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You’ve heard the marketing gurus who swear by online courses, digital products, and group programs that help you reach more people and create a repeatable system that “makes money while you sleep,” so you can live a lavish, six- or seven-figure lifestyle.
But if you’ve tried to sell a course, product, or group program, there’s a good chance you got less than stellar results, and you’re wondering what the heck went wrong.
The truth is, selling “The Digital 3” (courses, products, and group programs) can be far more challenging than any of those experts let on.
So if you’ve tried—and failed—I want you to know you’re not alone (and you’re most certainly not a doomed businessperson!).
There are some specific reasons why you aren’t having the mega success you expected, and today I’m going to fill you in, nothing held back. (As if you’d expect anything less from me!)
You’ll uncover what’s not working with your attempts so far and discover a more effective way to build your business, so you can reach more people, make more money, and find the freedom you’ve been seeking.
Sound like something you want? Let’s dive in.
The Challenges with Online Courses
Before I tell you my proven approach to building a thriving, successful online business, we first have to address the elephant in the room: the reasons why so many Digital 3 attempts end in utter failure.
You know how I said you’re not alone in your failures so far, and even Ramit Sethi admits, “The vast majority of people who try to create online products fail — like 99%+. This is the elephant graveyard where the dream of passive income goes to die.”Click to Tweet“The vast majority of people who try to create online products fail.” @ramit
But that doesn’t stop many business owners from trying!
And here’s how it usually goes…
First, you go back and forth about your niche, because you don’t have it completely nailed down.
Once you finally decide on who you want to sell your program to, you pour tens or hundreds of hours into creating what you think is the perfect course. You plan out each module, record videos, create worksheets, write sales emails, plan your social media posts… the lists go on and on.
In addition to creating killer content inside your program, you have to figure out the techy back-end, master mass-sales marketing, and have a hefty sized list to sell enough to make ends meet.
When launch day comes you’re a bundle of nerves, excitement, and anticipation. “This day,” you think, “is going to change everything.”
You hit send on your first sales email and wait. And wait. And wait.
Nobody buys on day one. Or on day two. Or on day three.
Maybe you’re lucky with a few bites before you close the cart, but overall, you didn’t get the results you’ve read about, and you’re not totally sure what went wrong.
Was it your sales emails? Your landing page? The offer itself? Something else?
The answer could be all of those things—or none of them. To know for sure what’s going wrong, you have to take a few steps back.
Here’s What You’re Missing
If you’re struggling to fill your group program or sell your product, it means you’re missing the mark with one or more of the following key pieces (even if you think you aren’t).
Knowing how to speak your clients’ language and write great copy
If you haven’t worked with enough people and you’re conceiving a product based on your own knowledge, you’re hands-down going to default to jargon. The words you would use to describe your clients’ problems aren’t always the words they would use.
Until you learn how to speak your clients’ language, people won’t understand how you can help them, and they won’t buy anything you sell, no matter how good it is.
Having the right-sized email list
Selling an online course requires a bigger list than if you’re selling one-on-one services, so it’s crucial that you have a large enough list to sell to.
(Not sure how big your list size needs to be to hit your income goals? Check out this free email list calculator.)
That means that you need to have a proven plan to put yourself out there and continually grow your list so you have new prospects to sell to over time. There’s no way around this one!
Knowing exactly what marketing techniques work for you and your audience
If you don’t have the right language, creating the right marketing materials to sell your product or program becomes nearly impossible. Your sales emails, sales page, and everything you do to promote your offer will fall short.
But even more than that, here’s the biggest challenge with online marketing techniques: they are constantly changing.
The idea of “set it and forget it” marketing is a total myth.
To my own frustration, I’ve seen this in my business. What worked in January didn’t work exactly the same 7 months later. And big businesses out there are seeing this as well.
At a recent conference I attended, Reid Tracy, the President and CEO of Hay House, told the audience that evergreen products “require constant monitoring.” And if that’s true for a business the size of Hay House, you better believe it’s true for businesses like mine and yours which are a fraction of the size.
