Behind the scenes of a timed online course launch
I’ve used MailChimp for a long time. At first, it was to help other folks use newsletters to drive revenue (when I was doing client work and web design). More recently, it’s what I’ve used to communicate and make a living.
So I approached creating a MailChimp course with both of those frames of reference in mind: using newsletter creation/management as a service you sell to others and using a newsletter for your own business. Both cases involve the same thing: using a newsletter to make money.
Similar to Creative Class, Chimp Essentials runs entirely on WordPress. Unlike Creative Class, this time I used RestrictContentPro to handle payment and memberships.
- WordPress – what the site uses for its CMS.
- RestrictContentPro – creates accounts, sends payments to Stripe and shows the right content to the right people based on their account.
- Stripe – processes the money and puts said money into my bank account.
- MailChimp – obviously, the software I use for the mailing list.
- WPComplete – the plugin I built with Zack Gilbert to let students mark lessons as complete.
I go further into the complete setup of a WordPress course here.
As usual, I used WordPress because it’s what I know. And, as usual, I created a totally custom theme for it (more on the style later).
My main concern while building Chimp Essentials was to make sure it was clear that a few things were happening:
- That the course was only available Mar 1 – Mar 31, 2016. The homepage took the form of 3 states: the first was prior to Mar 1 when I was promoting that it was coming soon, the second was during the period it was available and the final was after the registration closed.
- It was also important to differentiate between normal website viewers, students that had free lessons only and students that had access to the full lessons. So the site changes based on those 3 states: the navigation bar changes, the buttons on the homepage change and links change, depending on what type of user is seeing the site.
- That the course illustrated both its fun nature and that it is technical learning geared towards non-technical folks. Which is why there are lots of jokes (I couldn’t help myself) and fairly clear details about what is and is not included.
I wanted to move from Memberful (due to billing issues) and spent far too long looking for a membership alternative that plugged into WordPress. Most were either not feature-packed enough or so bloated with features that they were hard to use.
I chose RCP because it does exactly what I want—it lets me hack what I don’t want to use (using PHP + HTML + CSS lets me customize every public-facing template RCP has) and their support team are top-notch. Seriously, I’ve had 31 support requests/questions that have been answered quickly and thoroughly. Pippin and his team have done well for a reason in the premium plugin market and I’d use RCP again for future courses.
I wish I could have a US-based USD Stripe account (to make receiving money faster and easier), but alas, unless I had a US-based USD bank account—it’s never going to happen (not for a lack of effort on my part, I spent days trying to get a bank account in the US).
All that said, I like Stripe because it just works. It takes money easily and lets me access that money easily.
One caveat is that for Chimp Essentials, I’ve been getting a high number of failed charges. I’ve not yet figured this out, but I did implement some automation, so if a charge fails, that person immediately gets an email with information on how to pay via PayPal.
Since this is a course about MailChimp, the reason for using it is obvious, but I’d have used the software regardless of the topic.
My MailChimp list separates users into a few buckets (though I do not support literally putting users into buckets, that’s just cruel):
- People on the waiting list for when the course registration opens or opens again.
- People who want the free lessons—and then receive an automation sequence + access. They are kicked off this sequence if they purchase at any time (since it’s 5 emails spread over 5 days).
- People who bought the course—and then receive a post-purchase automation sequence + access (mostly checking in to see how the course is going, 4 emails spread over 2 months).
- People who bought the course and clicked that they’d recommend the course to friends—and then receive a short affiliate automation sequence.
Too many folks don’t realize that MailChimp’s automation sequences can contain some pretty nifty logic and segmentation (which is partly why I created this course)that helps not only pitch automated emails at folks who already bought but also to only pitch things like affiliate programs to those interested in telling other people.
I’ll also note that I’m still hosting the course on FlyWheel. They continue to be awesome and the site continues to run smoothly even when I do crazy things like send 30,000 people to it from my email list at exactly the same time.
This was my first foray into a timed launch (meaning the course registration is only open for a fixed time). It makes sense for Chimp Essentials since it’s technical training based on someone else’s software.
MailChimp, and even WordPress, SquareSpace, Zapier and Google Analytics all have new features and interface updates fairly regularly. I wanted to keep the lessons up to date when they were being sold, so I set the registration to close after 4 weeks. And I’m glad I did because Zapier already changed their interface (it’s WAY better now too, so good work on that Zapier folks!).
