7 things I learned from making a million dollars online

Over the last five years, I’ve personally led roughly twenty online course launches.

After making over a million dollars for my clients, employers, and for friends I wanted to help, I’m writing to reflect on what I’ve learned along the way.

This isn’t a short post of quick tips. And I make absolutely no guarantees about the results you’ll see.

But in this nearly 3,000-word behemoth of an article, I share seven of the big picture lessons that got me to seven figures.

And if you’re willing to go beyond skimming—to actually read every word—you’ll walk away with secrets I’ve been mastering for almost five years.

Ready to dive in?

It’s hard to sell courses without MULTIPLE deadlines

Some products piggyback on the natural urgencies of life. When you spill milk on the counter, you need paper towels. If you’re out, you’ll quickly add them to your shopping list.

Online courses focused on self-improvement have less built-in scarcity. Learning how to launch a business or how to write a book simply isn’t as urgent as the milk on the counter.

There are some exceptions, such as health-related courses after a serious diagnosis, but you’ll struggle to sell online trainings without a compelling deadline. You actually need a few.

The question is how to create urgency without leaving money on the table. The ultimate form of scarcity is taking away the opportunity to buy the course — closing enrollment. But theoretically you can only do that once.

Some people will fake closing a cart, reopen it, and then close it for real. But making this a habit can undermine the power of the deadline altogether.

Discounts have a similar problem. You can only offer one in a short period of time.

That’s why expiring bonuses are one of my favorite ways to create urgency. Using limited-time bonuses as incentives to “act now” lets you harness the power of deadlines without ending the original offer.

The secret to great bonuses is to make their value simple. Generally, people won’t buy a course just for the bonus. So if you haven’t already sold your customer on the actual program, the bonus won’t help.

You need to be able to send an email that makes a compelling pitch for the training and then explains the value of the disappearing bonus in no more than a paragraph.

Do this well and you can move your fence-sitters into taking action. But to get them on the fence in the first place, you’ll need this next lesson.

Before you can sell a deadline, you have to sell the product

When entrepreneurs are feeling insecure (or overconfident) about the value of their product, they’ll focus their messaging on a deadline or a discount and forget to tell the customer why the course is worth buying.

The secret to using deadlines and discounts is to sell people on your product as if no other incentive existed.

Then, when your customer is on the edge of making a commitment, you announce the deadline to close the sale.

I remember running a launch that stalled in the middle (most launches do to some extent). I woke up the next morning to find my client had sent the list a nervous email saying “the deadline is coming!” But the deadline was still four days away — easy to procrastinate on.

This particular course taught how to write fiction. The promise was clear, people knew what they were getting, so I told my client to start crushing objections.

Why would targeted leads who understood the offer not take action? They either…

  1. Weren’t convinced the training really worked
  2. Worried they didn’t have what it would take to succeed

I encouraged my client to spend the next two days sharing success stories. Proving that success was doable. He was fine with that, but then I went a step further. I told him, “Don’t hard-sell the product. Just deliver the information, give people a chance to take action, and get out.”

Now my client was nervous. The launch was slowing down, and I was telling him to sell less? It seemed counter intuitive, but it’s totally logical.

People who aren’t ready to buy don’t respond well to pushiness.

If you force a decision on someone who’s not yet convinced, the decision they make will be a big fat “No.”

The in-your-face car dealership model costs you sales by scaring people off instead of warming them up. It’s when prospects are already persuaded that deadlines close sales.

Over the next two days, we sent emails demonstrating the transformation real people were seeing, and sales trickled in. With forty-eight hours to go, we focused on the deadline. As is often the case with a launch, we doubled our money in the final forty-eight hours.

To date, I consider that the most successful launch I’ve ever run. We made $260,000 from an email list of 12,000 people (That’s the total list size. Not a launch list.).

You can almost never attribute success solely to one thing, but using a deadline correctly helped us double our money in the last two days. It all started with understanding what we were actually selling, which I’ll cover in the next lesson.

Customers don’t want your product. They want the transformation

In college, I learned the importance of selling benefits over features. For example, instead of explaining how the engine works, you tell potential buyers how fast the car will go or how it gets 40 miles to the gallon.

When I started launching online courses, a training by Jeff Walker taught me the power of selling a transformation, which is even stronger than selling benefits.

Instead of saying what the product includes or even what it can do, show your prospects what their lives will look like after they own what you’re selling.

In online marketing, this method isn’t just effective, it’s elegantly natural because almost all online trainings are founded on a story of transformation.

