How to Create a Sales Funnel to Sell Your Online Course on Autopilot

Tyler BasuCourse Marketing12 Comments

How to create a sales funnel to sell your online course

How to create a sales funnel to sell your online course

Marketing is something that a lot of online course creators struggle with. Maybe you can relate.

You’re the expert on your topic (after all, you DID create an entire course about it), but you’re not an expert at marketing. Consequently, your course has very few, maybe even no enrolments.

So is it time to throw in the towel? Should you give up on your dream of teaching online and making a positive impact on the lives of others by sharing your knowledge with them?

Absolutely not!

Having a great course is just one of the requirements for succeeding as an online instructor. Another requirement is having a specific process for attracting and enrolling students into your course.

That process is called a sales funnel, and without one, enrolling new students on a regular basis is nearly impossible.

Not having a sales funnel for your online course is the equivalent of setting up a lemonade stand in the middle of the desert where no one will ever find it. Sure, it may be super hot outside. Sure, your lemonade may be delicious. But if you’re not giving people a clear path to follow and that leads to your lemonade stand, they will never find it. This “build it and (hope) they will come” approach rarely translates into sales and enrolments, at least in the real world.

How to create a sales funnel for your online course

Without a sales funnel, you are pretty much doomed.

Now before we go any further, I think it’s important that we make the distinction between a sales funnel and a marketing tactic. Using certain tactics to market your course is not the same as having a sales funnel.

Allow me to explain…

A marketing tactic is a method for spreading the word about your online course. Running ads on Facebook, for example, is a marketing tactic. Guest blogging is a marketing tactic. Publishing a course promo video on YouTube is a marketing tactic. Being a guest on a podcast is a marketing tactic. You get the idea.

Side note: in another article, I mentioned 55 different marketing tactics that you can use to spread the word about your online course. Check them out here.

A sales funnel, on the other hand, is the entire process that you guide your potential students through, and that ends with them making the decision to enrol (or not enrol) in your course.

Marketing tactics, therefore, are what you use to bring people into that process. They are the first step in the sales process, but they are not the entire sales process.

Using marketing tactics without integrating them into a sales process rarely results in sales or enrolments. This logic applies to both free courses and paid courses. In both cases, you need to guide someone through a process that ends with them making the decision to sign up for your course.  

So, now that we’ve got that distinction cleared up, let’s talk about how to create a sales funnel for your course.

Disclaimer: the sales funnel I am about to show you is not the only type of sales funnel that you can create to sell your course, but it is one that is currently being used by many online instructors in the Thinkific community. Justin Brooke, for example, uses this sales funnel to sell his online courses. And as you can see from the post he shared in Thinkific’s Facebook Group, it’s working out pretty well for him:

How to create a sales funnel to sell your online course

Pretty awesome right?

Before we go any further, I should mention that the sales funnel that the sales funnel I’m about to show you does take a bit of work to set up. But it’s effective and it’s not very difficult to implement.

And the best part is, once you set up this sales funnel, it can run virtually on autopilot – meaning it will continue to enrol new students into your course while you’re relaxing, watching a movie, enjoying a meal with your family, and even while you’re sleeping. Woo hoo!

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The only requirements for setting up this sales funnel are:

1. Email marketing software

This sales funnel involves building a list of email subscribers and sending them automated emails, so you will need an account with an email service provider (ESP). We recommend several of them in our complete guide to building an email list.

2. Traffic source

A sales funnel only works if people actually enter the sales funnel. To get those people, you either need an audience (your email list, blog readers, podcast listeners, social media followers, etc.), or a willingness to hustle and/or spend some money on ads to get people into the funnel. Until you get people into your sales funnel, it won’t convert anyone. 

3. Webinar software (optional)

This one is optional, but one of the best ways to sell your online course is to host a live webinar where you present your course to the attendees. To host a webinar, you’ll need an account with a webinar software. We recommend several of them in our complete guide to selling on webinars.

