You’ve probably heard the term “sales funnel” or “marketing funnel” thrown around.  The concept applies to just about every online (and offline for that matter) business today.  So you can probably guess that it’s pretty important to your online course sales. 

But do you know how to execute a sales funnel?

In our Teachinguide survey, online instructors ranked marketing courses as one of the top challenges they face.  In previous articles we’ve begun addressing this issue by providing some tips on various marketing tactics.  That said, apart from creating great course content, the # 1 marketing activity that you should spend your time on is creating your online course sales funnel.  Course coupons and/or a blog alone won’t drive people to enroll in your course in droves. 

In this article, we’ll summarize 10 steps, more or less in order of execution, that you can take to create a sales funnel to drive students to enroll in your course. We’re not going to go into great detail about each one of these steps – we’ll leave it to you to Google the hundreds of resources out there on each of these when you decide you want to execute. But we provide a general overview to guide your thinking about how to execute an online course sales funnel.

What’s a sales funnel?

A basic sales funnel

The nice thing about the term “sales funnel” is that it conjures up an image of exactly what it is. In this case, you find potential customers that you’ll lure (or “pour”) into your funnel using marketing tactics and over time enrolled students come out of the bottom of the funnel and into your online course – voila! Sounds easy right?

Wellll if it were easy we wouldn’t be compelled to write this article and instructors would not be telling us that marketing is challenging! 

That said, creating your online course sales funnel is completely doable and absolutely necessary if you have significant income goals for your online course business.  Part of the issue for a lot of instructors may be that the idea of doing all the things that need doing is overwhelming. So we’ve tried to break the process of creating and maintain your sales funnel into 10 broad steps to follow.

Keep in mind that building and maintaining your online sales funnel (and getting enrollments) is a process, or a series of steps you take over and over – not a one-off thing you do.  You should be looking to improve and grow your funnel it over time as you try different things and see the results.

What’s the goal of a sales funnel?

Why go through the trouble of following these 11 steps?  You want to be able to maximize course sales for the least amount of effort, right? You basically want to put passive income generation from your online courses to be on autopilot.   That means driving potential students to your course landing page – wherever it may be – and convincing them to pay for your course – and hopefully any other course your produce after that. That’s called “conversion” and it’s the goal of creating your sales funnel is to get conversions.

In summary, the stages or steps you take to create an online course sales funnel have two goals:

  • Create a path for potential students to travel that convinces them to enroll
  • Automate this process as much as possible

How long does it take to create a sales funnel?

Well, that all depends on how busy you’ve already been putting together the pieces of your course marketing plan.  If you’re just getting started there’s is work to be done!  However, if you have already started on putting pieces together such as building out a blog, creating a Facebook topic group, educating yourself on Facebook ads, and generally building a contact list and social following, then it’s just a matter of systematizing and optimizing your online course sales funnel.

Sales funnel stages

A picture is worth a thousand words, so here’s a good general representation of the stages of a sales funnel. There are dozens more to be found online. But You get the picture. So how do you get folks into the awareness stage and through to the purchase stage? Read on.

Trackmaven Sales and marketing funnel
The general stages potential students will go through on their journey to purchasing a course. (source Trackmaven)

10 Steps to creating your online course sales funnel

Step 1: Define and locate your target audience

We’ve written a bit about defining your target audience, but suffice to say that if you still haven’t done this, then don’t bother moving on to the next steps in the sales funnel. You must have some idea of what people are interested in your topic, where they are hanging out online and what motivates them in order to begin creating awareness of your course at the top of the funnel.  If you just start sending out emails and tweets willy nilly with no real plan, your efforts (and you will read later on that it is a lot of effort) will be wasted.  You need to know that you are creating the right content for the right people.

It might help to keep track of your target audience research in a document or spreadsheet. Some places to do research on your target audience include:

  • Facebook groups – search for groups and join. Initially, just read comments and take notes about who’s asking questions, commenting and gather intel. Then begin offering advice and any free valuable input or resources.
  • LinkedIn groups – Do the same as for Facebook groups. You can also search for influencers and try to connect with them on LinkedIn.
  • Twitter feeds/hashtags – Make a list of relevant hashtags to use. Follow potential target audience candidates and comment and like their postings. Hopefully they follow you back.
  • Instagram hashtags – same strategy as for Twitter
  • Pinterest – If it makes sense, look at what people are pinning related to your topic and how popular it is.
  • Reddit – Look at threads
  • Quora – are people asking questions and commenting about your topic? Who are they?
  • Other online forums – There are forums out there for just about any topic if you look hard.
  • Purchase lists or market research – if you have money to blow you can create surveys on Survey Monkey and use their database to find your audience. You can also purchase contact lists, although that is discouraged by email services such as Hubspot for reasons you can read about here.

