Honest Guide to Ethically Marketing Your Online Course Learn how to promote & sell your online course without needing to resort to dishonest tactics

29 minute read

There's no arguing that online education — a.k.a. eLearning — is a massive industry, and many entrepreneurs want in on the action.

I love online courses because I've benefitted from them on both sides of the table.

As a student of online courses, I've picked up career-transforming skills. As a creator of online courses, I've been able to build a business that provides for my family and help hundreds of thousands of people across the planet.

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How I got started with online courses

My foray into the online course world was back in 2012 when I launched my first course (called PSD to HTML5 & CSS3) on Udemy. My start on Udemy helped me to understand curriculum design, learning outcomes, producing original & quality content, and how to make my courses stand out amidst a highly competitive marketplace.

At the time, Udemy was an excellent place for me to start as a new online educator because they provided easy to use tools to create my content. It took care of the marketing & advertising, in exchange for a (rather hefty) cut of my sales.

But hey, there are no free lunches.

While I still provide customer support for my courses on Udemy, I eventually started creating online courses on my own websites, primarily for these reasons:

Don't get me wrong, Udemy is an excellent resource for students looking to learn new skills for very cheap!

But, in my experience, new instructors who are not contributing "in demand" courses to Udemy's marketplace are unlikely to see the fruits of their labour — labour which they could have put towards building their own audience and selling their own courses.

And that's precisely what I recommend:

Put in the grunt work to build an audience and sell your own online course, based on the needs of the audience.

But I digress.

This guide is not about getting started on Udemy, or even how to create your first online course.

Instead, this is a guide on how to ethically market & advertise your (current or future) online course to your audience.

Intro Why Honesty & Ethics Matter in Online Courses

Since eLearning is still a young and growing industry, there are very few "regulations" when it comes to marketing, selling and producing an online course business.

And while there are some basic "rules & guidelines" for course creators, discretion is mostly left up to the entrepreneur. Due to this, it's quite easy to build a shady online course business, and unfortunately, I've seen this far too many times:

Now, will that course be wildly successful and transform your bank account?

Highly unlikely. The market is much more apathetic toward online courses, gurus and such offerings today.

That said, this unethical approach is still deployed to this day — the flimflammers using it are just getting more creative with their tactics.

Taking the High Road

The reality is there are always going to be people who succeed at taking advantage of other people, and no amount of law or regulation will stop them.

Since we're very much in the unregulated "Wild West" of the online course industry, we can expect there to be "outlaw cowboys" — but we don't have to be one of them to succeed!

My goal is not so much to push for and enforce such regulations; instead, I hope to create a resource for those of you who wish to take the high road and go the honest route.

So, with that said, let's dig into what I believe to be the honest & ethical approach to earning income from online courses.

Step #1 Create Quality & Original Content

The blank page of death

Your course needs content — whether it's text, workbooks, assignments, audio, video or a combination of all the above. Typically, your basic course format would have an overall Learning Objective, i.e. "Play Basic Jazz Guitar", your content would be structured in modules and lessons, and include any supporting materials (like workbooks or templates) to augment the student experience.

Modules break the Learning Objective up into milestones, and Lessons break the Modules up into actionable chunks. All of this put together should ultimately lead the student toward successfully achieving the Learning Outcome.

Here's an example:

Learning Objective

Play Basic Jazz Guitar

Module 1

Jazz Guitar Basics

Lessons

  1. Music theory 101
  2. Becoming familiar with your guitar
  3. The difference between Jazz & other music

Supporting Materials

Module 2

Jazz Theory

Lessons

  1. Reading music
  2. Understanding key signatures
  3. Time signatures

And so on. Make sense?

It's when you don't have original intellectual property to pull from that your course content can veer into unethical territory.

What do I mean by "original intellectual property"?

In simple terms: Original content you created all by yourself, based on your own experience and expertise.

Being inspired by somebody else's idea, or creating content on a pre-existing topic is fine!

And hey, I get it — there's so much content and information available on the Internet now that it seems that nothing is ever an "original idea" anymore.

However, it's when you start to rely on, borrow from (without citation) or straight up plagiarize other creators' work because you don't actually have anything original, valuable or legitimate to bring to the table that you should stop and find a more authentic direction.

Now, you may be wondering,

"Brad, do people actually plagiarize other creators' content and sell it as their own?"

