Creating courses 4: Start selling fast with a pilot and some invitations

- May 28, 2015 4 MIN READ

What’s the secret to launching your course to more than the sound of crickets? It’s all in the pilot.

We’ve all heard horror stories of entrepreneurs who spend hours, weeks and even months perfecting their product, only to be met with crickets when they go to launch.

This is especially prevalent among online course creators. All too often, I see course creators pour out their heart and soul, but in the end it’s just a lot of wasted time, energy, and money.

The bad news is that a rock-solid curriculum strategy alone won’t save you.

Here’s what will:

When creating courses, before you dive in and start creating your materials or setting up your membership site, you need to sell and run a pilot.

Your pilot is your MVP

If you’re familiar with the start-up world, you’ve likely heard of a minimum viable product, or MVP. It’s the smallest, lowest risk version of a product you can create that will sell and be profitable. The goal is to get to market quickly, so that future iterations can be based on customer feedback and insights.

We can approach the the process of creating courses in much the same way.

Instead of building out your entire course up front, what if you were to work with a small group of people, developing the materials as you went along in direct response to their needs?

Perhaps you could record live webinars, so you could see, in real-time, how your students were doing with the material. Or send out email content instead of fancy PDF modules. Or record audio clips instead of professionally shot video.

There’s even research that suggests that professional videos are less likely to get students taking action.

Warning: This is not a licence to make it up as you go along

When I suggest this, people often resist. They feel that it’s sleazy or inappropriate to sell something that doesn’t exist yet. They fear that they won’t be able to deliver, that life will get in the way, or that the results will be a poor overall experience.

To combat those fears, here are a few things to consider:

  1. You aren’t making vague promises. If you’ve done the work of defining your Core Promise and have developed a curriculum strategy, you do know what value you are providing. You do know how you will engage your buyers. You have all that detail available to you.
  2. You can create a better experience this way. Too often, we think that offering a “beta” or “pilot” experience is a bad thing. The truth is, it’s a rare opportunity for our audience to get behind-the-scenes attention and shape the direction of what you’re creating for them. It’s more personalised, and thus, more effective.
  3. Outside deadlines are a great motivator. A funny thing usually happens when you sell a program or course, and suddenly have people waiting for you to send them stuff… it’s much easier to get things done! Plus, you aren’t just creating in a vacuum – you have real people, with real questions and challenges, that you can create for.
  4. You are too expert to predict accurately. The ‘Curse of Expertise’ dictates that no matter what you do or how hard you try, as an expert, you will never be able to accurately predict how long it will take a novice to master a new skill. The only thing that works is actually testing it out.
  5. We resist changing polished products. If you’ve spent thousands on getting professional videos done, are you going to want to re-shoot them all because you’ve found a few tweaks here and there? Probably not.

Ultimately, what we’re shooting for here is a balance: you want to know what you’re going to create, but also be flexible. The first, second, or even third time you offer a program, you will find things that don’t work like you originally thought. You want to be able to adapt and adjust as you go.

By focusing all your energies into helping your students actually get the intended results, you actually creates higher value than if you had set it all in stone up front. Plus, it’s virtually guaranteed that you’ll get some great testimonials.

Sell your MVP with invitations, not a launch

Clearly, this approach doesn’t work if you do a big public launch. For a pilot to work, it needs to be done with a small, private test group. That’s the approach that my client Marie Poulin took with her flagship online program, Digital Strategy School.

Once she had her high level curriculum strategy outlined, Marie didn’t start developing curriculum or planning a launch. Instead, she reached out to her network. Through one-on-one emails, private Facebook message and other personal outreach, she shared her vision.

Within six weeks of conceiving of this product, these conversations generated thousands of dollars in brand new revenue, as more than a dozen participants signed up. She didn’t have it all figured out, but she kept her focus on creating the most valuable experience she could. In the end, she not only got rave reviews of the pilot, but subsequent launches have generated tens of thousands of dollars. Today, it’s the cornerstone of her business model.

That’s where the most successful courses and programs begin.

You start by carefully evaluating whether it’s the right move. Then you strategically plan your curriculum, starting with your Perfect Participant and Core Promise, all the way down to your key engagement strategies. And then you sell it with personal invitations, not a big, public launch.

Are you ready to start piloting your online course? Share your ideas for what the minimum viable product version could look like. What could you leave out? What has to stay in?