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Is WordPress a good solution for selling online courses?

WordPress is GREAT for blogs. But is it the best platform for creating and selling online courses? We break down the pros and cons of using WordPress to host your courses.

WordPress powers almost 28% of the internet.

Think that’s crazy? Here’s an even wilder statistic for you. Over 1,100,000 new domains are registered with WordPress every six months.

And one more for good measure:

WordPress claims 59.9% of the content management system (CMS) market, with its nearest competitor -- Joomla -- holding only 6.6%.

So calling WordPress prolific would be an understatement. If you’re in the market to sell online courses, it only makes sense to use this tried-and-trusted platform, right?

After all, your website is probably already built on it.

But the answer may not be as cut and dry as you think. Today, we’ll explore two questions that every course creator wants to know:

First, can you sell online courses on WordPress?

And secondly, should you?

Let’s get started with the first.

Can you sell online courses using WordPress?

Short answer: yes.

You can use WooCommerce, a free plugin, to sell online courses. In fact, the overwhelming majority of WordPress-powered ecommerce sites run on WooCommerce.

Just how overwhelming? To the tune of 94.3% of all stores on WordPress. The competition barely makes a scratch.

So, if you’re considering using WordPress, and moreover, WooCommerce to sell digital downloads, online courses, or memberships, it definitely can be done.

And it has been.

Chris Lema set up courses using the WooCommerce plugin. However, although the base plugin was free, he notes the additional learning management system (LMS) and membership plugins had a steep initial cost.

Altogether, launching a new course series on behalf of a friend ran Chris close to $400.

Brent Ozar, another online course leader, made WooCommerce work too.

He used many of the same plugins as Chris, with one significant -- and expensive -- difference.

He wanted to create subscriptions out of his memberships, enabling students to pay on a monthly or annual basis.

For that, he needed WooCommerce’s subscription extension.

So you definitely have options, albeit at different costs depending on what extensions you need to achieve your goals.

Fortunately, although WooCommerce dominates online stores on WordPress, LMS plugins have a much more diverse landscape.

Just swing by WordPress to check out how many potential solutions there are. More than can fit on seven pages.

This is just a peek at the first page.

Which brings us back to the initial question: can you sell online courses on WordPress? Yes.

But is it the best option for you?

For that, let’s dig into the benefits and disadvantages of using WordPress.

3 benefits of using WordPress to sell your courses

1. Infinite plugin customization

We’ve already talked about your options for an LMS. But what we haven’t talked about is the rest of your options: all 55,993 of them.

In other words, plugins.

If you’re looking for scalability and customization without hiring a full-time web developer, there aren’t many options better than a WordPress website.

Ever heard the phrase “there’s an app for that”? WordPress plugins work the same way.

Here’s what I mean.

If you want social sharing buttons, Ultimately Social makes a killer solution that covers 76 platforms.

If you want to optimize your site for search engine visibility to draw in more students, Yoast SEO can check your keywords, readability level, and background technical details -- and that’s just the free version.

The premium version does even more.

Want to track your sales or capture leads for your online courses directly from WordPress?  Salesmate can take care of that.

How about email marketing? MailChimp makes it a cinch to send out beautiful, jaw-dropping emails and nurture your leads. (That’s why we integrate with it, too.)

The list goes on.

The greatest advantage of selling your online courses on a WordPress site is the sheer degree of control you have -- provided you’re willing to work your way through the plugin database to get what you need.

You can make good on this benefit while still reaping the rewards from Podia’s ultra-easy CMS, by the way. This approach works wonders for Work Brighter, who had this to say:

“Having a CMS totally designed around courses and paid content makes it as easy to create premium content as the WordPress CMS makes it to create free content.”

Talk about combining the best of both worlds.

Now, let’s look at the second big plus for WordPress: no monthly maintenance costs.

2. No monthly maintenance costs

Check out the average cost of a SaaS site (websites that sell digital downloads fall into this category). Depending on your scale, set up costs range from less than $2,000 to just under $10,000.

