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List Building for Course Creators: How to Grow Your Audience Before Launching Your Course

  • Eli NatoliEli Natoli

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard novice course creators say “I’m not ready to start marketing my course yet; I’m still working on building it!”

Here’s the thing: “If you build it, they will come” might have worked for Kevin Costner in the movie Field of Dreams. But if you follow this advice as a course creator, you’re in for a long, challenging — and possibly disastrous — road ahead.

It’s totally understandable that most of us would rather put our heads down and focus on what we know, what comes easy to us. Given a choice between spending time doing what we’re good at (turning our big idea into an online course) and doing what we’re not so good at (promoting and selling it), it’s easier to default to what’s comfortable. What’s known.

But leaving marketing efforts to the very end, for the sake of keeping things rolling, is a bad decision that will most likely come back to bite you — springing a trap that will be really hard to get yourself out of. That’s why it’s crucial to start building your list long before you’re ready to start marketing your course.

Why You Need to Build Your List Before Launching Your Course   

Why is putting off your course marketing such a problem? For one thing, by the time you’ve finished your course and are ready to launch, you’ll be lacking an audience to launch to. And while that reason alone should be enough, I’d like to give you three more reasons why you must start building your audience from the moment you have an idea for that online course:

1. You must validate whether or not you’re on the right track.

Hopefully you’re spending (or are planning to spend) the required time researching your course topic and your target audience needs, to make sure your course topic is actually in demand.

If you’ve done that research, and are feeling really good about where you’ve landed, keep in mind the data you’ve uncovered during your research is ONLY the first step in your course validation process. You still don’t have solid, verifiable proof that you’re on the right track.

Let me explain: let’s say that, based on your research, you completely understand who your target audience is. You understand their pain points as well as the desired outcome they’re hoping to get from taking your course. And you’re 100% positive the solution you’re promising is going to help this audience remove that pain point and get them to their desired outcome.

That’s all great, but there are other variables in this mix…the most important of which is YOU!

Are they willing to invest in YOU?

Will they see you as knowledgeable, credible and trustworthy, based on their expectations? You and your course won’t appeal to everyone. You need to find YOUR tribe. People who will resonate with you and your approach. People whose expectations are a match for what you, personally and professionally, have to offer.

Finding your tribe early in the process is crucial. Knowing WHO these people are — along with how they specifically see their current situation — is what’s going to help you structure and build a course that gets THIS specific audience the equally specific solution they’ve been looking for.

Which brings me to the next two points.

2. You’re not a course creator — you have a course business.

Even if you’re thinking about selling ONE course, your ultimate goal should be building a course business. Selling your course on a consistent basis is a lot easier when there is an established brand behind it. If you’re presenting the image that this course is a one-and-done event, you’re also signaling that this is the sum total of what you have to offer. You have to realize that people are looking for trust, for sustained value. They don’t just want to find someone they can learn from — they want to find someone they can keep learning from.

So you have to treat this like a business, where the goal is to provide continuous learning (and continuous income). To build an audience who trusts you, who lines up to check out every new thing you release because it’s yours. In doing so, you’ll have a much higher chance of gathering a group of people (your tribe) and having them buy into what you’re selling, instead of hustling every day to just sell courses to random strangers.

3. You must establish, build and maintain credibility.  

The online training landscape has drastically changed I first ventured into this space more than a decade ago. It’s a very saturated marketplace where there are far too many courses competing for audience attention, on just about any given topic.

You and your future course will be competing with thousands of other courses on the same topic. And when your prospects are comparing you to them, one of their deciding factors will be whether they believe you’re credible. Whether you can and will actually deliver what you’re promising.

This is where having a tribe (even a small tribe) goes a long way to show you’re for real — and assist in showcasing your expertise and authority in your specific topic. Every rating, review or social media mention goes a long way in cementing that credibility.

Hopefully, you can see why putting in a little effort upfront to build a target audience — people who are interested in you and what you have say on your given topic — will set you up for a much stronger launch when your course is ready.