Do you meet these requirements?

Great, let’s move on:

How to Create a Sales Funnel to Sell Your Online Course #teachonline #salesfunnel Click To Tweet

6 Steps to Creating a Sales Funnel to Sell Your Online Course:

Okay, so there are a lot of different pieces that make up this sales funnel, but I’ve managed to organize the entire process into 6 specific steps. You might want to take some notes, because we’re going to cover a lot of ground over the next few minutes, starting with Step 1:

1. Identify a specific problem your target market is facing

Let’s be honest. Your course is not for everyone (don’t worry, this is a good thing). There is a specific type of person that is most likely going to be interested in your course. That type of person belongs to your target market.

Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say that it is vitally important to the success of your online course business that you know who your target market is.

Without an in-depth understand of who you’re trying to help with your course, and what they need help with (what their questions, challenges, pain points and frustrations are), it will be very difficult for you to:

A: Create a course that helps them, and

B: Market your course to the people who want and need it most

In fact, I recommend creating a detailed persona of your ideal student/customer (sometimes called a customer avatar). Having that clarity will help you immensely as you create the sales funnel for your course.  But for now, I’m going to assume that you know who you already target market is.

From there, the next step is to identify a specific problem that those people are searching for a solution to (one that ties to the topic of your online course).

How do you figure out what your target market is struggling with?

There are basically two ways you can do this. You can do some research about your target market, or you can ask them directly. Ideally, you will do both.   

Let’s start with the first method.

Here are some ways that you can do some research online to learn about the specific problems your target market is facing:

1. Read the comments on blogs and forums about your topic

Do a Google search to find the top blogs, forums, and publications about your course topic. Read the most popular articles on those sites (as shown by number of comments and shares on social media). Then, read the comment section of those articles. You’ll often find feedback (positive and negative) in the comment section, along with questions that were asked by people in your target market.

2. Read the reviews of books about your topic

Head over to Amazon and search for some books about your topic. Have a quick look at the Table of Contents section of the books (to give you an idea of what topics were covered), and more importantly, read the reviews that were left by readers. Negative reviews will often reveal the topics that readers were hoping would be covered (or covered in more detail) in the book, but were not.

3. Search for questions on Quora about your topic

Quora is a question-and-answer site where questions are asked, answered, edited and organized by its community of users. Millions of people visit this site on a daily basis, and I’ve yet to find a topic that hasn’t been discussed on Quora.

Using the search bar at the top of the website, enter some keywords that are related to your online course topic. If you have a course on how to train your dog, for example, try typing the words “dog training” into the search bar and see what comes up.

4. Questions in Facebook or LinkedIn Groups

Join a few Facebook and/or LinkedIn Groups about your course topic or about a related topic that your target market is interested in. Pay attention to the questions that members are asking in these groups. If someone is publicly asking for feedback or help with a specific problem, you can bet that other people in your target market have that problem as well.

5. Customer service inquiries and complaints

If you own or work for a company that serves your target market, pay attention to the questions that customers are sending to the customer service team. People rarely contact customer service unless they have a question or a problem, and those can be a great source of insight into what your target market needs help with.  

Questions & complaints reveal the problems your target market needs help to solve. #teachonline Click To Tweet

The second way to find out what your target market is struggling with is to ask them (yes, as in actually talk to them).

Here are a few ways you can ask your target market:

1. Email your list

If you have an email list, send an email to your subscribers and ask them what they are struggling with. Another option is to send them a link to a survey where they can enter their responses to your questions into a form.

2. Ask Facebook or LinkedIn Group members

If you have a Facebook Group or LinkedIn Group, post a question in your group and invite your members to respond. With Facebook, for example, you can create a poll to collect votes/responses from your group members. Who knows, you might even end up with your next online course idea by simply asking your group members what they need help with!

