5 Popular Monetization Strategies for Online Courses

Have you thought about monetizing your knowledge by selling e-learning courses?

People are more knowledge-thirsty than they have ever been. And we’re not talking about academic education and workplace skills only. People are passionate about finding fulfilling hobbies, exploring topics that will expand their perceptions, and working towards personal development.

This quench for knowledge creates enormous opportunities for content creators, influencers, and educators.

If you’re (really) good at something and enjoy sharing your knowledge with others, don’t be shy – the creator economy is booming. Now is the time to jump in!

There are several monetization methods for selling your online courses. You might already be aware of all or some of them, but do you know the pros and cons of each option? And when is it best to sell, let’s say, memberships instead of single courses?

If you’re unclear about your options, read on to find out the 5 most commonly used monetization strategies and when to use each one, including examples from popular online academies.

5 Ways to Monetize Your Online Courses

If you’ve decided to create and sell online courses, we recommend offering more than one purchasing option wherever possible. You don’t need to pick just one of the following strategies and stick with it.

On the contrary, allowing customers to choose how they want to pay and the level of commitment to your academy will encourage more course sales.

Besides, as your business grows, you will feel more confident experimenting with new business models that will increase your profit and suit your audience better, too.

But let’s see what we’re talking about here in detail.

1. One-Time Purchase

This is the most straightforward approach, where students pay a single fee that grants them lifetime access to the course content.

👉 Don’t confuse one-time with one-off purchases, as they’re not synonymous; you can still allow customers to pay in installments.

Benefits of one-time purchases

Simple to implement and manage. One-time purchases are simple for customers to understand and for you to set up. No need to worry about churn; plus, you can change the price at any given moment.
Easy to convert customers. A one-time purchase is a non-commital decision, especially if the course price is affordable. The customer doesn’t have much to think about before buying the course except for whether it interests them or not!
They can be used as upsells. Digital products offered as one-time purchases can be used alongside subscriptions or memberships as an extra source of revenue.

Why you should reconsider

Limited profit. It can be difficult to justify charging a high price for a one-time purchase unless the course is long or niche.
Unpredictable course sales and revenue. This month you might sell four courses, the next one one hundred. To create a steady revenue stream, consider a monetization method like subscription.
Hard to scale your business. Due to the unpredictability of single purchases and the low customer lifetime value, this monetization method is not optimal if you want to expand your online course business.
You’ll need to try harder to create loyal customers. Even if you’ve created a high-quality course, it’s still hard to reach the level of engagement that a subscription or a membership creates, as we’re talking about a “short-term” relationship here.

💁 The engagement battle is by no means lost! You can still build rapport with your learners and turn them into repeat customers. Some ways to do that:

✔️ create opportunities for learners to socialize and interact with you and among them
✔️ stay top of mind with email marketing communications and an active social media presence
✔️ release new courses regularly to spark their interest.

Investing in content marketing strategies, like blogging, and implementing basic SEO strategies is also helpful in bringing people to your online academy.

One-time purchases work for:

Evergreen topics that never lose their value for the customer. Academic topics like history and science fall under this category.
Digital downloadables and short-form courses. These types of content make sense for one-time purchases and are also excellent for lead-generation purposes. Read our post on selling digital downloads for examples of profitable digital products and sales tips.
Academies with a limited amount of courses. There’s no point in setting up a more complicated model like a subscription or a membership unless you have many courses and materials to offer.

💡 Need help pricing your course? Read our comprehensive guide on how to set the right price for your online course.

💁 Let’s see an example of a course sold as a one-time purchase:

This course is sold on the popular course marketplace Udemy for a fixed price, granting learners forever access to the course – no fuss, no muss. This simple but comprehensive listing includes basic information about the online course.

2. Subscription

The subscription model means learners pay a recurring fee to access your course or academy, which can be a good way for course creators to generate recurring revenue.

And if you use a modern LMS like LearnWorlds, you can create distinct subscription plans for your different audiences.

Benefits of subscriptions

Recurring revenue, which translates to more financial stability for you and better planning in terms of expanding your online business.
It encourages students to stay engaged with your course.
This pricing model is more convenient for customers who are interested in exploring multiple courses and plan to stick around.
You have more opportunities to cross-sell as customers will be around for longer.

