Online courses are great learning resources, because they are more engaging than books for people to learn. Also, some people just don’t like to or can’t read that well. Therefore, it’s a good idea to repackage your book as an online course - you can reach more people.
Online courses are great passive income generators. You create the content once and reap the benefits every month, every week, or every day.
The truth is that I attempted to record screencasts before, but I failed miserably. It was quite challenging to code and speak at the same time, and I didn’t like the result. But when I invited a camera crew to my live training (and paid them), there was no way out for me except to deliver the training and be recorded.
I was happy that I did invite that camera crew, because at the end of editing, I got almost six hours of HD video. I supplemented it with screencasts, quizzes, PDFs, and an online forum.
That online course brought me over $10,000. I host it on Udemy and sell it on Udemy and Gumroad (see Figure 1). The course was featured on SlackSocial (popular deals website) and continues to bring me around $500 each month passively, without me marketing it. If I market it, I can generate more income with promotions and bundles.
Figure 1. Udemy report: January spike’s attributed to author promotions and Udemy deals
If you are confident in your materials and delivery, then create an online course right now. I wasn’t 100% confident in Node Program in the beginning, which is why I started with the in-person training first. For the in-person training, the feedback loop is shorter. If a student asks you a question, you can answer it right away and improve your material to address that issue.
In an online course, you can have an online forum or discussion board to address questions. Udemy and other platforms provide forums.
However, you don’t want to go back and reshoot a video each time there is an issue.
That’s why it’s good to test the materials (slides, examples, etc.) with in- person training before you record them. This is especially true when you are doing high definition, professional quality videos with a camera crew, which will cost you a lot of money.
Our heritage and ideals, our code and standards - the things we live by and teach our children - are preserved or diminished by how freely we exchange ideas and feelings. - Walt Disney
The best format (not the only one) for online courses is videos. You can have the following variations:
- Text: You write instructions and other materials.
- Slides with voiceover: You have slides, change them, and talk over each slide explaining things.
- Screencast with voiceover: You go over some task by showing your screen/actions while talking through your steps.
- Slides or screencasts with a talking head: Same as two previous ones, but with a small screen of your head that talks.
- You and the whiteboard: This is the most engaging format, because it mimics a natural lecture.
- Your fingers on a tablet: Similar to a screencast, typically used for complex math formulas.
Let’s go over each of them.
The text-based course
The text-based course is probably the oldest format for distance/remote education. Nowadays, you can set up an automated email sequence with MailChimp, AWeber, or Gumroad. Students sign up and get emails with content delivered every day, each week, or some other interval that you specify.
If you have an ebook or a series of posts, it’s trivial to repackage them as an email sequence. The more content formats you have, the more people you’ll reach. Don’t hesitate to repackage, because most people prefer only one or two formats.
For example, one person might prefer a RSS feed, but another prefers a newsletter, and yet another prefers a better formatting in an ebook or needs reminders that an email sequence can provide. If you’re utilizing only one format, you’re missing out.
Slides with Voiceover
This is the easiest and most popular format. If you’re camera shy, this one is for you. Hey, you can even hire a voiceover actor if you think your voice is not sexy enough. VoiceBunny, Amazon’s ACX, and oDesk are good places to look for professional voice actors.
However, this is the most boring variation of content delivery. If you go this route, make sure your slides are entertaining. Change them every 5-10 seconds. There’s nothing worse than staring at the same screen for
minutes. Our attention span is very short, and it’s hard to watch a static video. We want explosions, car chases, gun fights… you get the idea.
My point is, if you want to stand out in your niche (especially if your niche is a crowded one), you want to provide something more interesting than just slides with voiceover.
But if you’re intimidated and/or your niche is not saturated yet and you want to publish something as soon as possible - use this format. It’s better to provide something than nothing at all. You can always make it better later.
The benefit is that there is no cost if you use your own voice. You can use Keynote for slides and voice recording.
Screencasts with Voiceover
Screencasts are the most popular form of content delivery in technical/programming courses. This is due to the multiple steps that a typical process requires, and this format makes it easier to show long processes than to write those things up. (Where is that button you need to press?
How do you launch this app?)
Again, you can hire a professional voice actor. Make sure he/she knows the technical terms.
I use the ScreenFlow app for MacOS X. It costs around $100, but it can record your screen, voice, and face. It also has nice features like different cursors, keystroke annotation, animation, and others. For these reasons, ScreenFlow is a good investment. I use it to record other’s webinars and some Skype calls as well! :-)
Slides with a Talking Head
Slides/screencasts with a talking head is an improvement over the previous two formats. Humans are wired to react to other human faces.
