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5 Mistakes That Can Doom Your Online Course Creation

  • Abe CrystalAbe Crystal

What’s holding you back from creating your online course?

Maybe you’ve been imagining all the many ways you might fail.

Or maybe you’ve gotten burned when your “simple” course launch crashed.

But what if you knew some of the potential pitfalls ahead of time? What if you could get your online course out of your head without any lingering fear?

Before you allow your course creation dreams to fade away, read on. We’re about to share the five most common course creation mistakes, how you can avoid them, and what to do instead.

“It’s good to learn from your mistakes. It’s better to learn from other people’s mistakes.” Warren Buffett.

These five mistakes are common—and they can stop your course progress in its tracks.

Learn the Pitfalls so You Can Avoid Them

We’ll focus first on strategy, not tips or hacks.

Tips and hacks are fun and useful. But they aren’t worth much if you don’t have a solid strategy in place first.

Strategy starts with being grounded in a mission—like making new forms of learning and growth possible for people.

So start with your big picture. Focus on the success of the people you serve and lay the foundation for growth in your online course business.

And in case you’re wondering: What if I’m already making one of these mistakes? Am I stuck?

Not at all. You can always pivot. Once you have a solid understanding of what not to do, you’ll be prepared to move forward much faster and with far greater success.

OK, here we go…

Mistake #1: Thinking you have to build a massive audience first

Many early-stage course creators go off the rails trying to grow a large list as a foundation for their courses.

Why is this a mistake? Isn’t a huge following exactly what we want?

Of course, having a big engaged online audience is awesome.

You can build a great business around that, and courses can be a part of it.

The problem is making audience growth your whole focus—especially if you’re in the beginning to intermediate phases of your business, for example, a “solopreneur” doing less than $100,000/year in revenue.

If this is you, you could be in for a tough slog.

Don’t worry about building a huge audience. Instead, focus on serving a small number of people superbly well and help them get great results.

How do you do that?

  1. Start with a deep understanding of your customer (your client, course participant, or buyer). Use every technique you can to engage and learn from people.
  2. Be personal. Think of yourself as a friendly local shopkeeper who knows everyone by name, not Amazon that does everything based on massive data. We’ll elaborate on this under mistake #4, below.
  3. Diversify your revenue. Avoid being dependent on a single offering, whether that’s courses or something else. More on this in mistake #5.
  4. Seek growth through referrals. Your best source of early growth comes one customer at a time. Turn one client into two, and then two into four. You can build real revenue this way, without having any online audience at all.

You don’t need to grow a giant audience to be successful with courses & move your business forward.

Mistake #2: Creating a course about a topic instead of solving a specific problem

solve specific problem

Let’s say your expertise is in mindfulness and stress reduction. You help people manage all the stress in their busy lives.

You’re an expert on stress. You know theories from psychology and neuroscience. You’ve developed a whole library of practical techniques. You can weave in stories and metaphors. You can talk about stress all day and all night.

That’s great!

But guess what someone who might be interested in your course doesn’t want? They don’t want to learn “about” stress or stress reduction. They simply want to feel better now.

When you’re an expert, your breadth of knowledge is actually the biggest barrier to creating an effective course.

This is a widespread problem. Most instructors get so wrapped up in their passion and their expertise that they focus too much on the ideas and forget about the people they want to serve.

This is an especially deadly mistake when it comes to courses.

If you create a course that’s simply about a topic and don’t solve a specific problem for a specific group of people, you’re going to run into two daunting challenges:

  • It’s going to be really hard to market and sell the course.
  • It’s going to be extremely difficult to get people to engage with the course and get value out of it.

So it’s critical that your course isn’t just about a topic but solves a specific problem.

How could we fix our stress reduction example?

Instead of building a course around all your ideas and techniques, you could shift your focus to a specific group of people with a specific problem.

First, zero in on a particular group of people who need special help with stress.

Lawyers, for example.

Could you design a stress reduction program just for them?

You’d begin by asking, what’s going to fit their needs? Well, lawyers are pressed for time. They’re not interested in a lot of theory and many different techniques. They need something simple.

So can you create a program they can do in 10 minutes a day that helps them to regain calm and clarity and reduce stress during their lunch break?

See the difference?

We started with an idea for a broad, general course about stress with all kinds of content based on wide-ranging expertise. We shifted to a narrowly-focused course for a specific audience that will: (1) help them with their problem,  and (2) is well-suited to their needs and constraints.

Can you make a similar shift as you develop your own course idea?

Mistake #3: Producing huge amounts of in-depth content for your course

huge indepth content

This may be the deadliest mistake of them all: starting out by developing huge amounts of in-depth content for your course.

At a deeper level, the mistake is making content the centerpiece of your course efforts.

This mistake also might make you wonder: What’s wrong with in-depth content? Isn’t that what creates value? Isn’t that what my audience wants? Isn’t that what distinguishes me as an expert?

The truth—especially if you’re just getting started—is that trying to create a massive amount of in-depth content becomes like pushing a boulder up a mountainside.

It’s exhausting.

