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.


7 responses

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Hi Laura: Not sure if you can help me or not, but I am in the process of putting together an online Spa Retreat that includes Content from my book (book is included in price ), guided meditation and deep breathing exercises. My problem: I am new to online training and can’t figure out the right way to do the training. I want to use live video calls weekly for 6 weeks. I am looking for the correct platform to take payment, as well as deliver the video conference.

Do you have any suggestions?

Many Thanks!

Hi Patricia,

What a great idea for an online training course! Not a lot of people think of delivering an online meditation course, but I think there are some creative ways this could be done. When it comes to online payment, your LMS of choice will have ways to help you monetize your course. Payment processing can seem intimidating, but it’s not usually very complicated. As for video conferencing, there are a few options available, and the best one for your needs will depend on your course and how much you are willing to spend. You can use free options, like Skype or Google Hangouts, but if you plan to have a larger group on the call, or if you need more advanced conference controls, you may need to sign up a more powerful platform. I know that Zoom, GoToMeeting, and are all popular options. I recommend you find a way to test them out and choose the one that works best for you.

Avatar Laura Lynch

good info. here Laura , thank you

Avatar RW Erskine

Hi Laura I recently started an online computer science academy; however I’m having a difficult time creating my price model. Not sure if I should start with subscription base or up front fees? Also not sure how to price each course.

Hi Austin,

That’s a tough decision. I would factor a few things into your decision:

Re: subscription or flat-rate?
Subscriptions are generally a better business model for the instructor, as they are a lower barrier-to-entry, and they help support the course over its lifetime. If you offer the wrong price for a flat-rate course, and then find yourself devoting more time to your learners as you go on, then you may not make as much of a profit as you’d hoped. On the other hand, many users are wary of subscriptions because they know they will lose their course content once they unsubscribe. They would prefer a one-off purchase where they don’t need to worry about losing access. The question is what you think you can sell.

Re: pricing.
There are two major consideration you should take into account for pricing: 1) How much of your time does it take to create and run the course, and what is your time worth? 2) What value are you bringing your learners? If it takes you hundreds of hours to create a course, and you value your time at $100/hr., but you can only expect your learners to gain $100 of overall value from what you teach them, then it doesn’t look like you have a very sustainable course idea. On the other hand, if you can teach a very high-value skill efficiently, then you can maximize your profit margins.

Computer sciences are a fairly high-value skill. If you think that the course you’re teaching would give someone a skill that could increase their annual wage by 5K, then you can use that number to set a price anchor for what you charge for your course.

Avatar Laura Lynch

Which sites are good for selling my online course .its look like (presentation)

This is such an amazingly crafted post. It’s highly informative and insightful.

I feel you could compile this information into a PDF and sell it as a course. I’m sure a lot of people would not mind paying for a masterpiece like this.

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