Build a Better Online Course
Teaching your expertise has become an effective and cost-efficient method of building brand awareness, reaching new audiences, and positioning yourself as an authority. All without compromising your authenticity. And online courses have made it possible to share knowledge at an unlimited scale. But poor online courses can equally damage your brand’s reputation. This article points out the foundations of a good online course that supports your business, no matter how big or small, and helps your customers reach their full potential.
Everyone’s a course creator. Or an aspiring course creator.
That’s because an online course is a great way to build a brand fanbase. It gives value to your customers, establishes trust with them, and showcases your brand's expertise. It is no wonder that educational content has become a top content marketing strategy for small businesses and large corporations alike (CMI, 2020) — especially because good educational content can increase lead conversion by 131% (Conductor, 2021).
If you’ve read this far into the article, I suppose you either already knew that or had a strong gut feeling that this was the direction you should take with your business.
But creating an online course is no walk in the park. (If it were easy, everyone would have already done it and it wouldn’t be as valuable, right?) To do it right requires strategic planning, writing, and editing because ultimately, the final product will be a substantial part of your online presence. People have developed a high standard for online courses which you should strive to meet. They’ve been burned before by courses that missed the mark, and they’re way more savvy with their education budgets.
This is a trap so many businesses fall into, and one I want you to avoid.
The reason most courses fail? A lack of solid foundation. Without that in place, course creators drop out in the process or launch a course that falls flat. They failed to lay the foundations of a professional course that people will love.
This is the point of this article. Get the three foundations of your online course right, and you will hit the ground running.
Essential Foundation 1: Business Outcome
Why do you want to build an online course? Wait, I’ll challenge you a bit more: If I were an investor, what business logic would you give to prove the investment is worthwhile?
The rationale behind this foundation is to understand how this course correlates with your business model. Far too many entrepreneurs and freelance biz owners try to be 'thought-leaders', spend time and energy creating a course, and then get disappointed because there are no tangible results. No doubt about it, even if you want to create a course solely to inspire your audience or make a positive impact, it must have a solid business logic so that good karma can flourish.
Here are three questions to get you thinking about your outcome:
- Does the online course serve as a marketing tool or as a core product?
- Do you intend to use it to generate leads or to upsell existing customers?
- Will you offer it for free, as a standalone paid product, or as part of a package?
Use these questions to determine how much effort and energy you should put into it before you burn out.
Essential Foundation 2: Learning Objectives
Now this is a step that only professional course designers take. Write down in your own words what learners will be able to do at the end of your course. No buzzwords or titles, just clear sentences that begin with action verbs.
For example, if you are building a self-paced course with no practice built in, you can promise students will be able to understand stuff (which is valuable)—but you wouldn't say they would be able to analyze or apply stuff on their own. Make sense?
Defining learning objectives helps you accomplish two things. The first benefit is that you set clear, realistic expectations with your learners about what skills they will learn, so you don't overpromise. The second benefit of learning objectives is that they give you, as the content creator, a clear focus and direction for what to include and what to cut. Ain’t nobody got time for fluff.
To choose the action verbs that describe best what learners will be able to do, instructional designers like me often refer to Bloom's Taxonomy. Whether it's to understand, evaluate, or create something. I’d go with 3 to 5 learning objectives, which should encompass a standard online course content.
What are the learning objectives of this article, you ask?
After reading this article, you will be able to describe the challenge of online course design, explain the three foundations of a good online course, and understand how to avoid common course design mistakes.
Essential Foundation 3: Digital Platform
“I want to create and sell an online course. Which platform should I use?”. That's one of the most common questions I get. The online course gods might be furious at what I'm about to answer.
After designing dozens of online courses, I see no difference between the various platforms for hosting online courses. Whether it's Thinkific, LearnWorlds, Kajabi, or Teachable. They all have the same features with different branding. Your challenge is to choose one and commit.
With that said, I do recommend choosing a plan that includes these features:
- Customize your course website based on your brand's logo and colors.
- Host live Zoom events (e.g., Q&A sessions, virtual workshops) within the platform.
- Manage email communications that nudge learners to stay on track.
Or… wait for YouTube to launch its own online course platform and disrupt the market.
Planning makes perfect.
When you have a manageable business outcome, clear learning objectives, and a good platform, you can scriptwrite and produce your course videos with peace of mind. Skip the foundations and risk getting the dreadful feedback comment 'too basic'. Stick to this framework, and increase your chances of creating a course you’ll be proud to share.
One more thing:
Have you ever taught before? If not, consider delivering a short lecture and see how you feel before you commit to developing an entire online course. By the way, if the session is online, you can record it and edit it into short-form videos and ultimately, into an online course.
You can even take a smaller step:
When was the last time you took an online course, or god forbid, completed one yourself? Start by signing up for an online course on FutureLearn or LinkedIn Learning (two high-quality online course platforms), and think about what you like and dislike so you can apply it to your own future course. That which is hateful to you, do not do unto your fellow learner. Can I get an Amen?
Oh, and write to me when your course is live! You've got one learner (me) guaranteed.