Thousands of creative people are earning an income by creating and selling online courses. One of the most common questions that content creators have about selling online courses is how much money can they make selling them—but how much does it cost to actually create an online course?
In this post, we'll be breaking down the various costs involved in creating and selling online courses. We'll be taking a look at the tools and hardware you'll need to create your course materials, an overview of third-party services you may need, as well as some “hidden” costs that might surprise you.
For our purposes, we'll be focusing primarily on producing an online course on a shoestring budget. There's nothing stopping you from spending more if you can, but we want this guide to be useful to all content creators. As such, we'll be emphasizing a DIY guerrilla approach.
Equipment, Hardware, and Tools for Building an Online Course
Before we start looking at the equipment you'll need to create your online course, we're going to assume that you either already have a laptop or PC, or access to one. With that out of the way, let's talk accessories.
Content Creation Peripherals and Accessories
Aside from a decent laptop or PC, you may need some peripheral hardware to create your online course. This includes hardware such as webcams, microphones, and studio lighting.
Good webcams are very inexpensive these days. You can pick up a solid high-definition webcam, like the Logitech C920 HD Pro Webcam, for between $49 and $79 depending on where you shop. You could go even cheaper if you're on a budget, with models such as the Logitech C270retailing for less than $22 via Amazon Prime. Regardless of which model you're looking at, try to invest in a webcam that supports HD recording if you can—a resolution of 720p should be good enough for most content creators.
Virtually all webcams have built-in microphones, most of which should be perfectly suitable for most creatives' recording needs. If you do need to invest in a dedicated microphone, you can pick up a decent omnidirectional tie-clip microphone for less than $20 on Amazon (again, if you have a Prime membership).
A dedicated studio lighting rig might seem like an indulgence, but a properly lit shoot can take your video content to a whole new level. Again, you don't need to spend an arm and a leg on a dedicated lighting setup. You can find individual studio lights for as little as $20 apiece or entire lighting setups for around $100.
By now, you might be worried that the costs for creating an online course are beginning to mount up. Fortunately, when it comes to software tools for content creators, there are free or very inexpensive versions of most commercial software programs that are ideal for course creators on a budget.
If you're producing a primarily text-based course or membership site, Google Docs and Google Drive are your best friends. Not only are all of these tools completely free, they also make it effortless to keep your files synced across multiple devices automatically. Docs also supports export to PDF, which is ideal for course creators who want to create workbooks, cheat sheets, and other support documentation for their students to download.
Even specialized software tools such as nonlinear editing software programs can be completely free or considerably less than tools like Adobe Premiere. HitFilm Express, Lightworks, and OpenShot are all free, meaning you can save some of your budget for other expenses rather than spending hundreds on costly software licenses.
Having broken down what we might need in terms of equipment, let's take a second to tally up the total potential cost of our equipment so far. For the sake of example, we'll list the lowest and highest costs you could expect to pay for recording equipment based on the figures above (excluding sales tax, etc.):
Webcam: $22 — $80
Microphone: $20 — $60
Lighting rig: $20 — $100
Minimum Cost: $66
Maximum Cost: $240
Hosting, Marketing, and Promoting Your Online Course
Now that we have a better idea of how much we can expect to pay for our recording equipment, it's time to look into how much we should expect to pay to host, market, and promote our online courses.
Whether you're focusing on video or producing a text-based course, your content needs somewhere to “live.” This means hosting fees.
Many platforms, including YouTube, offer free video hosting. This sounds great, but there's a catch—you're essentially giving up control over how Google uses your video. This means that you're at the mercy of whatever Google (or whichever free hosting service you use) decides to do with your video.
Sites like Vimeo offers tiered hosting plans, the cheapest of which is $7 per month when billed annually. This tier offers up to 5GB of video per week or 250GB of uploaded video per year. Alternatively, some services, like Wistia, charge by either the number of videos uploaded to its platform or by how much bandwidth is used serving those videos.
Of course, it'd be remiss of us if we failed to mention that Podia offers our members video hosting as part of our monthly subscription plans. This means you only pay one fee instead of several, and there are no hidden surprises or “gotcha” clauses to worry about.
The cheapest of the best-known email marketing tools is MailChimp, which offers plans for as little as $10 per month for email blasts to up to 500 unique contacts. Other platforms range in price from between $20-40 per month, with some providers such as Drip charging around $40 per month.
It's worth noting that Podia also offers a full suite of email marketing and automation tools to our subscribers as part of their monthly membership.
Advertising and Promotion
Social advertising offers amazing value for the money and a range of sophisticated targeting options that can help you find the right audience for your online course.
Facebook Ads, in particular, can be incredibly cost-effective. You can launch a Facebook ad campaign for as little as $5. You won't reach that many people with such a modest ad budget, but Facebook's remarkably flexible pricing structure means almost anybody can start advertising their online course for a fraction of the price of a traditional display campaign.
