Course Creation for Dummies: Designing Programs Your People Can Actually Use

What do you know about course creation? It seems like a big mystery, but the fact is, almost anyone can create one. I’ve designed and consumed a lot of them, and they all follow some pretty basic rules. You just need to understand the structure, and most importantly, the place a course has in bringing you more business. Let’s dive in.

So, what’s a course? And why would anyone pay for one?

The question I am most frequently asked about courses is, “why would anyone even pay for a course? Isn’t all of this information freely available online?”

Obviously, the answer is yes. More or less. All the information is out there, a Google search away. I’ve talked before about the algorithmic trend of voice search. When you search for something, you’re asking a question. How do I? What is? Where and why and when and who.

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others. Where is a map search away. How is accessible in more formats than you will ever be able to consume. Videos, blog posts, Instructables. It’s endless. And there are whole websites that devote themselves to answering the question why. Message boards, Quora, even Reddit in a way.

But who and what and when are harder questions to answer. They are usually very person specific. My when is not your when. My what is generally situational. My who will never be your who.

A good course will supply at least one of those answers. We’ll get to the specifics in a bit, but this is the first step in understanding the value of a course.

Before we continue, it is important to note the difference between a course and a group coaching program. A course provides instruction, but not much in the way of practical application. It probably has some video modules, a workbook, maybe a Facebook group. Group coaching is much more interactive. There are webinars, care packages, emails, maybe even some one-on-one time. These types of programs will cost more simply because you’re paying for personalized time with your instructor.

But a course itself is usually just the materials. And I have to be honest with you. People are just not inclined to drop 1 or 2k anymore on a program that they may or may not ever finish. There aren’t comprehensive numbers, but what there is doesn’t look good. And I can tell you that in our secret copywriter back rooms, we’re talking about the low conversion rates. Practically no one is making the money they want off of one of these behemoths.

So what are we even doing here then?

Well, we’re not building one of those. For one thing, you probably don’t have the audience.

So, let’s play a little game instead. Let’s say you wanted to learn how to do something specific, like make homebrew. So you go to Google, and you say, “how do I brew my own beer?” (I’m more of a Riesling fan, and know almost nothing about beer, which makes it perfect for this game.) 44 million results later, and what I’ve got are some ads for equipment, some YouTube videos, and a bunch of articles.

Now, let’s say that you’re at work, or in class, or putting the baby to bed, or any place where watching a YouTube video isn’t going to work for you. Maybe you just hate video. Either way, you start clicking through some of those how-to articles.

As it turns out, brewing your own beer is, like, complicated and stuff. There’s all this equipment to buy, and different supplies, and it seems like maybe there’s a couple of ways to cheat by using canned malt extract (and don’t EVEN read the comments, because that’s contentious as hell), and by the time I’m five clicks in, I’m back to Riesling.

But I’ll tell you what. If one of those sites had offered me a complete homebrew homestudy, I’d probably have dropped fifty to a hundred bucks on it, just to figure this whole thing out. Out of curiosity.

And that is about what the market will bear right now. Right around a hundred bucks. Maybe even less--another course designer friend says that courses should be the same price as books.

As usual, this is actually good news for you, our intrepid content creator. Because you probably have the bones of a cheap course in your head right now.

First, start with a topic.

If you’re a service provider, your course is the thing that you do over and over for clients or customers. It’s the thing you’ve got a system for. Maybe you already have an actual checklist, or a clear templated process. Maybe you have employees who do the thing. Whatever it is, you’ve been doing this for long enough to be able to teach it clearly to others.

If you sell a physical product, your course is probably related. Three of my homebrew links were for supply companies. They can (and should) supply that information for free. That’s the very definition of good content marketing.

But that doesn’t mean there’s not a place for a more advanced instructional component. And as a storefront, you score a second win by offering a physical copy of your course. Not everyone will order the DVDs. But some people will. (The proof of this is in the number of print books that Amazon continues to sell. Hard copies of things aren’t going away anytime soon.)

Once you have a topic in mind, we can move on to the structural components.

Figuring out your MVP.

Your Minimum Viable Product for a course is basically the least amount of work that you can do that people will pay money for. So, knowing what you now know about people’s unwillingness to buy a course in the first place, what makes one desirable?

In our homebrew example, the point at which I became overwhelmed was figuring out a recipe. I hadn’t even looked at supplies, or the actual process, or the time involved. No, I froze up right around the place where I couldn’t just wander over to my local brewing supply company and say, “gimme this.”

And that’s the place you want to start from. Where does the information get hard? Where do most people get into technical explanations that a newbie just does not understand?

The whole point of a course is understanding that we all start out with the same level of knowledge. Which is to say, none at all. It’s easy to evangelize for something that you know because it means something to you. It’s much harder to explain that thing in terms that a complete layperson can easily understand.

But your knowledge is valuable, and that thing you do is worth sharing. You just have to make it accessible.

So what’s that actually look like?

In terms of actual information sharing, you want to keep things as simple as possible. My general recommendation is no more than five modules, but it’s really about how the information sorts itself out.