Why you should reconsider

Subscriptions are more challenging to sell than one-time purchases. Many people don’t want to commit long term either for financial reasons or simply because they want to buy one course, and that’s that.
To apply this model, you must already have built several courses to give customers a reason to make a long-term investment in online learning.
If you are in the coaching or consulting business and you provide 1:1 or group live sessions to your customers, then this pricing model will fit your needs and help you retain a steady customer base.

A subscription-based strategy works for:

Course creators who have been around for a while and have built a solid personal brand with a loyal following.
Educators and creators who have built many courses can commit to releasing new course materials and quality content regularly.
Niche topics (e.g., coaching, consulting) and subject matters with a dedicated audience who will appreciate having continuous access to relevant learning resources and a community.

💡 People are more likely to commit to a subscription if they can test the waters first, so we advise you to offer a free trial or refund policy.

💁 Let’s see an example of a subscription:

Skillshare offers a subscription-based membership to their customers, which can be paid either monthly or annually. The frequency of the payment is the only option that subscriptions offer as opposed to memberships which, as we’ll see right away, offer different perks per plan.

3. Membership

This is another popular monetization model, where students pay a monthly or annual fee to access a library of your courses, as well as other exclusive content and benefits.

Creating a membership site is an excellent option for more seasoned content creators and knowledge entrepreneurs.

Memberships are similar to subscriptions, but they have a couple of key differentiators. The first is the tiered pricing strategy, which means access to content, events, and other perks, depending on the level of membership. The latter is determined usually by the amount paid (in some cases, other criteria such as seniority might be factored in, but this is less likely).

The second differentiator is community, which must be reinforced continuously, as it’s an integral part of the deal. It’s the key reason why people sign up for membership in the first place – exclusive offers, events, and opportunities for networking and meeting people with similar interests.

To set up a membership site, you can use a community-building platform like Patreon or an LMS or online course platform, like LearnWorlds, for more learning features.

E-learning platforms additionally support diverse online content formats, like assessments and quizzes, videos, and eBooks, enabling you to create more engaging and valuable educational experiences.

Many memberships are also supported by YouTube channels.

Another option is to use a content management system like WordPress and enhance its eCommerce and learning functionalities with the plugins available.

Benefits of memberships

Recurring revenue that allows for better financial planning and relatively steady income.
Greater sense of community among members and direct communication with the creator during live events.
The best way to build your brand and a loyal following.
Higher customer lifetime value.
Flexible pricing and more options for the customer – they can choose how much they want to pay based on what they wish to access.

Why you should reconsider

It can be more complex to set up and manage than other monetization strategies.
You need to have already a somewhat well-known brand for this model to work
Although more predictable than one-time purchases, memberships can still get canceled and impact your revenue stream.
Content creation never stops. To make it worthwhile for your customers and build engagement, you need to create podcasts, webinars, masterclasses, and other live events and stay active in community forums.

💡 The most critical aspect of a membership site is engagement, so focus on organizing live events and offering exclusive benefits that will make your paying customers feel pampered.

Memberships work for:

Coaches, especially in health & fitness or personal development niches.
Niche topics or trending hobbies can become the basis for building a community with your target audience, like language learning or craft & DIY.

💁 Let’s see an example of a membership site:

MasterClass has chosen the membership model to offer access to its large range of course offerings. Each plan comes with specific perks, giving customers more reasons to choose a low or high-priced plan.

4. Freemium

With the freemium model, you offer a basic version of your course for free, with the option to upgrade to a premium version for additional features and benefits. A common perk is accrediting a certificate at the end of the course, which is a great incentive for customers to sign up.

Note that the freemium model is not the same as a free trial. A free trial is access to content for a specific time period (usually between 7 to 30 days) and is used for subscriptions and memberships.

Benefits of the freemium model

Low barrier to entry. Customers have literally nothing to lose by signing up for a free course.
It can be used as a lead generation and brand-building strategy. The free course will attract an audience who can then convert to paying customers.
It’s a great way to get feedback and earn you some time before you develop your full-fledged course.

Why you should reconsider

There are no guarantees that people who sign up for the free version will convert to paying customers. You can’t count on making money with this model, only on generating leads.

💡 Bring your A-game to convert leads into paying customers. Apart from offering a top-quality course, make limited-time offers that will incentivize them to buy the full course.

