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How to Create and Market Your Own Online Courses – Janelle Allen
The Agents of Change

How to Create and Market Your Own Online Courses - Janelle Allen

If you’ve been looking for another way to reach your clients, have you considered online courses? Once you have determined the major pain points and problems they’re having and know definitively how you can help them, creating an online learning course for them is a creative way to reach them and earn revenue at the same time. Janelle Allen is here to offer her step by step guide to help you figure out how to create and market your own successful online courses..

Rich: My next guest is a learning designer and serial entrepreneur, who believes that every company is in the education business. For the past 10 years she’s worked with corporations such as Pearson Education, Potbelly Sandwich Works, Starbuck and Apple, to create training and online courses using principals of adult learning and design.

In 2015 she pivoted her mission to help small teams create profitable courses that change lives. She currently resides in the great city of Chicago with her partner. Please welcome Janelle Allen.

Janelle: Thanks for having me, Rich, that was a wonderful intro.

Rich: I put a lot of enthusiasm in it. I do love Chicago, it’s one of my favorite cities to visit. I hadn’t been there in like 25 years, and then I’ve been there I think 3 times in the past 2 years.

Janelle: I love it as well.

Rich: Great food, great culture, I love walking underneath The Bean. Is that what you guys call it, The Bean?

Janelle: Yeah.

Rich: Alright, so let me ask a question. What exactly is instruction design, and how did you find your way to it?

Janelle: So instructional design – or you may also hear it referred to these days as ‘learning design’ – is essentially, to just sum it up nicely, is the study of adult learning principles and theory, and the application of that theory into learning experiences.

So think of it as a bit of studying how adults learn the psychology behind that, as well as many learned people who have figured out the things that make up a good learning experience. And then taking that and applying it into things like online courses, corporate e-learning, and in-person learning as well.

Rich: So you mentioned the term “adult leaning”, which makes me thing that it is different than the way that children learn. Do you have a couple of examples of how we learn versus the way our kids learn?

Janelle: Yeah. So I haven’t done a ton of work with children as far as teaching children. But it’s funny because I was – I think your listeners will enjoy this example – as adults we have certain things that as we age sometimes we need more cognitive cues, so to speak. We need more cognitive cues, so to speak. But also we are going to have certain patterns and models for things, so adult learning often calls upon those models to help us to be able to understand and apply information.

One thing that someone said recently that I found so funny is, with children there was an example of a child in a classroom and they were doing a guided drawing exercise. And the teacher would say, “Ok class, I want you to draw a circle, and then I want you to draw another circle”, and they were drawing a snowman. And just walking them through telling them what to do, and they just did it. And everybody’s drawing was different and beautiful, as kids do. And afterwards the teacher said, “Adults suck at this because we always want to know exactly what it should be, we want to know what the end result is, what the process is. What the instructions are when they’re explicitly laid out.

So things like that, if you kind of work backwards. Adults, we need more information, we have distractions, we have particular models, and so adult learning really digs into some of those things.

Rich: That’s really interesting, because as you were describing the kid’s drawings, literally the hair on the back of my neck was standing up, I’m wondering where is this going. So I feel for those adults.

A lot of people think about online courses as the realm of internet marketers, however, I know you work with a lot of people who run brick and mortar type stores. What are some of the benefits traditional businesses can get from offering courses?

Janelle: You know, I think that when it comes to offering course – and you’re absolutely right – online courses in the entrepreneurial sphere in my opinion are still quite young. In the education area it’s pretty dated, it’s not new.

When it comes to if you have a brick and mortar space, a lot of times what I find particularly for people who have service based or client based businesses, and maybe they have an office, you run into the point in your business where you want to lessen the amount of exchanging dollars for hours. And you also may have people who you want to serve, but maybe they’re not in a place where they can hire you if you have that type of situation. And that is a great transition point for an online course.

So I would say for anyone with a brick and mortar business, particularly if they serve clients or have a particular process, that if you have a process and you’re running into some type of constraint where you’re not able to teach or help as many people as you would like to, that is a perfect opportunity for you to create an online course for that.

Rich: That makes a lot of sense. So as you mentioned, stop trading dollars for hours, that’s something I’m constantly working on. And certainly being able to serve people who can’t afford you, that’s a nice way too. And I’d also guess that helps you free up some time, because all of a sudden you’re able to reach a wider variety of people. And I know that often I’ve bought a course or taken a free course that’s led me to work with somebody.

So I could also see this as maybe some sort of on ramping process for people. So like, “Hey, you’re not sure about it, just try this course that we’re doing and see if this is right for you.”

