n Episode 74, we are wrapping up our series, Starting and Growing Your Online Course. In today’s show we talk about the biggest challenge when it comes to your online courses. And that is attracting your students and building a healthy community. And to help us get a better grip on marketing our courses, we bring in Troy Dean, founder of WP Elevation, who has been very successful in the online course space.
From my own experience, I have seen a lot of people who dive into online courses, build their site, create their content, and then hope for signups. This is where the largest number of individuals hit a brick wall. They can be amazing teachers with awesome content, but they struggle with driving the traffic and signups to their site. Listen to these great tips and insights from Troy on how you can successfully market your online course.
We chatted about:
- At what point in the process of planning your course, creating the content and building the site should you start to seriously think about the marketing side? (Troy’s answer may surprise you.)
- How to find that sweet spot of when to start marketing and what you should consider when pre-announcing your launch
- Troy’s two biggest tips on where you should be promoting your online course
- How the marketing process ties into not only the launch of your course but also its growth
- How important it is to know why you are starting this online course
- Never underestimating the power of community and how that is a key to your course’s success
Thanks to Our Podcast Sponsor: Bluehost
Bob Dunn: Hey, everyone. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. Thanks for tuning into into the fourth and last show of our series: What You Need to Know about Starting and Growing your Online Course. We’ve talked about the landscape, the scope of online courses, how to start them with your online store. But today we are talking about what I feel is one of the top challenges when it comes to online courses and that is marketing your course. In fact from experience, talking with others, this is where I’ve seen a lot of people drop the ball when it comes to the success of their course. So to help us wrap our brain around some of the basics here, we have Troy Dean, co-founder of WP Elevation. Hey, Troy, welcome to the show.
Troy Dean: Hey, Bob. Thanks for having me. I can’t believe it’s taken us this long to actually connect and have this conversation.
Bob: I think it was the last WordCamp, WordCamp Miami, that was the first time we actually found each other.
Troy: Yeah, I know. I’ve walked past you several times but we didn’t actually connect until Miami. So it’s a pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
Bob: Well, Troy, I gave a very brief description of you as co-founder of WP Elevation, but there may be some listeners out there who don’t know what you do. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and what part you play in the online course space?
Meet Troy Dean, co-founder of WP Elevation
Troy: Sure. WP Elevation is a business coaching and training course specifically for WordPress consultants. So it’s really a niche within a niche.
It started because I was running a digital agency here in Melbourne and I had a little WordPress plugin that was ticking along. This plugin was building an audience kind of by accident really. People were signing up for some of our free content and some of them would buy the plugin but the ones who weren’t buying were interested in how I was running my digital agency. And I found myself answering the same question over and over again by email and so on. And I would go to WordCamps and have the same conversation. It was like Groundhog Day every day.
I was having the same conversation with essentially the same type of person: Freelancers working from home who were using they were using WordPress to build websites for clients, but had all kinds of struggles and challenges because most of us in this space end up in business by accident and we haven’t gone to business school. We end up with some kind of technical or creative skills and then get a bunch of clients and then we have all these headaches and we’re not sure how to actually run this business that we’ve evolved into.
So I took what I was doing, one-on-one coaching by email, (but I wasn’t charging for any of this advice). I was just kind of helping people out over email and I thought, hang on, maybe I could just answer these questions once, record, and put them up with some templates and downloads and we could turn this into an online course. And this was back in the end of 2012, so online courses were still kind of a new thing back then. And that’s how WP Elevation started. We launched it officially in the middle of 2013. Now here we are in the middle of 2017.
We’ve got over 750 active members in the program as of today. And it’s fantastic, a seven-figure a year business. We’ve got a team of 12 working on the business. It’s been an absolute game changer. The gratitude and the appreciation we get from our students and our members is the reason we get out of bed every day. It far outweighs any other kind of milestone, be it revenue or whatever it is you’re trying to achieve. The feeling that you get from helping people? Nothing can compete with that.
So that’s how Elevation started and where we’re at today. We’ve learnt a lot. A lot of mistakes along the way. And I’m happy to share all of them.