This means not only do you have to figure out what’s working right now, you also have to figure out what’s working tomorrow and the next day and next month and… You get the idea.
Knowing with certainty exactly what people want and how to sell it to them
You must test the market and create a viable product; otherwise, you’re completely wasting your time and efforts.
This is why I encourage everyone to create what I call a Bite-Sized Offer, so you get immediate feedback about what people want and can create something they actually want to buy.
Click to DownloadHow to Create the Perfect Bite-Sized Offer for Your Business
So how can you ensure that you have all of these pieces in place and guarantee massive success with an online course?
The answer might surprise you.
Start with, and Stick to, 1-on-1 Services (for as Long as You Can)
Yes, you read that right. To create a successful online course, product, or group program, I recommend you sell one-on-one services.Click to TweetWant to create a successful online course, product or group program? Start with one-on-one services.
Before you roll your eyes, hang tight.
There are so many reasons that one-on-one services benefit your bottom line—both today and going into the future.
First, one-on-one services are becoming a bigger commodity because everyone is jumping on The Digital 3 bandwagon. More and more people are craving high-touch, personalized experiences.
Second, without the experience of working with clients one-on-one, you’re just guessing what your potential clients want. (This means both the quality of your product and your marketing are guaranteed to suffer and you’ll be wasting a ton of time!)
Think about it this way: On average, it could take about 100 hours to create a product. Add to that another 100 hours of marketing prep work (if you do it right). Without all the pieces in place that I outlined above, it could result in $0!
Now, imagine using those same 200 hours to market to and serve clients one-on-one. How much money could you make that way? (Hint: It’s probably a lot more than $0.)
I’m not saying that The Digital 3 should be avoided or never ventured into. There is money to be made from them—and lots of it. The online education market is valued at over 100 billion (yes, billion) dollars, and it’s projected to grow to 374.3 billion by 2026. And I want nothing more than to see you be part of those billions if that’s what you want.
What I recommend—and what worked for me and has worked for my most successful clients, including both newer-to-business clients and more experienced women—is that you work with people one-on-one and use that experience to transition into selling a successful course, product, or group program.
Why this approach is so successful
Do this for long enough, and your course, product, or group program will practically create itself!
Even better, when you’re ready to sell The Digital 3, you’ll know the exact language to use to market your offer successfully, so there will be no throwing spaghetti against the wall and hoping it will stick.
What really sold me on this approach in my own business was that the thought of putting all of my eggs in one basket terrified me.
When you have the financial backing of your solid, consistent, one-on-one offers, you can easily take some risks in developing and marketing The Digital 3, without the financial pressure of having to make it work to pay the bills.
This is why starting with and building a wildly profitable one-on-one business is such a no-brainer! (Yes, done right, a one-on-one-focused business can get you to multi-six figures in less than 30 hours per week.)
When you nail down this consistent, reliable income through one-on-one offers, you can transition into The Digital 3 with more confidence and less risk than just leaping recklessly, crossing your fingers, and hoping for the best.
I don’t know about you, but I love a “sure thing,” and done right, one-on-one work is as close to a sure thing as you’re gonna get.
Which Path Is Best for You?
Armed with these insights, think about your short-, medium-, and long-term goals.
Should you stick with one-on-one services?
Are you ready to dive into creating and selling online courses?
I’m really curious about where you stand when it comes to your next steps.
Fill me in by leaving a comment below.
Ericka Watson says
Jenny! I so appreciate this post. I started my business a year ago and immediately invested into two online courses – one for branding and another to learn how to create and sell courses. I did that because I have limited time to work, like most women trying start a business, and I wanted to move from trading dollars for hours as quickly as possible. I kept reading that trading dollars for hours was lowly and dismal compared to passive income. I was lured by the idea of a six-figure income on auto-pilot. I drank the Kool-aid so-to-speak.
I love learning and teaching and I thought offering courses would be a natural fit, so my plan was to keep offering one on one services AND launch a course so I would have two income streams.
