Should you build an online course?

Follow these basic steps and you'll save a lot of time and heartache

Online courses have become insanely popular over the past five years. You’ve probably heard that they are great way to monetise your knowledge and experience. The same people who are telling you that are probably trying to sell you their course on how to build and sell online courses. Most of these are get rich quick schemes and they part of a pyramid scheme.

It works like this…

buy my online course and learn how to…

build an online course on how to build an online course so you can…

build an online course on how to build an online course and sell it to people who want to build an online course…

Confused? You should be. So am I saying you should avoid building an online course? No!

But be very aware that it is not easy money and you should definitely do some thorough research before you dive in.

We put together this short guide with our lead consultant and director, Sam Burrough, who’s been designing online courses for over 15 years. It will help you to decide whether you should build an online course or not and we’ve got a great offer from our two favourite course platforms Thinkific and LearnWorlds, if you decide you’re ready.

Step 1

Think about your audience
Stage one of the guide is all about understanding your audience.

The more we know about them, the better we can solve their problems. But first we need to understand what those problems are, why are they even problems?

Step 1. Analyse your current audience.

This could be your:

  • customer database
  • email list
  • blog subscribers
  • social media followers

What do you know about them:

  • How big is your audience on each channel?
  • How engaged are they with you and your content?
  • How often do you communicate with them?
  • If you send newsletters, mail shots etc. What’s your open rate? What’s your clickthrough rate?

Step 2. What topics are your audience most interested in?

If you publish content online through a blog or social media, which topics get the most love? Which questions keep coming up again and again?

If you sell face to face training, which courses are the most popular.

If you take part in an online or face to face community, what are the pain points people are talking about?

Step 3. Research your potential audience.

Your potential audience are the people who you want to reach, but aren’t already within your sphere of influence.

Use Google keyword research to understand how popular your topic is and what terms people are using when they search for that information.

Check out this handy step by step guide from Hubspot for details on how to do this.

Step 4. What problems can you solve for people?

Or why should people care about you and your ideas? How are you going to make their lives better? This is all about defining the value people will get from your course if they buy it and follow it.

It’s your value proposition.  This is the most important thing!!

It will influence all of your messaging and a lot of your course content. It’s what you want to be known for.

Step 5. How are they solving those problems today?

Who are you going to be competing against? Do your research and find out who does what you do. Then compare yourself and be really honest.

  • What do they do well?
  • What do they do less well?
  • What do you do differently?

Maybe the problem isn’t being solved by anyone. Yay, no competition you’re thinking, but actually that might mean there is no market.

Proceed with caution!


You’re going to have to convince people there’s a need for what you sell and get them used to the idea of paying for something no one has ever sold before.

If the research you’ve done above is making you think you’re onto something – proceed to stage 2.

Stage 2

Build your blueprints

Step 1. Create your course blueprint

I like to use Trello for this. It’s free, simple, flexible and powerful. And you can collaborate and share everything.

What goes in the blueprint?

It’s the structure for your course. Think of it as topics and sub-topics or headings and sub-headings.

If you use Trello you can have a list of cards under each topic.

Each card represents a piece of content you need to create. It could be a video, a handout, an activity, or quiz.

Here’s an example in Trello

Each card can link to just about anything. I like to work in Google docs. I can create the outline of the content in a Google doc and link it to the relevant card in Trello.

So everything builds up nicely and if I decide to move it to another topic for some reason, it doesn’t get lost.

Step 2. Create your marketing blueprint

Guess what?

Yep we’re using Trello again.

Here’s an example of what your marketing blueprint might look like

We’re going to follow some tried and tested approaches. This layout followsJeff Walker’s Product Launch formula. Of course it’s up to you what goes in each stage. You need to think about the best way to reach your audience.

  • What messages are you going to include?
  • What stories can you tell?
  • Which media will you use and when?
  • What offers will you make?

You are going to want to start putting in some target dates – milestones at least.

That’s stage two done.

So far you have..

  • researched what topics are likely to sell
  • created an outline of the course
  • drafted a marketing plan

Now we need to figure out what we’re going to use to build the overall experience.

