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How to recover from a failed course launch

The first step to recovering from a failed course launch is to use it as a learning opportunity. Failure is a milestone that often leads to more gain than loss.

You’ve spent months creating an online course. You’re finally happy with it (or as close to happy as your perfectionism allows).

It’s everything your audience needs, all wrapped up with a nice bow and ready for delivery. You finally feel like an expert in your subject matter .

Your big course-launch date arrives. You eagerly look for sales to start rolling in…

Except -- there’s one big problem.

Instead of “cha-ching” to your bank account, you hear “chirp chirp.”

You’re crushed. A few days pass by, but there’s still no one purchasing your online course. Is your price too high? Did you raise your online course prices before your audience was ready?

What happened?

Hold on. Before concluding you’re a failure and selling online courses isn’t your calling, or worse, that you're better of shutting down your online course , rest assured: failure is a critical part of success.

No, really. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill fluff talking -- that’s what the data says.

Today, we’ll dive deeper into that data, look at what failure really means, uncover preventative measures, talk about how to bounce back from a failed launch, and then finish with three actionable ways to recover.

Let’s get right to it.

What does failure really mean?

While the official definition of failure is “lack of success,” what it really means is an opportunity to learn and improve.

Failure serves as a necessary stepping stone to success. You just need a perspective shift.

Here’s what I mean.

If you look at failure as a chance to learn, you can leverage your experience to guide your next steps toward your goals.

The Richness of Life author Stephen Jay Gould puts it nicely when he says:

“Honorable errors do not count as failures in science, but as seeds for progress in the quintessential activity of correction.”

In other words, the more failures you encounter, the closer you get to your desired solution.

Search engine Bing exemplifies this concept. As you can see in this chart, there’s a strong correlation between Bing’s number of weekly online experiments and growth.

Take Michael Jordan as another example. By most standards -- even if you’re not a basketball enthusiast -- Michael is widely accepted as a success.

But how did he get there? If you take his word for it, Michael got there through repeated missteps.

“I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game-winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that’s why I succeed.”  

He sees his so-called failures as the reason why he succeeds.

Most businesses don’t see it Michael’s way, however, and don’t view initial failures as learning experiments which provide a roadmap to success.

Which is a shame, because if you look at the top four common characteristics of failed startups, all but the last can be used as stepping stones toward success.

  1. Incompetence

  2. Lack of experiences in the line of goods

  3. Little experience

  4. Personal problems

The secret ingredient needed to turn those pitfalls into platforms for success is simple: time.

The more time you have under your belt, the more opportunities you have to learn and improve -- and, indeed, accrue failures -- on your way to success.

This is something seasoned businesses understand and part of the reason global showrunners run regular experiments.

Facebook, for instance, conducts over 100,000 experiments . Google runs about 7,000 annually.

Do the majority of those experiments pay off? No, because they’re not designed to. The bulk of the experiments are expected to fail and provide valuable data for future experiments and successes.

Basically, treat failure as a science experiment. You need to gather data on what doesn’t work to find out what does. There’s no other way to learn.  

Could you have done anything to prevent this failure?

If you’re wondering if you could’ve done anything to prevent a failure, look back on your experience and ask yourself: did you make decisions to the best of your ability? If so, then the answer is no. There’s nothing preventative you could have done.

But, if you’ve made some mistakes repeatedly and are still attempting the same course of action -- then yes -- you likely could have prevented failure.

Harsh, I know, but true. Don’t worry, though. If your imposter voice (which we all have) is telling you to give up on your business because you didn’t do enough to prevent failure, we’ve got a couple of tips for you.

The most important of them is this:

To prevent future failures, learn from past missteps and experiences, and then use them to your advantage.

As an example, consider this: 76% of small businesses report facing marketing challenges and 42% of startups fail because they don’t meet a market need.

By the time your second (or later) launch rolls around, you’ve likely already gotten to know your market and its needs so you can circumvent this pitfall. Your first fizzled-out course launch can provide you with the necessary foundation to make your next foray stronger.

Here’s another example.

Two prominent reasons for business failure -- whether within the first or fifth year of being in business -- are not having the right business model and a lack of business development.

On your next launch, you’ll know which business model doesn’t work for you and can leverage such market trends to take preventative measures. In this case:

  • Ensure you have a profitable business model from the start

  • Invest resources in business development

Even if it’s not industry data or your previous experiences that you learn from, you can avoid failure by learning from someone else’s mistakes. There’s value in that, too.

For instance, if you’re running an ecommerce business, you can learn from entrepreneur Grayson Bell’s $10,000 mistake and save yourself from an inventory failure.

By automating his inventory process and using an (unproofed) excel sheet he created, Grayson accidentally listed one of his Amazon products at an 85% discount.