Can you give us a few steps to take when planning to jump into the online courses space?
Bob: I know, I’ve been into these online courses. And I always envy and respect anybody that’s made a success out of them. Now let’s start out with the fact that a lot of people want to jump into the online course space. They have an idea. They build up the technical part and think, oh yeah, these are great and there are all these plugins to create content. So I’ll just push it out. But where in that initial process should they really start planning, promoting? Can you just give us a few steps that they might want to take?
Troy: Yeah, so here’s the big distinction. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble and I haven’t heard what your previous guests have said on the series, but here’s my take. You can set things on fire with an online course. If you are approaching it from this point of view, maybe you have a business model that is already working, but you cannot scale it because it requires that you trade time for money. In other words, you are imparting some of your knowledge into a client’s head in exchange for money and you’ve already proven that that can work, through your consulting or whatever. But you just can’t scale it. In that case, then an online course is the absolute sweet spot. I’ll give you an example of a girl named Megan whose last name escapes me.
You can find her online at the Academy of Culinary Nutrition. So Meghan used to work in the advertising industry and she got very ill. The doctors said, you’ve got this rare condition. We can’t do anything about it. You just have to manage the symptoms for the rest of your life. And she said, well, I’m not going to accept that. I’m going to approach this from a dietary point of view. So she completely changed her diet. And within a very short space of time, she eradicated her symptoms and the doctors were like, we can’t believe you did that.
She then started teaching people in in her local area. She lived in, I think it was Toronto. She started teaching people in her local area how to cook beautiful meals using whole foods, how to prepare them very easily. She was doing this out of her loft six nights a week and on the weekends and she got to the point where she just couldn’t teach anyone else, because she was full, at capacity. And so she said, okay, what if I create this video of these cooking classes and put them online? Fast forward two and a half years and she’s taught over 1000 students. She’s doing seven figures a year. And she’s changing people’s lives through teaching them how to cook really beautiful, healthy meals using whole foods.
The reason I love this story is because she had already proven that she had a business model that was working and she used technology to scale it. So the answer to the question is, your number one job as a course creator is to understand the problem that your student has and how your information and your insights and your techniques can help them solve that problem. You need to be building an audience every single day. You should be proactively collecting leads from your Web site, from social media: every single day, LinkedIn, whatever platform you are using, wherever your market is, and you need to be having conversations with those people every single day, not just collecting leads, then blasting them with your weekly newsletter. You need to be having conversations with those leads. And that means spending a lot of time in your inbox. I spend a lot of time in my inbox with my headset on dictating e-mails to students and customers and asking them questions and understanding their objectives and their challenges. And I know my students better than they know themselves and that’s why I believe that we’ve had success with this (which was not my first effort in online courses, by the way).But I think that’s why we’ve had success with this is because our students understand that I understand them. I think it was Zig Ziglar who once said, nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.
You should be planning your marketing and collecting those leads and talking to your customers before you create any lessons, before you install any membership plugins or do anything fancy like that. You need to understand who your customer is and why your course is what Seth Godin calls the Purple Cow. I mean, you know as well as I do it’s a noisy marketplace and the internet is a very noisy place. Why is someone going to pay attention to your course for half an hour a day or two hours a week when they are just bombarded with new shiny widgets and distractions all day long? They will if they believe that you can actually help them achieve something or solve a problem.
When should people start the promotion phase?
Bob: I’m going to follow up on that question. When should they actually start promoting it or make the announcement that hey, I’m going to be having this course, I want people to sign up or, you know, however you’re implementing that? And is it dangerous to announce your course too far in advance?
Troy: It’s a great question because you’re right what you said in the intro to this show, I talk to a lot of people who want to create courses. The biggest problem that course creators have is they create a course, they put it up online. They don’t make any sales or make half a dozen sales or they make you know a few dozen sales and it does not meet their expectations.
