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How to Write a Free Report that Sells Your Online Course

how to write a free report 1

You’ve probably heard the advice to create a free report to give away in exchange for people’s contact information.

That’s excellent advice, especially for online course creators. Aside from helping you attract “hot” prospects who are interested in your course, a free report comes in handy for many other purposes:

  1. Give it as a bonus to your students. It will provide useful information and reinforce the reasons they enrolled in your course (this method may reduce your refund rate).
  2. Establish yourself as an acclaimed expert in your field.
  3. After just a few modifications, you can break down your report in sections and use them as a part of your e-mail campaign.
  4. Use the report as a manifest of your online course so that your students will always have the condensed golden nuggets of your expertise right at hand.
  5. Should you decide to publish your own book, the report will be a great foundation for it.

But to accomplish all this, you have to write your free report a certain way. It should be written in a way that primes the reader to be more receptive to your offer.

Write your free report so it primes the reader to be more receptive to your offer. Click To Tweet

That’s what I’m going to show you in this post.

The Biggest Challenge for Your Free Report

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The vast majority of people who are going to download your report are never going to read a single word of it. That’s a fact we have to accept and so you must try to eliminate any reasons that might cause the reader to lose their interest.

The most popular reason that turns readers off is the heftiness of the report.

When a person downloads a report, they expect to get some valuable information on a subject they’re already interested in. They’re mentally prepared to read it and make the most of it. And nothing will put them off more than discovering that the report is nothing more than a compilation of facts, semi-academic writing, and visuals clumsily filling up any blank spaces.

To avoid that from happening to your free report, here’s a “safe” outline that I recommend and use for my free reports and those I write for clients.

A Sure-Fire Outline

This outline is not necessarily the most efficient one or the smartest one, and it’s not specifically devised for your product or market. So, you most probably will need to adapt it to your own needs.

But it’s most certainly the “safest” outline to use. By that I mean that it strikes a balance between all the other types of reports and lowers the risk of losing the interest of your subscribers.

The Basic Structure of a Free Report

  1.  Captivating headline
  2.  Lead paragraph (one to three sentences maximum)
  3.  Second paragraph (five sentences maximum)
  4.  First subtitle
  5.  Paragraph (six sentences maximum)
  6.  Bullets (three or five)
  7.  Repeat steps 4 to 6, as necessary.
  8.  “Poscriptum”
  9.  Sign-off

Before we examine each of these elements, I want to remind you once again: this outline is not etched in stone. The world will not end if you miss out on bullets under one subhead or include six bullets instead of five.

Just remember this rule of thumb:

If your text sounds smooth while you read it aloud, the thoughts are cohesive and flow naturally from one into another, then you’re on the right track no matter how much you deviate from the outline.

Now let’s look at each of the elements of the outline:

The Headline

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As with sales copy, the headline or title of your free report is the most important element of your free report, too.

But unlike in sales copy, your report’s headline should avoid any kind of vagueness. Set the element of curiosity to a minimum.

You see, people who download the report out of curiosity are not the same ones that will read it. Most probably, the number of pages within the report will turn them off instantly. These people are entertainment-seekers, not value-seekers. That disqualifies them as your prospects.

Another argument in favor of a clear and precise headline is the fact that the average web surfer has an attention span of eight seconds. Naturally, you want to use that time to captivate the reader’s attention as fast as possible and not waste it on puzzling him.

A great headline clarity-check formula I often use and encourage you to try is this:

Any time you come up with a headline idea for your report, imagine that you came across it in the classified ads section in a newspaper. Ask yourself, “If there was only the headline I’ve just crafted and the seller’s number underneath in the ad, would the headline entice me to call and order that report?”

If your answer is “yes,” then you’ve got a headline that would be sufficient to raise interest towards the report and cause readers to request it. It doesn’t suffer from a lack of clarity.

For example, let’s say you came up with this headline:

Free report reveals how to lose weight without working up a sweat!

When you run this headline through the clarity check, it will look like this:

Free report reveals how to lose weight without working up a sweat!

Call 603-xxx-xxxx to place your order and get a copy of the report!

As you can see, the headline is short simple and straight-to-the-point. If you were suffering from excess weight, you wouldn’t want to miss out on getting hold of this report to see what it has to offer.

To learn more about crafting headlines I strongly recommend you read Tested Advertising Methods John Capels and First One Hundred Million by Julius E. Haldemann.

The Lead Paragraph

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The lead paragraph is the face value of the report. It’s not yet the message you’re about to convey; it’s the ad for the message.