Why are the setup costs so high? Some of this may be because plugin and WordPress themes are typically licensed on an annual basis.

So if you’re looking to step around monthly costs associated with selling your online courses, WordPress is definitely a strong contender for your business.

However, you’ll probably still encounter a few monthly costs for premium marketing services like MailChimp, and in some cases, not find the plugins you need.

If you’re technically inclined like online course teacher and developer Paul Jarvis, you can always create your own plugin. If you’re not quite as savvy, you may need to hire a professional developer to make it happen.

And don’t discount the necessity of marketing materials from your budget. Some estimates put marketing budgets in the education industry as high as 11% of the total budget.

While those efforts typically pay themselves back, that revenue bite can present an obstacle for homegrown businesses.

Still, if you’d prefer to keep your monthly costs down to just marketing, selling your online courses on WordPress can definitely be a solution for you.

The final benefit of WordPress is a big one, even though it’s behind the scenes: SEO.

3. Search engine optimization

Almost 39% of all ecommerce traffic comes through search, which is why we’re so big on the importance of SEO for launching your online course.

If you’re maintaining your SEO health, your online courses will feel the benefits whether they’re on your main domain or a subdomain.

And, on WordPress sites, you don’t have to do a lot of the legwork yourself, because WordPress takes care of the background technical issues with Google-friendly architecture.

Playing nice with Google isn’t just a bonus. It’s an absolute must-have for any business.

Currently (and for the foreseeable future), Google holds a gargantuan market share of the search engine world at 71.98%.

Meaning that while you’ll still need to optimize your content and get familiar with the basics of SEO -- like keywords, metadata, and snippets -- you can leave most of the technical grunt work to WordPress.

Plus, thanks to the aforementioned plugins like Yoast, SEO on WordPress isn’t just Google-friendly -- it’s user-friendly, too.

Check out this example from the free version of Yoast SEO where you can access your post’s metadata, keywords, excerpts, and catch common SEO issues straight from your WordPress dashboard.

So whether you’re new to SEO or could create an online course for it, WordPress has an edge for out-of-the-box search engine readiness.

Customization, no maintenance fees, and hit-the-ground-running SEO paint a pretty picture for WordPress to sell your online courses  -- but it’s not the full picture.

For that, you have to consider the major roadblocks as well. Here are just three of them.

3 disadvantages of using WordPress to sell your courses

1.  Limited support

When you’re using nine different plugins to sell your online courses, that means you have nine different -- and limited -- avenues of support.

After all, not all plugins play nicely with each other or the latest WordPress releases.  Most plugin developers have dedicated technical support, but they can’t fix an issue that isn’t on their end.

It also means you have nine potential speed bumps that can drag your page load speed to a crawl.

If your page takes over 2 seconds to load, you lose almost 10% of your visitors.

If it takes 7? Say goodbye to a third of them.

Do those statistics have you itching to check out your website speed? We’ve mentioned a few great tools in our previous articles, but one of our more recent discoveries is Gift of Speed.

Using it is super simple. Just bounce over to the homepage and plug your website URL in.

Then select the testing location closest to your servers. If you aren’t sure where your servers are, choose the option closest to your audience -- or where you think they are.

Hit the “test now” button and give it a minute to load.

I’m running this test on a brand sparkling new WordPress website with two plugins and a medium-tier hosting package.

Let’s check out some of the results.

Not too bad, though not exactly stellar for an otherwise empty website. Keep scrolling to get more details.

Click on the highlighted red bars to get more information about the potential problem.

Once you’ve looked through the offending resources, scroll all the way to the bottom of the page to find tools you can use to compress your CSS (more on the importance of this later), optimize your images, and more.

For more technical issues, we highly recommend contacting a professional web developer, but many of the tools on Gift of Speed are quick plug-and-play solutions to common errors.

