A Smart Conversation about Smarter Online Courses with Janelle Allen

Janelle Allen of Zen Courses

In addition to giving you the tools to help you WRITE smarter, The Smarter Writing Lab also provides information about how to use your writing skills to EARN smarter. And that's the purpose of my conversation with Janelle Allen of Zen Courses. Enjoy!

One of the most exciting things about being a writer these days is that there are SO many ways to earn a living with your writing skills. You just have to be open to trying things that might not be as traditional as freelancing (which is still a good revenue option). One of those ways is online course creation. This is an area I've become SUPER interested in during the past year. I actually launched a course last fall called How to Start a Freelance Writing Copywriting Business (go figure) and I'm getting ready to launch another one this summer. I love everything about creating online courses--from coming up with the idea to figuring out the best way to deliver the information to making a difference in the lives of my students. Oh--and getting paid to do it is a nice perk, too!

Earlier this year, I found out about Zen Courses--an online resource for creating online courses that matter. My first interaction was with the podcast, which is produced and hosted by Zen Courses owner Janelle Allen. And then I visited the website and signed up for Janelle's FABULOUS and FREE email series 5 Types of Online Courses. Now--I'm a RAVING FAN of Janelle's and what she's doing over at Zen Courses.

Recently, Janelle graciously agreed to chat with me about online course creation and why it can be a really good fit for writers who are looking for ways to either add to or shift their revenue streams. Here's what she had to say:

So, first of all, I really LOVE the emails I get from Zen Courses! They're so well-written and interesting. I actually look forward to seeing them in my inbox!

Thanks! I'm glad you like them. At my core, I'm a writer. So I hope that shows through in all of my communications. During grad school, I worked as a freelance copywriter as my side-hustle. But I didn't like writing to sell things in a pushy way. And that's not very helpful if you're trying to make a living helping your clients sell what they're offering! It wasn't until much later that I learned you could write persuasively without being pushy.

You started out as a freelance copywriter, and now you're running a very successful course creation business. How in the world did THAT happen?

Well, it's certainly been a journey! I've always been drawn to self-employment and the entrepreneurial lifestyle. During my stint as a freelance copywriter, I attended graduate school to earn a degree in instructional design. I liked the idea of building learning experiences, so instructional design made sense for me. After graduating, I started working with corporations and colleges in creating online courses for them using the principles of adult learning and design. My goal was--and still is--to find those lightbulb moments for students. Those moments when they go, "Aha! I get it!"

I've always blogged on the side and, over time, I started to have a LOT of entrepreneurs coming to me asking for help in developing courses. They wanted to know everything--including instructional design, which surprised me. So, that was the genesis of Zen Courses. It's guiding purpose is to help entrepreneurs--including writers--to make actionable, learner-focused courses that change lives. I'm pretty proud of it.

Wow! That really HAS been a journey! I love what you're doing at Zen Courses--but let's talk about some of the hype out there about creating and selling online courses. What's up with all of that?

Well, yes, there is a lot of hype out there. There's this idea that you're going to throw up a website, launch a course and make six figures--all in the span of a few weeks. But that's just not the case for most people. It's NOT a quick thing. It's probably going to be 18 months or so before you start to see returns on your course building efforts. Until then, it's likely that you'll spend more than you make.

Also, it's important to realize that some of the folks out there who are talking about the ease of course creation and how it can bring in so much revenue so quickly have extra time, money, employees and other resources necessary to build and run these six- and seven-figure course launches. It's much easier for them to do that than it is for those of us who don't yet have those resources to support our efforts.

If you're realistic about the time it's going to take to create and launch a course, and if you can be patient while waiting for the revenue levels to rise to where you want them to be, online courses can be a profitable undertaking. Just don't expect too much too fast or you'll end up getting frustrated. ​It's a long game but totally worth it.

Okay. That definitely brings us back down to earth. So, here's my next question: Do you think online course creation is a good income opportunity for writers to consider?

I do--especially if there's a specific area they have expertise in. It doesn't even have to be writing. It could be a hobby they have or something like that. And when I say "expertise", I'm not saying you have to be the all-knowing expert about a topic. You just have to know more about it than your audience does.