Regard the lead paragraph as a tool for burning the reader’s interest and pushing him towards reading the second paragraph. To ensure that your report will  actually be read and not put on the back burner, you have to make the first paragraph as appealing as possible.

Ideally, the lead contains a statement that resonates with the reader’s specific problem. Questions in the first paragraph may be great interest-boosters; nevertheless, they can also give your report a “salesy” look and can turn the reader off instantly.

The other problem with using questions in the lead paragraph is, they can result in unwanted answers from the reader. For example, if you start your report on psychological services with “Are you feeling like life is passing you by?” then the reader might think, “No, I’m not.” Then all the efforts you’ve put in attracting your prospect comes to zero.

Here’s how the report promoting psychologist’s services mentioned above could start with a statement instead:

In today’s world of advanced technologies and social media, we sometimes forget what it’s like to have a real, warm conversation with someone who understands us. Who may share our problems, our thoughts, aspirations, dreams….

That’s a statement you can’t disagree with. It’s universal and even a little bit abstract. So it can’t trigger a repulsive reaction on the reader’s side.

The worst way to exploit this tool is to start the report with phrases like this:

“In this report will be uncovered the subject of….”

or

“If you want to know whether you are eligible for applying for tax refunds….”

Large companies, such as Oracle, often come up with these kind of openers in their reports. Thereby a lot of small marketers get misguided, assuming that what works for Oracle will as well work for them.

That’s simply not true.

Giant corporations use corporate and academic language not to provide more sales or leads. They do so to sustain their images. Due to their size and goals, they can’t afford to be personal with their target market.

Unlike them, small marketers like you and me can and should be as personal as possible with your target audiences because your main goal is to make a sale, build trust, and represent yourself as an expert in your niche.

You can’t achieve these goals if you don’t stand out from the crowd of thousands of other marketers who sound almost the same.

The easiest way to overcome distrust in your readers and avoid banalities is by expressing your personality in all sales and marketing materials you produce.

Let’s examine these two examples. Both are the lead paragraphs of the exact same report. One is the control, while the other is the test that provided 53% more conversion rate. The business owner wrote the lead paragraph of the control, while I wrote the test lead. No changes were made except for the lead.

Control:

In this free report delivered to you by “Socialtrustee Inc.” the author unveils the most prevalent myths that surround the concept of collecting from social security. In the first part of the report will be discussed….

Test:

My name is Joe Jones. I’ve been working as an accountant for 27 years. Two years ago I retired my job at the age of 52… and… now I live a more decent life than ever before! Here’s how I’m making my living collecting from social security service what government owes me and how you can do it too:

In the test lead, the reader can easily relate with Joe Jones. He can imagine a 52-year-old accountant who knows all the ins and outs of the social security system. That builds trust and heightens interest to what the writer has to tell. Thus, it makes the prospect keep reading on.

The Second Paragraph

The second paragraph is when your real message starts. If you have properly designed a captivating headline and come up with an appealing and personal lead paragraph, then the second paragraph is when your prospect will begin smoothly reading forward.

Here you say what you have to say. If you really have enough knowledge and expertise in the topic, then you will meet no hurdles as you write the rest of the report.

Here’s the takeaway idea for the second paragraph and all the subsequent paragraphs:Click To Tweet

Here’s the takeaway idea for the second paragraph and all the subsequent paragraphs:

Say what you have to say on the report topic.

On this occasion, regardless of your level of professionalism, people often get stuck. You may encounter what’s called writer’s’ block. You have all the knowledge, experience, words, and analogies you need to start producing bona fide content but you’re having a hard time communicating these thoughts to a blank piece of paper or screen.

An easy way to overcome this is to audio-record what you’re going to write about. Imagine you’re talking to a friend who asked you, “Hey, what’s that report all about?”

At first, you’re going to stutter a little, try to say smart things, or try too hard to sound eloquent on the recording. Just keep talking, and in a few minutes, you won’t even notice how the words are spilling out as naturally as they come.

Any time you get stuck while writing your report, just turn on the audio you recorded and listen to it. You’ll be amazed how this process will get your writing juices flowing.

Subtitles

Subtitles in the report are even of greater importance than in the sales pages. Reports are usually much longer than sales pages, so the need to be easy on the eyes is far more pronounced.

But aside from eye-relieving effect, subtitles in the report also serve as titles of paragraphs.

In web content, subtitles are key elements that break the ideas down into convenient bits of information you want the reader to consume.

