Blog Startup Journey

The 6-Step Marketing Strategy We Used to Make $120,679 Selling an Online Course

wrote this on

How our content marketing course sold out within 5 days.

Last week, we shared why and how we developed an online course that sold out within five days.

It was a complete departure from what a SaaS company is “supposed” to be doing, but I’m glad we did it.

Today, I’m going to share our exact system for successfully promoting and selling the course, as well as how some final thoughts on whether building a course might be a good move for your business.

If you’re considering getting into the online course game, or simply want a transparent, behind-the-scenes look at a business experiment that we ran, I hope you enjoy today’s post.

How We Priced the Course

Our goals with pricing the course were two-fold:

  1. Partially compensate for the marketing time and resources spent creating it
  2. Create a barrier that would ensure that students had “skin in the game” and thus, motivation to act on the course content.

With “regular” content⁠—like a blog⁠—you can measure success with numbers like traffic, shares and backlinks.

But with a paid course behind a login portal, other than sales, the only real way to measure your success is by the success of the students.

We knew we’d have to work hard to make the students successful, but putting a high price tag on the course also helped us ensure that the students we got would actually act on our guidance.

We knew that the value of the course could be huge for a successful student. Companies often pay $20,000⁠—and much much more⁠—for consultants and trainers to teach them all of the same things that we were teaching.

But our goal wasn’t to optimize for profit. It was to optimize for the highest number of students who would actually do the work.

We waffled on a number of pricing ideas, everything from $300 to $3,000, but ultimately decided on $799 as a number that “felt” right: a sum that most small businesses can still afford, but that would ensure people wouldn’t buy the course and then forget about it, as we feared a lower price point would result in.

We also decided to offer a more expensive option that included a one-hour consulting call with myself and Len. We felt that this could offer huge value to the right business that had questions or challenges that were a bit more advanced, and it would help us cover the gap between how much we expected the course to bring in, and how much marketing time we spent on it.

Still, we were really nervous about this one, because if we sold a lot of these, we’d spend a lot of time scheduling and doing them, so we capped it at 20 spots, and we decided to price it high enough that it would be unaffordable⁠—or undesirable⁠—for most: $1,999 per seat.

To our surprise, these sold out, too.

Marketing Our Online Course

By far, the number one reason that our course marketing worked as well as it did?

Our email list.

More than 95% of our signups came from our existing blog subscriber list. Collecting email addresses has always been a priority for us, for the reason that Laura Roeder explained far better than I can in her interview on this blog:

In the marketing world, there’s this axiom that people need seven touches before they buy. I have no idea if that’s true or not, but you see a lot of SaaS products where you can either sign up for a trial, or you can buy. That’s it. They don’t have any kind of email newsletter, or free content in exchange for giving an email address.

I would say most SaaS companies don’t do anything like that, which is pretty crazy, because most people are not ready to buy the first time they hit your homepage.

If you’re not doing any kind of email collection, you’ve just lost them.

Laura Roeder

That email list doesn’t just help us to sell our product; it helps us to sell anything⁠—including this course⁠—to a group of people who trust us because of the value we’ve delivered to them over time.

If there’s a single course marketing tip I could share, it’d be this: build your list. And if you’re not already working on this, start today.

Let’s be clear, though: you don’t need a list of 100,000 subscribers to sell an online course.

Brian Dean of Backlino made $100,000 selling a course to his email list of only 2,000 people (listen to the story here).

But without any list at all, the strategy below wouldn’t work.

Step 1: Plotting The Arc

As we prepared to promote the course, I reached out to Andy Drish, an expert whose online courses have sold for millions.

Andy has, you could say, been around the block more than a few times, and his insights on course marketing were absolutely game-changing for us. I’m really grateful that he was so generous with his time, both sharing his ideas with us, and helping us to adjust and refine along the way.

The first thing that Andy told us to do was to use our greatest marketing asset - our email list (and the blog that created it)⁠—to build a compelling story arc that would make the value of the course obvious to prospective students.

In one of several phone calls with Andy, he laid out his suggested approach:

First, share the story of what Groove was like before you guys started doing content marketing. Then, paint a picture of where you are now. And show the reader how you went from A to B using the strategies that you’re going to teach them in the course.

So that’s what we set out to do.

Step 2: Setting the Scene

On November 3rd, we published a post that would become one of our most popular pieces of content ever:

The post went into detail about just how dire our situation was in the early days of Groove. We had no subscribers, few customers, and very little cash.

We also continued to fail, time after time, in our lame attempts at “content marketing” (or at least that’s what we thought we were doing).

The post was rich and full of numbers and granular detail about our business, and toward the end, it painted a picture of how different our business looked today, with healthy revenue and a successful content marketing machine that brings in thousands of leads each month.

And, we promised, in a few days, we would share exactly how we did it.

The post didn’t mention the course, though it did tease that we were working on “something special.”

We spent more than 20 hours on that post alone, but it was worth it. The stage was set for the next act:

Step 3: Showing the Possibilities

Four days later, on Monday, we published post number two in the series, called Behind the Scenes: How We’ve Built a $5M/Year Business in 3 Years With Content Marketing.

This post was all about showing how we succeeded with content marketing, and how the reader could, too.

It was also meant to show the reader just how valuable content marketing success could be. To demonstrate that, we got transparent with our own business’ numbers.