So here’s a radical idea. And again I go back to Seth Godin. I’m sorry to name drop says but I have had the pleasure of having have Seth on my podcast. And I you know it was one of the most educational 33 minutes of my life because the man is just so full of wisdom and experience and he said, here’s a radical idea. Instead of building something and then trying to sell it to people why don’t we build something that people want to buy? And in fact why don’t we build something that people with money want? So what I hear this all the time. I’m going to start of course. And the course is going to teach coaches how to run their own Facebook ads. Okay, well, let’s just think about this for a second.
If you target coaches who are promoting on Facebook, chances are, that coach doesn’t have a lot of clients because if they did they wouldn’t be running Facebook ads. Also, if a coach doesn’t have a lot of clients, they might not have a lot of money. So why is that your target audience? Why are you stacking the odds against yourself before you even get into the game?
So here’s the way I approach it. We have a lot of other courses apart from Elevation. But that’s our flagship. We don’t create any courses here now until we have pre-sold them. Let me tell you exactly how we started WP Elevation. It’s called validating an idea. And I learnt this from Ash Maurya, who wrote a fantastic book called Running Lean, which is kind of how to practically apply lean ideologies and methodologies to an actual business. We got some help from Ash and he coached us through this process.
So our idea was to create a course to help WordPress consultants run their businesses. How do we validate that idea? Well you validate that idea by getting a customer to pay you for the course. How do you do that before you’ve built the course? So we put up a sales page a landing page and we at the time we used Unbound to do it because it was quicker, believe it or not, than doing it in WordPress. It was back in the day before page builders existed. So we put up a sales page. We connected it to Go to Webinar and Eventbrite to sell the tickets. And we said hey, we’re going to teach you how to get better clients, better projects and get paid better fees as a WordPress consultant. It’s 197 dollars full price. We’re going to sell early bird tickets at $97. Now this is in 2013, when everyone was running free webinars. That was the strategy: run a free webinar and then you sell a paid webinar to those people. Crazy idea. I said to my business partner if 10 people buy this, I’ll do the webinar. If less than 10 people buy it, I’ll just refund their money and pretend it never happened. So if 10 people bought, I’d turn up and do it, but secretly I was hoping for 30 people. We got 84 people by a 48-hour period. So we did just over 10 grand in 48 hours.
We sold tickets at 97 dollars, 127 and 197 dollars. We released them in stages. I was doing my happy dance. And then I realized that I needed to put together a webinar. I needed to put together a keynote presentation and work out what I was going to teach them on this webinar. So the key point here is I hadn’t built a slide. I knew roughly what the overview was going to be because I had my topic, I knew my topic, but I hadn’t built one slide before I sold the webinar. We ran the webinar and It was epic. It was two and a half hours long. 55 people answered a survey after that webinar and they all said, “ We want to do this on a regular basis. We want you to build a membership website and we will pay you for it.” And so I had a conversation with a half a dozen of them on Skype. They told me exactly what they wanted. They told me the price point. A couple of weeks later we released it and we had 55 people buy in the first four days that we opened WP Elevation and all of a sudden we had a business model. It was a rapid iteration and a quick way of proving the business model. We’ve been growing it ever since.
Now it’s true, pre-announcing can confuse people. The challenge doing it the way I did is to make sure you get your numbers right. My number is 30. If I can sell a course to 30 people before it exists, then I’m in business, and I think we can scale it. Another problem is if 30 people buy the course, you’ve got to go build it—right now. If you all of a sudden come down with glandular fever and you’re in bed for six weeks, you’re in trouble because you’ve pre-sold a course you have to roll out. But I would rather back myself into a corner and have to work, which I have done in the past, work seven days a straight six weeks to shoot the course and edit it and get it all up in the cloud because I pre- sold it to a bunch of people who are expecting it. I’d rather do that, knowing that I have already been paid than do all that work in the hope that somebody is going to buy it. You know, human beings are very resourceful and resilient. You end up with 10 grand in your bank account because you’ve sold a course to 30 people in an afternoon and you find a way to make it work. So in those next few weeks, you’ll find a way to deliver on that promise. So it takes a little bit of guts to do it but you know it saves wasting time building something that nobody wants to buy.
What are your top tips for where you should promote your courses?