Related: How To Use Facebook Groups To Build A Thriving Community

3. Social media

If you have members of your target marketing following you on social media, publish a post where you ask them to reveal any specific questions or challenges they have about your course topic. Just like with an email, you could share a link to a survey as an alternative to responding to you publicly (this might be the better option depending on the nature of your course topic).  

4. Talk to your clients/customers

Finally, get on the phone with your existing and/or past clients and customers. Tell them you are doing some research to help create additional content and resources to help them, and ask them for 10-15 minutes of their time to learn more about their specific questions and challenges. You’d be surprised how much people are willing to open up when you simply ask them to.

The best way to uncover the problems your target market is facing is to actually talk to them. Click To Tweet

2. Publish a blog post that solves a specific problem

Once you’ve identified a specific problem that your target market is searching for a solution to, the next step is to publish a blog post that helps them solve that specific problem.

The idea behind this step is to provide value to your target market upfront for free (by sharing content that actually helps them), earning their trust and positioning you as an expert in the process.

What if you’re not a good writer?

No problem.

If you want, you can publish a podcast episode (audio content). You could also record a video. The type of content you create is not super important. The important thing is that the content you create actually helps your target market. Try to create the best piece of free content on the web about that specific problem that you identified in Step 1.

If you write a blog post, I recommend a length of at least 2,000 words. The longer and more helpful, the better. Plus, you’ll score brownie points with Google once they figure out that you have written one of the best (if not THE best) article online about that specific topic/problem.

But.. but.. if I help them solve their problem for free, why would they buy my course??

You might be wondering why helping someone solve their problem for free will help you sell your course, and that’s a fair concern. Allow me to explain the logic behind this strategy…

The problem that your blog post helps them solve should not be the ONLY problem that your course helps them solve. It should be just one of several problems that your course addresses. So your blog post helps your reader, but it also unpacks a greater problem (one that your course is the solution to).

So for example, if you have a course on how to train your dog, it would be pretty hard to write an article that covers everything someone needs to know about training their dog (hence the reason you would create a course). But what you can do is tackle a smaller problem that is a part of the overall dog training process.

Here are a few problems that dog owners often face when training their dogs:

  • Their dog won’t stop chewing their furniture
  • Their dog keeps peeing in the house
  • Their dog pulls too hard when being walked
  • Their dog barks at strangers (how rude!)

Every one of these problems would make for a great blog post that someone who is trying to train their dog would find helpful. In fact, here are some ideas for headlines that could be used for these blog posts:

  • How to train your dog to stop chewing furniture
  • How to train your dog to stop peeing in the house
  • How to train your dog to stop pulling when walking them
  • How to train your dog to stop barking at strangers

If you were a dog owner and you were experiencing any of these problems, and you saw a headline for a blog post that promised the solution to that exact problem, wouldn’t you want to read it? Of course you would – it’s EXACTLY what you’re looking for!

Once you’ve decided on the specific problem you are going to share the solution to, go ahead and write your blog post (or record your podcast episode, or video, etc.). Make sure you give it a clear and compelling headline that will immediately grab the attention of someone who is searching for a solution to that problem.

Actually, there is a great tool from Co-Schedule called Headline Analyzer. Go ahead and test a few different headline ideas for your blog post, and use the one that has the highest score.

How to create a sales funnel to sell your online course

3. Include a free resource (content upgrade) to build your email list

Not everyone who reads your blog post will sign up for your online course, and that is perfectly fine. The best way to separate the casual readers from the people who are more likely to enroll in your course is to get them to subscribe to your email list.

According to Salesforce, it takes an average of 6 to 8 touches to generate a viable sales lead. That means a potential student will likely need to hear from you 6 to 8 times before they decide to enroll in your course. What’s the best way to do this? Email.

In order to get someone to subscribe to your email list, you’ll need to offer them an incentive for doing so. That incentive should be a free resource that supplements the information that you shared in your blog post.

Often called a content upgrade, this is a resource that you give away in exchange for someone’s email address. A checklist, worksheet, resource guide, additional training, or even a free course, are all examples of content upgrades that you could offer.