What happened next?

The discount skyrocketed his sales to an unmanageable level. He sold $70,000 worth of camera products with no inventory to fulfill his customer orders.

And no customer order fulfillments mean you get kicked off of Amazon.

Grayson secured his way back onto the marketplace three days later after losing $10,000 in revenue. Ouch. Not a mistake anyone wants to repeat.

So, whether it’s your past launch, flailing market trends, industry data, or someone else’s unfortunate experience, failure has a lot to teach you.

It’s like getting a crash course on “what not to do.” It might not have been the course you signed up for or wanted, but it’s one worth learning from, all the same.

How do you come back from failure?

If you’re curious about how to come back from failure, you bounce back by learning from and leveraging it to reach your goals.

Again, if you treat failures like gathered data in an overarching experiment, it means you have the mindset to embrace failure.

You might even call this a growth mindset. Mindset author Carol Dweck is one of the top leaders in developing a growth mindset and makes a clear distinction between those with fixed vs. growth mindsets.

Carol recommends the following five success habits to flex your growth mindset:

  1. Embrace challenges. Your failures are worth thanking , even if it doesn't feel like it at the time.

  2. Persist when there are obstacles

  3. View effort and hard work as the only way to master something

  4. Learn from criticism

  5. Find lessons in other people’s success

Her ideas aren’t far-fetched, by the way. It’s been proven that applying the growth mindset in the classroom increases the number of problems solved . The more someone is praised on resilience after a failure, the more problems they solve.

In the case of your business, embodying this same resilience helps you solve your audience’s problems more accurately on your subsequent attempt, which makes them more likely to convert into customers, too.

After all, what is a successful business, if not one that solves the audience’s problems?

Author and founder of I Will Teach You To Be Rich, Ramit Sethi , who has helped thousands of entrepreneurs start their own businesses, explains:

“The entrepreneurs whose businesses are successful have companies that solve a problem that people have.”

Beyond resilience, another key ingredient for coming back from failure is persistence.

As revealed by a Johns Hopkins University study, persistence reduces the chances of failure. Respondents who rate themselves as persistent are 14.5% less likely to have experienced severe setbacks in their lives.

An easy way to persist is to see failure through the lens of the successful entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and founder of seed capital firm Y Combinator, Paul Graham .

He views failure as a standard period before your business starts working and scaling what he calls the “trough of sorrow,” illustrated by Paul’s “ Startup Curve ” graph below.      

Because Paul understands good times are coming just beyond the “experimenting and pivoting” stage in the “trough of sorrow,” he’s able to persist.

And if you adopt the same mindset, you’ll persist, as well.

Here’s the gist:

Come back from failure by embracing it, treating it like a vital part of an experiment, and by being resilient and persistent.

This nimble mindset allows you to adjust your strategy and better solve your audience’s core problems, and hence, improve your business.

3 ways to recover from a failed online course launch

With failure recovery now under your belt, let’s bring it back to the context of an online course with these three ways to bounce back from a failed course launch quickly. If you'd prefer a more formualic approach for re-launching your online course, you may want to check out Rachel Reclam's ultimate formula for launching an online course instead.

#1. Get feedback from your target audience

If your online course launch fails, conduct more market research to gather direct data from your prospective customers and find out exactly why they didn’t purchase. Then, adjust your product or marketing based on their responses.  

Why? The power of market research is real and can increase your revenue and profitability.

Companies that frequently conduct market research are 76% more likely to report an increase in revenue over the last 12 months.

This applies to all industries.

For example, in a study of high growth professional services firms, firms that conducted frequent research enjoyed 30.7% growth and 19.9% profitability, as compared to 2.88% growth and 11% profitability for those that did no research at all.

The automotive industry provides another great example. A North American car dealership ran a customer satisfaction study of over 7,500 customers and brought in a 750% return after pivoting on their findings.  

So, when rebuilding a profitable online course , gather insights from your audience to find out what they’d be most interested in learning, and then update your course content to deliver it.        

Author, speaker, and entrepreneur Josh Steimle did this by sending out an email to his list of 2,500 subscribers to identify their top learning priority. As a result, he settled on a profitable course topic and pre-sold 20 beta student seats at $2,500 .

Wondering about the best ways to gather feedback from your audience?

It’s easy. Email your prospective students and try one of the following two approaches:

  • Send a link to an online survey - This is considered secondary data. Use free services like Typeform , SurveyMonkey , or Google Forms to manage your survey.

  • Conduct live interviews - This is considered primary data. Schedule live conversations with your ideal students.

If you’re contemplating going the second route, consider details such as:

  • Benefits - What can you gain from an interview that you can’t from a survey?

