Heidi Thorne is a self-publishing expert and advocate. Author of nonfiction books, eBooks, and audiobooks. Former trade newspaper editor.
Seems like almost every day I get an email or see a Facebook ad for a new online course from this or that expert. Currently, it's one of the hottest ways that coaches and experts are leveraging their expertise and knowledge into revenue streams. But, what exactly is an online course? And what should you consider if you want to create one for your coaching or consulting business?
An Online Course Is not the Same as a Course Delivered Online
Many academic colleges and schools now offer courses that are delivered online, in whole or in part. Usually they are eligible to earn college credit, require homework and may include significant interaction between the professor and students. That is not what we are discussing here.
The online courses we are talking about are those educational opportunities developed by a business as a service to its clients and community. College credit is not granted since the material may not meet any academic standards and is not associated with any official educational institution. The endgame for these online courses is sales for the company or organization offering them... sales of both the course and other services.
What Is an Online Course?
Basically, an online course offered for business purposes is educational or informational content delivered via the Internet. The course can be a single session or may be a series of sessions, within a specified time period or offered continuously with rolling admission.
Content is delivered to students through a variety of methods including video, audio, PDF files, social media, email, live online chat platforms (such as Skype, Google Hangouts, GoToMeeting, etc.), or a combination of these.
Delivery may be automated for some or all course content; email auto responder technologies that "drip" content to participants are popular. Dripping content helps keep participants on track and prevents overwhelm. It also can help curb wholesale unauthorized sharing of an entire course's content.
Homework activities are optional. Since the number of participants in these types of programs could number into the hundreds, grading and reviewing homework can be overwhelming and dramatically increase costs. Therefore, assignments that are given are often never collected or graded and are only assigned to give participants greater personal understanding of the material or prepare for an upcoming session.
Is an Online Course the Same as a Webinar?
Yes and no. A webinar is one way of delivering course content. Some educational content in online courses can be delivered using an interactive webinar platform. But since an online course can be delivered through a variety of methods, a webinar is simply one of the available delivery methods.
Due to the overuse of webinars for promotional purposes, calling a course a webinar can have negative connotations for some audiences. So calling it an online course—even if delivered via a webinar platform—garners a bit of academic, non-sales appeal... at least until they become overused and misused.
Pros of Creating Online Courses
Increased Revenue and Profit Potential. One of the most profit-zapping aspects of the coaching and consulting business is the one-to-one service delivery model. An online course or coaching program allows the business to serve multiple clients at the same time and to make more money with lower cost, albeit with less personalized attention.
Offers Additional Learning Modalities. Some people get more from video and audio than from reading. By offering online educational opportunities that employ multiple formats, more and varied client audiences can be reached.
Fills a Sales Funnel. Having an online course is a way for coaches and consultants to work with clients who are not quite ready for a full-fledged coaching program. The hope is that participants could become prospects for higher cost programs and services in the future.
Cons of Creating Online Courses
Technology Costs. As the online course trend has heated up, there are more software platforms and services available to help administer them. While these can be beneficial, they usually have a cost—often recurring monthly fees—and can take a while to learn how to use them.
May Require a Lot of Marketing. Coaches and consultants have often relied on personal networking to fill their sales funnels with coaching prospects. While that type of marketing may still work for online courses, it may need to be supplemented with a variety of online tools and efforts including email marketing, pay-per-click advertising, blogging, social media and more. This can dramatically ramp up a business's marketing costs since online conversion rates can be in the low single-digit—even fractional!—percentages.
Content Can Be Difficult to Protect. Though one would like to think that participants will only personally use or access course materials, sharing with their friends is a definite possibility. Though some course platforms and more restrictive policies can help reduce unauthorized sharing, participants may share such things as passwords and private links.
Course Development Takes Time. While many coaches and consultants may have archives of material that can be repurposed and developed into an online course, this is not a quick, cut-and-paste effort. Plus, developing material—especially video and audio—can be very time-consuming and may require calling in a professional to assist, thereby increasing cost.