It weighs you down and stops you from getting your course out the door. Ultimately, it can become an excuse for not launching.

That’s not even the worst news. A course with a massive amount of content will be overwhelming for your participants and make it difficult for them to succeed.

The simple but hard truth is that more and deeper content isn’t better. This could be a tough message to take in if you’re passionate about your topic and you have endless ideas to share.

You may also feel a great obligation to deliver great value to your customers, and—perhaps unconsciously—you associate “lots of content” with “great value.”

But true value comes from the results your students achieve, not from the comprehensiveness of the content.

It’s a different mindset but it’s powerful. Here is a framing that may help:

Always leave people wanting more.

Your course should never try to satisfy every need. Instead, move people a couple of steps forward and leave them excited and ready for the next step, the next way to work with you.

Over time you can create multiple levels of courses to provide growth to your business and your clients. Think of it as building up a body of work and a curriculum for your long-term students, rather than just one “be all, end all” course.

Jennie Nash’s Author Accelerator program provides a great example of how to use small, narrowly-focused courses that lead into her next-level offerings. She provides a free assessment that helps authors determine what type of help they need.

Then she offers them a short, focused course aligned with this need. Only after people participate in this entry-level course does she offer to enroll them in one of her premium programs.

The key to this whole process? She’s very careful not to put too much content into that first course!

Mistake #4: Being too “digital” and “scalable” rather than personal and human

digital vs personal

“Do things that don’t scale.” Paul Graham

This statement, from one of the leading startup advisors and investors in the world, surprises many when they hear it.

It seems counterintuitive. Why would you want to do things that don’t scale? Isn’t the whole point of building a business on the internet that you can grow and scale it, with low costs?

Well, of course you’re going to take advantage of the internet and the amazing opportunities for communication it affords. But there’s a big difference between using online channels as a communication medium—where you’re connecting with people and building relationships—versus trying to automate and scale.

As customers, we often experience technology and online information delivered by larger companies through automation.

But as solopreneurs and small companies, your advantage, your unique edge, is that you can be truly personal.

You can talk to people directly in a course. You can check to see if they are completing activities and if they are engaged and making progress. And you can reach out to them with an email or a call if they aren’t.

You can run a group program that only has 10 people in it and really pay attention to each of those 10 people. This won’t scale, and it doesn’t have to.

What matters is making those 10 people incredibly happy. If you have 10 ecstatic customers, then you can think about how to get 100 more—but you can’t go from 0 to 100 in one leap.

You can do surprising and unexpected things for people, like sending them a handwritten “Thank You” note when they complete a course. Or sending them a chocolate bar in the mail if they refer business to you.

The more personal you can be, the more you enrich your connection with the customer and nurture true fans.

So avoid treating your online courses, and your online presence in general, like an opportunity for automation when you’re still small. That can come later.

Automation can do amazing things but the most powerful opportunity you have right now is to get personal with the clients and learners you’re working with, today.

Mistake #5: Relying on courses alone to generate revenue

passive income

Our last all-too-common myth?

I can create an online course, set it and forget it, and live off the passive income forever.

There are two huge holes in this line of thinking:

  1.  Most online course revenue is active, not passive. That means you will be actively supporting students, engaging in your course community, answering questions, and so on. Only a small percentage of “passive” courses (where students sign up and pay purely for the content in the course) make any significant revenue. And, the trend is toward more active courses that incorporate coaching and additional ways to support students.
  2.  It’s unlikely you’ll generate a full-time income from courses alone, at least until your business gains momentum and you earn more customers and referrals. To ramp up cash flow faster, you need more sources of revenue, and your courses need to support those revenue streams.

So your best bet is to design courses where you are actively engaged with participants. Recognize that much of your revenue opportunity comes from using your courses as a bridge to services or other offerings.

There are many ways you can use this strategy in your business. Here are a few examples of offerings that could make this approach work for you:

  • Coaching or consulting. A course can be a perfect starting point for building a relationship with someone and helping them get results. Once you’ve built that credibility, you can offer coaching or consulting to help them with the next step on their journey. To return to our stress-reduction example, you might offer a free mini-course on simple stress reduction tips for lawyers. Then you can follow up with them personally afterwards and offer a three-month coaching package to help them completely change how they deal with stress.
  • Live, in-person events. You can offer in-depth live workshops or other in-person events at much higher price points. These events can generate meaningful revenue even with a small number of participants. You can engage people in your online course as a way to nurture them toward attending your live event.
  • Done-for-you services. Someone can take your course to learn what to do… but do they have the time and energy to do it on their own? Many people want more support, and others want the confidence that they’ll get the actual result they are looking for. Perhaps you offer a course on marketing tactics for freelance photographers. They take your course, think it’s really great, and then tell you, “I don’t have time to do this on my own. Could you just put together a marketing plan for me?” That’s the perfect opportunity to offer a services package to help your clients get the results they seek with sustainable revenue for you.

Here’s the strategy: Take a step back, and look at how courses could fit into the context of your business, how courses can help grow your business as a whole.

Look at your offerings from the customer’s point of view. After a student successfully completes your course, where are they going to be in terms of knowledge and results? And what would they want to learn from you next? Where would they want assistance or support from you?