Bob: Now thinking about what you’ve just talked about, I’m going to ask for a couple of your top tips on where you should promote your courses. People think, okay, there’s Facebook, there’s email, there’s social. Any tips you have or at least a couple of your top 10?
Troy: Sure. So I was talking to a colleague of mine yesterday who’s trying to move the needle in a particular area of his business. And you know I’ve been doing this a long time and I get bored very quickly, Bob. So I want to move that needle as quickly as possible. So my answer is this.
The first time we sold RockStar Empires, which is a whole new course, was in one of our Facebook groups. I think, done well, Facebook groups are potentially one of the most powerful assets you can have in your business. Probably even more so than your email list because Facebook groups are a conversation and they are far more engaging than your email list. In my Facebook group, I had 4500 people there as a captive audience. At that stage, I was selling it as a series of webinars, a thousand dollars for four webinars, and I sold 10 copies in one afternoon and validated the idea. So bang. We’ve got a business.
The second time I sold it was through a buddy of mine who runs live events. He has a weekend and a three-day event and he has 300 people in the room over that weekend. And so I flew up to Sydney and I spoke at his event and I talked my face off for two hours about creating recurring revenue online through selling online courses. And at the end of it people were just gobsmacked and excited. And then I said, hey, if you want to go further and you want me to do this with you, I have this program that you can buy. And we were selling it for 795 dollars. At that point it was a series of four webinars and we sold 35 copies from the stage. So bang, we’ve now got our first beta group. We’ve got a business and some money in the bank so that I can take some time to build the course materials out.
So the answer is this. You don’t just start running Facebook ads to a landing page and think that you’re going to make a million dollars selling an online course. It just doesn’t work that way. Facebook ads are very, very competitive these days and it’s getting harder because for a long time they have been the gravy train. So I would ask this. First understand who is your student. Know who has their attention right now. I know who has the attention of WordPress consultants. It’s no accident, for example, that I’m on your podcast and that I’ve been on the Carey Dils podcast. So partner with people who have a large audience of your potential students and figure out how you can get in front of three, four, five or 10,000 people at once, rather than trying to build that using Facebook. Besides, that takes money whereas if you go and find someone who’s already got that audience and do some kind of deal or joint venture partnership with them, then you can move the needle a lot quicker. That is my number one tip.
It takes time and effort to get these partnerships right but they are definitely the best and fastest way to move the needle. It really boils down to two things. And so it’s knowing who is interested in what you are going to present. And second, find a captive market. Brian Clark has been talking about this for years with authority and influence. Influence is called influence for a reason. I mean, we pick up the phone, we have a conversation with each other and we publish that to our audiences. People pay attention. They take action. I can tell you right now the number of customers that we have given Beaver Builder because we’re a Beaver Builder affiliate. I see the notifications come through every day. I have conversations with Robbie on the phone and he’s like, dude, I can’t thank you enough for the number of customers you’ve given us. We have an audience that pays attention and trusts us. So if I say you guys should go use this builder, they’ll go use it because they trust us, because we have consistently delivered on our promise. So connecting with other influencers is a critical part of your marketing strategy. You just may have to get out of the building and go meet people, which can be a little bit scary sometimes but also funny, you know?
What advice do you have for someone who wants to grow the one course they have?
Bob: Exactly. So now that you’ve talked about starting and promoting, what if you have a course you want to continue to grow? I mean some people may do course after course, but other people will have one course and they just want to grow that. What are some thoughts you have on that? How do you keep that momentum going?
Troy: It’s a good question. We’ve tried every ninja trick in the book and it comes down to something really simple. Make sure your course is transformational. We have what we call the zero to hero path. When students join our course, we treat everyone as if they’re starting from scratch. And we know what it looks like when they become a hero. And so we have these milestones in this journey that they go on to go from where they are now to where they want to be. And that’s transformation and that’s what you’re selling when you’re selling a course. You’re not selling information, you’re selling transformation. And so if your course is not transformational, you have a problem. If your course is transformational, then you will provide an amazing user experience and an incredible student experience. This is the biggest problem I see course creators have. They put it up online, they make sales and they think they can then go sit on the beach and they’ve got that passive income, right? But when somebody buys your course, that’s when your work begins because you owe it to your student to make sure that they get through the course, get the benefits of your knowledge and your teachings, and experience that transformation. Most online courses have student completion rates of less than 10 percent, which is horrible. We’ve got student completion rates of 75 percent plus and that’s because we have a team of mentors and coaches who are holding our students’ hands every step of the way. If you provide that kind of experience to your students, they will tell their friends and you’ll get those good old word of mouth referrals.