As mentioned above, not everyone is going to read your entire report. Most of them are going to scan it first and, if their eye stumbles on something they perceive as valuable, only then will they pay full attention to your writing and actually read it.

That’s why while crafting subtitles you must make sure that they clearly communicate the one main idea of the paragraphs that follow.  

Here are three important tips on writing effective subtitles:

  1. Don’t be afraid of using long subtitles.

The subtitles should contain as many words as necessary to clearly communicate the main idea of the paragraphs it represents. However, you should work with different variations of the subtitle and choose the one that conveys the idea with as few words as possible. But again, never sacrifice clarity for brevity.

  1. Always write at least five variations of a subtitle.

While writing the first draft of your report, most of the time, you will come up with subtitles effortlessly during the writing process itself. That’s because you know exactly what you’re writing about and what topics you want each paragraph to uncover. Often, those subtitles are perfectly clear and comprehensive for you, the writer, but ultimately vague for the reader.

That’s why I recommend you write at least five variations of each subtitle. Then, pick the one that’ll give even the most unsophisticated reader the clearest idea of what to expect from the upcoming paragraphs.

  1. Design your subtitles specifically for your target audience.

Keep in mind that even your most interested prospect will first and foremost skim through your report and not actually read it. During that scanning process, they will look at the headline, read a couple of sentences from the lead paragraph and then scroll down mostly paying attention to the subtitles.

And if those subtitles turn out to be interesting enough for them, only then will they go back to the beginning of your report and actually read it. That’s the reason to write subtitles specifically for your target reader. The better you know your prospects, the greater the chance you’ll come up with subtitles that’ll grab their attention and make them read your report.      

Bullets

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Bullets in the report are little digests of valuable information on the subject you’re writing about. You use them to keep readers’ interest high without pestering them with unnecessary details.

In reports, bullets serve one goal only: to provide useful information in the way most convenient to the reader.

Bullets in the report can be about both features and benefits or a mixture of both. It only depends on the flow of your thoughts. Don’t try artificially sticking in benefits and avoiding features.

Sales pages, in contrast, tend to focus on benefits to hit the prospect’s buy buttons and to snatch up his particular interest in the product. In a free report, that just won’t work.

The bullets in a free report will usually consist 80% of features. Don’t worry about it. The bullets in your free report are not meant to directly sell your course, but to provide information to the reader.

Postscripts

People don’t read reports to buy something. They’re not going to download it because they want your hard sales pitch. The number 1 reason people are going to get hold of your report is to get valuable information on the subject they’re already interested in. The second they realize you’re trying to sell them your course (or any other product/service), they’re going to doubt your expertise and distrust you.

That’s why it’s better to sell via sales messages and earn your audience’s trust by delivering valuable information in your free report.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t refer to an additional source of information and support on the topic: your online courses. They provide much more value than a 10-page report.

Postscripts are the best place to get a little salesy in your report. You can pitch in the P.S. in a way that doesn’t scare away your readers.

Don’t confine yourself while writing postscripts. Your natural reaction when you write the P.S. section will be to make it short, as it’s more conventional for the P.S. But don’t give in to that thought.

All through the report you’ve been giving all out, you’ve delivered bona fide content, you’ve provided the readers with high-value information they can take to the bank. Now, don’t hesitate to pitch readers your online course. Some of them want—and need—to learn more from you. Tell them how they can do so.

Just do it in an easygoing, friendly manner. Think soft sell, not hard sell.

5 examples of postscripts that do a good job of soft selling in a report:Click To Tweet

Below are five examples of postscripts that do a good job of soft selling in a report:

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The Sign-Off

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The sign-off section presents another opportunity to give your report more personality. It consists of three elements: valediction (sincerely, regards, etc.), signature, and your full name.

You place it on the lower right corner at the end of your report.

Valediction

There are countless ways to sign off of your writing, I recommend you use “Sincerely” above everything else. It is the most neutral valediction of all, and, more importantly, it can’t offend the reader.

For example, I once received an angry email in which the sender went on to express his deep indignation with me because I signed my sales message with “Cheers.” Believe me, that wasn’t an isolated case. Imagine how many people were displeased with my “cheers” but just hadn’t bothered to email me about it.

Signature

Place a signature below the valediction. It’s the final, personal touch you can give your report. Make sure it looks like a real signature. By that, I mean that it should be handwritten with a blue ink pen. There are many online apps that allow you to create decent-looking signatures. Also, be sure to use the same signature on all of your writing materials.

Your Full Name

Underneath your signature, add your full name so that the reader will know whose writing he just read.