  • Logistics - What’s the length of the interview, how will you record the conversation, and how many interviewees will you have per session?  

Whether you decide to use a survey or interview, the key point is market research drives more sales and allows you to tailor your offering to what customers want instead of what you think they want.

So, it’s definitely worth the effort.

Once you have customer data gathered, then it’s time to do something with it. That’s where our next strategy comes into play.

#2. Update your marketing messaging

Your market research should provide you with a better idea of how to improve your copywriting and messaging. Leverage your gathered data and use your audience’s exact words to speak in a language that resonates with them.  

Messaging is a big deal when relating to your audience and can vastly improve your conversion rates. Joanna Wiebe, the founder of CopyHackers, demonstrated this when she helped Wistia increase their sales by updating their messaging.

Joanna used “language swiped from customer reviews of Wistia and the co-founder's own words” in a seven-email sales messaging sequence and, as a result, tripled their conversions .

Some other email copy-related tips to uplift conversions include:

  • Keep it short

  • Stick to one topic and call-to-action per email

  • Write clearly

Don’t neglect your subject lines, either.

They impact your open rates significantly. 35% of recipients open emails based on the subject line alone, so be sure to prioritize them right alongside your body copy.

As far as length goes, a subject line with six to 10 words typically scores you the highest open rate.

If you’re looking for an email launch sequence to follow, we recommend sending these five emails in order:

  1. Introduce and engage

  2. Share key insights

  3. Introduce your solution

  4. Overcome objections

  5. The final pitch

(P.S.: You can find more detailed templates for each in our guide for email marketing for online courses .)

Bottom line:

Relaunch your online course with marketing messaging that resonates with your audience. To do this, use the specific words you gathered from your potential customers during your market research and utilize an email sequence.

#3. Offer a smaller product  

Rather than focusing on selling your full course right out of the gate, try offering a smaller product to your audience first. After they’ve converted with your smaller product, then graduate your customers into purchasing larger items.

It’s easier than it sounds. Existing customers are three times more likely to purchase from you. By offering a smaller product to new customers, they can “test the waters” with your brand, and will likely repurchase from you.

Don’t be afraid to offer more than a few “smaller” products, either.

Why? Creating multiple products allows you to provide graduated steps up to your top-of-the-line products, starting with the easiest and most affordable option.

This approach is particularly popular in the wildly lucrative Software as a Service (SaaS) industry where the average number of packages is 3.5 and premiums increase between the tiers.

Since existing customers are more likely to purchase from you after the initial transaction, following their lead and having a line of smaller products facilitates those repeat purchases in a way that’s beneficial for the audience and still generates income for you.

As an example, consider providing smaller, more bite-sized products like checklists and ebooks in addition to your online course.

They’re easy to put together with tools like the digital download generator and they make a great launchpad for converting customers who need more convincing before signing up for your flagship product.

That's what Seth Mosley does. He offers a stepwise array of products to his audience starting from his free Song Checklist, moving to a $49-priced Virtual Coffee Date, and then his full Music Production Mastery online course priced at $997.

By following Seth’s lead, your first-time customers can graduate to repeat customer status, enabling you to keep your customer retention high. This, in turn, can uplift your profits by 25-95% .

In a nutshell:

By testing and offering smaller packages, you can attract more new customers, build customer retention, and increase your revenue. You’ll likely sell more additional products to your existing customers, including your previously failed online course.


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Failure is a necessary milestone -- not a business doomsday

As you’ve learned today, there’s a lot to gain from failure. Rather than fearing it, embrace and leverage it to your advantage.

This perspective shift on failure could change everything in your business.

Let’s briefly review:

  • Contrary to the way most people view it, failure presents a pivotal opportunity to learn and experiment in your business, which puts you on the direct path to success.

  • Learn from your past experiences, industry data, market trends, and the mistakes of others. There’s valuable lessons in each that can help you bounce back.

  • You can further recuperate from failure by embracing the challenges it presents, adjusting your business strategy, and building resilience and persistence.

  • If your course launch fails, recover quickly by conducting more market research, updating your marketing messaging, and offering smaller products alongside it.  

A failed online course launch doesn’t have to spell the end of your business. Instead, it can even be a good thing. It means you have more data and experience, a better idea of where to pivot next, and are closer to reaching success next time.

Now, with a new perspective in tow, it’s time to get out there and continue your journey to success, but don’t worry -- it isn’t a journey you have to tread alone. Get started with Podia in your corner for free today.

About the author

Cyn Meyer was a content writer for Podia, an all-in-one platform where online courses, digital downloads, and communities scale with their creators. Cyn also enjoys playing music, helping retirees live active, healthy, engaged lifestyles, and hopping into the ocean.