For more information on how to define your target audience, check out this Coschedule article.

Step 2: Develop (more) content to promote

Through developing your online course, you should have the basis for some initial content to promote. Certainly, if you are just starting to create a course, then now’s the time to think about repurposing some of the content you will create. This would be blogs, guides, checklists, review articles, videos, webinars, podcasts, opinion pieces on Medium and LinkedIn and so forth. Make sure in this phase to create one or more lead magnets, such as guides, checklists, diagrams, etc. that you can leverage to collect emails later on.

If you haven’t done this – now’s the time. There’s no getting around using content to build a following. Just have a search for some of the most successful Udemy courses and instructors and you’ll find that these instructors, such as Jose Portilla, have a lot of content out there.

Content also includes developing your final offer, that is to say your course.  Take some time to write down exactly what your offer is.  What is the price for your course? What are the benefits and outcomes for students? What problem does it solve? Why should they buy a course from you? You will need this in the future when you create your email campaign. More on that later.

Step 3: Open social media accounts

OK, this one’s obvious. But it needs saying because some people (are you listening Baby Boomers and Gen X?) just use Facebook, or only use LinkedIn. Many have never Tweeted (we know hard to believe in this day of Kardashians).   Each social media will become invaluable over time and may serve slightly different purposes for your sales funnel.

On Quora you can answer questions as an expert and create awareness at the top of your funnel with your target audience

For example, becoming an expert on Quora that answers questions will help get your name out there and you can eventually start including links to your website or course (in moderation) with your answers. On Instagram, you might be focusing more on the visual and emotional aspects of your online course business brand.

Step 4: Create a website and blog

Just do it.  If you haven’t done this already, follow these steps.  And if you have a website, but are not really maintaining it with fresh content, stop now and write 5 blog articles before continuing. Then schedule them once a week for the next 5 weeks. Rinse and repeat. 

Step 5: Create a Youtube channel

As with other steps in the sales funnel process, this one can take a while, but it’s a necessary evil, or benefit, depending on how comfortable you are creating and editing videos.  You can easily start out by creating a few simple videos that introduce yourself and your course to help establish your topic authority and create some awareness.  You can create a handful of brief videos that cover a simple topic. Whatever you are comfortable with. 

Remember for this strategy to work in every Youtube video you should refer people to your website and/or course landing page. And vice versa.

Step 6: Learn about Facebook and Google ads

You can use Facebook ads to promote your course to specific audiences that have certain demographics and interests. Here’s a great guide from Hootsuite on how to use Facebook ads.

Of course, this all depends on your budget, but it’s a good idea to understand how these work and what returns you might get from using ads before you need to do it.

Step 7: Get SEO savvy

If these three letters send shivers to your spine, you’re not alone. SEO is a huge topic. You need to know a minimum amount about SEO to make sure your content development efforts are not wasted. There’s just no point in writing a hundred blog posts if your website and blog are not optimized for Google (and Yahoo, Bing, etc.) search traffic that you want to drive into the top of your funnel.

The main thing you need to do is understand what keywords your target audience is searching for. If you’ve done your homework creating course titles and landing pages already, then this should not be a strange concept.  If you create your website in Wordpress, it provides SEO guidance, so there’s good news.  That said, don’t get too hung up on SEO, it takes a good while to understand and get good at it. Just keep working at it.

Our recommendation? Take a Udemy course of course! There are several free SEO courses on Udemy like this one from Moz.  And if you need more choices, use our free online course search tool.

Step 8: Adopt an email system

Email Automation
The many benefits of email automation

We’ve all received automated emails (like the one that provided a link to this blog post!), multiple times a day when we forgot to uncheck the box. You’ll need to join the ranks of these knowing marketers by adopting an automated email system to build your list of subscribers and people you wish to market to.  These systems are typically very easy to use and set up and allow you to segment your audience lists and more. Get to know yours intimately.

There are literally dozens of options for automating emails and building email lists.  Here’s a great article taking you’re a lot of the best options.