So how do you go about building a tribe who’s interested in your future course?

The easiest way to get there is with some additional upfront work, to build a solid lead generation funnel. Once it’s done, it’ll generate leads on autopilot, freeing you up to focus on what do you best: turning your passion and skills into an amazing training program.

What Makes a Successful Lead Generation Funnel?

The first component is having a targeted, clear purpose for that funnel. I’ll give you an example.

Have you ever been to an amusement park, where the only way out of the park was through the gift shop?

That’s a targeted, purposeful lead generation funnel. The park has purposefully laid out a path for people to go through in order to leave. And the fact that this path is through the gift shop greatly increases the chances of them walking out with a purchase or two.

The very same approach holds true for you and your audience building efforts: the goal is to intentionally create a path for your prospects to follow, in order to turn them from random strangers to buyers.

This path can be as simple or as complex as you like, but my advice is to keep it simple. This makes getting started much easier and, as time goes by, you’ll know what other pieces to add and how to expand your lead generation efforts. The path I’m going to walk you through consists of 2 main parts:

  1. We’re going to create something of value to give to your prospects in exchange for their email address. Every contact you add to your email list is a potential student, someone you’ll promote and market your future course to when you’re ready to launch.
  2. Then we’re going to nurture these new leads and build a relationship with them. To help them see you as the trusted expert, as the BEST person to help solve their problem or get them to their desired outcome. So by the time your course is ready, they’re primed, eager and ready to buy it.

One of the best parts of building your email list from the beginning is that it grows and gets stronger with every new course or offer you put out there. This helps to put your promotion and marketing on autopilot; you have a built-in audience now, so you can focus your energy on coming up with other topics to create courses on. 

In a nutshell, every course you launch should be built with at least one freebie offer preceding it, to encourage new leads to join your email list. So not only will you have an existing list of targeted buyers to promote your course to — you’ll also have new leads coming into your lead generation funnel (your sphere of influence) every single day. 

Why List Building is Not a Numbers Game

Now, before we get into how to build your audience, let’s first talk about one important rule:

List building is not a numbers game!

I know. We marketing folks loooooove to talk about numbers and statistics. And one particular stat you’ll hear repeated quite often as you get into list building is this one:

“On average, you can expect to earn $1 per subscriber per month.”

Meaning if you work really hard towards getting 10,000 subscribers, then you should expect $10K per month. So the attached advice is hey, just figure out your desired monthly revenue and — using this nifty little calculation, work toward getting the number of subscribers needed to reach that desired $ amount.

But while that statistic might be accurate, hitting that number isn’t really as straightforward as it sounds. There are several variables that have to be taken into account, the most important of which is this:

Is this person I’m targeting the RIGHT person? Someone who’s truly interested in my course? 

Let me tell you a story.

I once worked with a client who had previously worked with a marketing coach to build her list. The coach’s tactical advice, which she followed, was to run Facebook ads offering chance to win one of 10 $50 amazon gift cards. Through this endeavor, she added 1600 people to her email list.

Then she rolled out her program, a $49 online training program teaching people how to start an Airbnb business.

Now by the magic statistic I started this section with, she should have been able to make $1,600, right? That’s the formula, after all: $1 per subscriber.

Do you know how many of those 1600 subscribers enrolled into her $49 program? 


Why? Because the people who joined her list were interested in winning the contest — not in starting an  Airbnb business.

So as you can see, list building is most definitely NOT a numbers game. No matter what any “expert” tells you. It’s not ever about quantity — it’s about quality.

The only thing having 10,000 people on a list who are NOT your target audience — and who are completely uninterested in what you’re selling — will get you is zero dollars in revenue. 

On the other hand, I’ve worked with clients who’ve only had 200 people on their list, promoted their course to those 200 people and walked away with over $10K in enrollments.

I say again: the goal is quality, not quantity.

Now that we got that out of the way, let’s talk about how to build your audience.