To make this more concrete, let’s look at a hypothetical example.

Tying Courses Into Your Overall Strategy

Here we have a coach who specializes in helping people plan a fulfilling, active life during retirement.

She wants to grow her business with an online course based on her signature “Un-Retire” method, which helps people move beyond conventional expectations for their retirement years.

What would it take for her to earn $5,000 in revenue with this course?

Well, as shown in the first table, she could price the course at $297 and get 17 signups. That would be just over $5,000 in revenue.

course creation mistakes

That’s also a big undertaking. Getting 17 signups for a $297 course is no picnic if you are just starting to build your following and customer base. It could take a huge marketing effort and even with that the results would be pretty uncertain.

Here’s the alternative strategy.

She could use the “courses plus other offerings” model—in this example, by leveraging the course as an entry point to higher-end coaching packages.

Let’s say she enrolls only 5 people into her course, for a little less than $1,500 in revenue. But she’s then able to invite one of these participants into a six-month coaching package at $500/month, and 2 others into a small support group at $250/month for six months.

course creation mistakes

Add it all up, and she’s got almost $7,000 in revenue—despite only getting five signups for the initial course offer!

That’s the power of extending your course revenue with services, coaching, events, or other offers.

Turn Mistakes Into Opportunities

No matter where you are with your online course idea—just getting started, or plunging ahead—you’re probably wondering, “Am I doing this right?”

The truth is, there is no perfect model to follow, and you’ll have to learn by trying things out and seeing what works for you.

But there are some clear pitfalls to avoid—and you just learned them!

So here’s your next step.

First, if you’ve been feeling stuck: begin to move from “analysis paralysis” to taking small actions. Start simple. That could mean reaching out to 5 people on Facebook or in your personal network and simply talking to them about your course idea.

Or, maybe you’ve tried launching a course but didn’t get the results you hoped for. Now’s the time to consider: did you make any of these five deadly mistakes?

Perhaps your course was focused on a broad topic, instead of a specific problem. Or maybe you tried to sell your course using sophisticated launch strategies and automation, rather than connecting with people personally.

Review each of the five mistakes, and figure out what the opportunities are for you to iterate, improve, and grow.

Then share with us in the comments: Which of the 5 mistakes have you experienced? What are you going to do to move forward with your course idea?

Don’t be shy: The future of your business—and your ability to teach and serve people around the world—awaits.


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5 Mistakes That Can Doom Your Online Course Creation

10 thoughts on 5 Mistakes That Can Doom Your Online Course Creation

Marlene McPherson

This is a great post. These mistakes are real because some of these can easily seep into one’s work because different “expert” teach different strategy, But how and when to implement can make the difference. From my readings it is wise to stick to one instructor so that conflict with another expert do not make for confusion. Thankfully I have not made any of those mistakes plus I am forewarned.

Abe Crystal

Hi Marlene, glad the post was helpful for you :). Are you thinking of approaching your course creation process any differently now that you’re aware of these potential mistakes?

Marlene McPherson

Thanks for your input. I will be thinking of content creation differently. By the way I have taken up your challenge,thanks.

Mary Collette Rogers

Wow Abe, really helpful insights, but my favorite ah ha was this: “But true value comes from the results your students achieve, not from the comprehensiveness of the content.” Now you’ve got me thinking about how to revise my course to better align with the info you shared. Thanks!

Abe Crystal

I could not be happier about that being your takeaway :). It’s probably the most important idea here. Go forth and help people get results!

Kim Orr

Thank you Abe for these insights.
But even more than these thoughtful points you make here I am intrigued by a degree in “human-computer interaction.”
Interaction implies two sentient ‘actors” and it’s interesting that this is the word used — since we don’t speak about interacting with our other tools or our other machines. We would not usually say we were interacting with our lawn mower or our car unless we were having a really bad time with them:) We forget that computers are sophisticated machines and not alive.

This aside, it’s clear that you are thinking about the human beings whom you wish to serve through computerized technology and products. That’s impressive.

It’s also interesting that you are quite clear that for online courses to be successful they have to be result oriented. People want to have something fixed and rather quickly as you mention.

Do you understand online learning to be vocational — that is primarly for learning a skill quickly to solve a problem? Or do you see a possibility for the kind of deeper more reflective education of soul and mind to be possible with this technology and kind of interaction?

Abe Crystal

Hey Kim,

Great question. So, this post was written for the “mainstream” of entrepreneurial online course creators. Most folks reading this are looking to create results-oriented courses.

I definitely believe there’s a role for the deeper, reflective experiences you describe also. These take more planning and experience, but they can be very powerful. A
Hope that helps,

Kim Orr

Thanks Abe. I have written for them, but not done a course for them. That’s a great help!


Cool post and awesome site. I like the part where you say its about what your students learn. Its basically about the outcome.
Makes me think of posting content my readers want to read rather than what I want them to read.

Abe Crystal

That’s a great connection between building and engaging your audience, and creating successful courses! Two sides of the same coin 🙂

Comments are closed.