Now that I write that out, it sounds a little ludicrous! I have been so busy trying to brand and build my business as well as launch a new website, I haven’t even started the course creation process.
This post comes at a perfect time when I’m wondering if I should invest my time in creating a course that might flop, or go all out to get steady client work (I’m a web designer). I confess that I feel like if I wait, I’m going to miss the boat and the online learning surge is going to be past it’s peak when I get around to it.
Regardless, I think you just gave me my answer – focus on building my client work and worry about the course later -if ever. I hate that I spent money on it and its just sitting there. I so wish I had invested that money in a more worthwhile endeavor – like Make it Work Online. Ugh!
Jenny Shih says
Hi Erika! Thank you so much for taking the time to leave such a detailed comment. You’re awesome!!
You sound like the exact woman this blog post was written for. Not everyone can “hear it” until they’re ready to, and it sounds like you are ready!
The good news is that I promise your investments weren’t a waste. I know you learned a ton that can be applicable to whatever you do going forward. Even if you see now that maybe it would have been better to go a different direction, you had to go the path you went to get to that realization. And now you’re there!
There’s a lot to negative talk about “trading dollars for hours” that I think leads smart women like you astray. Sure, that’s not the ultimate goal, but what if you could charge $500/hr? Wouldn’t it be worth it to then trade dollars for hours? Heck, if you worked that way for 20 hours each month, you’d have a nice revenue for yourself!
There’s so much more I could say about this. Just know you’re not alone — that’s why this post is here! And second, you will find your way of running your business — everyone always does.
Big love and thank you for sharing!
Kara Foster says
Yes, Erika. Bravo for saying that out loud. I’m a skeptic, cynic and tough analytic by design, so when I began to review (and be stalked by) the myriad online coaching support programs out there after taking a risk last Dec and launching my first health coaching offering I worried I was making a mistake. How in the hell could I serve the masses when I didn’t first have credible experience with individuals. And “to six figures in 6 months”? Hey, I believe in miracles and God-wonderous talent as much as the next chick, but let’s be real that this isn’t typical for the masses. I have also have an extended history in corporate HR, Communications and independent Change Management consulting so I KNOW the value of taking the time to work messaging, branding and value proposition.
All that said, I’m evolving slowly and biting my nails about finances each month. I have some pretty rockin’ business cards and a few tools that really work, but I haven’t begun a website or a blog yet. To date referrals are my primary client source. I haven’t achieved “operating practice” status yet, but I have learned a ton about my who my “perfect client” is, gotten more organized with my current program and tools, gained (much needed) confidence in my pricing, and am already identifying ways to make my 1:1s more efficient without sacrificing quality. After nearly 20 clients, I feel like I can tell a compelling story about what coaching someone to being truly well means, and credibly provide examples that demonstrate my ability to individualize programs. That’s not paying the bills yet, but I’m closer than I was.
Jenny–appreciate your accountable yet down-to-earth approach. I’ve only come across a couple of “your kind” out there in this process, but you’ve got a follower for life because of it. Thank you.
Good luck, Erika!
Jenny Shih says
I really appreciate your openness and detailed comment, Kara! It sounds like you have a real wisdom about you about what’s being taught out there about making money online versus what your internal reality check says. That’s pretty amazing, because it’s so easy to fall into the hype and the over-promises.
I’d say definitely get that website up and start looking at what client-getting activities will help you get more clients! We’ve got a free download here if you’d like ideas: https://jennyshih.com/21ways
Celeste Francis Esteves says
Lol Kara – I’m being “stalked” too by those Digital 3 pushers because I checked out that Tribe guy! They all make it look so easy, just follow their steps, right?
Jenny, that’s what I’m coming to really appreciate about your no B.S. approach. I, too have been wondering if I am “missing the boat” by not developing any on-line courses to go along with my one-on-one and group talks. I feel much better now.