You can use this approach to create more personal content.
Showing yourself will build more trust and likeability. Remember, people do business with those whom they know, like, and trust. If you show them your face, you’ll address two out of these three items. In other words, they will know and trust you more.
Make sure your background is good enough and appropriate. It doesn’t have to be sterile (white) or professional. In fact, a personal touch will help to build trust. For example, I have a monkey in my background sitting on a stack of books that I’ve written. Just make sure your background doesn’t have anything distracting or very repulsing to some folks.
Again, I use the ScreenFlow app for MacOS X and my MacBook Air HD camera. I make the picture 25% so the quality is bearable.
Benefits: more human-like interaction and more engagement and less boredom. This is the format that I used for my second online course, Mongoose.
You and the Whiteboard
The you and the whiteboard format is one of the best delivery formats for online courses. Most people whose courses I have taken use this format: The Foundation, Amazing Selling Machine, Launch, and Expert Academy.
The whiteboard can be substituted with flip charts.
An instructor with a whiteboard is more oriented to a business-like course versus technical topics. For technical content, you can have a screen as a projector or in a separate window. Think of the last tech meetup or a conference that you attended. They probably used a projector.
The benefits: A natural delivery.
Cons: These are costly to produce because you’ll probably have to buy/rent the equipment to have proper quality, background, and lighting, or pay camera crew to do that for you.
This is the format that I’ve used for my first online course, Node Program. Although I recommend shooting videos for an online course by themselves, not at the live training. This way you can chunk them into three-five minute pieces easier. Also, you can achieve better video quality.
Your Fingers on a Tablet
Your fingers or stylus on a tablet variation is similar to screencasts, but you’ll use a special touch screen or graphical tablet. The benefit is that using a tablet is more versatile than typing in an editor. You can draw complex formulas, chart, graphs, etc. In a sense, this is akin to a whiteboard, but zoomed in. The zooming in allows for fewer distractions.
You see a lot of this format used on Khan Academy (see Figure 2) and Udacity. You can supplement this format with a talking head.
Figure 2. Math formulas from The Beauty of Algebra Khan Academy video
Benefits: It provides a more flexible delivery with fewer distractions than on a whiteboard.
Cons: You’ll probably need some software and hardware to utilize this format.
The best approach, if money and time are not an issue, is to go back and forth between recording yourself on the fullscreen, screencasts, and whiteboard, depending on the content.
For example, in the beginning, you want to provide an overview and an introduction. You don’t need any screencasts or whiteboarding for that, so you just shoot yourself explaining the agenda. Then, when you want to show some formulas/charts/lists, you can use a tablet or a whiteboard.
When you want to show how to create something on a computer or use some service/website, you switch to a screencast format.
Once you have the videos, it’s time to convert them into a web-friendly format. The application that I’m using does it for me. It can even do so in batches, which is very convenient because conversion takes some time.
With batching, I can start the process for 10 videos and then go for a walk and come back an hour later to the converted videos (ready for uploading).
Hosting Your Course
For hosting, I use Udemy because it’s a marketplace, meaning I get new students organically without paying for ads or sending emails. Marketplaces are good for establishing new followings. So if your goal is to get more followers and establish yourself in the space, then a marketplace such as Udemy is a good platform to start.
Udemy doesn’t restrict you to only their platform. For this reason, you can host on Udemy and other sites. You don’t even have to list your course on the marketplace.
You can only host, but sell somewhere else. To do this, you create a coupon on Udemy and paste it to your PayPal or Gumroad checkout page. The checkout page is a page that buyers see after they’ve paid.
Let’s say you listed on the marketplace and went through their approval. In this case, Udemy takes 50% if they brought the student. And Udemy takes only 3% if you brought the student. To do it, you’ll need to create a 100% price coupon code/link. It’s called the author promotion.
It can be lower than 100%. Any coupon will be treated as an author promotion and will net you the maximum 97% of the purchase price. In contrast to author promotions, if Udemy brings students, they call it an organic sales/search. It’s possible to opt-in for affiliate programs. In this case, the cut is even smaller than with organic sales. The benefit is that you potentially can have more sales.
To summarize, you get the best features - quizzes, discussions, and mobile apps - for free. And if you want, Udemy can even bring you new customers when you publish on the marketplace. That’s right, you can opt out of the marketplace, meaning your course will be accessible only via the link that you can promote yourself on your blog or in your email, and not via Udemy search. You can even opt out of the promotions and affiliate deals.