Stage 3

Design an experience
How do you pick the right platform?

Time for more questions. Your needs are not the same as mine, or anyone else reading this. So before you go looking, you need to think about the style of course you want to build.

What features do you think your course needs?

This is your wish list. Imagine you’re going to buy a car. You have a list of features you want and need. When you’re looking through the second hand ads, or browsing the showroom, you are using this feature list to cut down the options. Let’s say you have a young family.

Your list might be I need a..

  • Big boot/trunk
  • Alloy wheels/rims
  • Built in SatNav
  • Bluetooth radio
  • Extra fold down passenger seats
  • Wipe clean seats

With a list like that you aren’t going to be looking at two seater sports cars, because they aren’t going to meet your needs, even though they are very pretty and fun to drive.

If you come home with one of those, your partner is not going to be happy. You won’t be able to meet the needs of your family and you’ve wasted a lot of money.

Yep you guessed it that’s exactly what a lot of people do with online course platforms. They get blinded by the sales pitch,they start thinking they need all these features they don’t really understand and sign up for the wrong platform.

So let’s make that list now..

What features does your course need to deliver the experience you’re dreaming of?

Write them all down, no need to be sensible now, that comes later.

The key word here is experience.

What does the experience feel like?

You’ve probably taken online courses yourself. Think back, what worked well, what did you like, what frustrated you, what made one course stand out over another?

Next we’ll look at my list of essential features and we can compare notes.

I’ll also give you my top three platforms to consider.

Stage 4

Pick the right platform for your online course

So you have your wish list. Here are some of the key questions I look to answer when reviewing course platforms.

1. Platform User experience

  • What is it like to take a course on the platform?
  • Is the interface intuitive?
  • Is the platform stable/reliable?
  • How easy is it to build a course

2. Course experience

  • What tools/features are there to present the content?
  • How can you create chances for interaction and engagement?
  • How can you communicate with your students to nudge them along and help them get value from the course they paid for?

3. Marketing integration

  • How easily does it integrate with my email marketing tool or CRM?

4. Website integration

  • Can you make your courses appear on a sub-domain of your website?
  • Does it integrate with a reliable payment tool?

5. Cost

  • What is the monthly/annual cost?
  • Is there a cost per user?
  • What is the cost per transaction? (this will usually be down to Paypal or Stripe)
  • Are there any hidden costs?

6. Data

  • Is my content secure behind a paywall?
  • Who owns the data – you or the platform?
  • How can you monitor the success of your students and your marketing efforts? Is it easy to find out:
    • Your landing page conversion rate on course pages?
    • How many people are completing your courses?
    • If you have high drop-out rates – at what point are they giving up?

Now the fun stuff – time to go shopping…

So now I’m going to save you some time

I spend hours reviewing and playing with course tools so you don’t have to. You still need to do some research to make the right choice for you.

How do you make the right choice? Make sure it ticks your boxes, ultimately it’s personal choice – you have to go with your gut. The good news is all the options below are good options and if you change your mind, it’s not that much work to switch.

Just don’t sign up for an annual rate until you know you love the platform!

Top 3 platforms to consider

These three are very similar in features, price and do well on most of the questions above.

All three platforms are competing with each other quite fiercely and adding new features regularly. Personally, I like Thinkific best because it has more features that support good learning practices, it’s extremely reliable and has great support. It’s also what all of Alison’s courses are built on.

1. Thinkific

2. Teachable

3. LearnWorlds

All three have fantastic blogs with lots of valuable content to help you make the most of your course, regardless of where you host it. Definitely worth subscribing!

It’s best to check out the videos on their sites to get an idea of look and feel. Some let you set up free demo sites, so you can get a feel for the behind the scenes screens too. If you’re serious you should do this!

So what about WordPress?

WordPress has everything you need to compete with the sites above. But it’s a lot of work to get it looking as good as this lot. I love WordPress, but I know you are going to have to spend a lot of time figuring out bugs and issues if you go down that route. When really you could and should be focusing on marketing, building and running great course experiences.