And we reward our students for referring their friends to us. But I can show you pages and pages of emails from our students saying they would refer their friends to our course even if I wasn’t paying them because it’s completely transformed their business and changed their life. So that’s the best form of growth marketing and we have tried every growth strategy under the sun. The best form of growth marketing is to provide an amazing student experience to your existing students. Make sure your course transforms their lives in some way and then they will tell their friends.
Bob: You’ve covered quite a bit. This stuff has been excellent. I have to admit that even when I’ve done my online courses, I look back at some of them and I think, now it all makes sense.
Troy: Hindsight is 20 20, isn’t it?
Any other words of wisdom you’d like to share?
Bob: Yes. Lastly, are there any other words of wisdom you’d like to share, something we haven’t talked about, something you think, okay, you really need to know this when you’re marketing your online course?
Troy: Yeah. There’s a couple of things I’m really passionate about. First of all, your intention matters— a lot. I talk to a lot of course creators who want to create a course because they want a stream of passive income. And I try to stop them dead in their tracks because I just think that is the wrong intention. You’re going to end up just peppering the Internet with another poor-quality course that is not going to set the world on fire for you or your students. So really just think about your intention. Why is it that you want to create an online course? If you really have knowledge and information that can help people transform, then great. We’re having the right conversation.
And the second thing is don’t underestimate the power of community, especially when people engage in any kind of online training. They’re generally isolated. They’re working from home or a small office or maybe a remote area or there are stay-at-home mom. They’re not only looking for knowledge and information, but they’re looking for connection. They’re looking to belong to a tribe of people who are going through the same journey and they’re on the same kind of critical path as them and have the same challenges and the same dreams and the same desires and the same fears. So if you can build community into your online experience, I think that will attract people.
One of my mentors once said to me: people join for the content, they stay for the community. So the more you can build the community, the more chance you’ll have of building a long lasting, ongoing. profitable and sustainable business rather than just having a course that gets you a bump of revenue and then you have to promote it and keep promoting it launch it and keep launching it to get those bumps. And there’s nothing ongoing. We had that luxury of having the big hits of cashflow when we opened our doors and then we have recurring because our students go through the program but then they become members, so they actually stay in there paying a monthly membership and it’s all because we have this amazing community. We run live events. You know we really care about these people and I consider them you know the tribe that I belong to. So just don’t underestimate the power of community.
Bob: I love that community made your list because that really is the biggest part. I know that no matter what I’ve done online, whether it’s through my blog, my newsletter, my podcast, whatever, that thing wouldn’t have happened if I hadn’t built that initial community and following before I even took a stab at it. So continuing to be about community and building your community within your course is huge. This is cool stuff. I could talk with you forever.
Where on the web can people connect with Troy Dean?
Now where besides WP Elevation can people connect with you? Where are the best places on social for people to connect with you?
Troy: Sure. I’m on Twitter (@TroyDean). But where I’m probably most active is in our Facebook group. We have a free Facebook group at Rockstar Empires, which is for anyone interested in creating digital products and selling online courses. So if you go to a rockstarempires.com/Facebook, that will get you to our free Facebook group and anyone is welcome to join. We do live streams, how-to videos and opinion pieces and we share a lot of everything we’re learning in our business. So that’s probably the place to get the most engagement and have really good conversations.
Bob: Excellent. Well I know you have a busy schedule, lots of stuff coming. So I just wanted to thank you for taking the time to join us today.
Troy: Thank you for having me, Bob, and keep doing what you’re doing, man. You’ve been doing this a long time now and you’re the real McCoy and I really appreciate everything you do.
Bob: Thank you very much. Take care.