Yes. It's happened to me on more than a few occasions. I even have a Trello board with a running list of "pirates" I'm aware of.

"Why would they do that?"

Because it's easier to copy somebody else's stuff and piggyback off of their hard work and success rather than to contribute something original.

Content Checklist for an Ethical Online Course

Step #2 Pricing

Let's talk money

There's so much baggage that comes with the topic of pricing.

When things are free or come easily, people tend not to value said free things.

Whereas when people have to trade something of value in exchange for something else, the tendency is to have a much greater appreciation.

The same can be said of your online course.

Price too low and your customers won't value the product.

However, if you price too high (relative to what you're offering), you border on unethical and risk your reputation.

So how do you price your online course ethically, while maintaining the integrity of your brand and making an honest living?

There are quite a few factors and pricing techniques you must consider when pricing your online course:

  1. Market-based
  2. Low-ticket
  3. High-ticket
  4. Gut-based
  5. Value
  6. Quality
  7. Target Audience
  8. Packages
  9. Charm Pricing

Let's dig into each of these, and let's use a hypothetical Chartered Professional Accounted (CPA) named Mary for our examples.

Market-Based Pricing

This is when you base your price on the asking price of everyone else in your industry or market.

Let's take Mary, our CPA, who created an online course on how to file your own personal taxes at home. Mary wants to know how much to charge for her online course, and after performing some extensive research, she discovers that there aren't many CPAs in her region who have online courses for sale, but the personal tax courses that are offered are very basic and typically sell for $50 - $100.

Let's now imagine Mary offered a similar, basic online course:

Mary's Basic Personal Tax Course

Since this offering is very basic and likely provides information that is readily accessible online, an ethical market-based price range for such a basic online course would be as low as free and as high as $50.

What if Mary offered an advanced version of her course?

Mary's Advanced Personal Tax Course

As you can see, this is a very high-value offering and would prove to be very helpful for her students who are attempting to file their own personal taxes. It's very possible that her course will save her students money at tax time (both in the form of not paying for an accountant and in receiving a higher tax refund).

Since this course requires her valuable time in a personal video call and a Group Q&A each week, plus she is offering helpful plug & play templates and high-quality training to boot, an ethical market-based price range for this course might be $100 - $500.

Yes, this price range is higher than her competitors' prices, however, her competitors are underserving the market with the basic courses, and therefore I believe she's justified in asking more money.

Low-Ticket Pricing

"Low-ticket pricing" simply means the price is in a lower price range and meant to attract a mass market customer. I've heard some people say that a low ticket price is anything less than $100, but I've also heard people say a low ticket price is anything less than $1000. That's a big range.

In my opinion, "low ticket pricing" is a relative term and a true "low ticket" price range depends on a few factors, such as industry, competitors, target audience, to name a few.

But for the sake of this guide, and perhaps to establish an "official" low ticket price range, let's go with anything between $1 - $1000. That sound good? It's settled then!

If we use our previous examples of Mary's personal tax course, both the basic and advanced versions technically fall under the "low-ticket" price range.

Is low-ticket pricing ethical?

Yes, I think any "low-ticket" price range is a fair ask for any online course — so long as the course satisfies our "Content Checklist" in Step 1.

High-Ticket Pricing

"High-ticket pricing" has the opposite meaning of "low-ticket pricing" — that is to say, it's expensive and designed to attract a high-quality customer. Similar to low-ticket pricing, high-ticket pricing is a relative term, however, the sky is the limit in this scenario.

For the sake of consistency, we will consider high-ticket pricing to be any price above $1000.

Now let's go back to Mary's tax course. Could she ethically charge a high-ticket price for her course?

She may be able to charge a high-ticket price for the "advanced" version of her course, however, I think she'll need to add more personalization, value and support to the program in order to ethically sell it for $1000 or more.

Mary's High-Ticket Personal Tax Course

In this scenario, I think Mary could ethically charge $1000 - $1500 for her course, which combines her core training lessons, supporting materials to augment the student experience, a community for support, plus an element of hands-on service, such as a personal review of the student's tax filing before they submit it — to reduce any errors or rookie mistakes.

"So, in order to justify a high-ticket price, I simply need to jam pack my course with bonuses, value and extra goodies?"

No. Offering a course with a zillion extra bonuses that have arbitrary monetary values in order to jack the total price up is dishonest. Besides, it makes your offering seem scattered and confusing.

