It seems like you can learn anything online today.
From marketing to woodworking and calligraphy to coding, there’s an online course for everyone. That’s great if you want to launch your own online course: it means you have demand. But it also means you have a challenge.
How do you create something that stands out from the crowd, engages your target market, and turns students into vocal supporters?
Some of the magic comes from your own great ideas and knowledge. But before you invest all your time into creating a definitive online course, there are a few steps you should take to test and validate your idea.
Just as an online course helps you scale your ability to teach people, marketing automation can scale your ability to validate your course. I’ve put together a three-part system that can help you build an online course that not only gets more sales but that actually gets completed and effectively helps people.
I’ve organized these tips from easiest to most challenging, so you can start with small steps and go deeper as you get more advanced.
Let’s get started.
Step 1: Create a Free Email Mini Course to Test Your Idea
Automation Hack: Use email marketing automation to send a free multi-part email mini course and track which parts of your course subscribers are engaging with the most.
Creating an email mini course is a great way to test out an idea you have for a more in-depth, paid ecourse. While you obviously shouldn’t give your entire course away for free, you can build an email mini course around one module in your course or one quick tip from each module in your course.
Get started by picking a topic you’re an expert in. Be sure that the topic you choose is close enough to the focus of your paid online course that you can use it as a test for your future paid product. Then, take your best existing content on your topic and edit it down to about 500 words for each day of your mini course.
Ready to jump right in? Download our email mini-course blueprint. It has 5 days’ worth of swipe copy, so you can just fill in the blanks, set up your automated daily emails, and get ready to test your course ideas. Click here to download it now:
Once you have written your content, create an email campaign that sends one email per day for each of your course’s modules. If you use Drip, you can pick the email course blueprint from the list of email campaign blueprints in your account.
Below is an example of what the pre-made mini course campaign looks like in Drip, but you can add or delete days if your course is longer or shorter.
Once you’ve created your free mini course, create a Drip opt-in widget or landing page that lets your site visitors know about the new course you’ve created. Place these opt-in points wherever your course’s audience may be. Is that on your website? On your social media platforms?
Brennan Dunn, of Double Your Freelancing, even places an email mini-course signup at the top of his home page.
When prospects opt into Brennan’s free nine-lesson course, they’re offered a coupon to upgrade to his premium course, which is full of templates, scripts, and resources ready for use right out of the box.
The purpose behind offering a free mini course is that it will offer value to subscribers while still enticing them to sign up for a bigger, better paid version. As he sings the praises of his free course, Brennan still emphasizes the incomparable value a lead can get from his paid course.
Once your email mini course is live, you can keep track of signups to get a sense of the interest in your topic.
You can also keep track of your open rates and click-through rates to see if there’s a point at which people stop opening and clicking on your emails, which might be a sign that interest is fading or your last lesson didn’t land.
You can even use Brennan Dunn’s self-paced email course workflow. This workflow automatically moves subscribers to the next lesson once they complete the one before it, which helps you easily see how many people are actually engaging with your content.
Of course, if you want to know what subscribers really think, there’s one easy way to find out: Ask them. Ask for replies with helpful feedback in each lesson or at the end of your course to determine what information was genuinely useful for your audience.
If you do get some good replies, follow up with those users to figure out what they still want to learn. This is one easy way to get content ideas for your next paid course.
Whatever you do, be sure to apply a tag to your email mini-course subscribers, since they’ll probably be interested in your paid course later.
Step 2: Presell Your Paid Course to an Engaged Audience
Automation Hack: Make an email campaign highlighting the benefits of your full paid course and send it to learners who were most engaged with your free mini course (they’re most likely to convert)—this will effectively presell your course before you’ve even finished crossing T’s and dotting I’s.
Sports teams sell tickets before the game takes place. Public transit sells a bus card before you ever take a trip. Movie theaters sell passes well before the movie premieres. Each of these industries is an expert at preselling vouchers for things that haven’t even happened yet.
So why shouldn’t you implement the same idea for your full paid course?
Preselling your paid course is how you can ensure it will be profitable before it’s up for sale. But how do you get people to buy your course before you’ve even finished it?
First, listen to the feedback you receive from your free email mini course. As I said before, asking for direct feedback from subscribers to your mini course can be one way of deciphering what people like or what people might find confusing.
Another way is to examine your email mini course data. Course lessons with higher open and click-through rates most likely had more value for your subscribers than ones that saw little engagement.
An automation tool allows you to see how many people have completed different milestones for your free course. Head to your subscriber list and start filtering subscribers by different criteria.
In the image below, I’m pulling up only the subscribers who have completed my Cool Mini Course email campaign.
Identifying those subscribers enables me to send targeted follow-up emails only to those who completed my mini course. This segment is ideal as they were the most engaged and are therefore more likely to want my full paid course.
Once I identify who my engaged subscribers are for my mini course, I want to set up a simple workflow that will drive subscribers to buy my course before I’ve finished making it.
The image below shows my workflow for preselling my full course. Anyone who has completed my free mini course email campaign is automatically entered into this workflow. They’re then sent my preselling email campaign, which includes information about my paid course as well as any sort of discount I’m offering to these subscribers.