Janelle: That’s absolutely right. I advise all of the people who are in my audience and on my email list, if you don’t have some type of free email-based course, you’re missing out on an opportunity to not just educate but also to help build that trust and give people a taste of what it’s like to work with you. That was one of the things that I did early on before I knew what the hell I was doing, and I don’t quite know it all the time now. But it was a great introduction for people to get to know me and I make that same advice for people who are just starting out.

Rich: Now for people who are just starting out, one of the things we always like to do is avoid mistakes that other people have made. What kind of mistakes do you see business people making when they’re creating their first course?

Janelle: The first one that comes to mind is so often all my courses – as I said a moment ago – for entrepreneurs, most of us if we are digesting and subscribing to the information online, we’re familiar with online courses, it’s not new anymore. And for most people who ae thinking about creating a course, there is a misconception that it is super easy to do and that you’re going to have all of this passive income and you’ll be able to completely change your lifestyle overnight. And that is not how it works.

The biggest mistake I see is that a lot of people want to create a course before they spend the time building their audience and delivering value and getting to know who they’re serving and what they want.

Rich: So what you’re saying is, I actually have to put a lot of work in before I’m going to create this online course.

Janelle: Yeah. You know there’s a foundation that you need. You’ve got to get to know who you’re serving, and what their pain points are and what are the problems that you can solve for them. And then on top of that build trust, build a relationship, all of this is relationships. Build that relationship with your audience before you attempt to sell.

I see so many people who want to jump right into selling something, and then there’s a bit of discouragement and it doesn’t sell as well as they would like.

Rich: So I know you work with a lot of businesses and entrepreneurs to help them develop their courses. Do you have platforms that you use? I know that I’ve had clients over the years who might use something like Teachable or whatever it may be. Are they using those kinds of things, or are they building something on their own websites?

Janelle: That’s a great question. It can be complicated, so I would try to simplify it. There are three options, and I will focus on the first two.

So you can use what I would call a hosted platform, which is as you mentioned, Teachable. Thinkific is another great one that I love. The hosted platform is essentially you don’t have to figure out the technology of making all the piece work together. You just get to focus on creating your content and selling it. And so that is a huge convenience for a lot of people, that’s why many people are drawn to that.

But you can also, if you want to create it on your website, you can use solutions that I call “learning management systems”, and I hesitate for reasons I’ll get to. And three, you can use solutions that WordPress plugin – for anyone who’s familiar with how that works – to create a solution. And that is perfect if you are a person who has maybe specific requirements that you’re trying to have set up, or if you just like a lot of control. That’s when a WordPress plugin and learning management system would work well for you.

The third group is something that I don’t really see in the entrepreneurial space. Mostly when I was working with colleges and universities I would see what I call a true learning management system. Those are things for anyone who has taken an online course in an academic environment; Blackboard, Canvas. They have advanced reporting features so that you can truly see where people are learning and where they’re at in the course.

So those are the three categories.

Rich: Alright. So for most of us we’re looking for a hosted platform to kind of take everything and make it easy for us, or we’re going to be using a WordPress plugin or a similar alternative to a WordPress plugin, because obviously there are a few random options out there, but those are two good options and that’s probably where we’re going to focus our attention.

So I guess the question is, when I’m using a hosted platform – to use your words – is there an audience built in for that, do I get some of that audience? I remember talking to somebody about Kickstarter, and they said don’t just expect that people are going to go to the platform and find you. There is some discovery, but that’s not really the way it’s made. Is that similar for some of these hosted platforms?

Janelle: Absolutely. Absolutely.  I mean, I think it gets back to what we were talking about, it’s the things that you have to learn, it’s not just creating the course. It’s not “if you build it, they will come”, so there’s marketing that you have to do.

Rich: Perfect. Alright, awesome. So we’re ready to build our first course, what is that first step in creating the course, what is the process assuming that we have some sort of audience we’re ready to sell to?

Janelle: So the way that I position it with students in my group programs, the first step is what I call “pre-validation”, finding out if your audience cares about your idea. So a lot of times people come and they have a great idea for a course. And my question is always, “Ok, that’s wonderful. Is this what your audience wants?” In other words, are you in love with this idea, or are they also feeling like this is something they want. So that’s the very first step, and I call it ‘pre-validation’ because there’s really two parts. You don’t truly validate until someone gives you money for something. So that’s the first step.

Rich: And how might I do that? I mean, and I agree with you, it doesn’t really matter until somebody votes with their wallet. So is it just a matter of we sent some sort of survey and start asking around to our audience or Facebook Group or what have you?

Janelle: Yeah. So I’ll preface this by saying I highly recommend having email lists.

Rich: Always. I hope everybody is taking notes now.

Janelle: I don’t care what kind of business you have, if it’s brick and mortar, if it’s online, have an email list. If you have an e-commerce, have an email list.

So the first step, yes, you absolutely can do a survey, and you want to survey your email list. Now if you also have a Facebook Group and maybe those people are not on your email list, then you can send the survey to them as well.

Surveys, interviews, the art of interviewing people in your audience or on your email list also works really well to get more of a qualitative data set instead of just survey answers, which can sometimes be a bit difficult to read in between the lines. You can sit down with 5-10 people, more if you can, and ask them a few questions as to what it is that they’re struggling with and what solutions they might have tried and what they’re looking for.

Rich: That makes a lot of sense. So maybe I’m getting too much into the weeds here, but I’m imagining sending out this email saying I’m thinking of launching a course on subject X. Do I ask people straight out I’m thinking of putting on an online course that you can take, is this something that you’d be interested in, how much would you be willing to pay for it? Like, what are some of the questions that you feel elicit the best, most telling results?

Janelle: Yeah. So this is where I differentiate with a couple people in my niche, because I don’t think that it’s a good idea to ask people how much they will pay. That is something, that conversation is something I prefer to do in what I call ‘customer discovery’ that I was referring to earlier. Because in a survey, they don’t know, they don’t know what’s in the course so it’s very difficult if you put yourself in their shoes to say I would pay x amount of dollars. So I definitely don’t recommend putting that question in.

I am a big fan of two methods. So, Ryan Levesque’s Ask book, if you’re not familiar with that, definitely check that out. He does what we call deep dive surveys where he has a few questions, and it really is asking about what are your challenges with this particular topic, not “would you buy this”, “is this a good idea”. Because as humans we’re often non-confrontational and we want to make people feel good, so we’re not going to say you’re idea is not anything I would every buy.

So remove that. Ask people what their challenges are on the topic. Ask them what solutions they might have tried. You’re looking to get insight into what they’re going through, where they are, and where they want to be, essentially.

Rich: Alright, so we get some feedback from these people, what do we do with it? How do we take that feedback that we get, I’m assuming not all of it is perfect, so how do we work with that?

Janelle: Yeah. So what I like to do – again, this is a process that I use for everything I launch including services. So with that initial survey you’re going to look at the responses and look for patterns. I’m looking for commonalities.

So for example I’m working with a client right now and we sent out a survey. He is an Airtable specialist, if anyone is familiar with the tool Airtable. Automations, and how to set up automations was one of the common themes that we saw people talking about in that survey response. Another one was just the basics of getting started.

So you’re looking for patterns, you’re looking for those commonalities because that’s going to tell you what it is that you want to teach, what it is that your audience wants. And also, if you had an idea in mind, that’s going to help you figure out if your idea is in alignment with your audience or if you’ve got to make a pivot.

So that’s what you’re looking for, and you’re looking for the words that they use as well. The actual words that they use is language that you can use in your marketing copy.

Rich: Oh my god, you’re saying exactly what I’m feeling. That’s fantastic. Alright, so that definitely gives us some direction. The one question that I have is about the structure of your course. I have seen and I’ve taken different types of courses, I know that some people like to present live, other people want to have everything available on demand, some people have time modules, and some people release everything all at once. Do you have any recommendations for how we might be thinking about delivering courses once we have them in place?

Janelle: This is a great question because it’s complex. Because ultimately it depends on where you are in the stage of delivering your course. And what I mean by that is, if you are creating your first course, I highly recommend doing that live the first time.

Rich: Really?!

Janelle: I do. And this is something I had to learn, Rich. Because I remind you, I came from an academic environment of corporate learning and online courses, where I didn’t have to worry about motivation. I didn’t have to worry about figuring out where the gaps where, that was already sorted. It’s different for entrepreneurs, it’s different for business owners.

You want to run it live because that’s going to give you an opportunity to find out where the ‘learning gaps’ are. In other words, what you might have missed and what’s keeping people from getting results. The best way to get that information is live. You’re going to find out what questions keep coming up and then you know, ok, I can address this when I convert it into a self-paced course. You’re going to find out where people get stuck, you’re going to see where you realize you forgot or left something out that’s really important. So that’s why I highly recommend live.

If you run it live a couple times and you’ve got it dialed in, then you can absolutely convert it into a self-paced course. I would say the last – there’s also a hybrid course – which is a mixture of self-paced content and live sessions. So my group program as an example.

Rich: So describe to me, what does a live event look like? Because I think we’re still talking about everything online. Is this a phone call, is this a screen share, is this video, or does that not matter as much?

Janelle: I think it does matter. And when I say live, I’m usually thinking of a webinar style. So you could use a tool like Zoom or Crowdcast, where you teach it. When I say ‘live’, what I mean is the session happens at a specific time, so it’s what we call “synchronous”. Your body is there for a specific time. It’s recorded so if people can’t make it they can watch it afterwards, but it is happening live, it’s not pre-recorded, it’s not videos that they can access later.