Difficult to Price Right. If you take the material from an existing book and reformat it into video or audio content, what price should you charge? It's essentially the same information, right? Of course, costs to repurpose existing materials, costs to administer and promote the course, overhead and profit margins need to be included in any pricing model. But what value would potential buyers place on that reformatted work? This requires more serious competitive analysis with similar offerings on the market.
Increased Media Liability. Offering education can up a business' media liability exposure and commercial insurance coverage costs. Consult an attorney and a commercial insurance professional to determine appropriate preventive and protective measures.
Slipping into Sales. While the intent of many online courses is to sell and upsell clients, it's very tempting for course developers to slip into sales mode, with sessions or lessons becoming nothing more than disguised sales pitches. As with webinars which have unjustly received a bad rap for this very reason, online courses are in danger of gaining this reputation, too.
Online Course Over-Valuation?
I have to laugh when I get promotions for online courses that say something such as, "You're getting $4,997 of value for only $497." Really? No business that I know can offer 90 percent discounts and stay in business for very long.
True, added freebies in these packages are usually existing or repurposed material which costs very little (sometimes nothing) to include. So from a cost standpoint, it may not be such a bad idea and may help gain sales from extremely budget conscious clients.
Though if I'm the client, are those freebies actually something I want? In my own purchases of these types of packages, I really only want maybe one or two of the included features or benefits. So then I make the purchase based on whether I feel the price paid is fair for what I plan to use.
So offer added value features when you cost-effectively can, including those features which are of most value to your clients. But avoid making it sound too good to be true.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2016 Heidi Thorne
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 13, 2016:
So appreciate your reading and support, Larry! Cheers!
Larry Rankin from Oklahoma on September 12, 2016:
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 12, 2016:
Hi purl3agony! You've touched on a key difficulty with any online course, either for business or academic purposes: The tendency to race through it without really absorbing it. Self-pace almost turns into self-race! For business online courses, this could have the opposite effect of what the developer wanted which is to engage their audience for an extensive period of time. Glad you brought that up. Thanks for adding your insight to the conversation! Have a great week!
Donna Herron from USA on September 12, 2016:
Wow! I never realized all the different varieties and uses for online education programs. I find that with online self-paced courses, I work through the material enough to move on to the next part without spending enough time with it to truly learn the subject. So I tend to stay away from these courses, but I can see the appeal. Thanks for another interesting, well-researched, and well-presented article!
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 11, 2016:
Billybuc, I think you would create a fabulous online writing course! But, you're right, doing it could take time (and money!) away from other efforts. I've considered creating one, too. But, like you, weighing the opportunity against the costs has been keeping me from creating one. But we'll look forward to any educational offerings you create. In the meantime, enjoy your Sunday (it's beautiful here in Chi-town today)!
Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on September 11, 2016:
It has been suggested that I start an online writing course. As with most things, it's a matter of time for me, and a willingness to take time away from something else to allocate to a new endeavor. So far I've been unwilling to do so....as always, thanks for the information, Heidi, and Happy Sunday to you.
Heidi Thorne (author) from Chicago Area on September 11, 2016:
Hi Flourish! Thanks for the kind comments! I'm so with you on the sales vs. content focus. Although I've gotten some great insight from a few courses, I've actually become quite resistant to signing up for many of them due to this issue. I see online courses getting the negative "webinar" stigma in the not too distant future if the trend keeps going as it is. Appreciate you stopping by and chiming in. Have a wonderful rest of the weekend!
FlourishAnyway from USA on September 10, 2016:
I'm so impressed at the variety and depth of your marketing knowledge, Dr. Thorne. I used to participate in a lot of webinars but the obvious sales focus rather than content focus made me tire quickly of some of them. As long as a product is actually teaching or informing, I'd welcome it.