Don't add arbitrary extras to your course for the sake of justifying a high-ticket price. The extras you add must actually make sense to the student, augment their learning experience, accelerate results, and include an element of personalization — such as a 1-on-1 phone call.

"Is there a maximum high-ticket price I can ethically charge?"

There is no official guideline for a maximum price. I've personally seen programs being sold for $30,000 and above. But remember, we're talking about an online course:

A digital program offered online that provides information, training and guidance for a student hoping to learn a new skill or achieve a desired outcome.

"Is it ethical for an online course to be sold for multiple tens-of-thousands of dollars?"

No!

Keep in mind, if you're an agency, freelancer or business offering a product or service that solves an actual major problem? That is a different story! I've provided web design services for $10,000 - $30,000 before. Heck, I've worked on $100,000 digital marketing campaigns with agencies before. But those were large projects with high stakes, high-value outcomes, big problems to solve, and a lot of time and energy involved.

They weren't online courses.

Would you sell a standard self-help book for $1000?

Of course not.

Likewise, you shouldn't sell a standard online course for $10,000.

Now, if your book came with a companion course? You could justify a higher price for that book.

Perhaps you included personalized service in your course? That course would be worth more money.

Gut-based pricing

This is just my way of saying, "go with your gut".

What feels right to you when you take everything into account?

I don't necessarily think you should just pick an arbitrary price, however, if you legitimately feel like your asking price is fair, ethical and honest? That may be a good sign.

Value-based pricing

This is a pricing technique I often recommend to my freelancing students who are offering services to their clients, but there may just be room for this pricing technique for your online courses as well.

You may think "value-based pricing" means you charge based on the value you offer in the course.

Nay.

The "value you offer in your course" is relative and often biased — perhaps you feel your course is very valuable, whereas your prospective customer feels otherwise.

(It's kind of like parents who think their kids are more talented than other kids.)

Value-based pricing is when you charge based on the value of the outcome you provide for your customer.

For example, let's say your course will teach your students how to perform a backflip on flat ground.

That's a pretty sweet party trick.

But is it valuable enough to charge money for?

I'm not so sure about that.

(Unless, of course, you make a living doing party tricks, and having your finishing move be a sweet backflip got you more party bookings. You could probably charge for that.)

Let's go back to Mary, our CPA selling a personal tax course.

If Mary wanted to price her current course based on value, she'd be right to stick within the $500 price range.

Remember, Mary's target audience is the individual looking to save money and increase his tax return by doing it himself. You'd be hard-pressed to get that fella to fork over more than a few hundred bucks.

If Mary shifted her audience to small business owners who pay tens of thousands of dollars in taxes every year, she could offer a "Corporate Tax" online course and price based on value.

Mary's Tax Course for Small Business Owners

This course saves Mary's students the $2000 annual fee she charges for a corporate tax return, instructs them how to do their corporate taxes just as Mary would, and provides a personal review of the corporate tax return.

That's a high-value outcome that Mary could ethically charge $1000 - $3000 for.

Make sense?

Quality

Quality should always be considered when pricing your online course. If you promise a high-value outcome, but your course content is poor, the curriculum is hard to understand, and your videos are blurry? That course shouldn't be as expensive as the same course with high production value, carefully considered curriculum, and a pleasant learning experience.

Target Audience

Your target audience must always be considered when determining what to charge for your online course. This was previously illustrated when Mary offered an online course to small business owners who are much more willing to pay for service and value than an individual trying to collect some extra cash on their personal tax return.

Packages

Packaging your pricing is another technique I recommend to my freelancing students when offering services to their clients. In this scenario, you would offer more than one "package" the client can choose from.

Two or three options should do the trick.

Let's imagine Mary used this technique:

Package A: Mary's Basic Tax Course for Individuals

Package B: Mary's Advanced Tax Course for Individuals

Package C: Mary's Tax Course for Small Business Owners

Charm Pricing

Ever wonder why online course prices seem to always end with the numbers 7 or 9? For example, instead of a $2000 price tag, the course creator will market the course for $1997?

It's called "Charm Pricing".

Psychological pricing is a pricing and marketing strategy based on the theory that certain prices have a psychological impact. There is evidence that consumers tend to perceive "odd prices" as being lower than they actually are, tending to round to the next lowest monetary unit. Thus, prices such as $1.99 are associated with spending $1 rather than $2.

— Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Psychological_pricing

It's essentially a cheap and seemingly effective psychological trick that virtually every retailer uses to give the perception that their product is cheaper than it actually is.

You can't trick me, TP!

Charm pricing is not about saving the customer a few dollars (or cents), it's about encouraging them to make the purchase based on the feeling that the "left number" gives them.

I think it's also the primary reason why online retailers make the last two digits—the "cents"—a small superscript font; to hide the reality and to draw closer attention to the left digit.

Let's try it out:

$20.00 (looks almost like $2000)

Let's superscript those digits.

$20.00 (that's better)

Now let's charm it up, and unbold the last two digits.

$19.97 (now, we're making sales!)

Thus an online course sold for $1997 is associated with a $1000 purchase, whereas a $2000 online course is associated with spending $2000... a full one thousand dollars more (at least in the brain of the customer).

So, the $1,000,000 question — I mean the $999,997 question — is:

Is using charm pricing to sell your online course ethical?

I'm kind of neutral on the subject, perhaps leaning more towards just charging the honest price.

I don't necessarily think it's unethical, but your pricing — whether you choose to charm price or not — should be a conscious decision.

If I'm going with my gut, when I see a course (including my own) sold for $997, I think "If you want a grand from me, just ask for a grand!"

When I'm on the phone with a prospective client or student, and they ask my price I never say "oh, the price is going to be $997".

I'll shoot straight and tell 'em the damage.

See, I told you that the topic of pricing came with a lot of baggage!

Questions to consider when pricing your course

Step #3 Course Policies

A refund, you say?

Course policies are like the rules you and your student abide by. It's advisable to have an actual Course Policy Document that's easily accessible to your prospective students.

As a course creator, if you say you'll do something, do it.

That's what your policy is all about.

If you don't offer refunds, have a liability disclaimer, or said that you'd offer a 32 one-on-one phone calls in your marketing? Put it in your policy.

Customer Support Policy

Do you provide customer support? Either way, be clear about this!

If you do, outline your (or your team's) availability for support requests, how to get in touch, and any other steps they may need to know.

A low ticket online course with little to no customer support (beyond refunds or other basic policies) is probably fine, however, a high ticket online course with no customer support is bad practice, and borderline unethical.

Refund Policy

Do you have a refund policy?

Standard practice is 30-days no questions asked.

But you can get creative, too!

14-days. 60-days.

Lifetime.

No refunds.

"If you do the work, and don't get the promised end result, you get your money back."

I've seen so many variations on the refund policy.

If you offer a "service-heavy" course, where you offer your time and effort to help a customer? Then you may not want to offer a refund. In this case, you could be clear that there are zero refunds, however, you'll do what it takes to ensure the customer is happy (within reason, of course).

However, if your offer requires little to none of your personal time? In the very least, offer a basic refund (like 30 days); but in my opinion, offering a flexible refund policy builds a lot more trust with your audience.

Whatever your policy, the honest thing to do is make it clear in your Course Policy Document, and in your sales copy!

Step #4 Promotion & Marketing

Act now! We'll never re-open the doors again.

Promise

What are you promising?

Your course promise is the outcome the student should expect to achieve by the end of the course, so long as they put in the effort.

If we go back to Mary, our CPA offering tax courses, her promise might be something like:

"By the end of this course, you will be able to confidently file your own personal taxes without the need to hire an expensive accountant to do it for you."

Or if we use our previous Jazz Guitar Course example, the promise might be:

"By the end of this course, you will be able to confidently play 3 jazz songs on your guitar."

These are very reasonable, attainable and even exciting promises!

Your promise is the reason why your customer buys your online course in the first place.

  1. They come to you with a problem (don't have money to hire an accountant but need to file taxes properly)
  2. Your course promises the solution (file your own taxes properly without an accountant, for a fraction of the cost)

Where things get unethical and dishonest is when you promise something intangible and unattainable.

Like lifestyle. Or getting rich. Or "living with purpose". Or abundance coaching.

These intangible promises are very sexy to sell.

Cue: Inspiring music, stock drone footage of a beach, beautiful people, and a guy with a Tesla.

I used to be broke.

The problem will always be that it's dishonest at best, and a sandbox for scam artists at worst.

Because what's "a luxury lifestyle, free of debt, travelling the world and doing whatever you want" worth?