I was also curious if a timed launch would impact or affect sales in any way. At first, it was just like any regular launch I’ve done, weighted heavily during the first few days and trailing off to slower but steady sales thereafter.
I also think sales spiked right at the start because on Mar 1 I already had 1,000+ people on the waiting list and that day I launched to over 30,000 people on my PJRVS and Creative Class lists (who I had been telling about the course for months). So I launched to a group of folks who a) already knew what it was about and that it was coming out, b) had expressed interest in it and c) had tested the shit out of it (see my note on beta testers further down).
True to what I’ve read and was expecting, sales also had a spike during the last few days. But that sales spike pretty much mirrored a multiple launch situation that I’ve done with Creative Class several times. Meaning, I don’t think an evergreen course is better or worse than a timed launch course (which is contrary to what loads of marketing folks tell you). I just think that you have to be smart about how you run each option.
Since this was a course about newsletters and the power of a list to generate revenue, I kept almost all my launch efforts to my own lists. The only exceptions included spending $650 to advertise in two other newsletters I thought were a great fit and my affiliates (more on both later).
As I’ve noticed over the past few years, all sales spikes happened when I sent out emails to my list telling them about a launch, a discount or the registration closing. True to form, the ROI I get from my own mailing list is insanely awesome (at about 12,000% or, for every $1 I spend on MailChimp, I make $120).
As with Creative Class, I beta-tested the crap out of this course. I had almost 50 folks go through onboarding, payment and the course itself. I asked them to make sure the lessons made sense, were paced well and covered the necessary topics. They all paid for access, although at a massive discount. This took about 20 hours of work on my part and was time well spent since I made a lot of tweaks based on their feedback.
Here’s the basic rundown of timeline and events for the course:
- Dec 2015: Planned out and researched the course.
- Jan 2016: Recorded all the lessons and wrote all automation sequences (pre-launch, free lessons, paid lessons).
- Jan 25-29: Added the course content and videos to the WordPress site.
- Feb 1: Released beta spots at a huge discount for folks to test payment and the lessons.
- Feb 2-26: Updated and tweaked the lessons, the payment, the site and had the automation sequences copyedited.
- Feb 27: Loaded all automation sequences and segment logic into MailChimp. Sent myself 109343 (or so) test emails.
- Feb 27 (late): Updated the code on the homepage to show the buy button (instead of the pre-register button) and added a countdown timer for the month of March.
- Feb 28: Told the Chimp Essentials and PJRVS lists that the course is now available at a discount for 48 hours.
- Feb 29: Hosted a live webinar to answer any/all email marketing questions.
- Feb 29: Posted Chimp Essentials on ProductHunt (it did well that day!).
- Mar 1: Told the Creative Class list about the new course.
- Mar 1: Released an episode of The Freelancer that was simply a pitch for the course.
- Mar 2: Let my affiliates know about selling the course and gave them a goodie pack.
- Mar: Wrote 11 articles about emails, newsletters, email marketing and sent some to my lists, some on my sites, some on other people’s sites and some to business publications.
- Mar 29: Sent a “3 days left to buy” email to the Chimp Essentials list (segmenting out folks who already bought).
- Mar 31: Sent a “12 hours left!” email to the Chimp Essentials list (segmenting out folks who already bought).
- Apr 1: Slept. Just kidding, I worked in my garden.
Payment + startup costs
The only transaction fee I pay is Stripe’s 2.9% + 30¢. Past that my costs are fixed.
- MailChimp runs me just under $250/month for my PJRVS, Creative Class and Chimp Essentials lists. Currently the Chimp Essentials list is slightly under 4,000 people spread across interested, free lessons, paid accounts and affiliates. So if I was tracking just that list’s cost, it’d be $50/month.
- FlyWheel is $25/month ($15 for hosting, $10 for SSL).
- I spent $9 on an SSL certificate from NameCheap.
- I spent $13 on a domain from Hover (who I’ve moved all my domains over to recently).
- I bought two stock photos for $50 from Stocksy of monkeys doing funny things for images in my tweets and grams.