If at any time this segment of subscribers purchases my paid course while they’re receiving emails from my Presell Cool Paid Course campaign, they’ll automatically stop receiving those emails and they’ll exit that workflow.
I also always want to make sure that I’m including a link to buy the course in every preselling campaign email I send.
Your campaign may have one email with a great offer for your paid course, or it could have several that are sent out a few days apart to keep your offer at the top of your subscribers’ minds.
Once subscribers start paying for your free course, it’s always a good idea to send out reminders to them about when the course will be available. The best way to do this is to tag new customers of your paid course when they make a purchase, then automatically send them an email campaign or broadcast containing that information.
In the image below, I’ve set up a rule in my Automation tab within Drip that will apply a tag to customers when they make a purchase through my payment processor.
Then I made a rule that will automatically send subscribers with that tag a one-time email containing important paid course information.
When my course is complete and ready to be sent, I’ll send the course to everyone on my list tagged as New Cool Course Customer with just a few clicks.
Step 3: Use Workflow Goals to Encourage Completion
Automation Hack: Create a workflow that will automatically send learners engaging email campaigns that will motivate them to complete the lesson they’re working through.
Now that you’ve tested your ideas and gotten feedback, you’re ready to create the final version of your course. But once it’s finished, how do you actually get people to complete it and get real value out of it?
Improving your rate of completion is important for a few reasons. Not only is it important because you don’t want your hard work to go to waste, but also because customers who complete your course and get results are likely to turn into brand promoters or even affiliates.
When Nate first launched his course, Sticky Academy, to train photographers on how to use a new product, his coaching emails were sent at regular intervals. Once someone signed up for his course, a portion of it would be emailed to the subscriber every few days. While this made sense at the time, trouble was looming.
Once a learner fell behind one, two, or three classes, Nate found they simply weren’t bothering to catch up. Only 10% of Nate’s first group of students finished his 8-week training program.
You might spend hundreds of hours assembling a meaningful and actionable email course, so a 10% completion rate just isn’t acceptable for you or your learners.
To boost that percentage, Nate started using Drip to create email campaigns that would react to the actions a subscriber was taking.
With Drip workflows, Nate was able to send emails to learners when they hit specific goals in the workflow. For instance, the email for the second lesson wouldn’t be sent until the the first lesson was completed.
By connecting Drip to his teaching platform via Zapier, Nate was able to track when learners were starting and completing lessons.
In the image below, you can see that Nate made the completion of a course section a goal in his workflow. Once learners completed a lesson, that event would be recorded in the teaching platform and relayed to Drip.
Conversely, if someone wasn’t opening their first lesson, or if days had passed without completing the lesson, Nate automated sending them “Coaching Call Reminder” emails. These “Coaching Call” emails would offer just the right encouragement as learners were getting stuck— just as an athletic coach would try to pump up his team if they were losing site of their goals.
How to Set up Your Coaching Automation
The screenshot above shows a portion of Nate’s workflow he made to help usher learners through his course when they were stuck. If a learner wasn’t completing a goal in a certain number of days, like finishing a specific lesson, Nate would send them an engaging Coaching Reminder.
To implement this idea, first head to your Automation tab in your Drip account, and create a new workflow. After you’ve named your workflow, decide how a learner will be entered into it.
In Nate’s case, when someone would complete a lesson in his course platform, an action was triggered in Zapier that would then tag that learner in Drip (since Drip doesn’t have a direct integration with the teaching tool Nate was using).
In the screenshot above, anyone who is tagged with “Completed Lesson One” will be entered into my workflow.
The goal of my workflow is to ensure this learner who has completed my first lesson stays engaged enough to complete the second lesson. One way to do this is to make an email campaign to send to learners between lessons.
I set up a one-day delay before sending someone who has completed my first lesson any emails about taking on lesson two (just to give them a breather). After that, I made a small email campaign to send them three emails that answer frequently asked questions about lesson one.
A follow-up email campaign is also a great place to ask for feedback, provide tips and tricks, and offer any other resources you might have that could steer learners toward success.
Then, I added a Decision to my workflow—did my learner get through my email campaign or not? If they did, I sent them a one-time email encouraging them to continue to the second lesson. If they didn’t, I resent them the post-lesson one campaign.
And if at any time the learner goes ahead and starts lesson two before my first campaign is completed, they automatically get moved into the next part of my workflow via a Goal.
Your coaching workflow can take on any form. Remember, though, that the important part of any coaching workflow is to keep your learner engaged and to keep providing value. The more motivational you are, the more motivated your learners will be.
By being able to communicate with each learner with messages tailored to where they were in their learning process, Nate’s course completion rate went from 10% to an impressive 40%.
You’re Three Steps Away from Your Life-changing Email Course
Email marketing automation can give you the blueprint to create your next email mini course, the analytics you need to better create your finished course, and behavior-based automation to help improve course completion rates.
Ready to get started using marketing automation to build a highly effective online course? Download our email mini-course blueprint for free to get started on step 1 right away. Just fill in this 5-day blueprint with your own helpful content and you’ll be ready to start testing your online course idea right away. Click here to download it now: