(This article was updated November 2023.)

With the online learning sector estimated to be worth $107 billion in 2015, according to market research firm Global Industry Analysts, a figure that’s only set to grow next year, it’s never been a better time to create and sell courses over the internet. Creating an online course is one thing, but selling it is an entirely different adventure.

I sat down with Facebook ads specialist Angela Ponsford and digital marketing strategist Miranda Ivey to talk about how to sell (out!) your online course – three business brains are better than one!

Here’s how to ensure your online course launch is a success with low- and no-cost digital marketing.

(PS: Looking for online course tech recommendations? Right this way.)

Step 1: Relate your email opt in to your online course

Start preparing for your online course launch far earlier than you believe you should. Remember, time is a luxury in marketing, so work backwards and figure out how you can give away some real value that – and this is important – directly relates to your online course.

Well before you’ve finished creating your course, create your email opt-in giveaway. It doesn’t need to be an expensive video series. It doesn’t need to be highly technical.

Give people a quick win that relates to what you’re ultimately going to be selling: it should appeal to the particular type of person that you’re most seeking to attract and start to solve the problem, pain, issue or inconvenience that your online course will target.

Bonus tip: don’t forget to include a compelling bio or ‘about our business’ section at the back of your free opt-in gift, as well as an introduction to your online course.

Step 2: Use Facebook ads to drive people to sign up to your opt-in freebie

“Creating a fantastic email opt-in is just half the game,” says Angela Ponsford. “You need to drive people to see it. They can’t sign up if they don’t know it exists.”

Facebook ads help to get eyeballs on your free email opt-in. But not any old eyeballs will do. “Facebook ads targeting has the potential to be the most valuable type of marketing in the world, due to the volume of information Facebook collects on its users and its enormous number of users,” says Miranda Ivey.

“Facebook optimises your ads to the best audience possible based on the objective you choose, the targeting you set and the budget you have available. To get the best return on your Facebook ad spend, you need to get serious about knowing your ideal client and applying that to your Facebook ads targeting,” says Miranda.

Now you’re growing an email list of leads who have opted in to your email marketing.

Step 3: Create a strategic blog plan

You likely already know that the benefits or outcomes of what you sell are far more compelling to people and effective for marketing than nitty-gritty features of what’s included, when it’s happening, what’s involved and how it all works.

But few businesses take the time to go further than this: to craft stories that talk to the problems, issues, inconveniences and pains of your target market and the likely outcomes of your online course benefits. Telling stories with your marketing doesn’t just list the benefits – it illustrates them.

The best way to tell stories is through business blogging – either text or video, or better yet, both.

Your strategic blog plan should include, in this order:

  1. General educational blog posts that focus on what you do.
  2. Posts that go into some detail on the issues, struggles, frustrations that your offering solves for people.
  3. Posts that build your business’s credibility, including case studies, opinion pieces, guest blogging on other people’s sites and humble bragging.
  4. Posts that directly discuss what’s involved and included in your online course.
  5. Epic posts: your best and most powerful opinion pieces that are memorable and shareable.

Bonus tip: you don’t need to link to your online course sales page in every strategic blog post (but certainly the ones down the list, which are published just before and during your online course launch). However, make sure you’ve got your email opt-in form at the bottom of every post and highly visible around your website.

Step 4: Use Facebook ads to drive people to your blogs

“Advertising your blog posts rather than your sales page is a great way to grow your web traffic in the lead in to your launch,” says Angela.

Advertising your strategic blog posts helps to build an audience of people for your launch who have demonstrated that they’re interested in the subject by clicking on your blog post ad.

When you combine smart Facebook ads targeting with intelligently planned, strategic blog posts, you’re taking segmentation to an even sharper level. Using Facebook advertising to promote your strategic blog posts enables your audience to further decide “this is me” or “this isn’t me”.

“Blog post ads are specifically to get as many clicks to your website as possible,” says Angela. “Then when the people arrive at your website to read the blog, your Facebook pixel starts collecting them into an audience that you can re-market to at a later date. Remember, these people have already been to your website, know about your business, and have found out about your online course, through reading your strategic blog posts.”

Bonus tip: name your ideal client in some of your blog post titles. Are you targeting executive directors of NGOs? Put this in your blog title.

Step 5: Use Facebook re-marketing for selling your online course

Your online course shopping cart opens shortly!

Take a deep breath …

You’ve now created two lists to target with Facebook ads: the email list that you’ve been growing through your email opt-in that relates to your online course; and the web visitors that you’ve ‘pixelated’ who’ve been reading your strategic blog posts.

Now you can create direct Facebook ads that link through to your (awesome) online course sales page.

“There should be an obvious link between your Facebook ad and the sales page people land on after clicking the ad,” says Miranda. “You can do this simply by repeating your headline or using the same, or similar, images on your ad as well as your sales page.”

The storylines you’ve been using in your strategic blogging haven’t expired! Use the same storylines in your Facebook ad campaign.

“I typically run at least four variations of ad for my clients to begin with,” says Angela. “We test short copy versus long copy and also different images too. After 24-48 hours we can collect a lot of data about the best performing ads, kill the rest and allocate the budget to the ads people are best responding to.”

Bonus tip: Make sure you monitor your Facebook ads about once every 24 hours, at least for the first week they run, so you can test and tweak.

Step 6: Email sells

Marketing techniques – no matter how good – don’t work if you’re doing them in isolation. All your different marketing activities should work harmoniously together towards a coherent, compelling offer that ignites people to act.

“Lots of people don’t realise that you can target ads to your email subscribers,” says Angela. “You can serve your Facebook ads only to your email database, both your main list as well as the pre-launch emails you’ve collected.”

When you combine this with your recent web visitors who’ve been ‘pixelated’, you’re narrowing your target to the ‘most likely’ – maximising your return on investment while avoiding bothering people who aren’t interested nor likely to purchase.

Bonus tip: Your strategic blog posts, and the stories they tell, should lead your email marketing for your launch. Don’t just tell people about your online course and invite them to buy. Tell stories through your email, blogs and Facebook ads. And, as you get closer to the end of your launch, make your more limited and more urgent.

Step 7: Enjoy your launch

Launching an online course is incredibly stressful – but it’s also exhilarating, giving you invaluable insight into your existing community and target audience. It’s an opportunity for you to talk about your business and to hone your skills at communicating value – which is invaluable and a key responsibility as a business owner.

Don’t forget to enjoy the ride. Your attitude is contagious. The more enthusiastic and excited you are, the more successful your launch is likely to be.

Bonus tip: Book a holiday for right when your shopping cart closes – even if it’s just leaving work at home for a day spent at the beach or in the bush.