This is what your sign-off will look like:

Sincerely,

[signature]
Joe Jones

What’s Next?

By now, you’ve got the basic understanding of how to write high-converting free reports. As I mentioned in the beginning, no other marketing tool will help you build trust and haul in more customers into your business like a well-versed report.

Reports don’t convert prospects into buyers. That’s what sales copy does.

But your free report will convert an interested reader into a prospect who, after receiving your value and expertise, will be happy to enroll in your course.

You have all the tools you need to get started. Use them now to create a free report that will position you as an expert in your field and attract people who are interested in your online course.

Do you use free reports to promote your online course? How will you write them differently after reading this post?

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About Areg Nersisian

I'm a B2B copywriter specializing in email marketing (newsletters, cold b2b, lead generation etc.)

9 comments

  1. Hi Areg,

    I wrote a short (free) ebook to help people learn how to take better pictures. The ebook is essentially the first section of a photography workshop I teach.

    The first paragraph is always the hardest for me. But with help from your article, I have just rewritten my first paragraph. I think it’s much stronger now.

    Thanks for this article! I’ll be sharing it and saving it to reference later on.

    Mat

    1. Hi Mat, glad to hear this article helped you.

      But, would you like to make your first paragraph even stronger? If so, here’s a detailed, sure-fire way how you can do it (this requires some work, but will pay off, believe me):

      1. Get some great sales letters on hand. I recommend Gary Halbert’s. If you don’t have access to winning sales letters go to swipe.com and in the search box type in ‘Gary Halbert’ you’ll be exposed to sales letters written by him
      2. Open the five sales letters you like the most
      3. Copy out in your handwriting the first paragraphs of each of those letters
      4. Without taking a break for even a second start writing (not re-writing) your first paragraph. Keep banging out as many variations of the first paragraph as you can
      5. Forget about writing and go have some fun
      6. Come back at your variations and with a fresh look pick the one you like the most
      7. Edit it according to the tips from this article
      8. Let me know how it went

      Good luck Mat, and thanks again for the feedback!

  2. I found this interesting — because my free reports that have done well DON’T have this format. They’re success stories from students of that course. People seem to eat that up! It really proves that the course imparts valuable info, and the students drip out all kinds of tips on what the top information in the course that helped them.

    Should I maybe organize it in terms of boiling it down to 1 tip per student and casting it into more of an X tips sort of format? This intrigues me…

    1. Hey Carol, regarding including positive feedbacks from your students in the report… that is…

      an outright powerhouse approach!

      Almost never fails. Good for you to have enough awesome feedbacks from your students to make up a whole report. I recommend you always exploit those feedbacks placing the most notable ones in every piece of writing you produce (including blog posts, newsletters, guides…)

      You can use the report-writing format outlined here and strategically place the feedbacks all across the report to haul in even bigger response!

      In respect of ‘X tips’ format, Carol… from my practice, ‘x tips’ format brings in higher download rates, but fewer prospect-into-buyer conversions. I have a couple of ideas why it’s so… but… those are just speculations not backed up by enough tested data… so… the only way to know for sure is to test… test… test!

      Thanks again for the feedback.
      Best wishes Carol and tons of conversions 🙂

        1. Hi Lexi, actually I don’t have an answer to that question. And no one has. The only way to find out which headline performs better on YOUR prospects is to run an A/B test… Again, from my experience ”How to” headlines pull more ‘impressions’ while not so many responses compared to other formats. But this is by no means etched in stone. The only way to know for sure is to test.

  3. Hey Areg,

    I’m constantly using online courses to acquire or improve my skills with design programs, web design, marketing and web development. Headlines are very big deal when you are going to sell your online courses.

    It should be like that – attract potential customers with its strenght. These are amazing tips regarding subject and needs to implement for better results. Eventually, thanks for sharing these wonderful facts with us.

    With best wishes,

    Amar kumar

    1. Hi Amar, glad you liked the article and thanks for the feedback.

      Indeed, headlines are the most important thing in every piece of marketing copy we write. Because what’s the point in writing anything if it’s not going to be read, right?
      Headlines are those incentives that ‘grab our readers by their eyeballs’ and make them click the ‘download’ button.
      I really recommend you read Julius Haldemann’s almost a decade-old book “First Hundred Millions.” The whole book is dedicated to headlines. It’s not popular. It doesn’t have a good rating on amazon. And it’s a little archaic… but it outlines some neat headline-writing techniques that are just timeless!

      P.S. At the risk of sounding ‘copyright-unfriendly’… you can actually find the book in pdf format in free access if you google it 😉

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