[339] How to build an audience for an online course or membership

how to build an audience for an online course or membership with janet murray

If you’ve already tried to create your own course or membership programme you’ll know that it’s not a simple case of ‘build it and they will come’.

In this episode, I share the reasons why you must build an audience before you launch an online course or membership site. I also break down the steps you need to take to build your online audience.

{Click on the player above to listen to the podcast episode and/or read on for a detailed overview. Scroll down to the bottom to read the show notes including all the links mentioned in this episode.}

Why online courses/memberships are attractive

If you’re desperate to break free from feast and famine in your business and secure recurring income, creating an online course or membership can seem like an attractive prospect.

Selling online courses or running a membership site can help you serve your clients in a more flexible way – allowing you to cut down on travel time, spend more time with your family and achieve a better work/life balance.

Before you dive in, though – a quick reality check. If you’re looking for a ‘get rich quick’ scheme, this isn’t it. Overnight success stories are few and far between.

Why online courses/memberships are challenging

If you’re interested in launching an online course or membership, you may be attracted by the idea of generating passive income. But in my experience there’s no such thing as passive income.

As someone put it to me recently: ‘If you build a farm, you have to keep feeding the animals’. While there may have been a better way to phrase it (I certainly don’t see my clients as animals!) there is a lot of truth in what she said. You can’t build an online course or membership and then leave it to run itself. The odd technical issue is bound to crop up from time to time and of course you’ll constantly be thinking of ways to update and refresh the content.

The other thing you must consider is your audience. It doesn’t matter that you’re an expert in your field or that you have amazing content; if you don’t have an audience, come launch day, you won’t make any sales.

Why you shouldn’t create your online course before you’ve built an audience

Creating an online course or membership community is exciting – I’ve spoken to many clients who’ve been itching to jump right in – but I always advise them to take things slowly. There are a few key things to consider before getting started.

Firstly, you need to think about your audience. How big is your audience and where do they hang out online? People generally aren’t on social media to buy. So while you might be able to nudge people over the fence via a Facebook ad or social media post, most sales will take place in your inbox.

So if you have a huge social media following but only a handful of people on your email list, you might need a rethink. The average online conversion rate sits at about 1-2% which means for every hundred people on your list only a handful will buy. Which is why you need a much bigger audience than you think.

When it comes to building an audience, though, it’s not just a numbers game. If people are going to buy from you – particularly if they’re spending a few hundred pounds or more – they need to know, like and trust you first and that takes time. I know from analysing my own sales figures that typically it takes people around seven or eight touch points before they decide to buy, whether that’s downloading your worksheets, reading your blog, receiving your newsletter or interacting with you on social media.

Another thing to consider before creating an online course is what your audience actually wants or needs from you. You may have a fixed idea of what you want to deliver or what interests you, but I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve spoken to business owners who’ve spent time and money creating an online course only to discover later that it isn’t what their customers are actually looking for.

Step 1: Work out the size of audience you need

The first step in creating your online course or membership programme is to work out how big your audience needs to be i.e. how many people you need on your email list to hit your sales targets.

Next, work out a rough idea of the course or membership you want to create, how much you’ll need to charge, and how many you want to sell. If you’ve decided you’re going to sell a high-end membership programme, costing several thousand pounds, you may only need a few thousand on your email list. But if you’re selling a course at a lower price point, you’ll need to shoot for 10k or beyond.

To help you work out your numbers, I’ve created a handy tool for you.

My audience calculator will help you work out how many people you need in your audience to hit your sales targets.


Step 2: Build your audience on social media

I used to tell people that they should be building an audience on social media, on their blog, and through their email marketing simultaneously. What I’ve come to realise, though, is that if you haven’t nailed your social media content, you’ll struggle to build your audience on your other platforms. It’s only through creating content and engaging with people on social media that you really come to understand your customers’ problems – and how to solve them.

Once you’ve figured out what works for your audience on social media you can transfer this knowledge and start creating the right kind of content across your blog and email marketing (which is where you’re more likely to make sales) and encourage your followers to join your email list.

The first step in building an audience on social media is to learn where your potential customers are hanging out. So if they love Instagram, that’s where you need to be. If they’re all using LinkedIn, it doesn’t matter if you hate it – wherever your target audience spends their time is where you need to spend yours.

Initially I’d recommend that you choose just one or two social media platforms and experiment with different types of content until you see what resonates with people. Once you’ve mastered that, you can tweak your content a little to make it work for the other platforms your audience uses. Consider getting involved with Facebook groups or Twitter chats, whether starting your own or joining in with established groups. This is a great way to find out about things your ideal customers are struggling with so you can start creating content that will help them.

For more information on creating engaging social media content, check out Three Types of Social Media Content to Guarantee you Sales Today episode.

Step 3: Build your audience on a blog

Once you’ve built up a following on social media, you can start growing your audience through content.

Having a social media following is vital, but doing so exclusively is a bad idea, as you’re essentially building your audience on someone else’s land. Just last week there was widespread panic with an unexpected Facebook and Instagram outage.  Many business owners were desperately trying to launch programmes and products to their followers but weren’t able to post anything until the outage was resolved.

Publishing content on your own website in the form of a blog, podcast or embedded video puts you back in control of how you connect with your audience. It’s where you move people from the borrowed land of social media onto your own land.