Three Key Lead Generation Funnel Elements

As I mentioned before, a lead generation funnel can be as simple or complex as you’d like it to be. But in the spirit of keeping it very simple, let me walk you through the 3 main components that should be included in every course lead generation funnel:

  1. A Freebie Offer, otherwise known as a Lead Magnet. As I mentioned before, to get people to join your lead generation funnel, you’re going to need an offer that makes them want to give you their email address. This freebie can be an eBook, cheat sheet, a mini-course or a webinar, just to name a few. The format (what you give them) isn’t as important as making sure you’re showing up in front of that ideal buyer with the RIGHT solution to their most annoying struggle. And doing it at the right time, when they need it most!
  2. An Opt-in Landing Page, often referred to as a squeeze page or freebie landing page. Basically, this is a landing page, where you’ll be sending your leads to grab your freebie offer. The goal behind this landing page is simple: to give them a compelling reason to give you their email address in exchange for getting your Lead Magnet (freebie).
  3. An Email Sequence. The primary goal of your lead generation funnel is to get new leads onto your email list. Once this new lead joins your email list, you’ll want to do two things: engage with them further to build a relationship, and build trust so they’re ready and eager to buy your course when it’s ready. 

You accomplish this with an automated sequence of emails that runs as soon as a new lead joins your list. 

Now, let’s dive deeper into each of these 3 key elements, and prepare you to get new leads onto your email list.

How to Set Up Your Lead Generation Funnel

Step 1: Create Your Freebie

The perfect time to come up with this freebie the minute you have an idea for your online course — and before you actually spend any time creating that course.

In my opinion and experience, this is the most reliable way to validate whether there is market demand for your topic. We all know creating online courses is time intensive. We’re easily talking 4 to 6 months here. So the last thing you want is to spend all that time and energy only to find there is no interest for your new course.

The good news: you can totally avoid this by using a freebie centered around the topic of your course to validate your course idea. To gauge interest before you do any course creating.

There are two ways to come up with the freebie:

  1. Create a high level (10,000 foot-view version) of your course. You’ll want to begin by touching on the pain points your online course solves. Next, provide a high-level strategy or walkthrough of the solution taught inside your online course, and give them a glimpse of the outcome they’d get once they implement your promised solution.
  2. Come up with a topic related to your course. Brainstorm other things your target audience needs to have in place, to position them for success, when they take your course. For example, let’s say you’re an agency owner and you’re thinking about creating a course on how to create a high-converting sales landing page.

    You could create a freebie titles “How to Write Persuasive Copy for Your Sales Landing Page.”

    That’s something they’d need to know and have, in order to be positioned for the best outcome when they take your training and learn to set up their own website.

Now if your course is already done and launched, don’t sweat it! You can still reverse-engineer this process and come up with a good freebie offer, using either of these two methods.

In general, when you’re brainstorming around the topic of your freebie, you should make sure it meets the folowing criteria:

  • It’s related to your course topic. There should be a one-to-one correlation between the topic of your online course and the topic of your freebie.
  • It’s actionable. Keep in mind that your ideal buyer isn’t looking for information. Information is free, only a Google or YouTube search away. What they really want is transformation. So don’t waste your time trying to stuff tons of information into this freebie. You’re going to accomplish nothing, except leaving a bad taste in your prospect’s mouths.

    Instead, make sure your freebie is actionable, that it gives them something they can take action on and get a small win. When they get that small win, they associate you with that win. And that’s exactly what you’re after. You want them to see that you’re the right person to help them solve their bigger problem or reach their bigger goal.
  • It’s bite-sized. If you make this freebie too massive to consume, such as a 100-page ebook or a 30-day challenge of some sort, you’re making it harder for them to consume it… preventing them from taking that action and getting the small win that they (and you) are after.  

Step 2: Build an Opt-in Page

The goal of this page is to present your freebie offer and have your prospective students enter their email address. That’s it!