- I purchased a few WordPress plugins to make the site work. MC4WP (20% off with that link because I love you and make a small cut) to push emails from WordPress to MailChimp for $49. RestrictContentPro was $42. AffiliateWP was $199 (oddly enough, that’s not an affiliate link because it’s funny not to use one there).
- I spent $50 on the music that’s at the start and finish of every lesson (and it’s AWESOME) from PremiumBeat.
- I spent $650 to advertise in two newsletters.
So in total, my starting costs were $1,137 for the setup and first month. I wanted to stay around $1,000 to create this course, so I was pretty close.
Ongoing, I’m spending $75/month on MailChimp and hosting. If I open registration twice a year, or 2 months a year, that means I’m spending $750 on the 10 months it’s not for sale.
I’m spending $4.56/user on Stripe. This isn’t bad since I’m getting $147/user. So a single sale covers my monthly costs and 8 sales covered my startup costs. 5 sales cover the 10 non-revenue months. Outside of time and research (which is obviously a massive investment), that’s a lot less than a hosted course platform or a platform that takes a large percentage of each sale.
I didn’t track this, but it took me about 3 weeks to record, edit and master all the lessons, working a few hours a day on it. It took me about a month to put together the lesson plan, go through each lesson a few times as dry runs (so it came easier/more naturally when it was being recorded) and even learn a few things I wasn’t aware of. I wanted to make sure I was the most “experting” expert that every expressed expertise about MailChimp ever. I even contacted their support a few times to ensure I was correct in what I was saying. I also got vetted and approved as a real MailChimp expert.
I don’t take teaching anything lightly, and I want to maintain the trust my existing audience puts in my products, so it took a while to get everything where I wanted it to be in terms of the knowledge doled out. I also spent a lot of time beta testing and self testing everything.
I’d guess the course was about 100 hours invested in learning and teaching the lessons and 30 hours invested in designing the site, programming it and setting up the functionality it needed to run.
I still don’t know that much about affiliate programs. For Chimp Essentials, I tried one (with the best plugin there is for affiliates in WordPress) and could granularly track each affiliate’s clicks, leads and even successful paid referrals. I also created a digital goodie pack with videos, images, text and ideas for sharing.
9% of sales came from affiliates. This might be awful or the norm, I don’t know and honestly, I don’t care. The folks who signed up to be affiliates were pleased with how it all worked and everything worked the way it was supposed to for tracking. So regardless of metrics, I’m happy that an extra 9% of revenue was created and shared equally between the affiliates and myself.
I’d do it again and perhaps offer even more in terms of ideas, files and information. I’d also spend some time talking to the best affiliates about what I can do better or help with more.
Styling + setup
Since I’ve been a designer/coder for so long (since I invented the internet), I wanted to build the course’s design and theme myself. Yes, this made things take longer, but still, it’s my course and I have the skills, so why not flex them a little?
I don’t recommend designing and programming your own custom WordPress theme unless that’s what you do. If it’s not, buy a theme or sell your course in a place that styles things easily for you. It’s faster, easier and smarter than learning how to do all that yourself. And no, the theme I created for Chimp Essentials is not for sale (answering this now because I get a few emails a week asking if folks can buy my course themes).
The style had to be both quirky and fun. I am pretty bored with the web design industry as a whole, since it’s so derivative. I went so far left of centre with the design of the Chimp Essentials brand that I was actually worried before launch if it was going to hit the mark. I used a very unpopular typeface (Sentinel), a rainbow logo and an almost-non-existent interface design. I took inspiration mostly from 1970s architecture magazines (which makes me sound like a hipster, but that’s just what was on hand).
Luckily, being a podcaster, I already have an amazing mic, the Rode Podcaster. So all I needed to do was record myself talking into it while I moved through screens on my computer.
I used Quicktime to record all the videos. Laugh if you want, but it’s the easiest and cheapest (since it’s free on a Mac) way to record screencasts. I edited the audio in Garageband and the videos in iMovie, neither of which are “professional” grade software, but they do the job and do it quickly.
Most videos took a few takes and a few cuts. I also tried hard (unsuccessfully at times) to go slowly, which I always have a problem with since I talk and click around things too quickly. So I required several takes in some places. I bookended each video with some simple text and my silly $5 theme song for the course.
