What to Know Before Creating Your First (or Next!) Online Course
Emily Walker is a course creation expert. She helps fiercely creative thought leaders turn their big and brilliant ideas into powerful and profitable courses so they can improve thousands of other people’s lives while building more spaciousness into their own.
I recently sat down with Emily to get answers to some of the most common questions asked by those who are considering creating their first (or next) online course. Watch the video interview or catch the transcript recap below:
How do you know when your business is ready for an online course?
Answered by Emily:
I love this question and it just cuts right to my favorite answer. It depends.
The biggest thing to remember when it comes to creating an online course is, there is no one golden rule.
It’s not like when you have X amount of subscribers, or when you have X amount of followers, you’ve worked with X amount of clients. I have a friend who is wildly successful and she started with an online course. She never did any sort of one-to-one services. The majority of the people that I work with, start in that one-to-one coaching, helping profession first.
So I find when you’re thinking about creating an online course, it makes your life significantly easier if you’ve worked with a good amount of clients. And I say good amount because it could be five, it could be 50, it’s really up to you.
When you’re building a course, you want to make sure that you’re building it with one specific person in mind, building for that ideal client, that real client that you’ve worked with. And it takes all the guesswork out of creating an online course if you actually have real people that you can think of. So, that’s why I say it’s always better if you can start with your one-to-one services or group program, or something like that, where you can connect with your people on that personal level and know, not only what do they need help with that you could build a course around, but also who they are as people.
What should we do first?
Answered by Emily:
First of all, maybe you’re starting because you’re like, “I want to add in some sort of course. I want to add in some sort of product to my offer suite, but I’m not sure exactly what that’s going to be.”
In that case, I would start again by connecting with your people. Maybe brainstorming a couple of different ideas, maybe some questions that you’ve heard up, come up again and again, and again. And then having maybe a couple of calls with some of your favorite clients that you’re like, “Oh, I love these people so much.” Or some audience members, if you haven’t worked with clients. Find out exactly what their pain points are so that you can make sure you’re building a course around something that they need.
Now, if you already know exactly what it is that you want to build… so for instance, I’ll use myself as an example. When I work with my clients’ building curriculum, something that came up again and again, was that they were feeling really not confident around running group calls. And most of their courses had a group call in them. I went, “Okay, well, this is something I could help them with one-to-one,” But I was like, “A lot of the information is the same.” So I’m going to repeat this again, and again, and again. Or I could create a course, that’s a toolkit. And so that’s how I created one of my offers, which is a toolkit all about how to successfully run group calls. It came out of the need that I heard from my clients and it compliments my offer suite instead of replacing it.
When is the right time to decide on a course platform and iron out all the tech details?
Answered by Emily:
I always say leave tech to the end. I know this stresses a lot of people out because tech is the big, shiny thing that feels like it could be a quick win and you’re like, “I’m going to create a course. I feel overwhelmed at the idea of creating a course. I know! I will choose my tech and then I will have made one decision.”
The thing is when you’re creating your first course, the actual tech that you need is quite simple and pretty much all the major platforms, do what you need them to do. You can just kind of relax and go, “Okay, there is a tech solution out there for me. I don’t need to worry about it.”
When you start by figuring out what you want that curriculum to be, what you want that transformation to be, that also gives you permission to start simple.
You don’t need to jump right into this a custom, beautifully built course platform right away.
Whether you start with something that’s kind of out of the box, ready to go. Thinkific is one that I really recommend, or you can even go lower tech than that. Create a Google drive, send it out to your beta students.
You don’t have to make it super crazy fancy because the reality is, your course is a living being. And especially in those first couple of iterations, it’s going to change a lot.
What I say is, don’t stress too much about the tech.
What’s your go-to course platform?
Answered by Emily:
Thinkific is definitely my go-to for people who are just starting because it’s so easy. They make it really easy. It’s a drag and drop builder. You don’t have very much customization. But you can add a few brand colors in here and there, but for the most part, there’s not much around the course player. But what I like about Thinkific is it makes it really easy to start. And so that’s why I always say to anyone who’s thinking about trying to choose their tech. It’s like what feels easy and like a low barrier to just getting your course out there because you don’t want to be spending months and months and months fussing with tech and stressing about it.
Then eventually, I say the end goal should be hosting on your own website.
The reason that I say this is because then you’re not subject to someone else’s control over your designs, your user experience, the pricing of the different payments, and that type of thing.
I started with my courses on Thinkific. Then I moved them onto my self-hosted WordPress and there I use LearnDash. I love LearnDash because it’s really robust. It’s designed with courses in mind, but it’s also highly customizable. If you’re like me and you want things to look really, really pretty and super swish, I recommend doing that.
How do you create a program that participants actually finish?
Answered by Emily:
The biggest thing is to recognize that when you’re dealing with an adult learner, things have to be designed in a very specific way.
The biggest thing that we run into is the myth of, “I’ll come back and do this later when I have more time.” It’s like that sweet, beautiful lie, that we have all told ourselves at some point. Maybe we signed up for a freebie and we’re like, “Oh, this looks amazing. Oh, I don’t have the time to really enjoy this right now. I’ll come back later.” Or where the course videos are super long, someone’s like, “Oh, I don’t have the time to watch a 30 minute video right now, but I know I’ll set some time aside in my schedule.” And so, from a practical level, there are things you can do.
The biggest thing you need to do is keep your materials short and sweet.
I would rather you have lots of lessons and lots of modules, where each video is only about seven to 10 minutes long, then have a module with a 30 minute, even a 20 minute video. There’s a lot of science to support that says our attention spans just don’t really hold that. Even from a learning standpoint, they say about 17 to 20 minutes of direct instruction, so someone talking to you and teaching you. Your brain is kind of like, “Okay, I’m full. I’m good. I need to go put this into practice.”
And so, that kind of brings me to my second point, you need to keep your course action-focused.
Most of the traps that people fall into when they’re like, “I’m going to create a course.”
They’re like, “I’m going to sit down and I’m going to write everything I know about this topic.” So if you’re like, “I’m going to create a course about designing a website.” And they’re like, “I can talk about this. They can talk about this.” Then we’ll be like, maybe we put it on post-it notes. We write on our whiteboard. It’s all content focused.
At the end of the day, results and transformation come from taking action. And when you take action, that’s what creates that momentum moving people forward. Because when they see those results.
That is what gets them closer to the end. When you keep your course short, sweet bite-sized, and focused on action, you’re more likely to see more people moving through it because they’re getting those results and they’re creating momentum.
What else should we consider when starting to plan out an online course for our business?
Answered by Emily:
I think the biggest thing that I like to remind people, is that you get to do this your way.
There’s a lot of noise out there. Throw away the cookie cutters. You don’t need to make your course look like someone else’s. You don’t need it to feel like someone else’s because your people want to learn from you. That means really, there are no rules.
Like I said, there’re some guidelines where I’m like, “Please don’t have videos that are an hour long, and please keep your course focused on action.” But at the end of the day, when I run into a lot with my clients, is they’re like, “You know what, I want to have group calls every single week. Can I do that?” Or like, I want to give prizes to my people at every two modules. Is that allowed?”
It’s like, “Yes, the answer is always, yes.” It’s the same with, when you’re recording your materials, you don’t have to have slides if you don’t want to. You can record over a whiteboard. If you don’t want workbooks, don’t have workbooks.
It’s about finding that balance between what’s going to support your learner and give them that amazing experience.
But what’s going to feel good to you as the course creator, as a leader, as that person who is creating that experience. Because when you show up as your authentic self, doing things your way, that’s what creates that amazing energy to bring your people through that experience.