But in order for them to give up their most personal information (email address), you need to give them a compelling reason to do so. If they can see themselves and their situation in what you’re offering — and clearly see you have the solution to their ongoing struggle (as evidenced by your freebie topic) —  there’s a really good chance they’ll take you up on your offer.

You want them to see themselves in what you’re offering, and the way to do that is by making sure you’re communicating these 3 key points:

  1. Who is this freebie for? This is typically the headline or title of your freebie landing page. Use this opportunity to tell them about the outcome they’re going to get from your freebie. Or tell them what pain point your freebie is going to remove. By doing so, you’re making it easy for them to see that this is exactly what they’ve been looking for.
  2. What does your freebie help them do? What’s the solution they’re going to get? Is it going to help them write a better landing page copy? Grow beautiful roses? Stop their puppy from peeing on the floor? Whatever it is, the key here is to be completely unambiguous. Be clear, direct and straight to the point.
  3. How does your freebie help them? Tell them how you’re going to help them get that outcome or remove that pain point; lay out the path and the steps. Is this a template they fill out? A guide they follow? A series of a video tutorials?

Above all else — and I really cannot stress this enough —make sure the message and copy of this landing page is clear, simple and to the point. Don’t try to get clever, especially with the headline. Always remember this: clever equals unclear!

Step 3: Create Your Email Sequence

As we touched on at the beginning, your email list will be one of your most valuable assets. It’s going to be the differentiator between someone who once published a course, and someone who’s a trusted advisor, a brand with an engaged audience and a variety of solutions (aka courses, services, programs) ready to help their tribe reach their goals and realize their dreams.

But once those leads opt-in to grab your lead magnet and join your list, your work is far from finished.

While you’re creating your online course and building your audience, you also have to nurture your new leads. How? By consistently offering them value through a Nurture Email Sequence.

This is essentially what it sounds like: a series of content experiences (emails), sent over the course of weeks or months, that keeps your new leads engaged and moving toward becoming a paid customer (when your course is ready for launch).

Here’s a quick outline of an email nurture sequence you can create:

  1. A welcome email that delivers those warm, fuzzy feelings and gives them the opportunity to get to know you better.
  2. A mix of value-added emails. These can be made up of topics like:
  1. Quick tips on how to solve a smaller problem related to the bigger problem your online course solves.
  2. Advice on reaching a smaller goal related to the bigger goal they’re trying to achieve.
  3. An update on your new online course (this builds anticipation and excitement).
  4. Best-practice tips and tools around your industry, related to your online course topic.

And of course, you should also have an entire Course Launch Email Sequence ready before you hit the publish button on your new online course. This positions you for a stronger launch, more sales and great reviews and feedback.

In general, you want to have at least 7-11 emails in your launch sequence. While that may seem like overkill, it’s anything but. Keep in mind that your new subscribers are focused on any number of things when that email arrives, which means they might not see or even open every single email. And if they do, it may fade from memory as something important grabs their attention. Which is why you want it in front of them more than a few times.

When you’re writing these emails for your launch sequence, make sure each email has a good balance between nurturing and selling.

The last thing you want to do is write a bunch of emails that pressure them to buy, buy BUY! That’s a surefire way to make sure they ignore the rest of your emails. Remember, you have to give before you get.

There’s no better way to ensure success.

Ready to Start Building Your Audience?

If you’ve read this far, I’m sure you see the obvious truth that creating a course lead generation funnel takes time and energy.

But I will guarantee you that it’s time well spent.

And the bonus? Following this strategy ensures that the more courses you create, the more leads you add to your email list. 

Which means that every launch gets easier. And as time goes on, you spend your time doing what you love — helping your audience, instead of hustling day in and day out, scrambling to sell your courses. 

So if you’re serious about having a thriving business, spending your precious time on things you’re passionate about (creating courses and helping your tribe) while selling your courses on auto-pilot, then a course lead generation funnel should be front and center in your overall marketing initiatives. 

You can thank me later.