The question we get asked most often is “What platform should I choose to host my online course?” When picking a platform, there is good and bad news. The bad news is that no platform is perfect. There are pros and cons to each option. The good news is that while perfection is not possible, there are many great choices. And the key to platform selection is knowing what you need, both now and in the future.
In today’s Starter for 10, we’ll share some thoughts on picking a platform…
Establish your priorities
When assisting clients with picking a platform, we first have them record a list of their priorities. A bit like house-buying, we need to know what is essential (e.g. 3 bedrooms), what is preferable (e.g. 2 bathrooms) and what is a deal-breaker (e.g. no garage). When establishing your priorities, you may want to consider:
Once you have your list of requirements, you will be in a strong position to start evaluating the different platforms and how well they will meet your needs. So let’s look at the types of platforms available to you.
Types of platforms
1. Social Media Groups
A good starting point for building a membership platform is using the power of social media. For example, you can set up a private Facebook group and charge people for membership. You’ll need a way to bill people for subscriptions and still need to provide valuable content. But starting this way is great for you to hone your content and find out what your target audience most needs.
It is easy to start small – using Paypal or Stripe recurring billing with a simple spreadsheet to manage your members. As you grow, you can invest in software that helps to manage the process more easily on your behalf (for example, 22 social. Once you have refined your content and offer, you’ll have a loyal following making one of the other types of platforms more financially viable.
2. Marketplace platforms
One of the first types of online course platforms were marketplaces offering a catalogue of courses to their users. Platforms like Udemy and Skillshare give you the option to host/list your course on their platform. Because the marketplaces already have an active audience seeking learning options, you have the chance to put your offer in front of people who may not otherwise know you. You get the benefits of access to their audience but may pay a hefty fee for the privilege.
Although these platforms are extremely popular, it is a double-edged sword – more organic traffic but far more competition amongst creators. This can mean that established creators with large followings get most of the organic sales. Standing out amongst the competition can be challenging. Perhaps the biggest downside of a marketplace platform is that you don’t usually get access to the user’s contact details so you can’t build your mailing list or create your own community. That said, there are some courses that work well on marketplace platforms.
3. Platform hosted
The growth in the number of creators wanting to run online courses has seen a huge surge in the number of platforms available to host your content. Platforms like Thinkific, Teachable, Kajabi, Podia and 10xpro give you the option to rent space on their servers in return for a fee. All of the platforms offer different features and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. That’s where being clear on your priorities and doing your research comes in.
There are many advantages to using a hosted platform. Most come with the essentials you need to get your course up and running. When doing your research, look for payment processing options, marketing and email functionality, affiliate schemes, and branding/customisation flexibility. When comparing prices, also check out how they recommend hosting files. Kajabi for example includes hosting videos/audios/handouts in your monthly fee whereas you need an external hosting provider for a platform like 10xpro. This doesn’t have to be a deal breaker as it is possible to host files very cost effectively (e.g. Amazon Web Services) but you may find you need some technical support to set your systems up.
The big advantages to a platform-hosted online course or membership site are:
- They are usually an all-in-one solution or have ready-to-go integrations with other tech (like Paypal or Mailchimp).
- You don’t have to worry about outgrowing your hosting package as upgrades are usually easy to do.
- The best platforms come with built in technical support so you don’t need to have an IT team to support you. It is worth reading reviews on the quality of their support as this can vary wildly from platform to platform.
- They have been created to make the user experience straightforward. A platform like Teachable is extremely user friendly and can be set up with very little technical know-how. A great starting point for those on a limited budget.
The main downsides to using platforms to host your content are as follows:
- You are tied to that platform. If you later decide you would like to change providers, or even self-host (see below), you will have to rebuild your online course from scratch.
- You are at the mercy of that platform. What happens if they go out of business and you have to start over? Some new platforms offer substantial discounts to get people to switch. While this can be a good way to cut costs initially, remember to have a contingency plan.
- Most platforms charge a monthly fee that may increase with the number of users. This jump can be significant – 15 courses on Kajabi costs $199/month rising to $399/month above that. Make sure you factor those additional costs into your business plan. Some, like 10xpro may seem more expensive at the outset ($197/month) but offer unlimited courses and users. Some platforms charge significantly less, which may be a good option when you aren’t generating many sales. But the features or customisations may be limited. Make sure you consider both your starting point AND how you want to grow to ensure the platform will meet your needs for the long-term.
Always make sure you thoroughly read the Terms & Conditions and know the length of your commitment before you sign a contract. And if you want to keep your existing website url or have a new customised domain name for your course, check that the platform offers that option (and how much you will pay for it).
4. Self hosted
If you have a website, you may be able to add a membership plugin to protect your pages and create a system for managing user access. For example, if you have a WordPress website, you could use Ultimate Member, Learndash, Wishlist Member, Access Ally or Member Press. The main advantage of installing your online course on your own website is that you have full control of the content. You can create and host exactly what you need, add the functionality you require when the need arises and make the decisions on what design and aesthetics you want to match your existing website. Apart from the website and the software, you only need to pay for your hosting.
It is worth noting that creating membership software is extremely bandwidth heavy. You will need to ensure that your website hosting plan is going to be able to cope with the extra traffic. Otherwise, you’ll find that the website slows down or even becomes unusable.
We also recommend putting a membership site on a separate domain or sub domain for your site. The last thing you want is a problem with your membership taking down your whole website. So you may need to factor in both the cost of a new domain and a separate hosting package. Plus you’ll probably need to find good IT support to help you with any issues or problems you run into. But if you have the budget, most people aspire to have the freedom of hosting their own content – it’s the difference between renting and buying a house, the latter will give you greater ownership and avoid being reliant on a platform or tied into contracts longer term.
Functionality v Flexibility
One last note for choosing your platform on the importance of functionality versus flexibility. If you have complex needs from your platform – forums, affiliate schemes, certification etc – then functionality will be your priority.
If your needs are fairly simple – modules, videos and handouts – then you may want greater flexibility in design and aesthetics.
This is one of the areas we cover in our Spotlight Sessions. A dedicated session to help you explore what is important to you and to help you choose the right platform. Get in touch for more information.