Make sure it is very obvious that you are offering a content upgrade in your blog post. Include it near the top, in the middle, at the bottom, and maybe even on the sidebar of the page as well.

Related: How To Build Your Email List (Complete Guide)

To give you an example, one of the most popular articles on our blog is called How To Price Your Online Course. As you can probably guess, this article helps online course creators (our target market) solve the problem of not knowing what to charge for their course.

We created a Course Pricing Workbook (a fillable PDF document), which we offer as a free resource in exchange for someone’s email address, as you can see in the screenshot below:

How to create a sales funnel to sell your online course

Since publishing that article earlier in 2016, we’ve had over 5,000 people read it, and over 1,000 people opt-in to receive our pricing workbook. That’s over 1,000 potential customers for Thinkific (many of whom did become customers), all from a single article! Not bad right?

Again, not everyone who reads your blog post will subscribe to your email list to get the free resource, but the ones that do are giving you permission to communicate with them. And that’s exactly what you’re going to do =)

To convert blog readers into paying customers, get them on your email list. #emailmarketing Click To Tweet

4. Send a welcome email (with the free resource) to new subscribers

This step is very straight forward, and probably the easiest of all the steps involved in creating this sales funnel.

Using your email service provider, you can create what is called an autoresponder email. This is an email that is sent to someone automatically and after a predetermined period of time, which in the case of a welcome email would be immediately after they subscribe to your email list.

I recommend keeping your welcome email pretty simple (you don’t want to overwhelm someone who is brand new to your email list). Introduce yourself, thank them for reading your blog post, and include a link to download the free resource you promised them.

You could also invite them to reach out to you (because actually talking to people in your target market is never a bad idea). Let them know they can email you any time, follow you on social media, visit your website, etc.

Lastly, let them know that if they ever want to stop receiving emails from you, all they have to do unsubscribe from your email list. Email marketing only works when the people on your email list have given you permission to contact them. In fact, most email service providers require that you send all new subscribers a confirmation email (asking them to confirm they want to receive emails from you) before they will even send them your welcome email.

5. Created an automated email follow-up series to sell your course

I mentioned in the beginning of this article that this particular sales funnel, once created, can run virtually on autopilot. One of the things that makes that possible is an automated email follow-up series.

How it works is pretty simple. You write a bunch of emails, and then add them to your autoresponder (follow-up) series using your email service provider. You get to decide ahead of time when these emails are sent in relation to the day that someone first subscribes to your email list.

So for example, you could write 7 follow-up emails, and then configure your autoresponder series to send 1 email per day for 7 days to each new subscriber on your email list. Here is a screenshot of a follow-up series I created using Aweber, just to give you an example.

How to create a sales funnel to sell your online course

I don’t recommend giving your follow-up emails the subject lines “Email #1”, “Email #2”, “Email #3”, etc. – but you get the idea. The point is to ensure that everyone who subscribers to your email list receives the same emails, in the same order, and after the same amount of time.

And since the purpose of these emails is to convince someone to sign up for your online course, here are a few ways you can do it:

If your course is free:

If your course is free, it shouldn’t take a lot of effort (or a lot of emails) to convince someone to sign up for it. You can even invite them to take your course in your initial welcome email, like I did in this (hypothetical) example below:

How to create a sales funnel for your online course

If your course is for sale:

If your students have to pay to take your course, it will likely take a bit of time to convince them to enrol in it. Here are a few approaches you can take:

1. Offer a free trial (let them take some of your lessons for free)

Using Thinkific’s free trial feature, you can choose to make certain lessons in your course a part of a free trial. So if your course has 10 lessons, for example, you could make the first 1-2 lessons available for free.

The nice thing about a free trial is it give someone a risk-free way to learn from you and decide if they like your content and teaching style before they decide to purchase your entire course. When someone completes your free trial, you can send them an email to invite them to purchase your full course.