However, a slowed-down website isn’t your worst-case scenario.

If your website goes down and takes your online courses along with it -- whether that’s because of too many plugins, issues with your hosting provider, or just plain bad luck -- you can expect to have angry customers on your hands.

Not to mention, lost revenue. The longer you’re down, the more your revenue bleeds.

Hopefully, you’ll be able to identify the issue and make a swift recovery, but only 2% of businesses can get back online within the same hour of going down.

And users don’t care what the source is. 33% of American customers say they’ll consider hopping over to your competitors after just one instance of bad service -- such as being unable to reach their courses.

More than half of the same population have canceled a subscription or membership because of poor service.

So it won’t just cut into your immediate revenue: it can hit your recurring, monthly income as well.

Fortunately, you can bypass this problem if your materials aren’t hosted off your WordPress site directly.  

If you use a fully-hosted solution like Podia, all of your courses, memberships, and digital downloads stay safe and secure on our servers, meaning that your business doesn’t have to go down -- even if your main domain does.

It also means your products -- and customers -- won’t have to face the many security problems that plague WordPress sites, which is our second big disadvantage to using WordPress to sell your courses.

2. Security vulnerabilities

Just today, over 67,500 websites have been hacked.

300 more were added to the live list in the time it took to get that screenshot.

Just because your website or business is small doesn’t mean that it’s off the radar for the more unscrupulous.

But, backtrack for a minute: when is the last time you had to update WordPress? Probably not that long ago, right? On average, WordPress pushes major releases every 152 days.

Why do they update so much? Because they’re continually finding new security flaws or vulnerabilities, among other maintenance tasks.

Sucuri, a full-service security platform, says WordPress sites comprise the vast majority of infected domains their clients bring to them: 83% in total.

While that paints a scary picture, it’s worth noting that some of this may be a sampling issue. Because so many more sites run off WordPress than other CMS, it’s logical that more WordPress websites will encounter security issues, too.

But it still points to an inherent problem with WordPress: it’s vulnerable.

Why do I say “inherent”? Because the vulnerability is built into its code.

Its open source code, to be precise.

You can check it out on GitHub yourself if you’re curious.

Aren’t familiar with open source?

Basically, open-source means anyone, anywhere, can dig into the architecture of the CMS. While this feature is what makes its plugin market so popular and allows for so much customization, it also creates some significant security issues.

Even just skipping a few updates for a plugin can potentially expose your customers to threats.

And while updating WordPress and all of your plugins may be a simple step -- most of the time -- it’s not a very convenient one.

What if you go away on vacation for a week? How many of your customers could be at risk?

One final note about WordPress security. Websites installed off the WordPress CMS aren’t automatically provided with SSL encryption, another absolute must-have for ecommerce sites.

Even if you’ve never heard of SSL certificates, you’ve undoubtedly seen them in action. We have one (and provide them for free to all of our customers, as well) to keep your information secure.

They’re vital to keeping customers’ information secure, and in an effort to make the internet a more secure place, Google also provides a small signal boost for websites with this encryption.

Security vulnerabilities and limited support aren’t the only big disadvantages. For our last disadvantage of using WordPress, it’s time to talk about technical burdens.

Specifically, the ones placed on you.

3. High technical burden

Let’s say you decide to get a new plugin or switch to a new theme. Maybe it goes smoothly. Or perhaps it leaves your website covered in code-gibberish known as shortcodes.

Shortcodes are WordPress-specific types of markup that save a ton of time by letting you type in a quick command to embed videos and enable different features. Some themes and plugins use their own.

Which is where things get tricky.

Let’s say you install a contact form plugin like Contact Form 7.

To drop it into your posts, you use its custom shortcode.

It’s easy-peasy. Just plug it into your post editor like so:

And just like that, you instantly have a contact form on your post.

But after searching around for some plugins, you decide you’d rather use a different contact form. So you go into your plugin directory, deactivate your old one, and load up the new one.

