One of our clients at Natural History is developing fantastic online courses in home staging, and while preparing to work together, I did a lot of research into the culture of online courses and how they can be used to build brands.

I taught English and Latin literature at university level before starting Natural History, so teaching is something that I love and that makes sense to me.  Online courses are a natural development from old school distance learning, and have exploded in the last few years as the software and tools to create and distribute learning has become more and more accessible.

With endless themes for WordPress built around Learning Management Systems (or LMS) – and online services such as Teachery and Wistia that host your videos and allow you to lay them out as an elegant and professional course, you can create and host your own course in as long it takes you to run up a few videos and upload them.

This has meant, of course, that there are a lot of very low quality online courses out there, and it is a bit annoying to dig into a course and find poor sound quality, bad scripting and no actual person on the screen, just a voiceover.  You really need to make your work stand out and put extra effort into your production – which you can do with just a little investment in some basic tools.

But why create an online course if your main business is not training?

A well crafted course will make you stand out.  It gives you the opportunity to position yourself as an authority. It allows a small business to give real personality to their brand and reach a wider audience.

For example, let’s just say you run a small florist business.  You get some footfall and a few weddings, but quite a few of your orders are online, which is something you would like to develop.  You can employ all the traditional methods of digital marketing, but you still risk being “just another florist”, right?

However, if you create a short course in flower arranging, let’s call it something fancy, like Style Your Home With Flowers, with a combination of free and paid material, you can involve more people in your business for a relatively low investment, and encourage them to think of YOU when they need flowers in the future.  You’re not just advertising to them, you are positioning yourself as an authority.

What sort of material should you create?

Whether you use text only or video material depends on what you want from the course, but video material is pretty  much expected if you are charging for your course.  If you want to use the course to drive revenue, you should have a video taster or text only material for the free portion that you offer initially, and save the good stuff for paid participants.

For example, you could create a great landing page with just one purpose: to get people to sign up to a free 6 part course in (let’s stick with our example), flower arranging.

The free course could be delivered over 6 days (or a number of weeks) via email.  Nice simple mails, with minimal bells and whistles to get snarled up in spam filters, with simply delivered tips in a friendly and engaging tone of voice.

Lesson six finishes up with a Call To Action – if you enjoyed this course and want more, sign up for one of the last 3 places on our exclusive course, Style Your Home With Flowers, featuring 10 full length video classes, 5 assignments, interviews with a stylist (might be just your sister!), private Facebook group and more, or as much as you feel in a position to provide.  Send your subscriber a couple more emails to remind them a week or two weeks later.

This material is paid, not free.  You can charge whatever you feel it’s worth – it might be £45 or if you’re feeling really confident, it might be £450.  You only have to make the material once, and then it becomes “passive”.  The course is just there and doesn’t require much in the way of tending unless you are promising an interactive experience, but you do have to market it. A small investment in Facebook advertising will get the word out to a huge audience, and you can use your Twitter and blog posts to push it more as well as your blog, LinkedIn and your existing mailing list, if you have one.

What do you get out of this?

1 A valuable potential increase in your mailing list for your business.  All those people who signed up for the free course are now potential customers for your floristry business.  You you have differentiated yourself – you are an expert and you are generous with your time and skills (free course, remember?).  Email lists don’t come for free, and yours is more valuable if you get it from engaged and interested visitors to your site.

2 Revenue from the online course.  How much depends on how well you sell it, but it is practically passive income.  Once you have sold enough in the beginning to pay you for your time creating it and you prod it along with a little marketing, it will continue to bring in money for you.

3 Increased reputation. With valuable free content and a beautifully presented course under your belt, you can position yourself as the go-to florist in your area – you are the expert, you are well known, you have fans – and better sales.

This model can be applied to a wide range of businesses, and many small business owners are revamping the way they work to centre around online courses.  There are a lot of challenges along the way – creating top quality content, especially video content, doesn’t come without some time and effort, but the rewards are substantial.

Talk to us at Natural History to see how we can help you take this further.