Calculating the cost of a social ad campaign is a little like asking how much a car costs; there are just too many variables to give a definitive answer without more information. That said, Facebook does an excellent job of putting you in control of your ad spend and helping you get the most out of each campaign.
Generally speaking, you should expect to pay around $0.27 per click on a Facebook ad.
Total Potential Promotion Costs
As we did with our equipment section, let's take a moment to add the total potential monthly cost of our hypothetical promotional budget. For the sake of example, we've capped our maximum monthly social ad spend at $100 for simplicity:
Hosting services: $7 — $75
Email marketing: $10 — $40
Social ads: $5 — $100
Minimum Cost: $22 (per month), $264 (per year)
Maximum Cost: $215 (per month), $1,315 (per year)
Creative Ways to Stretch Your Course Creation Budget
So far, we've covered some of the things you'll need to create your online course on a budget, but there are even more ways to make your budget go further—a lot further. In some cases, you won't even have to spend a penny.
Make Use of What You Have
Got a smartphone? If so, then you already have the means to shoot professional-quality video right in your pocket.
Contemporary smartphone cameras have come a long way in recent years. Apple's iPhone, in particular, has an exceptional built-in camera that can shoot footage on par with most prosumer cameras. For most creators, footage shot on an iPhone will be more than sufficient for your online course content. Check our our in-depth look at how to shoot professional-quality footage using your iPhone for tips on getting the most out of your footage.
Similarly, you don't need a fancy lighting rig to shoot great-looking footage for your online course. In many cases, you don't need special lights at all. With a little know-how, you can achieve amazing results using natural light or the lights you already have at home. Knowing the fundamentals of how to light a scene is much more important than how much your lights cost, and with a little planning, you can light your scene for next to nothing. For detailed tips on various lighting setups and the most common lighting mistakes to avoid, check out our guide to shooting video for online courses.
Promoting Your Online Course for Free
Earlier, we talked about how cost-effective social advertising can be and how to make the most of a limited ad budget. But what if you don't even have an advertising budget? Don't worry! There are plenty of ways to get the word out about your course without spending a cent.
Blogging and search engine optimization (SEO) are both highly effective strategies for promoting your online course. Just having a blog makes an amazing difference in your online visibility. In fact, merely having an active blog increases the chances of you being found via search by an incredible 434%! This makes blogging one of the most effective tools at your disposal for promoting your online course completely free.
One very important consideration to bear in mind when it comes to blogging is that it can take time to build an audience and rise in the search rankings. It's a cliche, but blogging really is a marathon, not a sprint.
How to Recoup Your Costs by Pricing Your Online Course Smartly
When it comes to budgeting for course creation, many creatives tend to focus on the upfront costs. This is understandable, as it's important to know exactly how much money you should expect to spend to actually create and promote your online course. However, one aspect of selling online courses that gets far less attention—but is just as important—is how to price your course correctly and how this can help you recoup your production costs quickly.
Total revenues, net profits, and ROI may sound like they belong firmly in the dry, stuffy realm of professional accountants, but an understanding of these principles can help you price your online course correctly. This, in turn, will help you not only recoup your production costs, but—hopefully—turn a nice profit, too.
When it comes to pricing, there are two main questions to consider:
How much did your course cost you to produce?
How much money will you need to make from selling your course to recover this cost?
Of course, recouping your costs should be the bare minimum you should aim for, but we don't want to stop there. We want you to earn an income by selling your course, and there's a lot more to consider than just recovering the costs it took to create your course in the first place. That's why we created this detailed guide to pricing your online course correctly. There's a fair bit of math, but it could help you recover your costs and turn a nice profit.
Your skills and your time are valuable—don't undersell yourself or your content!
Bringing It All Together
Now that we've covered some of the most common costs associated with creating and selling an online course, it's time to add up those totals to see what kind of range we're looking at.
Since some of our hypothetical costs are one-off purchases and others are monthly subscriptions or ongoing expenses, we've calculated the totals below based on one year of access and the one-time costs of buying your gear.
Total Minimum Cost: $330
Total Maximum Cost: $1,555
As you can see, there's a world of difference between these two figures. As we've mentioned throughout this guide, there are dozens—if not hundreds—of variables that can have a major impact on your potential content creation budget, such as sales and promotions, where you live, how many impressions your social ads get, how your customers choose to pay for your course....
You get the idea.
Hopefully, this guide has shown you that, if you're thrifty and willing to shop around, you can save a small fortune on producing and selling your online course, or even do it for next to nothing.
Here at Podia, we understand the challenges of growing a content business from the ground up, which is why we make it as easy as possible for creatives to focus on what really matters—creating awesome online courses that your students will love.