Sales + numbers
This is what you’ve all been waiting for, right? How much the course made? GIMME THE NUMBERS PAUL. Ok, fine.
Well, currently there are 560 paying students which have generated $55,062 in gross revenue. The mathematically astute of you will notice that the revenue per student is less than the $147 regular price, and that’s because there were several discounts early on and a few discounts offered to affiliates as well for their people.
Transaction fees were approximately $1,500, the setup plus first month cost me $1,137 and $5,071 went to affiliates. So of the $55,062 gross, I received $48.899 (not including the ridiculous amount of taxes I’ll pay both personally and corporately, nor the costs of my bookkeeper, lawyer, copyeditor and accountant). Still, for 3 months of work, (2 for creating, 1 for launching) that’s not bad. I took one of the four launch weeks off too, so I could probably have done even better.
I didn’t have a revenue goal when I launched this. I tend not to set goals as they either disappoint or become irrelevant. I wanted to make a course that I enjoyed creating (check!) and that folks got a metric shit-ton of value from (based on feedback, that’s also a definite check!).
As I mentioned earlier, pretty much all of the sales came from email (which is good, since that’s what I teach in the course) – either from my own list, my Creative Class list, the Chimp Essentials notification list or the free lessons list. Those free lessons converted nicely.
Outside of hosting one “just me talking” webinar (which generated 21 sales) and releasing an episode of The Freelancer about the course (which generated 7 sales), email marketing was all I focused on. I sent the occasional tweet, but those never do much in terms of direct conversions. I also didn’t run any social or search ads, but I spent $650 to sponsor a few newsletters (which netted less than $300 in revenue or rather, two sales, so not worth it).
Most importantly, not one paying student complained about the course, not a single person asked for a refund and the only people who had negative things to say about the course were folks on social media who a) have never signed up for my mailing list, b) never signed up for the free lessons and c) obviously never bought the paid course. Haters gonna hate, potatoes gonna potate…
For this course, I don’t think there’s anything I’d do differently. Although it’s currently nowhere near the sales figures of Creative Class, it’s done well out of the gate and there weren’t any major setbacks or screw-ups on my part.
I was happy making it, and although launching it was full of self-imposed stress and anxiety, feedback has been great. As per usual, just before launch I figured that everyone would hate it, no one would buy it and everyone on my current lists would leave. Obviously none of those things happened, since they never do, but still – those feels never go away for me. I just push forward regardless.
I stuck to around $1,000 to create the whole thing, which goes to show that you don’t need to spend a ton of money to create a great course. I also didn’t hire anyone to help, outside of my copyeditor to look over the text in the automation sequences.
I already have a ton of ideas for new lessons, updates and improvements to the course and structure, so I plan to relaunch this fall, after updating the lessons that need updating based on feature and interface tweaks to the software.
Want to make a great course that delights both the people who take it and your bank account? Find a topic people are willing to pay to learn about. How? Listen to what people are asking you for, then ask for their money in exchange for teaching them what they asked for. Test your assumptions and ideas with beta testers. Launch smartly and quickly to people who are expecting the course and segment your lists to send the right emails to the right people at the right time. Focus on the benefits of learning the information, not just the details about what’s included.
And make decisions quickly, since they don’t really matter. Getting stuck on any one decision you need to make means progress and every single future decision has totally stalled out. Decide to move forward and don’t bother trying to figure out what the “best” or “most right” decision is. You’ll learn that later, either because you made the wrong decision and need to change something or because you chose correctly.
People get so hung up on software, payment processors, how many lessons to have, how long they should be, what the course should cost, what to A/B test… when really it’s best to just pick something, move forward and launch the thing. You can change your mind later, based on data from paying customers.
Keep in mind that the notion of passive income is really just a disjoint between effort and revenue. Although I’m sure some nights I made thousands while I slept or watched season 2 of DareDevil, that’s only because I did around 150 hours of work prior to making a penny on the course. You can’t make money without doing a lot of work. Products separate effort from money and also separate fixed hours resulting in fixed revenue (since you can potentially generate a lot more money than hours worked).
So if you’re thinking about launching an online course, know that it’s not a magical gravy train ride where leprechauns in suits dump money at you from the caboose. But you can do this. Cheaply and fairly easily too. You just have to commit to a constant forward momentum and not let any single decision derail it.