To figure out how to do this yourself, go find a comparable course or two that’s already in your niche. You’re not looking to duplicate them, you’re looking to see how they’re structured. Look at CreativeLive, Masterclass, Coursera, Skillshare. The thing you do probably already has a course out there. You don’t need to buy it, you just need to read the sales page.

Some of you might be discouraged by this, but I would suggest you view this as proof of concept instead. If someone else is already making money off of this thing, then you probably can too.

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Once you see how others are doing it, your job is to do it better. Your impulse will be to add things, but the true magic here is in the subtraction. What can you throw out that is unnecessary fluff? What information complicates the issue?

Remember, you’re trying to distill your thing to make it easier to learn and understand. In the age of information, THIS is what people will pay for. Your buyers aren’t stupid. They just haven’t learned the thing yet. Make it easy to learn, and they will thank you for it.

(On the other hand, if you are too basic, they will curse your name forever to all of their friends. How will you know? Offer a money back guarantee. You’ll know.)

The components of a good course.

Do the best you can with your video. For a hundred bucks, no one is going to expect perfection. They are going to expect it to be better than an Instagram story, but beyond that, you have a lot of options. You can do PowerPoint presentations, instructional videos, lectures even. How would you have wanted to learn this thing when you were just starting out?

You should ask the same question about your physical materials. What kind of resource would have been valuable to you when first learning the thing? Is that a checklist? Printable worksheet?

It’s important to note that fewer people will print the thing than you think. Providing alternate resources like a spreadsheet or doc template are helpful. Fillable PDFs are also an option, but they are a surprising amount of hassle, so that’s advanced stuff.

What a course actually does for you.

At this point, you may be sold on the idea of a course, but not sure of the practical benefits. A course in the $10-100 range works much differently if you’re a service provider or product vendor, so we’ll look at both.

If you sell a physical product, a course demonstrates your expertise. You sell tea? A Tea 101 course is an obvious choice, but then you can talk about how to blend your own teas, herbal tisanes, additions that you can make at home. Maybe you sell yarn. How-to knit and crochet courses definitely, but also more technical things like dye matching or weaving. The goal here isn’t necessarily going to be to sell a lot of courses. For you, simply having them says that you know your shit, which results in more product sales and referrals over time.

If you provide a service, a course can do more for you. If you’re a photographer, you can teach photography skills, yes, but you can also teach a DIY wedding planning course, or a client acquisition course, etc (I worship at the altar of Jenna Kutcher, and I am the world’s worst photographer).

If you’re a coach, then you should have a course (probably more than one). In this case, you use courses to move people further down your pipeline. An email subscriber buys a $47 journaling course, and then a $297 three month productivity group coaching program, and then subscribes to your monthly membership program, and then buys a several thousand dollar coaching package. Once you have all of those, it’s time to look at a certification course or a mastermind program.

Either way, a course allows people to work with you on their terms. They are looking for ways to get to know you. A course is a low stakes way to do that.

Okay great. But how do I sell it?

Ah, the million dollar question. How do you sell the damn thing?

That also depends on what else you sell. So, if you’re in the physical realm, then you probably wanna go after the SEO. Remember my homebrew example? If any one of those links had offered me the homebrew homestudy, I’d have at least clicked on it. SEO is a fantastic way to sell any physical product, and the more targeted you are, the better.

If you are a service provider of most varietals, then a low dollar course is how your customers get to know your work, but they have already gotten to know you long before they plunk down the cash.

If you work locally, that means things like bus benches and flyers and speaking engagements. Really. People need to get to know you, and they can’t do that if you aren’t accessible.

If you work primarily online, you are looking for the same kind of visibility, just in different ways. That means you probably need to have a newsletter, and an opt-in at a minimum. But you can also use things like FB groups, a podcast, guest posting, speaking gigs, etc. As a service provider or consultant, your top of funnel activities are going to be significantly different.

(I’m launching the beta version of Curb Appeal, how to invite them in and keep them stepping down your funnel, in August. It explains the differences in the stages of customer awareness, and what SPECIFIC marketing activities you should be doing at each stage. If you want more details about the program, sign up for my newsletter.)

The obvious answer, of social media advertising? I’m honestly not a huge fan for this purpose.

When it comes to social media, especially if you are an ad, you are playing a losing game. Unless you have a healthy following already, trying to build one AND using it to sell something is not likely to yield great results, unless you have scads of money to throw at the thing.

I mean, be honest--how many courses have you purchased because you saw a Facebook or Instagram ad? Shoes, sure. But a course? It absolutely has its place, but it’s much better to use social media advertising to drive traffic to your website and then target your visitors appropriately from there.

To sum up.

When we talk about a course, we’re talking about an instructional method. And because information is now so easily obtainable, the value is in the distillation of the information to its most necessary ideas.

And while we can and should charge for the expertise required to parse the information into digestible chunks, we shouldn’t have any illusions that that information is unique, or deserves a premium price.

Instead, what you should focus on is a product that creates value and demonstrates your skill. If you are a good teacher, then your customers will value the benefits of your expertise and interactions with them.

Increasingly, that is what we are willing to pay high dollar for. We see the value in actual service. Coaching, consulting, physical products, service providers, all of those things are materially worth paying for.

And a great course will help you get them there.