The post included actionable tips and real strategies; again, it wasn’t a “sales” post, but a high-value piece of content that built credibility and trust for the sale.

Finally, at the end of this post, we announced the course.

Note that we still didn’t let anyone purchase the course. At this stage, all we did was let people apply.

Online Course Admission: Making Students Apply vs. Allowing Anyone To Purchase

A lot of people wondered why we required applications to join the course. Why didn’t we just take anybody’s money?

This comes back to our first fear when we started building the course: if people bought the course and didn’t do the work, then the course “fails.” We didn’t want the course to fail, so we wanted to be selective about who we allowed in.

Our application (still available here) is designed to gauge just how serious the applicant is about content marketing, and how much thought they’ve put into whether it’s a good idea for their business.

Step 4: Making The Pitch

We opened applications on Monday, and we planned to announce the course launch on Thursday.

Our “sales page” (it was a blog post) was ready to go in advance, but the applications started coming in fast, and they handed us a massive win that we didn’t plan for: thousands of words of sales copy, directly from the mouths of our prospects.

In the applications, students listed their greatest content marketing dreams, their biggest objections, and exactly what they wanted out of a course.

This helped us re-word a lot of our sales copy to better fit the language that our audience was using to describe their biggest pains and goals.

Finally, we made the announcement that Thursday:

You can read the full copy of the sales post here, but our strategy, essentially, was to:

That very last bit is important. We spent hundreds of words trying to dissuade the wrong kinds of people from joining our course. We simply didn’t want the headache, or the potential for failure.

And we wanted the right prospects⁠—the ones who knew that it would take hard work to succeed, and were ready to do it⁠—to know that this course was built specifically for them.

At the end of the post, we offered readers the opportunity to apply for the course, along with a money-back guarantee:

We decided to offer the guarantee to remove the risk for students. More on this later.

Applications again came flooding in⁠—hundreds of them⁠—and we began to sort through and try to pare the pool down to 150 finalists (in hopes of ending up with around 100 enrolled students).

Step 5: Creating Urgency

There was never a point where anyone could buy our course from the blog, or from any website anywhere.

We purposefully only sent our sales page to accepted students via email, for all of the quality-control reasons I’ve repeated a couple of times in this post.

So when we decided that an applicant would be a good fit, we sent them an email with a link to buy:

The enrollment page was simply a breakdown of what the student would get in the course, some FAQ’s and a checkout form that they could use to secure their spot.

In this stage, the biggest priority was creating urgency. We suspected, and Andy confirmed, that if we had an open-ended enrollment period, plenty of prospects would bookmark the course page, plan to come back, and never sign up.

So we only opened the enrollment period for a short time: five days. The sales page promised (and it was true) that the checkout form would disappear on Friday.

Step 6: Finishing Strong

Andy promised us that most of our signups would occur in the final day or two before enrollment closed.

And admittedly, as the week wore on and the course didn’t sell out, I got nervous.

But sure enough, on Thursday, as we sent out emails reminding applicants of the deadline…

And again on Friday…

The numbers began to look very different.

Indeed, 40% of our signups came in that final 24-hour period.

Course Sales By Day

In the end, we filled the course with 126 spots.

(We intended to keep it to 120, but of the students to whom we offered admission, a few more students than we predicted ended up signing up. That’s not a bad thing, just a missed prediction on our part.)

On Refunds

As I mentioned, we offered an unconditional “no questions asked” money back guarantee.

We knew that, quite obviously, this would mean that we’d have to issue some refunds.

And indeed, if anyone emailed us for a refund, we would refund their money, no questions asked.

Talking to others in the online course world, the standard line seems to be that if your refund rate is under 10%, then you’re doing okay.

After the 30-day refund period was over, we had only issued 5 refunds, putting our refund rate at under 5%.

I was proud of this, and to me, it speaks both to the quality of the course content, as well as the honesty of the marketing campaign; people seemed to know what to expect coming into the course, so they were unlikely to be disappointed.

Should You Consider Building an Online Course for Your Business?

Content Marketing Mastery brought in some money for us, and it helped us teach a lot of people in-depth content marketing strategies.

And it also helped us generate a lot of leads for our main business.

Would we do it all over again?

Maybe.

It took a lot of time. Of course, it was all marketing time, so it didn’t take away from time spent working on our product, but it did take away time from marketing our product. The cash generated by the course only covers that by a bit.

Frankly, if we were starting from scratch, I’m not sure we’d do it again.

Now, though, we have the course content, and the cost to run the course again is marginal (we’d update the content, add more bonuses, make some adjustments based on feedback and run a new marketing campaign).

Still, I’m glad that we did it, and we learned a tremendous amount.

It’s gratifying, too, to see the impact that the course has had on people’s businesses; real dollars being made because of the time we put into building the course.

If you have the time and resources to commit⁠—assume it will take you 100+ hours to build anything of real value, unless you’re selling an inexpensive course⁠—then you’ll learn a lot from it, too. And it could be a great opportunity for you.

But it’s probably more work than you think.

1,200 Shares
← Older Post Newer Post →

From “aha” to “oh shit”, we’re sharing everything on our journey to $10M in annual revenue. We’re learning a lot and so will you.

2016 Annual Revenue
  • $0
  • $2.5M
  • $5M
  • $7.5M
  • $10M

About the Author

Alex Turnbull is the CEO & Founder of Groove (simple helpdesk software for small businesses) who loves to build startups and surf.

You might also like: