I’ve been getting a lot of questions on what tools I used to build my online course. So I decided that I’m going to share that with you here.
Interested in building your first online course?
For me, building an online course for the first time was kind of like setting up my first blog on WordPress.
It was a whole new technical learning curve.
I had never created an online course before, and had no idea behind how much work it was going to take.
Creating the content for it was actually the easy part.
Learning how to set up things like accepting payments, automating user account creation, and learning how to use a course creation plugin was the hard part.
Countless times, I would spend days working on something, discover it was the wrong idea, and go back to the drawing board looking for other solutions.
I made a lot of mistakes.
There are so many different plugins, themes, software options out there.
I’ve tried out most of them (and spent a lot of money) in my search for the perfect combination of tools to build my own course.
I’ve done the gruelling hours of testing and experimenting for you.
And now, I’ll show you what works so you don’t need to.
This is more of a technical guide than a strategy guide.
We can discuss how to sell and market the course in a future blog post.
For now, let’s just learn what goes into setting up a course because there’s a LOT to cover.
NOTE: This guide shows you how to create a self-hosted course (meaning… you host the content and own the entire website). There are other platforms like Teachable and Teachery, which allow you to build courses on their platform (for a fee).
Either way is fine, but for me I prefer self-hosted as it gives you more control over what you can build, add-on, and gives you the comfort in owning the full property of all digital assets.
Why an online course?
Since starting RankXL, I’ve tried various different forms of monetization.
I’ve promoted affiliate products, and even created a few paid ebooks.
But the income was never really significant until I launched my first course.
Deciding to create an online course for RankXL was one of the best decisions I made for the blog.
It created a large, steady revenue stream.
The best part is that you don’t need a large audience to make a significant income.
I launched my first course with only 500 email subscribers, and made just under $10K in sales my first month.
Most new blogs automatically stick with only affiliate marketing.
But to be honest… you won’t make much with affiliate links unless you’re getting a LOT of traffic.
I mean, you could make a couple hundred dollars per month, but that’s nowhere near the level you could be making with selling your own product.
Creating a course is a LOT more work than sticking affiliate links into your blog posts. And that’s probably why most blogs take so long to pull the trigger and create one.
- First you need to create a separate website to host the content.
- Then you need to set up a membership plugin so that only paid members have access to it.
- Then you need to set up payment processors to accept payments.
- Then you need to use a plugin so that whoever pays gets made a user account automatically.
- And if you’re going to be accepting affiliates, you need another system for that too.
As you can see, there’s a pretty GINORMOUS learning curve, and that’s all on top of the big investment of your time to create the content for it!
The good thing is, once you’re able to finish it, it’s done.
You can sell your course forever, and pretty much make money for free.
It took me a long time to create my course. But now that I’m done, I can continue to sell it year-round and it makes me money.
It requires no more work, besides offering support and working on improving it with updates.
And with the systems and tools I’m going to show you, it can all be automated so that everything happens behind the scenes without you needing to do a thing except count your earnings.
Sound exciting? Let’s get started!
What goes into a course website? How is it built?
To build a course, you only need 3 things:
1. First, you need to set up a new website.
You can register a new domain or build it out on a subdomain like I did.
I would recommend a new domain, separate from your website.
This allows you to differentiate the course as a separate product, and it’s a lot easier to manage multiple courses in the future.
I have my course on a subdomain like this: course.rankxl.com, so things won’t be as clean as I would like if were to create another course using another subdomain in the future.
2. Next, you need a membership plugin.
What’s a membership plugin?
It’s a WordPress plugin you will use to manage users and content protection. Without it, anybody could access your course’s material even without paying to join.
When someone pays to join your course, a membership plugin will automatically create a user account for them – so that you don’t need to go in and manually create it yourself everytime.
It will also give them access to the premium content that you set for members only.
3. Finally, you need a payment gateway
Membership plugins integrate with payment gateways like PayPal, Stripe, Braintree Payments, and others so that people who pay for your course will automatically be created user logins.
Software I used to build my first online course
Before I recommend the best software services and plugins to use, I’ll go through what I used first.
The backend behind my course isn’t the best way to do things, and it isn’t what I would recommend.
But I think it will be good to know why I use what I use, and what it allows me to do.
It takes a lot of custom coding, multiple plugins, and a LOT of custom design to make it look professional.
I personally would like to move away from the platform but choose not to solely because I have too many affiliates on my existing platform, and trying to move them all over will be a BIG pain in the behind (not only for me, but for the affiliates as well).
This is why I recommend doing your research and making sure you choose the right platform the first time… because it’s hard to switch in the future.
For my own course, I decided to use WP Courseware.
This is a course creation plugin AND it gives you membership functionality so that only paying members can access the content.
The good thing about WP Courseware over just a standard membership style plugin is that it makes it very easy to organize and layout your course into a traditional course format.
You’re able to organize your content in modules and lessons rather than just going page by page.
Kind of like this:
It’s organized and laid out nicely without me having to custom code the design this way.
It also has other neat built-in features such as being able to mark units as completed, which helps students keep track of their progress.
For payment gateways, you have a lot of options.
I chose to go with Paypal, but I have another integration with JVZoo, which is a platform similar to Clickbank.
That means that I’m being paid by Paypal, but it goes through JVZoo first so that I can sell using their marketplace.
The main reason that I use JVZoo is because they have a good affiliate system.
It’s easy for people to sell my course as an affiliate, and JVZoo offers great features like Instant Commissions.
Instant commissions is probably the best feature that they offer.
It means that when a sale is made, affiliates get paid INSTANTLY right then and there rather than having to wait until the product creator pays them.
And it all happens automatically. JVZoo’s processor takes the commission amount and pays the affiliate at the point of the sale.
Affiliates love that!
And finally, I have one last big integration
I have the entire backend on WordPress set up with EasyDigitalDownloads.
I am in love their plugin, and use it for several of my other blogs where I sell ebooks.
It’s free to use and has integrations for just about every software/plugin out there.
In fact, EasyDigitalDownloads is what makes it possible for me to integrate a course set up with JVZoo.
By using EasyDigitalDownloads, I’m able to sell my course through JVZoo (and use their affiliate program), AND also use the digital asset delivery and sales reporting system that EasyDigitalDownloads provides in the backend.
This might all seem a little confusing right now.
And if you’re not able to understand clearly, don’t worry.
Because this isn’t the setup that I would recommend, and the set up that I’m about to show you is a LOT simpler.
There are a ton of moving parts to my course.
I haven’t even mentioned all the other plugins I use for customizing the login screen, changing the destination URL of the logo depending on if the user is logged in or not, customizing redirect destinations, and restricting bonus materials and downloads to members only.
If anything were to break, a lot of other things would fall apart with it.
= messy and nerve-wrecking
(especially when there’s a lot of money on the line during your product launches).
So for the past few months, I’ve been testing a whole bunch of different tools and software in search for the perfect combination.
And this is the setup that I’ll be using for future courses…
The setup I wish I could change to, and what I will be using for future courses
This is the setup that I recommend if you’re creating a course online.
Again, there’s nothing against JVZoo or the other tools I’m using.
But after extensive testing with these other tools, I feel this is hands down the cleanest setup, with the lowest fees.
For membership software, use Wishlist Member.
For membership sites, it doesn’t get much better than Wishlist Member.
It’s just a WordPress plugin that you install, and you instantly can turn any ordinary WordPress website into a full-blown membership site.
The good thing is… no monthly fees!
You would build the course the same as any other WordPress site.
But with the plugin, you can control which pages are for members only…
That’s it! All you need to do is check a box.
You can create different membership levels (if you’re selling different level packages) and then decide which level gets access to what.
If anyone who isn’t a member were to try and access the page, this is what they’d see.
And of course, you’re allowed to change that message to whatever you like.
With this plugin, you’re able to use any WordPress theme you like, and have full control over the design, layout, format of the site.
For payment gateway, use Paypal and/or Stripe
This is also the most common combination that most people use.
Which payment gateway you choose is really up to you, though.
There are a lot of options to choose from, and all you need to do is set up the integration in your Wishlist Member dashboard.
Can I just use one of them?
Yup. Going with one or the other is fine, too.
I like offering Stripe for credit card payments because it makes for a smoother checkout process than Paypal’s credit card system.
And I like offering Paypal because a lot of people like paying with their Paypal accounts.
One more important integration (my favorite one)
Realistically, you can go with just Wishlist Member and your payment gateway and you would be good to go.
But there’s one piece of software that I am in love with and can’t wait to use.
And that is SamCart.
SamCart is a SASS tool that lets you build beautiful, high-conversion checkout pages almost instantly.
With it, you can setup your checkout pages to look something like this with just a minute or two of setup.
That only took me 5-10 minutes to set up.
If I weren’t using SamCart, I would have to design and code it from scratch.
Design would be fairly easy for me to do. But coding it without bugs would be a nightmare to do.
That’s way better than JVZoo’s checkout page.
I’ve even contacted the JVZoo team on several occasions to improve their checkout page, or even to just let me play around with the code for my own page to improve conversions.
But so far the only response I’ve received is “Thank you for the feedback.”
But checkout pages aren’t the only thing that SamCart does…
SamCart is more of a sales command centre.
It integrates with all the different email marketing tools (like the one I’m using, ConvertKit) and any CRM.
You can view all your stats and sales reports within the dashboard.
You can process refunds, see customer data, view checkout page conversion rates, run AB tests, and even set up things like one-click up-sells.
And they continuously add features like one of my favorites: Automatically notifying customers of failed payments.
When you’re offering a higher-priced item and offer a monthly payment plan, then this is such a great thing to have.
Failed monthly payments are very common… much more than I expected when I first offered a monthly payment plan for my course.
With JVZoo, I’m having to email each customer one by one notifying them of the failed payment and asking them to update their PayPal credit card.
It is very annoying to do, takes a long time, and it doesn’t feel great to contact people asking them to pay you.
With SamCart, it’ll all be automated 🙂
The affiliate program through SamCart is miles ahead of JVZoo, in my opinion.
You can manage your affiliates a lot better, and SamCart tracks everything for you so you have access to all the stats and metrics you need.
Affiliates also get a slick dashboard page when they login to check their stats.
That’s a really important thing to offer as a vendor since affiliates are extremely cautious about proper and correct reporting of their commissions.
With SamCart, I only have to pay $99/month. That reduces to $66/month if I pay for the full year.
When I first saw the pricing, I thought to myself that’s pretty expensive. And I had to mull over it to decide if it’s worth it or not.
But after going through the numbers, I realized that that’s less than $800/year.
With JVZoo, I’m paying 5% off the top of every single sale.
My total fees since last year add up close to $10,000!!
Again, not to put down JVZoo or anything. Their commission fees are completely standard for what they offer.
But SamCart’s pricing just makes a lot more sense for me, and will save me a ton of money.
Setting It All Up
So let’s break this all down.
Here’s how you would create an online course using the tools I showed you above.
It really doesn’t get much simpler than this…
1. Create a new WordPress site.
First, all you need to do is create a WordPress site as you would any other.
Register a new domain, and build out the course using any WordPress theme you like.
2. Install Wishlist Member
Next, install the Wishlist Member plugin.
Set up is easy, and a lot of the options will vary depending on your own preferences so I won’t go through that here.
3. Set up SamCart
Register with SamCart, add your product, then design your checkout page.
Connect your SamCart with your payment processors – Paypal and/or Stripe.
Connect your SamCart account with your email marketing tool of choice. I have mine connected with ConvertKit.
Then connect your SamCart account with Wishlist Member plugin.
This is really simple to do and you can get all the steps on SamCart’s dedicated page here.
And that’s it!
Create a sales page for people to sign up, and make the buy button link to your SamCart checkout page.
When people checkout and purchase through SamCart, they’ll be given a receipt, user name and login password for your online course.
Nothing else to do on your end 🙂
And if you have connected your email marketing tool with SamCart, the buyer will also be automatically added as a subscriber (along with any other automation rules you have set up).
As you can see, the set up I just laid out is clean, simple, and easy to manage.
I’ve tested out a lot of different plugins and software over the last year, and I wanted to create this guide to give you a heads up on what I believe are the best options.
Hopefully, this will save you a TON of time and headaches on unnecessary bugs and issues.
And it’s tough to move over later, so really think hard about the tools you use to build your course.