Iterating on my first online course

In 2009 I was running my own consulting business, which I had started in 1998. Several small business owners in my network were asking me to help them promote their business on the internet. This wasn’t part of my business at the time, but I knew a lot about online marketing because I’d had to learn it to promote my own business.

I wasn’t sure whether teaching internet marketing would fit in with my business model, which at the time was focused more on designing and building technology solutions for larger businesses. 

Fast forward a couple of years and as it turns out, marketing is not really my main passion. Building products is. And you’ll see shortly how this evolved.

Quick side note… I talk a lot (actually I’m quite the broken record) about the Minimum Viable Product (MVP) strategy and how it can help you launch faster and ensure you develop products that people really need and will pay for. The experience I’m about to share illustrates the process of iterating on an idea, so your product(s) will resonate strongly with your ideal customers. This is the true essence of the MVP strategy.

Based on market demand, my “eMarketing 101” training program was built and refined over three “iterations” (which is just a fancy way of saying “improved versions”). Each iteration of the product was an improvement on the one before. I wouldn’t have been able to create version #2 as easily as I did without going through version #1 first, and I’m sure I never would have decided to build version #3 if I hadn’t created versions #1 and #2. Remember this was 10 years ago and online courses were rare and hard to build without an engineering degree.

Another side note: If I’d stayed with that business, I’d likely be on product iteration #37 by now. But I didn’t. And interestingly there are a lot of people now doing what I did back then, and making a ton of money. But they are better at it than I was and so they deserve it.

Let’s look at the three iterations.

Product Version #1 – Live In-Person Workshop

As I mentioned, several local small businesses were asking me to help them with their online marketing. I didn’t have any desire to do it for them, so I asked if they were willing to learn it and do it themselves.  Some said no, but enough said yes that I moved forward.

I created an outline for an 8-week workshop that covered the most commonly used online marketing strategies and tools of the day. That included building personas (today they’re called avatars), copywriting, email marketing, Google Local, Google Analytics, directory listings, blogging, discussion forums, LinkedIn, etc. (Facebook, IG, Pinterest and Twitter weren’t popular for business marketing at the time.)

I sold 8 seats at $297 each.

I held the workshop once a week for 90 minutes at a local restaurant where we used their private room in exchange for buying breakfast and coffee.

Before the first session I created the initial materials, including a slide deck and handouts for homework. It was pretty basic, as it was the first time I was creating it and I was kind of winging it. But I clearly knew more than the people who were attending the workshop, so they were quite happy!

After session #1 and before session #2, I created the materials for the second session. Same for session 3, then session 4, etc. I stayed one step ahead of the next session. Each week I took feedback and comments from the students about what they liked and didn’t like, where they were getting confused, and where they were making progress. Then I used that feedback to make the next session better.

It was a really great experience for everyone. My students got a lot of value, and I had a new product! I also got a bunch of great testimonials to use in my marketing materials.

Product Version #2 – Live Online Workshop

I knew I didn’t want to deliver in-person workshops long-term, so I decided to deliver the same workshop online so I could reach more people and not have to deal with location issues. I knew that people’s attention spans are shorter online than in person, so I streamlined the content. I removed a lot of the material that they didn’t really need in order to make progress. I reduced the amount of group discussion and beefed up the handout materials. I even cut out some entire modules and combined a few others. I ended up with a 6-week online course that was delivered via WebEx in less than an hour each week.

Four people bought it at $197 each.

All the attendees were very happy with the course. One of the biggest benefits was that they could watch the session replay recordings any time they wanted! If they missed a session or wanted to re-watch something they were confused about, the recordings were always available.

More success and more testimonials!

Product Version #3 – Automated Digital Course

I edited the replay recordings from the online version of the workshop using a great new product called Camtasia (it’s not so new anymore) to polish the flow of the lessons and chop them up into smaller pieces. I also added branding, pause points, and starting and ending sequences. I polished the handouts and improved the design. Then I uploaded the videos and handouts onto a website that people could pay to get access to. This is what you see today in a lot of online courses. 

Product Iteration #3 was the hardest to build. 10 years ago we didn’t have access to the online course platforms that exist today. The idea of online courses was still pretty new and the process of building them was complicated and time-consuming. I used a platform called Drupal, which was a great system, but required a lot of technical knowledge and patience to use. I spent many days pulling my hair out trying to get things to work, and not having anybody to help me figure it out. In the end it took many months to build (way longer than I had planned), and this created a lot of negative energy in my life. Not to mention putting a lot of pressure on my financial situation.

By the time I completed the build process of the online course, I was burned out and had no passion left for the project. I knew it was a great product, but I needed to take a break from it.  It was a really *really* long break 😂.

But the product was awesome! It was grounded in a solid framework of iterating and learning and making continual improvements based on customer feedback.

So here I am 10 years later building the next iteration of my product. I’m not starting over because I learned so much from those first attempts and many additional experiences since then. A lot has changed, both for me personally and in the industry. I know marketing itself is not my passion, technology is.

My focus this time around is on using technology to create an online business, and marketing is just part of it. Interestingly enough, many of the things I taught back then are still relevant. Developing personas (avatars), persuasive copywriting, email marketing, online advertising… much of this is all the same. But there’s a lot of new stuff too – Facebook, MVP (there it is again!), Zoom, Pinterest, landing page templates, new payment options, and so on.

The process of iterating on products is as ancient as the hills. The reason is that it works. It is inarguably the best method for getting a product out fast so you can learn from your customers what they like and don’t like, and continually make your product better and better.

What are you working on, and what’s your next iteration?

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