A buyer's guide for choosing the best online course platform for you
Finding the right online course platform can be overwhelming. This guide makes it simple with important questions to ask, key features to look for, and tips to help you choose.
You’re thinking about embarking on one of the most rewarding journeys that an entrepreneur can take: creating and selling an online course.
There’s just one big obstacle standing in your way: what’s the best online course platform for me?
With so many online course software options to choose from, picking the right one for your needs can be overwhelming.
We built this ecourse platform buyer’s guide to save you time and help make the best possible decision for hosting your courses.
This guide includes:
Who should buy online course software? →
9 key questions to ask →
The 10 most important course platform features to look for →
Next steps to selling your online course →
Who should buy online course software?
As a $46 billion market, online courses are a great opportunity for many different types of creators and entrepreneurs.
A few reasons you might want to create and sell an online course are:
1. You have something to teach
Everyone has something to teach.
You might already know what that something is.
Or you might not (in which case, this guide helps you figure it out).
But you know that there’s something that you can teach others that will help them in their life or work.
And if there is, then creating an online course is the best possible way to get it out there.
2. You want to start an online business
Building an online business can be hard work.
But it’s incredibly rewarding work, too.
When a student who completes your course — because your hard work caused the student to find you, buy from you and do the work that you assigned to them — tells you that you changed their life, it will be one of the most gratifying things you ever hear.
And when your course income comes in, and all of a sudden you’re able to put that“extra” money to good use…
Paying off your debt
Splurging on that restaurant for date night
Buying that vacation you’ve always dreamed of
…you’ll get a sense of satisfaction from having created that outcome with your own hard work.
If you want to start an online business, because of the low barrier to entry and high profit margin, selling an online course is a smart way to do it.
3. You want leads for your core business
Selling an online course isn’t the only reason to create one.
Many course creators like online courses because they can generate new leads for a different part of their business.
If you sell coaching, advising, consulting or any other kind of professional services, an online course can be your most powerful lead gen tool, and here’s why:
A course delivers value to your leads
By sharing your expertise and helping your leads achieve a successful outcome (even a small one) before they buy, you prove your worth better than a proposal, an ad or a marketing email ever could.
A course lets your leads get to know you
Unlike with an eBook or white paper, your students will learn from you over a period of days or weeks, rather than in one session. This gives them time to feel more comfortable working with you, and builds trust, an invaluable tool to help you sell your services.
A course is a natural stepping stone to upsell from
You could give your course away for free and generate lots of leads. Or, you could charge for your course and generate fewer, but much higher-quality leads who are already paying you money. Research suggests that the probability of selling to a new prospect is 5-20%, while the probability of selling to an existing customer is 60-70%. Courses are an easy way to create existing customers to sell to!
Research cited in the book Marketing Metrics suggests that the probability of selling to a new prospect is 5–20%, while the probability of selling to an existing customer is 60–70%. Courses are an easy way to create existing customers to sell to!
If you’ve decided to create an online course for any of the reasons above, then read on to learn how to choose the best software!
9 Questions to ask when choosing an online course platform
Before you begin comparing different software products, ask yourself the questions below.
Knowing the answers in advance will help you look at each platform with the right perspective, which is “is this right for me?”.
1. How much time do I have to set things up?
If you’re short on time, you shouldn’t have to spend hours trying to configure a single course. Nor do you want to spend days connecting software and third-party integrations.
Your limited time should be focused on content creation or helping customers — not platform customizations.
If, however, you have lots of time to spend on getting setup, then tools with more involved onboarding processes might still be worth looking at.
2. How much technical work am I willing to do?
If you’re non-technical and don’t have a lot of time to learn a new tool, you’ll want to make sure that everything “just works” out of the box.
The best way to determine this? Sign up for a free trial! You’ll learn very quickly how simple or complex the interface is.
If you’re technically savvy and want to set up as much of the system yourself as possible, then you won’t need to shy away from tools that require lots of DIY setup.
3. How much customer support do I need?
Some people prefer to be left alone and figure things out on their own.
If that’s not you, however, then you’ll want to make sure that the platform you choose offers customer support that’s responsive, friendly, and helpful. Having someone to talk to on live chat is even better.
Tip: you can test this for free, too! Try emailing a few questions to the support team of any tool you’re considering, and see how quickly and helpfully they respond.
4. Will the platform allow me to expand my business beyond courses?
Nobody wakes up in the morning and says“I hope my business doesn’t grow.” We all plan to get more successful over time.
So think about what you want the next several years of your business to look like.
Will you continue only offering courses?
Or would you like to expand to other streams of revenue as well, like memberships and digital downloads? If so, make sure your platform lets you sell those, too.
Along with offering more options for what you can sell, you’ll also want a platform that doesn’t limit you in terms of students, hosting, emails, number of products, and other things.
Unless you plan to put a cap on your growth, unlimited everything is always best.
5. How does the platform handle payments?
It used to be standard for online course platforms to collect money from your customers, hold on to it for a while, and then pay you.
These days, there’s a better way: connect your Stripe, PayPal or other payment processing account to your course platform, and get payments deposited directly and immediately to you.
Unless you’re fine with waiting, you’ll want instant payments directly to your account.