The freemium model works for:

New creators who want to start building an audience and credibility through their first customer reviews.
Seasoned creators who want to attract new customers and can afford to give a freebie.

💁 Let’s see an example of a freemium offering:

The popular online course marketplace Coursera offers many courses for free. The key difference from paying courses? A free course doesn’t come with a certificate. If you want to learn for fun, you can learn for free. But if you want to boost your resume, you must make a purchase.

5. Course Bundling

Course bundling is when you group and sell more than two courses together. The courses explore complementary topics, and the rationale behind this grouping is more…noble than profit – it offers a rounded learning experience and in-depth exploration of the topic at hand.

More often than not, courses sold together lead to the award of a certificate and some sort of specialization – the latter provided they’re offered by a large company or recognized educational institution.

Packaging your course with other complementary products or services, such as eBooks, templates, or coaching sessions, is also a form of course bundling.

Benefits of course bundling

It’s a more attractive and economical option for customers who would otherwise buy several different courses. This means you sell more while customers save money.
It increases the perceived value and authority of your online academy.
A series of courses has more impact than a single course. Adding a certificate at the end of the program means learners can showcase their new skills.
Selling most of your courses in bundles increases customer engagement and lifetime value.

Why you should reconsider

The higher price might be discouraging for some people.
Not everyone will be interested in every course included in the bundle, so they might choose not to buy the bundle at all.

💡 For these reasons, it’s best if each course is comprehensive and can be sold separately.

The course bundling model works for:

If you have created courses that cover related or complementary topics, e.g., communication skills, history courses, or fitness & diet. Course bundling works for any topic as long as the courses complement each other in some way.
If you have created courses on the same topic, but at different difficulty levels (beginner, intermediate, advanced).
Course bundling works great for coaches. Give clients the option to get their hands on worksheets, mini eBooks with motivational quotes, recorded webinars, and more tools.

💁 Let’s see an example of course bundling:

In this example from EdX, we see how you can group two or more courses to explore a topic in depth.

Want to Sell More? 3 Practical Tips that Do the Trick

We’ve seen some monetization options you can use. Regardless of which ones you want to try, we have three additional tips that will help increase the order value on the spot:

1. Be generous

Reduced prices and increased profit seem like two conflicting notions. Not when you think about the long game, though!

If you want to create repeat customers, you have to treat them nicely. Plus, special offers motivate more people to buy from you, buy more than one course, or sign up for a more expensive membership.

You’ve got many options to create attractive offers, like discounts & coupons, or special prices for customers brought through referral and affiliate marketing programs.

Limited-time and early-bird offers are also popular before they create a sense of urgency, which, as it’s commonly known among marketers, does wonders for sales.

You can even offer a surprise freebie at check out if the customer spends over a certain amount.

2. Use order bumps

What better time to sell more courses than when you’re already selling?

As the customer is on their way to pay, present them with a compelling offer such as a discount on a second product or suggest a complementary product.

Make it (very) easy for them to opt for the extra product, for example, by clicking a button and having it added straight into their cart.

3. Simplify check out

Creating a safe and frictionless checkout environment is essential if you want to avoid cart abandonment incidents.

Think like a customer here: the cart should be clearly visible and one click away, don’t ask for more information than required (now is not the time to know your customers!), and allow customers to save their card details for faster checkout the next time.

Get Ready to Sell

Which monetization strategy caught your eye? Remember that at the end of the day, the monetization method you pick should align with your business and financial goals. It should also make sense for your target audience and the course topic.

Whatever the case, selling single courses and offering a freebie as a lead magnet is a great place to start, and then take it from there.

What’s even better is this! No matter how you decide to sell your online courses, LearnWorlds can support you.

Whether you want to offer a part of your course for free, sell single courses or bundles, or set up memberships and subscriptions, our platform can fit the bill!

Beyond that, LearnWorlds’ advanced learning features and unmatched AI assistant will help you create valuable learning experiences that will stick with your learners. Try LearnWorlds with a 30-day free trial now!

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Androniki Koumadoraki

Androniki Koumadoraki

Androniki is a Content Writer at LearnWorlds sharing Instructional Design and marketing tips. With solid experience in B2B writing and technical translation, she is passionate about learning and spreading knowledge. She is also an aspiring yogi, a book nerd, and a talented transponster.

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