Generally, courses are created by normal people who went on a journey of self-improvement. Maybe they wanted to start their own business, lose weight, or write a bestselling book. After accomplishing their goal, they built a course explaining how they did it.

When people buy the program, it isn’t because they care about the steps or the hacks, they just want the same transformation the person selling the course experienced.

Remembering what the customer truly wants is the key to closing sales.

Early in my career, I sucked at this. I was representing a weight loss brand that lacked a clear spokesperson. So stories of transformation were usually confined to testimonials. Instead I would focus on the credibility of our information, the convenience of online courses, and the general benefits of losing weight.

After eight or nine launches I finally got it right. One of my co-workers had lost sixty pounds following the program we were selling. So I made a controversial decision.

Usually, I put the experts who created our training front and center in the marketing. I thought I needed their advanced degrees and years of experience to prove the authority of the course.

But for this launch, I took the coworker who’d lost sixty pounds and made her the focus of the entire campaign. The pre-launch content, emails, and supporting material all featured the same slim, beautiful woman holding pictures of a time when she’d been sixty pounds heavier.

Telling her story turned the abstract concept of weight loss into a compelling visual. Focusing on my non-expert co-worker in no way detracted from the authority of the course — it strengthened it by demonstrating the power of the plan.

As an added bonus, the story automatically overcame dozens of objections. When you’re selling self improvement, you have to first convince your prospects the training actually works. Many marketers stop here and are disappointed with their results — because there’s a second step that shouldn’t be skipped.

After convincing your prospects the product works for some people, you must then prove it will work for their unique situations.

Stories do that beautifully. Because in the process of telling your story, you’ll naturally mention the obstacles you faced. In doing so, people with the same obstacles realize, “Oh, I guess this can work for me too.”

The first time I launched this particular course, it sold roughly 320 units. The second time, with a powerful story of transformation, I sold over 700 units.

Full disclosure: Our list had grown significantly between launches, but we also doubled the price. Converting so many people just by sharing one story changed the way I approached launches from that day forward.

Price is barely an obstacle if the product pays for itself

I still remember the day I walked into my bathroom and found my dad replacing the toilet. I zipped up my pants, shook the shocked expression off my face, and asked him what on earth he was doing.

I was the oldest of six children in a house with one income. So, growing up, my parents were slow to spend money on non-essential expenses. Home improvement usually fell into that category.

I stared at the shiny new toilet wondering what had possessed my dad. So I asked.

He matter-of-factly replied, “This new model saves so much water it pays for itself.”

Ever wonder how you sell a toilet to a family on a budget? Probably not, but the same principle is how you sell an online course.

If you can convince your prospects the product pays for itself, price is no longer an objection (unless they literally can’t afford what you’re selling).

How do you show a product paying for itself?

You have three options:

  1. Show the money the customer can make by taking the course.
  2. Show the expenses the customer can reduce or avoid by taking the course.
  3. Show the time the customer will save by taking the course, and point out that time is money.

Transformation, bonuses, showing the product paying for itself, those are all part of this next lesson.

Your goal is to make the offer so compelling people will feel stupid if they don’t buy

Early in my career, I was introduced to Lisa Sasevich’s term “irresistible offer.”

These two simple words do a great job of holding marketers accountable.

How do you know when your offer is ready?

When it’s a no-brainer. When the value is so obvious, people feel stupid saying “No.”

Will it literally be irresistible? Of course not. Some people still won’t buy. But when you push past “good enough” to create something truly compelling, your conversion rates will reward you.

Plus, you’ll be able to sell with confidence. Nobody wants to be a sellout. And when you’re repping an offer you don’t believe in, part of you feels like it’s dying. On the contrary, when you sell with conviction, people are more likely to trust you.

Irresistible offers set you up for success, but you’ll still miss the mark from time to time. When that happens, you’ll need this next lesson.

Bad launches point to bad marketing, not a bad product

When a launch goes poorly, especially if it’s the product’s first time out of the gate, it can be easy to assume the course was a misfire. But that’s not necessarily true. Unless you offered a free trial, no one has actually seen the material. They’ve only seen the promises you made and the story you told.

You might succeed next time simply by communicating the transformation more clearly. I’ve watched consecutive launches triple in revenue without making any changes to the actual product. I’ve also seen previously successful products decline in revenue when the messaging strayed from the mark.