Not only that, publishing regular content on a blog can help you attract more traffic to your website, improve your chances of being found in Google search, help you build your email list.  It’s also a valuable way of getting people to know, like and trust you. I remember one of my customers, dog photographer Kerry Jordan, telling me that she booked a ticket for one of my live events last year because, after listening to my podcast regularly, she felt like she already knew me and could trust me to deliver what I promise.

My advice is to choose one main form of content whether that’s a blog, a podcast or a YouTube channel, and spend time getting comfortable with the format. If you’ve taken the steps above to improve your engagement on your social media channels and taken the time to learn what your ideal customers are interested in, you should have a good idea of what kind of content to focus on in your blog or podcast.

To give you an example, if you were interested in creating content about audience building, as I’m doing here, you’d find lots of people searching online for information on how to pick blog topics, how to build a following on social media, how to know what to blog about, how often to blog or how to convert blog readers. Because I can see that these are all issues my ideal customers are struggling with, I know that they’ll make great blog topics.

Once you have a broad range of topics, do some keyword research to make sure you’re using the keywords and phrases that people are actually using to find that content in Google.

And don’t forget the final step: promotion. This is another reason why it’s vital to build up your social media following first; that way you’ll have an audience of people to share your blog/vlog or podcast with (albeit small at first).

For ideas on blog topics check out How to Make Sales from your Business Blog.

Step 4: Build your audience through email marketing

If you have a sizeable email list, you have instant access to hundreds or thousands of your ideal customers who likely already know, like and trust you. With an email list of 15,000 subscribers, I know that if I needed to generate cash, I could create a course in a weekend and make sales immediately. That’s the power of email marketing.

So how do you get people to sign up to your email list? Our inboxes are already full of emails we’ll never get round to reading, so the last thing most people want is to sign up for yet another newsletter, unless there’s something really juicy in it for them. Creating a  lead magnet – an information product e.g. checklist, a template sheet or a how-to guide that helps solve your ideal clients’ problems – is the most effective way to do this.

Once you’ve created your lead magnet(s), it’s time to turn, once again, to that strong social media following you’ve built up. Promote the hell out of it, on every platform you use, to get those new subscribers rolling in.

And don’t hit the brakes once they’ve subscribed – getting the actual sign up is just the starting point in your relationship. Asking for a sale at this stage would be like proposing to someone who’s only just agreed to go on a date with you. To move the relationship further along, I like to use an email nurture sequence, which sounds fancy but is actually just a way of describing a series of emails that contain useful content new subscribers should find helpful. These emails will be spaced out over maybe 3-5 days, or even weeks depending on the nature of the lead magnet, and will gradually build up that like, know and trust factor.

Find out How to Create a High-converting Lead Magnet here.

Step 5: Beta testing.

I’m including this as step five but don’t feel like you have to wait until you’ve reached your audience goal before you do a test run. When you’re at a point where you have a big enough audience to get even ten people onboard, offering a beta version of your course or programme can be a great move. I don’t recommend giving your course away for free because people are far more likely to do the work if they’ve invested in it but you can offer a significant discount to a select few in exchange for their feedback as they work through the materials. I don’t even think you need to wait until you’ve created the full course before you run a beta test. Creating your materials week-by-week, tweaking as you go based on the feedback from your beta testers can be really effective.

I recently launched a beta test group for my upcoming Build your Audience course and discovered that the material I had put together was actually far too challenging. Because I was working with a small group and could give everyone a lot of individual help and attention it worked out fine, but it did show me where I’m going to have to make changes before the official launch to make sure I’m providing maximum value to the people who sign up.

Step 6: Do a pre-launch

As with the beta testing phase, the pre-launch doesn’t have to wait until right before your official launch date; it’s definitely something you want to be thinking about while you work on building your audience. Be open about the fact you’re building a course and get your audience involved in the process. Show them what you’re working on and ask for feedback. Get them to co-create the course with you.  When I do that I find, not only do I get great feedback that I can use to shape my course content, but my audience becomes really invested in what I’m creating, often asking where they can sign up long before I’m even ready to open up the sales.

Episode 237, How to Launch a Membership Site with Anissa Holmes is really useful.  Anissa started her membership site with almost no content and basically asked her audience, ‘what do you want to know?’, ‘what do you want to learn?’ which showed her exactly how to create relevant resources for the people she wanted to help.

When you’re thinking of creating a membership programme or online course, I think the two key things to consider are flexibility and patience. Unless you already have a sizeable, engaged email list, expect the whole process to take a year or so and be flexible about absolutely everything, from your expected timescale to the actual content and delivery of the course itself. Be prepared to experiment and let your audience lead you where they need you to go.

Podcast show notes:

  • Why online courses and membership are an attractive source of income (but not as easy as it may seem) (2:35)
  • Why you need to build an audience before launching a course or membership (10:30)
  • How many people you need in your audience to reach your sales targets (17:32)
  • How to build your audience on social media (19:08)
  • How to build your audience through producing content (26:04)
  • How to build your audience through email marketing (38:05)
  • Why you should test your course/membership content before you create it (45:40)


Janet Murray’s Audience Calculator

Episode 291: The truth about passive income

Keap (previously InfusionSoft)

Episode 325: Three social media posts that will help you generate sales today

Leadpages (Affiliate Link)

Episode 335: How to create a high converting lead magnet

Episode 333: 39 Surprisingly easy ways to increase your email subscribers

Episode 237: How to launch a membership site with Anissa Holmes

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