Only to discover unsightly gibberish now covers half your posts.

In this example, it’s not a big deal to go in and remove the single line, but if you’ve built entire pages out of shortcodes because your theme comes jam-packed with them, you’re in for a headache that could take hours to clean up.

Shortcodes aren’t the only, or even worst, technical obstacle with WordPress sites, however.

Want to add a new feature to your website in a way the visual builder won’t let you do?

Better study up on HTML and CSS.

Don’t get me wrong, HTML and CSS aren’t necessarily hard to pick up -- there are tons of great online platforms to teach you -- but if done inefficiently, it can do damage to your SEO the same way plugins can by slowing down your page.

Minification, depicted below, is a major technique to combatting this, but it makes reading and writing code -- especially if you’re unfamiliar -- that much more tedious.

Add to it that page load speed was rolled out as a ranking factor in Google’s July 2018 update and you start to see the potential ramifications of trying to hack (no pun intended) more advanced customization by yourself.

Note that although page speed is indicated specifically for mobile search, Google also moved to a mobile-first index in July 2018, as well.

To put that in more real-world terms, it means the mobile version of your website will be considered your primary site for ranking purposes.

You can get an idea of how it works from this diagram:

Meaning any factors that impact mobile ranking will impact all of your SEO.

But there’s one final nail in the technical burden coffin.

Thinking about running membership software in conjunction with your courses? You should. Membership websites are a great source of recurring revenue and way to build an online tribe.

Unfortunately, they have the scalability of a dried-out rubber band on WordPress.

If your package isn’t geared for top performance and your memberships start ticking up, the lack of cached materials on WordPress sites will put some heavy demands on your hosting provider.

Demands they may not be able to meet without top-tier packages, if at all.

So with all of that said, what’s the verdict: is WordPress a good solution for selling your courses?

So, what are my options?

Our homepage makes a case for choosing Podia pretty well, I think.

If you’re determined to dig into the weeds and comfortable with getting technical -- as well as some steep start-up costs -- WordPress may be a good solution for you.

If you want to hit the ground running, however, and by step the security issues, technical knowledge, and get 24/7 support for selling your courses and online course marketing magic, a fully-hosted solution like Podia may be just what you need.

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The bottom line

WordPress dominates the internet. But does it have a place in the world of online courses? Mostly, that depends on what you need. There are three big selling points -- and drawbacks -- to using WordPress to sell your courses:

  • If you use WordPress, you can customize your course pages almost infinitely thanks to the nearly 56,000 plugins available.

  • Most plugins and themes are licensed on an annual (or longer) basis, so after your initial startup fees, you can skip out on monthly maintenance. Unless you want marketing tools.

  • WordPress is super SEO-friendly from the get-go. You don’t need to learn the technical sides of SEO to make sure your underlying site architecture is Google-approved.

  • On the flipside, however, the more plugins you use to customize your site, the harder it’s going to be to get support and narrow down what the issue is if something goes wrong.

  • Plus, if you host your courses on WordPress and your website goes down, your customers will lose access. They won’t like that.

  • WordPress is an open-source software -- that’s part of what makes it so flexible. It also creates a lot of potential security vulnerabilities for your customers.

  • And last but definitely not least, if you don’t like digging into code, you’re not going to like the technical burden of setting up your courses on WordPress.

Ultimately, deciding where and how to host your online courses will come down to what fits your budget and goals. If you’re handy with a code editor and like getting your hands (proverbially) dirty with technology, WordPress may be the best solution for you.

But if you prefer to do things the easy way -- and we may be biased -- Podia could be your new online course sale BFF. Get started for free today.

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Join our demo and see exactly how Podia can help your business thrive.

About the author

Lauren Cochran is the Director of Content for Podia, an all-in-one platform where online courses, digital downloads, membership websites, and webinars – alongside their creators – thrive. Ironically, she gets tongue-tied talking about herself, and can usually be found with a to-do list in hand.