Online Course Software for Startup Training Businesses in 2018

By Stephen Pratley, February 27, 2018

I seem to be answering questions about this on at least a weekly basis at the moment, so this is my current stack of software for running a successful course business. Who this is for It’s aimed at people wanting to reach a level where their course provides a reasonable full-time income so the focus […]

I seem to be answering questions about this on at least a weekly basis at the moment, so this is my current stack of software for running a successful course business.

Who this is for

It’s aimed at people wanting to reach a level where their course provides a reasonable full-time income so the focus is on value and the ability to grow, rather than just free stuff.

That said, the whole lot won’t cost more more to set up than the likely cost of your iPhone, and I’d expect anyone with a reasonable sized following on social media or an email list to be able to recoup this on day 1 of their launch.

The set of tools is what I’ve used on brand-new projects, and with some additions I’ll add in, is what I’ve used with clients too generate multiple millions in the last year alone, so I’m confident you won’t spend time ripping things out and replacing them.

Here is a sketch of the basic marketing setup for a course selling for $200-$1000.

1) WordPress site for your homepage and blog (for organic SEO traffic, and for feeding sharing sites).
2) Landing pages for paid campaigns, and also for sending traffic from third party content sites (e.g. Medium, LinkedIn, YouTube).
3) Checkout or “cart” for taking payments
4) Secure course platform for your videos and other course content.
5) Email marketing software

Online course delivery software

OK, so lets start with the big one, your online course delivery software.

For me there’s one obvious choice for this unless there’s a strong reason otherwise and that is Thinkific.

Even on the free version of Thinkific you can host your videos, PDF’s, run quizzes and surveys, and even embed content from other websites to give your course more engagement.

Thinkific also includes a checkout of it’s own so that’s one less integration to worry about.You’ll need an account with Paypal and/or Stripe to take the actual money, but both of those are free apart from transaction charges (which you’ll pay for any credit card transaction – unavoidable).

Thinkific has a range of slick looking themes, but for the fussy or the techie, it doesn’t stop there. The themes are built using a language called Liquid, which is the same theme language as the shopping ecommerce platform Shopify uses, so there are a good number of developers who can help you out doing custom tweaks or full-blown custom design.

There are a couple of down-sides, but not much.

You’ll need one of the paid plans before you can integrate it with your email tools, so pulling buyers out of your marketing campaigns will have to be done manually at first.

Also the default checkout isn’t that amazing, and doing upsells needs some custom work, so if your strategy just built round starting with a lower-priced product then it might slow you down a bit but it’s all achievable when you get to that level.

What I love about it is that you can start off for free while you test out your offer, and not have the horrible pain of swooping platforms as you grow.

If absolutely necessary you can swop out the cart for something like ThriveCart or SamCart which will do all the upsells, order bumps and other tricks to increase profit, but you’ll need one of the higher tier plans for the integration.

I should mention here some of the tools we’ve looked at and discarded along the way. A more in-depth look at the course platforms will come later.

Clickfunnels. This is always going to come up so lets get it out of the way early.
You’ll get a lot of fans of ClickFunnels because it’s easy to get started, but it is a horrible platform.

It’s slow, it’s buggy, and it tries to do way too much, and doesn’t do anything very well. The landing pages scream Internet Marketing and aren’t easy to change. It also makes an absolute mess of working properly on your own domain name so if you ever want to move to another platform you’re really stuck.

I like their CEO Russell Brunson, I’ve met him in London and he’s a good and generous guy. I wish I could say nicer things about his product but it’s aimed squarely at a market that is just getting into the game and hasn’t seen what a “great” setup looks like.

you might get going fast, but when you hit that first wall, that’s the end of it. It does what it does and nothing else.

Next worthy mention is Teachable.

On the face of it it’s exactly like Thinkific. I actually still use it for putting bespoke client training videos on for my agency business, just because there’s a hack that allows me to offer private, free courses on a free platform, so even if I get hit by a bus my clients will still have access to this content.

However I stopped using them in favour of Thinkific on paid-for courses a couple of years back.

Their support isn’t as good, and the rate of new features combing out is just slower. They look like they’re losing the battle. Thinkific also has a great Facebook group where the top instructors are clearly running serious training businesses and know what the real problems are in reaching 6 and 7 figure revenues.

Kajabi is also one that you’ll come across. I’ve used it a few times with clients who were already on the platform. It makes the same “all-in-one” claims as ClickFunnels does, and doesn’t do any of them as well as the components we use.

The one instance I’d use it though is if you have several courses which you want to run under their own domain names, rather than one umbrella brand, but you want to manage them in one system.

The really big gurus like Brendon Burchard do this, but for most businesses, even ones doing $1m+ it is way too much to split out the marketing effort for each individual product.

Lastly there are literally hundreds of solutions that sit on top of WordPress.

Unless you need something really custom I’d avoid these. Every time I’ve attempted to use them it has taken me as long to set up and configure the software as it has to create the course content.

Then you have the worries about security and upgrades on an almost weekly basis. It’s just not good for a good night’s sleep. If you aren’t a competent WordPress professional, it’ll cost you more for a developer than the relatively small fees of a hosted system like Thinkific.

Some people talk about “owning your platform”, but this is a step too far. Keep a copy of your course content in case you do ever need to swop platform, but you don’t own your hosting company so you never truly have 100% control of your own site.

CMS for marketing content

However, the place you do want to use WordPress is for your marketing content.

This will include blog posts that you can use to gain organic traffic from Google, and that you can link to from sharing sites like Twitter and Redddit. It will include landing pages for paid campaigns and for harvesting emails, and also odds & sods like your privacy policy, terms of business, content for affiliates to use, and a few other tools as you grow.

The Content Academy is fairly typical of how we set this up. It’s our own theme which is simple and fast, plus a handful of plugins that help with our list-building.

We actually use a separate tool for landing pages for paid campaigns now – Convertri. When we tested it against all the major WordPress tools (we were using Thrive Architect before the swop), just on speed we got a bump in conversions that more than paid for itself. I’d say that is you have an ad budget of more than $1,000 you should give it a try, but not before then. Until then Thrive Architect is the best tool we’ve found for building sales pages. It’s easy to use, fast, integrates with all the email tools we need, and the guys in charge really understand how to convert traffic to sales so they work on the right features.

It’s come a long way since it’s original incarnation as Thrive Content Builder, so ignore any reviews from before summer 2017.

For the website theme, I’d also recommend something from Thrive Themes. I actually build my own so there’s less clutter, but that’s because I’ve done so many for my clients that I can do it in a day or so now. If it’s not a skill you already have, don’t bother.

I buy my domains from NameCheap, and host on SiteGround. Support on the latter has been as good as I’ve seen from businesses charging 10X their prices and, again, you can grow with them as your traffic goes up.

Email Marketing Software for course creators

The last essential component is your email tool.

For this we use ActiveCampaign which I still think is ridiculously cheap for the amount of functionality it has. Absolutely no need for Infusionsoft any more which, again, tries to do too much and doesn’t do anything very well.

I have clients who put at least 10,000 new names on their lists every month and it stands up really well, and can cope with just about every combination of “if they do this, send them that” taht you can think of. It’s fast becoming the go-to email tool for this type of marketing.

The reporting is a bit lame, but again we have other tools to manage our ROI that cover more than just email so I rarely even look at that part of the platform. The support is also excellent, and there are a couple of Facebook groups with a supremely helpful community if you get stuck.

Keeping track of your numbers

The only other tool which You should set up on day 1 is Google Analytics. I usually set up a gmail address specific to each site which makes life way easier when you want to start giving other people access, or if you ever come to sell the business. Unpicking business profiles from personal ones isn’t something you want to do when you’re looking forward to retirement!

The list above will cost you maybe $20/month for hosting and ActiveCampaign to get started, maybe $100ish at Thrive Themes for the other WordPress bits, and less than $10 for your domain.

I’ve had dinners that cost me more than that and they didn’t pay me back later!

I hope that helps get you up and running in a minimum of time, and you can start earning from your course even faster.

Stephen Pratley
Head of Conversion Consulting
The Conversion Academy

A 20-year veteran of turning digital traffic into sales, Stephen has built email lists of millions and created revenues in the hundreds of millions for clients across education, ecommerce and B2B industries. He now works exclusively with online training businesses to scale their online sales through paid ad campaigns and high-converting funnels & follow-up.

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