Step 9: Gather emails

Depending on your personal and professional situation, how you collect emails will vary widely.  There are some commonalities though.  So how do you gather emails? Let us count the ways.  Here are some ideas:

  • Use social media and any other channels, such as commenting on blogs and forums, to drive viewers to an email collecting channel such as your website
  • Include a subscription opt-in link for your blog/newsletter with every email you send
  • Website lead magnet, blog or newsletter subscription email capture
  • Ask anyone remotely related to your topic for their email, i.e. private message through Twitter or Facebook
  • Friends and friends of friends (referrals)
  • Family and extended family
  • Colleagues
  • Customers
  • Fellow hobbyists or fellow students (i.e. in a language or yoga class)
  • Ask for good ole fashioned business cards (i.e. collect them in a jar at your place or a friend’s place of business!)
  • Put out sign up lists (online and offline), such as newsletter
  • Opt ins/email registration popups on all web pages
  • LinkedIn contacts
  • Purchase email lists (last resort)
  • Etc.  – generally think of a way to collect emails with anything you are doing

Step 10: Automate email AND social media messages and content

OK, so this part is really multiple steps, we admit. We’ll address this topic in another post sometime. Here’s an overview.

Your automated sequence of emails needs to reflect the different stages of the sales funnel process as depicted in the diagram above. Automated emails ideally should guide your prospective students somewhere from the “interest phase”, where they have signed up for a newsletter or downloaded a lead magnet, through to purchase of your course. This requires a good bit of thought to create the right messaging, frequency and content offer.

A good place to start when creating your email sequence is your end goal.  How will you get people to buy your course? What will it take? The answers to these questions is called “nurturing”. It’s what you do via automated emails after someone has shown interest in your topic.

So ask yourself, is yours an expensive course that needs a lot of credibility to convince people to purchase it? Is it a free course you are launching and so may need less information and more hype and emotion? Is it a course series you are trying to encourage a commitment to? Are you one Udemy course among 100 competing courses on the same topic?   Are there obvious challenges or objections that people will have to taking your course, such as a high price or hard to achieve objectives?  Are you in a niche market and therefore need to really work hard to keep anyone remotely interested in your topic in your sales funnel?

The answer to questions like this will help determine whether you are sending out 3 emails with blog or video links or 20 with every manner of content and free trial offer in perpetuity.

Depending on your sales funnel cycle, free content that you could offer over the course of several emails includes:

  • Invitations to webinars
  • Previews of your course, i.e. the first 1 or 2 lesson modules
  • Links to new blog posts
  • Send them directly to your course landing page by:
  • Offering a free trial (make sure it’s for a limited time!)
  • Offering them discounts/coupons
  • Over time, for those who try and don’t buy, have a separate course of emails to ask them why they are not buying? Offer a quick survey for the to answer, for example. At least you are keeping them engaged.

Here’s an example of how an automatic email campaign might flow:

  • Week 1: Welcome email  – thanks for signing up, you are valued, introduce yourself/your story, invite questions/feedback, explain what’s coming and what value they can expect
  • Week 2: Teach something valuable
  • Week 3: Teach something valuable, offer a “freebie” download via website
  • Week 4: Give something of value (did you like that freebie? Here’s more!) and hint at the course you are offering
  • Week 5: Provide a success story or two or three from your course
  • Week 6: Think of common challenges to purchasing your course (price, length, difficulty) and address these. Pitch your course again with a limited time offer.
  • Week 7: Reminder, limited time offer expiring! Reiterate benefits.

Don’t forget: Always offer in every email the option to opt out of future emails. It’s the law and it’s just good business.

Bonus Step: Track results

OK, so really there are 11 steps to creating your sales funnel, but 10 just sounded more “precise”!  Lastly, your email system should tell you how successful your emails are. Use this information to tweak and improve them over time.  You should also track your blog posts, Twitter followers and Twitter activity, Facebook ad success, etc. Hubspot is a great tool for this kind of thing.

There’s more to it…

These 10 (or 11)  steps are just one way to go about creating a sales funnel for your online course business. They are certainly not the only way or the only order of doing things.  And these stages represent in fact more than just “10 steps”. As you can tell each of these involves a learning curve and a good deal of work. 

However, collectively, they do represent the many activities that you should be working on everyday to get your course sales funnel up and running. What that process looks like will depend very much on your existing knowledge of and execution on these components, your financial and personal motivations, time, talent and more.  No matter what, you want to be working on as many of these bits as possible to get those conversions.

Once you have your funnel going, with automated emails and content developed, etc. then the only thing you have to focus on is continuously getting new people to enter the top of your funnel. How do you do that? Rinse and repeat! Create new content, target new groups, etc.

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