So, where is the catch with Udemy? The only three drawbacks of using Udemy are:
- Udemy requires your course to have a minimum number of minutes in a video (30 minutes now).
- Udemy requires you to go through a review process. I had almost 300 students and eight five-star reviews, and they still didn’t want to approve my course for the marketplace. They finally did after lots of back-and-forth emails.
- Udemy likes to discount courses a lot, which commoditizes products and cheapens the brand. More on that next.
I mean, they really discount a lot, like 90% off, or a $10 price for a $200 course. So, if you’re in a marketplace where your course is $200 and other courses are $10, it’s almost impossible to compete.
You have to discount as other courses do, which cheapens your brand. It can also make your existing students angry. Yes, Udemy has a 100% refund policy, but students still get angry if they paid $200 two weeks ago for a course that’s now on sale for $10. When they are mad, they leave bad reviews. Personally, I don’t get mad about deals like that because I needed the course two weeks ago when I bought it, and I like to reward the authors with the full price!
Therefore, if your plan is to price courses at a premium ($500 and up), pick an independent solution such as the ones listed next. They allow you to white-label (brand with your name), use your own domain name, and run any type of promotions. They don’t get a percentage of your sales.
Here is a list of online course solutions that give you freedom and control (in no particular order) and that offer hosting (∼$100/mo):
Another approach, if you’re tech savvy and know how to use WordPress, is to host the course yourself (hosting is cheap, starting from $4.99/mo) by using WordPress and a WP plugin like one of these:
I tried Kajabi for my Mongoose course. It allows you to use PayPal as a payment mechanism. It has rich sales funnels, but lacks in features like “mark as completed” (to save your progress) for lectures and quizzes. It
felt like a private access (restricted access only to your members) Content Management System (think WordPress). In the end, I canceled my Kajabi account and migrated 300 of my students to Udemy.
Needless to say, online courses, like any other products, bring the best results when you have a proper product launch. In other words, instead of just emailing once, you create a sequence that builds the anticipation.
Pre-Selling your online course
You can also pre-sell the online course, the Kickstarter way.
I pre-sold the Mongoose course using Gumroad. Kickstarter didn’t approve me, because back then, they were using Amazon payments.
Amazon wanted me to fax them my ID, which I did with HelloFax, but Amazon still didn’t like those copies and denied me.
Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. act! action will delineate and define you. - Thomas Jefferson
My goal was to determine the interest in the course. I wanted to get at least $1,000 for a one-hour course. Therefore, I spent 30 minutes creating a Gumroad page. I wrote some bullet points and described the offer. I set a one week time frame and blasted to my followers. I reached my $1,000 goal in two days. At the end of the week, I had $2,600 in funding.
I attribute my success to the fact that I offered tiers. The course itself was ridiculously low-priced. Just $1! However, I included these upsells:
- $20 for the Mongoose course and five ebooks
- $50 for the Mongoose course, five ebooks, and a six-hour Node Program course
More than half of the 300 students opted for the $20 and $50 options.
The course itself took me just a few days to produce, including code examples. After the release, the Mongoose course earned me another $5,000 and continues to bring profits passively. That’s why I love online courses. They require less work than books, and the economics/ROI (return on investment) are much better. The book is anchored at $20, $40
maximum, and even lower for fiction ($0.99), but the mental price ceiling on courses hasn’t been set yet. Some people charge $500, $1,000, $4,000, and higher, for their courses. And if their students are satisfied and make 5-10 times more than they spent, it’s a win-win situation for everyone.
However, this won’t last for long. I already see trends on Udemy that tell me the marketplaces will be saturated very soon. Type “baking” in a search box at the Amazon.com site and you’ll see thousands of books, but only a few on Udemy (as of this writing, March 2015). This will change soon and I want you to participate in it.
Pick something you’re interested in learning about, or something you’re already passionate and knowledgeable about. Even better, if your niche is underrepresented right now, you have the first mover advantage.
Again, you don’t have to be a super-duper expert on something for you to publish a course on it. In fact, the mere act of preparing the course will increase your expertise, improve your skills, and sharpen your knowledge.
The best way to learn is to teach.
You don’t need anyone’s permission to publish a course on something.
All you have to do is to provide value. As long as you are a step ahead of someone, you’ll provide value to that person. Price your course according to the value and competition, and you’ll be successful.
Avoid cutting corners, if you can. If it’s worth doing, do it properly.
However, if you are the type of person who is prone to analysis paralysis, procrastination, and overdoing the research, then for you the opposite is true. That is, “Done is better than perfect”. Just put something up already, get feedback as soon as you can, and make it better later.