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Online Courses: Missed Opportunities and Enduring Hope


Editor’s Note: The State of Online Courses is now The State of Online Learning. Read the 2018 report here.

“If you teach, you will grow rich.” Danny Iny, Teach and Grow Rich

Is this the experience of online entrepreneurs? Especially those who are just getting started?

And if they succeed, what would be the impact on their businesses? And their lives?

We wanted to find out and that’s why we added a second part to our annual state of online courses survey.

Our audience of service providers, coaches, consultants, and other independent professionals responded. The first part of the survey focused on their interest and experience with online courses. The second part asked more specifically about their revenues, and what impact online courses and other opportunities could possibly make on them.

We’ve found that there’s plenty of unfulfilled opportunity in online courses, regardless of where respondents are in their course creation journey. They want to earn more from online courses, but so far, this is true for a tiny minority of respondents.

There’s plenty of unfulfilled opportunity in online courses. Click To Tweet

Nevertheless, the interest—and hope—remain high. As you’ll see later on, a significant number of respondents want online courses to be their main source of revenue.  

Let’s dig into the findings:

How the Other Half Lives

Our respondents are equally divided when it comes to revenue. Almost half of them have businesses that have a revenue source (45%) and the other half have businesses that don’t (47%). It’s worrying that so many of our audience members (at least those who took the survey), aren’t seeing revenue yet. We must do something about that!

Among those who have revenue, 61% say their single, biggest revenue source is services. The rest are spread out among physical products, blogging, speaking, or other audience-based activities, online courses, and digital products. Only 8% of all respondents said their biggest source of revenue is online courses.

Survey Biggest Source of Revenue

And almost half (48%) say their main revenue source brings in 91-100% of their total revenue. This situation raises red flags since it appears that these entrepreneurs have all their eggs in one basket.

Survey Percentage Main Revenue Source

Future Revenue: Expectations

Is there hope? Do our respondents see a brighter future ahead of them?

The majority of them do, and they expect to see the most revenue growth from… more services (34%). Let’s stop and ponder this for a second. I’m thinking there are several ways to explain this.

One possibility is that they’re truly underbooked and have time to take in more clients.

The other possibility is that they’ve over-estimated how many clients they can realistically serve, which means they don’t actually have time to get more clients; they only think they do.

Or the third possibility is that they plan to charge more. So, they can have the same number of clients—or even fewer—and still earn more revenue.

Either way, a third of the respondents don’t see themselves diversifying their sources of revenue. It makes sense that, since they’re already making money through services, then they see that as something that will continue working for them.

Not much farther behind are online courses, with 18% of respondents seeing most revenue growth from that source.

But what’s this?

20% of the survey takers aren’t expecting any revenue growth at all! Whether this reflects pessimism or contentment, unfortunately, is beyond the scope of the survey.

Expected Source of Revenue Growth

Future Revenue: Desires

It appears that respondents want to rely less on services as an income source. Regardless of any revenue they’re currently making (or not making), 42% of them said that, in the future, they would like their greatest source of revenue to come from (drum roll…) online courses!

Desired Revenue Sources

Online Course Creators: A Different Breed?

In terms of revenue, the picture is slightly better for those who are online course creators: a whopping 70% of them said their business brings in at least some revenue. In comparison, 44% of those considering online courses, 43% of those who aren’t interested in courses, and 37% of those who are working on their online courses are seeing revenue.

Course Creators Revenue

It’s possible that the revenue is allowing these respondents to take the time to work on their online courses. They’re also probably the ones with more experience and success in marketing and selling their services—skills that make them more successful online course creators as well. In this sense, success breeds more success.

In terms of where the revenue is coming from, however, online course creators aren’t much different from their peers. 51% of online course creators derive their biggest revenue from services as well.

But for 21% of online course creators, online courses are the single biggest source of revenue! And among them, 62% said online courses bring in 71-100% of their total revenue.

Course Creators Biggest Revenue Source


This seems to contradict our earlier observation that most online course creators aren’t enrolling as many students as they expect to and at the price they would like to charge. But keep in mind that this sub-group of course creators is small: only 26 respondents rely on online courses for revenue, and only 8 respondents depend on online courses for greater than 90% of their revenue.

How can we help more online course creators derive more income from their courses? Click To Tweet

They’re the ones who are starting to actualize the opportunity of online courses. The question is, how can we help more online course creators derive more income from their courses? How can we make this the reality for the majority of course creators?

For online course creators whose main source of revenue is not online courses, 60% said that online courses bring 1-10% of their total revenue. This is consistent with our earlier findings which show that online courses haven’t been profitable for the respondents. And yet, surprisingly, 70% said their courses were partially to completely successful!

Future Revenue: Expectations

When it comes to revenue growth, online course creators are more optimistic about online courses than other groups are. An almost equal percentage of course creators expect to see the most revenue growth from services (34%) and from online courses (31%). 24% of those who are creating their courses are seeing the most revenue growth in online courses. In contrast, only 7% of those who are still considering online courses feel the same way.

