much. They just aren't made for students to actually learn.

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