Well, you can't really put a value on that. It's a feeling, an emotion. It's intangible.

And that's the point!

Because most of our purchasing decisions are based on emotion it's very easy to take advantage of that fact with some delicious sales copy, drool-worthy imagery, and a compelling story that "sells the sizzle, not the steak."

Now, is it unethical to "sell the sizzle" rather than the steak?

Not at all! Any good marketer worth their salt knows that it's pointless to sell the features of a product because people don't care about the features; people care about how the features will benefit them.

The problem is when a false marketer sells the sizzle... but there's no steak.

Got it?

Testimonials

Testimonials are a form of social proof that really help prospective customers make a purchasing decision. Think about it, when you are browsing an online store like Amazon, or an AirBnB, let's be honest, you skip straight to the reviews to see what people have to say about the offering.

Those reviews and testimonials really help you make a decision either way.

Where testimonials, reviews or case studies for your online course can get shady is when you pay for or outsource flattering reviews, incentivize the reviewer with a reward for reviewing, using the same person for multiple reviews on different products, or straight up fabricating a review.

Inauthentic reviews are an easy way to trick people into buying your stuff.

And that's not marketing honestly.

A couple of honest & genuine testimonials are better than a bunch of gussied up and dishonest ones.

Discounts, Scarcity & Urgency

The power trio of sales generation — discounts, scarcity and urgency — can give you a temporary and dramatic spike in revenue when selling your online course. It's a powerful tool that comes with great responsibility!

It's one of the primary reasons you'll see online course creators use the Open/Close Cart Method when marketing their online course; there is limited time to join (urgency), bonuses or other limited incentives are offered (scarcity), and often there will be a better price for purchasing during this window (discount).

When a marketer uses the power trio honestly, it can be an awesome strategy to generate a huge boost in online course sales.

The problem with the power trio is they are easily (and often) fibbed in order to manufacture a desire to purchase within the customer's mind. It's easy to give a perceived discount by marking up your "regular" price by double and then "discounting" it by 50%.

i.e. On Sale $2497 (Regular $4997)

Injecting false scarcity into an online course launch is as simple as saying:

If you choose to discount, do so sparingly and modesty, otherwise, you risk training your target audience to wait for a sale and frustrating your customers who bought at full price.

If you'd like to incorporate scarcity, consider what is truly "scarce" about your offering. Is there something you can include — like one-on-one calls, an additional product or bonus feature — that won't be available if a customer doesn't buy now?

And if you'd like to create a sense of urgency, think about what makes your offer urgent. Are you working with your customers in real-time? Is it a live class with a start date? Are you offering an in-person event and ticket sales will stop being sold at a certain date? If we consider Mary, our CPA selling an online course about taxes, she could create true urgency by mentioning that tax season is around the corner, and it's time to get your finances in order.

It is more challenging to sell an online course for full price when your potential customer is not sold on the value of what you are selling. Therefore, many an online marketer will opt for a quick discount promotion, rather than putting in the work to communicate the value of their product, and to say:

"Here's a thing I made. It's worth tenfold what you will pay. Here's why."

So moving forward, center your marketing message around the value of what you're offering, and in your next course launch, if you'd like to boost your sales, consider how you might responsibly incorporate discounts, scarcity and urgency.

Step #5 Review & Wrap Up

Shirt Alert

From my experience in the online course world, there are plenty of marketing strategies, tactics and methods that go unchecked and fly under the radar, and so my intent for this guide was to:

As a quick review of this guide and to give you a compass for marketing your online course, here are a few handy checklists to help you out:

Content Checklist

Pricing Checklist

Course Policy Checklist

Promotion & Marketing Checklist

Conclusion

I truly believe that you can build a profitable online business and provide for your family without needing to sacrifice on your ethics, your values or your faith. Sure, we might miss out on the occasional "opportunity", or perhaps our revenue might have one less "figure" on the end of it — but I think that's a worthy sacrifice on the journey towards building an honest business that serves people first.

Thank you for taking the time to read my guide on how to ethically market your online course! I hope it makes your job as an online business owner a little easier. If you'd like to download this guide as a PDF for future reference and receive my weekly Marketing Honestly newsletter, you can do so right here.

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And finally, consider sharing this guide with a fellow marketer! Spread the word, and let's give online marketing a good name.

Much love & God bless,
Brad Hussey