Jenny Shih says
Thank you so much for your comment, Celeste. You are most certainly not missing the boat on online courses, and I’m so glad this post could set you straight! (That’s my job!) I love that you’re focusing on what you want to create right now. When you do what lights you up and what you feel good about, you’re far more likely to create your desired results! I’ll be cheering you on!
Love this post. I always felt like I wanted to focus on one on one exclusively until it felt natural to offer programs. All the info out there was making me feel like focusing on one on one was dooming my growth potential. This post really confirmed my initial instinct. Such a relief. Thank you!
Jenny Shih says
Awesome, Kara! Thanks for sharing. That’s what I’m here for — to help you make the best decisions for you and your business. Have fun learning and growing with one-on-one!
Yes, Jenny! An enormous YES to everything in this post. I started out doing some 1:1 coaching, then went the online group program route, got crappy results, but kept trying. And, kept trying. And wondering what the hell I was doing wrong. I’m so thankful I’m in Make it Work Online and I feel really excited to go back to private coaching.
It’s a relief to know that I’m not the only one not getting good results with groups!
Jenny Shih says
Woohoo! You know I’m a fan of yours, Katie! Your clarity, focus, and high integrity is what’s going to ensure you’re a great success and build a profitable business doing one-on-one… and open huge doors to programs down the line when it feels right. Keep being your awesome self! xo
janet smith says
Thank you Jenny for your blog. It comes at a time when I am busy with my 1-1 clients and have over 2000+ practice hours doing what I do and have developed my own unique model blending counselling and coaching. I know my clients well, I know their journey, the language they use and how I can help. However, i feel the pressure like everyone above to stop trading time for money and go online. I don’t enjoy the technology side of things and give me face to face clients every day. So much of what I do is “live in the room” and I am struggling to package up an idea that could go online. I guess I feel that I am creating a lesser product. I feel like I am backing myself into a corner as I cannot grow my income without an online product. Any advice?
Jenny Shih says
Congrats on your success, Janet! I definitely have ideas for you.
First off, “trading dollars for hours” is often misunderstood. Yes, it sounds horrible, but truly it’s only horrible when you think about it in a strict sense, like $60 for a 60 minute massage. That is definitely limiting on income.
However, in business, if you offer “packages” for your services, you are leaping out of that model. So my first question would be whether or not you are offering packages for your one-on-one clients. If so, great! If not, read this:
Second, I can speak from personal experience that creating programs and products and the proper marketing materials is a RIDICULOUS amount of work that pays off very LITTLE in the beginning. It makes the “don’t trade dollars for hours” promise very alluring, but it’s not so easy. Here are some things to read on that:
So then what do you do? It sounds like you’re ready for premium pricing! Here are some articles that might help:
I know this is a lot! (I have a huge archive here!) I hope this helps!
Karen Trepte says
So much solid information Jenny. Easy to say I wish I had coached first with you. Every path is our own and has it’s own reasons. Certainly happy that I finally took MIWO. Encouraging others to listen to you first.
So what about the way some ‘coaches’ are teaching now of creating a 4-6 weeks beta course first with about 50-100 people for free, work out the details of the course/content as you go with them and see what best suits them, and then after their results you can tweak and launch a $200-900 course?
Wouldn’t this be the same as what you are saying, but instead of working one-one with many for a long time, you work with many at once for a shorter time with similar results/feedback from client you can use?
Jenny Shih says
Believe it or not, you still need to “sell” people to sign up for free things! Of course it’s easier to sell people if it’s free, but you still have to convince them that you can help them (using their language), you have to be sure you know what they want (also in their words), and you still need an email list to market to.
Where would those 50-100 people come from? You’d need a list of at least a few thousand to get those signups (even if it’s free).
I think that’s a great strategy for someone wanting to take their biz to the next level, after they know the language of their people, know what marketing works, know how to create the right product, and have a list to fill it.
In the mean time, as you’re figuring out all of those pieces, why not make money right away with one-on-one?
Yes, this approach works… once you still have all these pieces in place. Does this make sense? What other questions do you have?