7 Ways to Make Money Selling Online Courses

How to turn a profit in online education.

Online education is a burgeoning market, but with all the competition, finding your way toward earning a profit off an online course can be difficult. In fact, many would-be educators wonder if it’s even possible.

Well, we believe it is. To get you started, here are 7 proven ways to make money selling courses online.

1. Charge up front.

A one-off fee at the beginning of a course is usually the easiest for learners to understand—and the easiest to implement. It also fits in better with the model most of us have for paying for education. We’re used to paying for courses up-front. It’s easier to justify, and it’s less intimidating than an idea of a recurring payment that never ends.

Up-front fees also make it easier to sell more courses later on. When your learners are already paying a monthly subscription, they may hesitate to pay more because they feel they’ve already paid their dues. An up-front fee makes it easier set expectations about what users are paying for.

2. Offer the course for free, then charge for certification.

This model was used successfully by Coursera to earn over $1 million in their first year. It seems counterintuitive, because you’re giving the “valuable” part of the course (the learning) way for free. But this can work to your advantage for several reasons:

  1. It builds trust. Learners can sign up for your course without worrying if they’re making a bad decision.
  2. You can quickly build an email list of interested people to market to.
  3. Certification has professional value—and that’s something people will pay for.

Given those benefits, charging for certification only could be the easiest way to sell your course online.

3. Charge a subscription.

I said earlier that we’re used to paying for education up-front, like a tuition fee. But that’s not entirely true. Most of us are willing to pay recurring fees for ongoing lessons—music lessons, private tutoring, sports—so long as we believe we’ll continue to gain value from those lessons over time.

This applies to online learning as well. Learners hesitate to sign up for a subscription service if they think of their course as a once-and-done program. But creating an ongoing learning program that will keep your learners coming back indefinitely takes a lot more commitment from both you and your learners.

4. Use a tiered payment system.

You don’t have to charge the same fees for every service. If you operate on a subscription model, you can have some levels be free, but then charge for “premium” functions. Similarly, you can offer free or reduced-rate introductory courses, and then start charging more once your learners get into advanced material.

5. Pre-sell your course.

This isn’t as crazy as it sounds. In fact, whole sectors of the Internet are built on pre-selling products (see: Kickstarter and Indiegogo). In fact, not so long ago I dropped a healthy chunk of change myself, funding the development of an online learning app. So when I say that pre-selling works, I’m speaking from buyer’s experience.

Pre-selling is a great idea for several reasons:

  1. You don’t have to guess about what your learners are interested in.
  2. You avoid the sunk cost fallacy, because you aren’t tempted to keep dumping resources into a course that won’t sell.
  3. You can use a free pilot lesson to test your idea and build up a subscriber list.
  4. You’ll have ample motivation to get your course made, without wasting energy anxiously wondering if it will work.

You don’t have to be shy about this, either. If you have an audience, go ahead and poll them about what course would be most useful to them. Then set up a fundraising campaign. If you don’t meet your goal, then don’t make the course.

6. Sell your online course for free—then funnel it into a product or service.

Here’s another way to make money off of “free”: use your course as part of a sales funnel for something else. Maybe you have a side business selling a line of products. Create a course about how to use them. Or maybe you’ve written a self-help book: offer your course as a free perk to anyone who purchases it.

Better yet, use your online course to sell consulting services. You can set up a scheduling system online and hold private sessions with those who need one-on-one training.

Similarly, if you already have a significant online presence (you’re a blogger, you sell a successful product, you’re an online consultant), creating an online course is a natural extension of your business model. Using your platform to sell an online course is an easy way to make money off the thing you’re already doing.

7. Sell course licenses.

Finally, some you can create content and sell licenses to companies that don’t want to create the course themselves. They handle the technical details, the marketing, and the customer service management. All you have to do is create the course and collect the annual licensing fee.

You’ll still have to market your course to the businesses and institutions who might want it, and you’ll have a longer sales cycle. But you’ll also get to charge more, and it can remove some of the management tasks from your schedule.

People are hungry for education. Don’t be afraid to share what you know.

Of course, you may read all this and still be left wondering: will anyone want to pay for what I know?

A quick way to gauge the value of your course idea is to ask yourself: how often do people ask you for this information? If you’ve ever given a talk on a subject, pay attention to the interest levels of the audience. Did you field a lot of questions from the audience? Had you answered those questions before in other contexts?

Or, here’s another test: how many other people are offering similar courses? There’s a lot to be said for niche subjects, but it’s also true that if other people are offering courses in a subject area, it’s a sign of high demand.

If you’re still not convinced that you can make money selling courses online, test the waters. Give it away for free. See how people respond, and you may just discover you have a real money maker on your hands.

Author

Laura is a marketing specialist with experience presenting at WordPress events in Ann Arbor and Vienna. She speaks Russian and German and holds a double MA (Hons) in History and Russian Studies from the University of Edinburgh.

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