When you run into disappointing launch results, re-evaluate your messaging with these six questions:

  1. Did you demonstrate a clear understanding of the customer’s problem?
  2. Did you reveal a product that could believably solve the problem?
  3. Did you share a compelling opportunity for transformation illustrated by a real-life story?
  4. Did you give an irresistible offer?
  5. Did you anticipate objections and overcome them?
  6. Did you use deadlines to drive the fence-sitters into taking action?

If your answer is “No” to any of those questions, you need to refine your offer accordingly.

Customers don’t buy the course, they buy the promises you make. They buy the story of transformation.

I firmly believe you should only sell valuable products that deliver everything you promise. Whenever possible, courses should be based on customer feedback, not hunches. And if you do create something only to discover it doesn’t solve your audience’s problems, you have an obligation to make the training better.

But to help you recognize the importance of nailing your messaging, I want you to realize, you can sell an absolutely garbage course if you market it correctly. The product does not matter.

Once customers log in, you can expect a high return rate if your program doesn’t deliver. But when a launch goes poorly, re-evaluate your messaging before you re-evaluate the product.

After you’ve identified the weaknesses in your offer …

  1. Create new promises you’re confident will resonate.
  2. Get customer feedback.
  3. Modify the course before you sell it again to make sure it keeps your word.

This, by the way, is the process you should use for creating future courses. Write and test the marketing copy before you actually build the training.

Testing your promises first makes launching less of a guessing game. It holds you accountable to create content that lives up to its sales pitch. And it helps you avoid wasting time building products nobody wants.

Small launches SUCK, but they’re not a reason to quit

I still remember my first launch. Well technically, it was my second launch. My first launch literally sold three courses. I didn’t understand the need for scarcity, and without a deadline, nobody took action.

My first real launch was (slightly) less miserable. I carefully scripted and filmed pre-launch content, obsessed over every sales email, crafted compelling bonuses as best I knew how, and set a goal of $10,000.

I remember driving to Target with my wife one night. While she was inside shopping, I sat in the cold car hitting refresh on my Blackberry. I did this incessantly until the cart was closed.

Occasionally, I’d feel the rush of a new sale. Typically, I’d suffer the disappointment of not having one. And every night, I went to sleep hoping I’d wake up to a 100 new sales.

Never happened. At least not during that launch.

When the dust settled, I’d made $5,600. Roughly half of my goal.

Wasting no time, the excuses started to kick in — excuses that cause many products, businesses, and entrepreneurial dreams to die young.

“It’s the economy.”

“The product must have been too expensive.”

Or as one of my co-workers said, “People just aren’t willing to spend money on their health.”

(Actually, Americans spend $20 BILLION per year on weight loss alone.)

I believe the biggest reason entrepreneurs fail to reach their goals is giving up too soon. And I blame giving up on not understanding how success really works.

You have to start slow in order to finish big. You have to learn new skills, hone them, and get the timing right. This can take a few tries, but the beautiful thing about momentum is success begets success.

My next launch did roughly $18,000. Then, after growing the list, doubling the price, and selling with transformation, I made $64,000.

A year later, I took on a new client and launched to his list of 12,000 people. We made $260,000.

I’m simplifying parts of this story (it took place over four years), but the point I want to get across is that small launches are not a reason to quit. They’re not even a reason to build a new product.

Small launches simply tell you the offer didn’t resonate. You didn’t move people to action. Or maybe your audience needs to expand or you need to raise your price. All of these are problems you can fix.

Marketing is a learned skill. Practice takes time. Continuing to get better and focusing on solving the customer’s problems kept me on the path.

Wrapping up

After making a million dollars online for my clients, employers and friends, I’m glad I took the journey.

I’m confident what I’ve learned will pay me dividends for a long time.

For your convenience, here are the seven lessons I’ve shared in this post:

  1. It’s hard to sell courses without MULTIPLE deadlines.
  2. Before you can sell a deadline, you have to sell the product.
  3. Customers don’t want your product. They want the transformation.
  4. Price is barely an obstacle if the product pays for itself.
  5. Your goal is to make the offer so compelling people will feel stupid if they don’t buy.
  6. Bad launches point to bad marketing, not a bad product.
  7. Small launches SUCK, but they’re not a reason to quit.

Want to go deeper?

Do you dream of growing a business online?

The biggest threat to your success is simply giving up.

Become a finisher with my short book QuitterProof: The 5 Beliefs of Highly Successful People.

Download your free copy right here.

Kyle Young is helping creative people achieve big goals that matter.