2. Write a series of emails that end with an invitation to enrol in your course

With this approach, you write a series of emails that work together to educate your potential student, earn their trust, and present your course to them over a pre-determined period of time. These emails could include exclusive advice, links to other blog posts or helpful resources, and eventually an invitation to sign up for your course.

You could even position your follow-up series as a free email course (as many online course creators have done). With this approach, you treat each email like a specific lesson in a course. At the end of your free email course, you invite your subscribers to sign up for your paid course.

If you offered a free 7 day email course, for example, your follow-up series might look something like this:

  • Day 1: Welcome Email
  • Day 2: Content (Lesson #1)
  • Day 3: Content (Lesson #2)
  • Day 4: Content (Lesson #3)
  • Day 5: Content (Lesson #4)
  • Day 6: Content (Lesson #5)
  • Day 7: Content (Lesson #6)
  • Day 8: Content (Lesson #7)
  • Day 9: Invitation to Enrol (Sell Your Course)
  • Day 10: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

3. Invite your list to attend a live webinar where you will present your course

I won’t get into too much detail here, because we do have an entire article on how to sell your course on live webinars (see link below). But the basic premise is to invite your email subscribers to a live webinar where you will share some of your best advice upfront before presenting your course. The great thing about hosting live webinars is they allow you to spend some time educating and interacting with your prospective students (which helps them get to know, like and trust you) before you invite them to sign up for your course.

Related: The Complete Blueprint To Selling On Webinars

4. Invite your list to watch a pre-recorded webinar or sales video that presents your course

Another option (instead of hosting a live webinar) is to invite your email subscribers to watch a pre-recorded webinar or sales video that presents your course. If you decide to use this approach, I recommend hosting a few live webinars first to refine your presentation and make sure that it is effective before you start directing people to a pre-recorded video.

The drawback of sending people to a pre-recorded webinar or sales video is you won’t be there in to engage with them or answer their questions in real time. So unless you have a really effective presentation that has been tested several times, this approach may not be as effective as the ones mentioned above.

6. Follow up with the non-buyers on your email list

Not everyone that you invite to sign up for your online course will do it, and that is perfectly normal. Don’t take it personally. Something all salespeople learn is that not everyone they talk to will buy. If you know how to get 100% of the people you pitch to buy from you, please tell me your secret.

That being said, what you can do after you pitch your course to your email subscribers (whether by sending them directly to your course sales page, offering them a free trial, inviting them to a webinar, etc.) is politely ask them why they didn’t buy.

Most people will be surprised that you even asked, and if you do it properly, you can obtain some incredibly valuable feedback from your target market. Sometimes they just want to talk to you and ask you a few questions before buying from you. Whatever the case is, initiating that dialogue can be very beneficial.

Worst case scenario, you get a nasty message such as “Stop emailing me! I don’t want to take your stupid course. You suck!” (yes, this does happen from time to time). Never take these types of messages personally. A little backlash here and there is just part of the price we pay for doing business on the internet.

More often than not, the feedback you receive from non-buyers will help you to think of additional lessons to add to your course, make changes to your follow-up emails, or add more information to your course sales page or Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) page, all of which will help you to be more successful in the long run.

Fun fact: I once received a nasty email on Christmas morning from someone on my email list. They received an automated email from me that morning (they subscribed to my list a few days prior) and they didn’t realize that it was an automated email. They thought that I actually wrote and sent that email to them on Christmas morning, and they were livid. I did end up apologizing to them, and explaining that it was an automated email. But trust me, in most cases it’s best to just unsubscribe these people from your email list and get on with your day. 

Your funnel is ready, what’s next?

Okay, so once your sales funnel is set up, the next step is to fill your funnel with people that are most likely interested in your online course (your target market).

Here are some ways to promote your blog post to your existing audience (assuming they are in your target market):

  • Email your list of subscribers with a link to your blog post
  • Share your blog post on all of your social media channels
  • Share your blog post inside of your Facebook or LinkedIn group

If you don’t have direct access to your target audience, don’t fret. You still have lots of options.