Rich: Ok. So once you’ve gone through that and now you’ve developed your courses and decided how you’re going to deliver it, what kind of marketing needs to go behind this? How do you recommend your students to market this?

Janelle: So again, going back to having an email list, I highly recommend marketing, especially if it’s your first course. Market to the audience that’s already engaged with you, it’s already connected and has bought into what your value is and what you have to offer. SO that answers the ‘who’.

As far as the ‘how’ to market, I’m a huge fan of email marketing, and there’s a lot of marketing methods. There are people who use Facebook ads, there are people who do webinars to sell. So it’s really coming down to figuring out what works for you and your audience. But I always advise people – especially if they’re getting started – use email marketing as that first channel, and then you can add layers on top of that.

Rich: Earlier we mentioned the question that you don’t like, what would you be willing to pay for this course. But now that we’ve developed this, do you have any recommendations on pricing, because on one hand you want to get as many people as possible to buy this. On the other hand, you’ve put some work behind this and hopefully there’s a lot of value for the end user, and certainly we’ve all made the mistake where we have undervalued something that we’ve put out there and actually people will step away because it doesn’t seem expensive enough. What do you tell your students when they’re trying to figure out what they should be charging for this?

Janelle: Yeah, a lot of people get stumped here. One of the things I like to remind people is, pricing is all about experimentation, think of it that way. So with any experiment, the first thing you’re going to do is your research. You want to research your market and see if there are other courses similar to yours on a similar topic and what’s the price spread. So that can give you some idea, give you a guide for where you might be shooting for.

The other thing – and this is just more pricing strategy – so I tell my students that I can’t tell you what to charge for your course, but I can give you the strategy and guidelines to help you come to a price.

So in addition to the research, one of the things that I highly recommend is having tiers. So instead of having one price, have two or three tiers, and each tier is going to have different features and benefits. And the reason you do that is because a conversation from “is it yes or no I’m going to buy this”, to “which one”, and that is super powerful.

So again, research to give you an idea of where the spread is, and then create your tiers and define what’s in each tier. And then what you’re looking for, the last thing I’ll say is, you’re looking for resistance. So again, pricing is experimentation.

So for example, in my group program, the first time I launched it 80% of the people bought my highest priced offer, which told me I was pricing too low. So I moved the price up next time. That is exactly what you do, so there’s experimentation and you’re looking for that friction or resistance. Then you know when you start getting a spread – and the numbers escape me – but there’s an ideal spread, I think it’s about 15% or 20% for the lowest tier. You want most of your people to be in the middle tier. And when you start getting a good spread, then you know you’ve hit that good point of your pricing.

Rich: You mentioned these tiers, and so obviously with each tier you get a little more. Have you found that there are certain things that are easy to create that add value, like maybe a cheat sheet, and other little things that are a bit more time intensive for you like a Facebook Group or 1-1 consulting that goes along with it? Are there certain things that you found to be very effective when it comes to upping those price points and different tiers?

Janelle: The easiest thing to get started with if you want to create a second higher tier, and one that is super valuable, is access to you. Like I said earlier, we’re familiar with online courses, they’re not new to very many people. So what I have found was there are a lot of people who are a little burnt out on self-made courses, because what we realized is that we’re human and we don’t tend to finish things. And we get stuck and we need help. So access to you or your community, those are two of the most easiest things to add for a higher tier that adds value and also is easy for you to implement.

Rich: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Janelle, this has been fantastic. This was on a topic I was very interested in, and your email coming in was just perfect timing. I’m really glad that you reached out to me, I learned a lot today and I’m sure other people have as well. If I wanted to send them somewhere they could learn more about you, where would that be?

Janelle: The best place is to head over to my website which is zencourses.co. And just head over to the website, sign up for the mailing list. I email every week thoughts on online learning and business, and I’ve got a group program coming up soon and I’d love if you’re just getting started in online course, for you to check it out.

Rich: And you also have a podcast, too, correct?

Janelle: I do. It’s called, Level Up your Course. I record in the summer so it’s on summer hiatus and it’s coming back at the end of July.

Rich: And obviously people can binge all the previous episodes as well. So be sure to check that out. Janelle, thanks again, I really appreciate your time and your expertise today.

Janelle: Thank you so much for having me. 

Show Notes:

Janelle Allen has helped teach countless businesses and entrepreneurs how to create, market and sell with their own online courses. Check out her website to learn more, and you definitely want to tune into her podcast for even more info on online learning and business.

Rich Brooks is the President of flyte new media, a web design & digital marketing agency in Portland, Maine, and founder of the Agents of Change. He’s passionate about helping small businesses grow online and has put his 20+ years of experience into the book, The Lead Machine: The Small Business Guide to Digital Marketing