6. Do I have existing content I need to migrate?
If you’ve already sold courses before — or are currently selling them — then you’ll want to consider how easy it is to migrate your course content, as this can be time-consuming depending on the platform.
If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of doing this yourself, choose a platform that offers free migration that will bring your products and students over for you.
7. What other tools will I need to connect to make this work?
While every platform will claim to offer “everything you need to sell your online course”, this isn’t always true.
Will you need to host your own videos on a third-party platform?
Will you need to setup an email service provider to deliver your content?
Will you need shopping cart software to capture payments?
If you want a platform that truly offers everything, ask these questions ahead of time to avoid unpleasant surprises.
8. What are the hidden fees?
Many online course platforms, just like popular ecommerce platforms, charge transaction fees.
The cheapest plan on their pricing page might look good initially, only for you to discover that they’re going to take a huge chunk of your sales on the back-end.
Nearly every platform will make you pay a monthly fee (sometimes as high as hundreds of dollars), a transaction fee, or both.
We recommend choosing a platform with no transaction fees, as this can get very expensive as you grow.
9. What’s my budget?
Pricing can vary greatly between online course platforms.
Providers offer everything from free plans to plans that cost upwards of $1,000 per month.
Some also tack on hidden fees to increase the monthly cost (see “What are the hidden fees?” above).
Having a budget in mind before you start to look can help you narrow down your options far more quickly.
10 key features to look for
Having the right features that you need is an important part of choosing the right online course software.
“Need” is an important word here.
Just like car dealers upselling you on “enhanced floor mats”, many platforms will try to sell you on bells and whistles that don’t actually help you create and sell more courses.
That’s why it’s important to understand the important features at the beginning of your search, as this will help you avoid getting distracted and falling into a pattern of “feature shopping” and comparing one platform’s nice-to-haves versus another’s.
The most important features are the ones that either:
Earn you money, or
Save you significant time or money
The 10 key features to always look for are:
If your online course software can’t host your course videos for you, move on. Don’t settle for having to use Vimeo or YouTube to host your content in order to use the software. You don’t want to spend the time wrestling between your video host and your online course platform. They should be one and the same.
Custom domains with SSL:
It’s your business, and you should own the brand. Having your online course sales pages on your own custom domain (like https://learn.georegulus.com or https://www.marcusrideout.com) is an important part of that. Note the “https” part of those URLs; that means that it’s a secure website and that during checkout, your customers’ details (name, credit card, etc.) will be transmitted securely rather than over “http” which is the unsecured part of the Web. In 2018, customers are savvy enough to know not to buy from a website that’s not secured.
You won’t know exactly how much content, storage, products, and students you’ll have until well after you launch, but it’s important to not get hit with “overage” bills if you go over your plan’s allotment. Find online course platforms where everything is unlimited to give you peace of mind and save you time hunting for a new provider when you outgrow your current one.
You don’t want to wait thirty days to get paid for an online course sale. You want to get paid directly to the payment processor you connect, whether it’s PayPal, Stripe, or something else. Otherwise, you’re waiting around for thirty days or more to get paid for something you sold last month. And when you’re paid directly, that means that all of the sales data is in your payment processor (rather than only in the course platform), so you can keep better financial records and take your data with you if you choose to switch platforms.
Today’s online customers use their phones as much, if not more than their computers. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that your online course platform works well on mobile web browsers such as Safari and Chrome. Not only are purchases often made on mobile phones, but your customers want to be able to take your course on the go and not have to wait until they’re back on their computers to consume it.
All file types accepted:
Whether your course is comprised of videos, MP3s, PDFs, text, or any other kind of files, you want to make sure that all of those files types work with the online course platform that you choose. Even if you don’t think you’ll ever add an audio lesson, you don’t know if that’s going to be the case in six months, so it’s important to have that flexibility from the start.
Drip course content:
About 50% of all online courses are “dripped” out meaning that your students get a portion of the content at a set schedule that you’ve set up at the start (e.g. weekly content for six weeks).
Maybe you’re just starting out and you don’t have any affiliates yet, but an important part of growing your online course business is recruiting others to help you promote it. Affiliates can be very helpful as they’re often people who have already taken your course and want to tell others about it. Having a way to manage your affiliate program when you’re ready to launch one is going to save you time and hassle, and help you sell more.
Everyone loves a deal and being able to offer a variety of coupon types (like expiring coupons, usage-limited coupons and regular coupons) to nudge prospects into becoming buyers will help you get more sales.
As you do more and more internet marketing to help sell your course, you’re going to want to be able to track website traffic, set up Google Analytics events, add a Facebook Pixel and more. These will help give you a better understanding of what’s driving sales to your online course so that you can focus on the sales channels that work best.
While you’ll see loads of features promised by online course platforms, these are the important ones for most people to keep in mind when doing your research.
Next steps to selling your online course
We hope that this buyer’s guide has helped you get a better handle on your course platform search.
To get started, we recommend:
Answering each of the 9 “Questions to ask yourself” to help focus your search
Keeping the 10 key features in mind as you look at various platforms
Giving the customer support of each platform you’re considering a try. Send them an email and see how (and how quickly) they respond.
Signing up for a few free trials to get a feel for how each platform looks and feels on the inside.