Here are some ways to get your target market to find and read your blog post:

  • Share the link to your blog post in social media groups where people are discussing your course topic (always read the group guidelines before posting, so you don’t get flagged as a spammer)
  • Share the link on popular communities and forums online such as Reddit and Quora
  • Publish a similar video on YouTube (the world’s second largest search engine) and direct viewers to your blog post from the video
  • Use Facebook ads to promote your blog post to specific people based on their demographics and interests
  • Optimize your blog post for Search Engine Optimization (SEO) by including your primary keyword(s) in your post title, sub-headlines, and paragraphs.
  • Include highly visible social media sharing buttons to make it easy for readers to share
  • Add a few Click-To-Tweets throughout your post, like I’ve done with this one

For more ideas to help your blog post go viral, check out How To Promote Your Blog With 105 Content Promotion Tactics 

How to Create a Sales Funnel to Sell Your Online Course #teachonline #salesfunnel Click To Tweet

Use your sales funnel to enrol new course students on autopilot

I hope these steps are helpful for you. And again, I just want to re-iterate that this is certainly not the only type of sales funnel that you can use to enrol more students into your online courses. But it is one that a lot of online instructors are using and experiencing success with.

It takes time to create, but once you have a functional sales funnel up and running, your only responsibility is to make sure that new people are entering your funnel on a regular basis. How you do that is completely up to you. You could write more blog posts. You could get interviewed on podcasts. You could start a Facebook Group. You could start a YouTube channel. You could use Facebook ads to promote your blog post. You could do all of these simultaneously and more. Do what you can, with whatever time and resources you have.

One last piece of advice that I would like to leave you with is to not expect your first sales funnel to be perfect. You should always be testing different approaches, making adjustments to your sales funnel, and measuring the results. What gets measured gets improved. 

What kind of sales funnel are you using to sell your online course? Do you have any additional tips or advice to share on this topic? Leave a comment below to let us know!

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Tyler Basu is the Content Manager at Thinkific. When he’s not creating content to help people create and sell online courses, you can find him writing articles and interviewing lifestyle entrepreneurs for Lifestyle Business Magazine.  

 

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  • Rose Tablan

    This post is like a complete crash course to help me get started!

    • Thanks Rose I am glad this was helpful for you! Keep us posted on your results =)

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  • Nigel

    Such an awesome guide! Have you guys seen success with people sending subscribers directly to the sales page after they opt-in, in addition to selling in the email sequence?

    • Hey Nigel, thanks for the feedback! We’ve had a few people try that approach (blog post to sales page) but most were unsuccessful. There needs to be more touch points in between the first time someone consumes your content online and the eventual “sales pitch” for your course. That’s why having several emails, or a webinar before the pitch is more effective. That being said, it’s not hard to test different approaches. Try a few methods and see what works best for your topic & target audience =)

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  • Very useful! Thanks.

  • Sharifa M. Hajjat

    Great guide. Thank you, Tyler. Really appreciate how you tied up all the activities together in a process. I was doing all these elements you described above but not in the same thinking order, so, I ended up with a set of random communications and didn’t get much results. I’ll try out the sales funnel as you described and let you know!

    I have a couple of questions: Do you create a sales funnel for the entire online school; one that sells multiple online courses? Or do you go with creating a sales funnel for each course?

    The second things is the course price. Is this a factor when you create your sales funnel? If your course price is in the range of $50 – $100, do you create the sam sales funnel similar to the one for a course price range of $450 – $700?

    Thanks again!

    • Thinkific Team

      Hey Sharifa, great questions. Generally speaking, we recommend creating a unique sales funnel for each one of your courses. The exception being if you have an introductory course (sold for a lower price) that is closely related to a more in-depth course (higher price). In that case, both courses can be a part of the same sales funnel. Your bigger course would be the up-sell after the intro one. Hopefully that helps!