What advantages do writers have when it comes to creating and selling online courses?

They actually have a couple of really important ones.

First, to make money with courses, you have to market them. You have to create sales funnels and email sequences that build trust with the audience. Writers know how to do this. They know how to write in way that connects.

Also, writers can explain things well. Before you can write about something effectively, you have to understand it. Writers know this. And they know how to communicate in ways that make complex things easier to comprehend.

So there are advantages writers have. How about disadvantages?

This goes back to what I mentioned earlier about my reluctance to write sales copy when I was freelancing at the beginning of my career. Writers tend to be uncomfortable when it comes to talking about money and selling. I get it. We--as writers--want to focus on the CRAFT of writing. But, if you want to make a living with your writing, you have to get comfortable with marketing. This is true for entrepreneurs, too.

My advice is to figure out how YOU market things instead of looking at how everyone else is doing it. One way to do this is to identify three or four people online who you follow and respect--and who are successful. How are they marketing? What are they doing that resonates with you? What--in your mind--makes them trustworthy? Why doesn't their marketing feel slimy to you? Then--FIND YOUR VOICE. And remember that selling is ultimately about sharing value with others. That's the mental mindset you need to reach. You're not pushing something on your customers. You're tuning into the value of what you're offering and connecting that value with people who need it.

For writers--or any entrepreneurs--who want to get started with online courses, what's some advice you can offer?

  • First of all, you really need to have an audience and an email list. It doesn't have to be a huge list. I'd say around 250 people is good for getting started. If you don't have an email list that you can market your courses to, the chance of generating any significant revenue is slim.
  • Next, focus on your learner. What problems do they struggle with? How can you help solve them? What will they be able to do after they finish your course? Decide that first--THEN start building your course.
  • It's a good idea to validate your course idea with a free offering--say an email course or workshop--before you invest a lot of time and energy creating it.
  • Be sure your content is designed for learning. In other words, take your learners on a journey from Point A to Point B. Be sure to keep in mind any questions or challenges your learner might be facing along the way so you can address them in your content. Don't just randomly jump from topic to topic. Instead, topics should build on each other.
    • Decide how the course material will be delivered. Will there be videos, PDFs, audio files, a mixture of several formats?
    • How will you determine success? Will there be quizzes along the learning journey? Is there a final project students have to produce and submit for feedback? Whatever it is, you should have a way to determine if learning is actually happening.
    • Once your course is developed, THEN focus on technology. If you're looking for a place to host your course, there are a lot of online course hosted platform options out there--like Teachable, Thinkific and Ruzuku. And you can also self-host your course--you just need to be moderately comfortable with WordPress and LMS plugins in order to do that successfully. That being said, I usually recommend one of the hosted platforms.

This is FANTASTIC information! How are you helping entrepreneurs with course building at Zen Courses?

Different people are at different places in their course building journey, so I try to meet them where they are by offering a variety of products and services. Right now, I provide workshops and consulting in which people can roll up their sleeves and get things done, I'm launching two new self-paced courses for those who like to work on their own timeline;  and I offer really intensive bootcamp courses a couple of times a year covering a variety of course building topics.

Other than Zen Courses--which has TONS of great info --are there other resources folks can access to learn more about creating and launching online courses?

I would definitely recommend Jeff Walker's book called LAUNCH. After you create your course, you're going to need a launch plan. Also, I really enjoy the online community for entrepreneurs called Fizzle. Lots of great support and information can be found there.

FULL AND COMPLETELY ABOVE BOARD DISCLOSURE! The link to LAUNCH! is an affiliate link of mine--which means I get a few coins tossed my way if you use it. And that helps me keep doing what I'm doing here at The Smarter Writing Lab! ​

Thanks SO MUCH to Janelle Allen of Zen Courses for sharing her thoughts and advice about online course creation! As I mentioned, I'm a HUGE fan of online course creation as a revenue stream for writers and other entrepreneurs. And I'm also a HUGE fan of Janelle's!

Like what you've read here? AWESOME! Make sure you don't miss any of the great info from The Smarter Writing Lab. Join the community of writers and entrepreneurs who want to learn how to write and earn smarter!

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