Course Creators Expected Revenue Growth

It appears that, despite the disappointing results, course creators see improved revenues from their courses.

They know they’re on to something; they just haven’t made it work yet!

Future Revenue: Desires

Compared to the whole group of survey takers, those who have some experience with online courses have the greatest desire to earn their income mostly from online courses. A significant 74% of those in the process of creating a course and 63% of course creators would like their greatest source of revenue to come from online courses.

This signifies the hope that they’re placing on online courses to be their main income source.

Online Course Creators Optimistic

Again, despite whatever disappointments they may have experienced in terms of student enrolment and course fees, online course creators continue to pine for greater revenues from their courses. They want this business model to work!

What story do these numbers and charts weave for us?

I see a group of people who’ve been trading hours for dollars as service providers, with inconsistent results in terms of revenue. Some of them have tried their hand at offering online courses, but a very small number of those are succeeding to the extent that they can rely on courses as their main source of income.

But no matter how much revenue they’re generating, no matter where they are in their course creation journey, a significant number of them see the opportunity in online course creation. And the ones who’ve had a taste of online courses are the most hopeful and optimistic of them all.

Succeeding in online courses can have a tremendous impact on the lives of course creators as well as their students. Not only can they derive more revenue, they can also diversify their revenue streams and enjoy greater financial security.

Do you see the opportunity in online courses? Is online course building a viable business model or a pipe dream? What impact would succeeding as a course creator have on your life?

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About Lexi Rodrigo

Lexi Rodrigo is the co-author of Blog Post Ideas: 21 Proven Ways to Create Compelling Content and Kiss Writer's Block Goodbye and former Content Writer and Blog Editor at Mirasee. She helps entrepreneurs be seen, be heard, and be known. Get her free email course, 5 Tweaks to a Website that Makes You Irresistible

7 thoughts on “Online Courses: Missed Opportunities and Enduring Hope

  1. LOVED this blog topic, Lexi.
    How I wish more businesses would share survey results, insider thoughts and encourage conversations related on online courses.
    I wasn’t surprised by your survey results -thank you for your efforts and time, plus sharing these results.
    I appreciated your honest opinions that perhaps entrepreneurs who’ve been successful with online courses have more marketing and business knowledge and experience.

    I’m really looking forward to listening to the upcoming online course summit webinars.
    Here are my questions for you and your team…
    Any suggestions for offering value to entice conversations with people who represent your ideal future subscribers and customers -to help validate course ideas?
    Would about suggestions for ways new entrepreneurs could collaborate with their peers to reach their ideal conversation partners or engaging readers (to get feedback on their ideas)?

    • @Keri – Great questions! I don’t think it’s necessary to provide enticements to get people into conversations about what course topics they would find valuable. I have experienced being paid for my time in exchange for a 30-minute call about my needs and desires as a freelancer, with someone who was doing research in her market. But I don’t think that’s necessary at all. And as for collaborating with peers, what Danny is doing with the online education summit is an excellent example of how that can be done. You’ll find that many people are willing to talk about what’s going on with them, what their thoughts are about things, and what their experience has been. I’ll ask other members of the team to chime in with their thoughts 🙂

    • Hi @Keri,

      Good questions!
      If you are looking to entice potential students into having a conversation about validating a course idea, the first step is to figure out where your ideal type of student hangs out.
      -does your course appeal to moms?
      –>there are lots of Facebook groups for moms or look for “mommy and me” groups

      -does your course appeal to people looking to get healthier?
      –>talk to people in fitness groups, or friends from the yoga studio.

      Another alternative is to offer to give a presentation to a local group (civic, religious, etc). Give them great content and then either ask for their feedback on your course idea.

      In terms of how to collaborate with other new entrepreneurs – there are many business related Facebook groups you can join full of people looking to make new connections and potential partnerships.

      For example, Mirasee has an open group called the Online Course Creators Community that people can join.

      Great question!

  2. I’ve been hanging around on the fringes of online course creation for the past year and even created courses only to let them end up gathering dust. Every time I start thinking about diving in I look at the sea of free courses available and back off again. I thought for awhile I might experiment with a course on Udemy but after looking into it I realized how often they discount the courses – a $97 course going for $9.97?!

    And then I hear from one of my readers letting me know how much I’ve helped them and it makes me feel guilty because I know I can do so much more. So, for better or worse I’m committing to give his online course thing my all his year. I’m approaching this project as an “experiment” so there is no success or failure, there is only learning and growing. I have no expectations other than I WILL make this happen and do my very best for my clients whether it’s one or a hundred. 🙂

  3. Hey Lexi,

    It is very interesting post and you have shared great stats regarding this subject which will very helpful for us in analyzing whole things regarding online courses. Now-a-days, students are showing more interest in online courses so it can be great opportunity for online marketer to maximize earning. Eventually, thanks for reveling a light on this topic.

    With best regards,

    Amar kumar

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