Whether you’re selling e-books or webinars, online courses or consulting services, building an online presence for your business can be intimidating. You have a general idea of what you need to do, but there are so many questions to answer. Who’s your target audience? How will you find customers? What platform should you use to sell your information product?
One of the biggest questions we hear all the time from Summit Evergreen customers is:
“I know I probably need a website and an email platform…but what else do I need to start selling?”
Folks who are new to the e-commerce world are often surprised at how many online services they need — their “Tech Stack” — and overwhelmed by the amount of choice. For every service you’re ready to sign up for, there can be dozens and dozens of options. Who has time to compare them all?
Well, we already have. As the Co-Founders of Summit Evergreen, we’ve consulted with dozens of clients to produce and market their digital products online. We’ve helped them create millions of dollars in profits, and have helped launch hundreds of programs. Over the years, we’ve learned the ins and outs of just about everything on the market. So today, we’re bringing you some pages from “Keith & Rachel’s $25k Consulting Playbook.”
Before you start choosing your software and services, you need to understand how the process of selling your e-learning product actually works. This is the ideal scenario that your customers will experience:
- Reader Opt-In
New prospects come to your website and will be enticed to subscribe for your email list in exchange for a cool incentive (e-book, worksheet, mini-course).
- Marketing Funnel
Those prospects will now get your marketing funnel emails, which provide helpful, educational information and lead up to the sale of your coaching program.
- The Pitch! (Sales Funnel)
Prospects are offered an opportunity to purchase your online course on a sales page. They fill out a payment form, and now they’re your students!
- Become a Customer
Students login to your membership site and begin taking the course within a password-protected portal. Your course will consist of some combination of written materials, audio files and video of you presenting course material.
- Customer Support
Throughout the course, your students can get customer support when they have questions or problems.
- Lifecycle Emails
Students will also receive a new course-related email funnel that helps them to get the most out of the experience. It tells them when new lessons in their course are available, and also cross-sells them a new course when they’re almost finished with their first one.
- Cross-Sell 1
In a perfect world, your students are so completely satisfied with the experience that they sign up again, and the cycle repeats.
Did you notice that every step of the customer experience requires at least one software or service? Those are the pieces of your Tech Stack puzzle. Here are the basic categories:
- Opt-in offers
- Sales page
- Shopping cart
- Membership site
- Video hosting
- Customer service
Now that you understand the process, let’s talk about your options. We’ve selected software products that are solid choices for beginners, but we’ve also included a few that are better suited to growing businesses. Prices are accurate as of September 2014. Each product has pros and cons, so read carefully and pick the one that sounds right for you.
Yes, there are more options than what’s listed here, but if we listed every available option, this would be a million miles long. The secret of being successful is to take action, not getting stuck in the muck of researching every possible solution.
Find one product that will meet your biggest needs, and then get started using it. Make sure you’re getting your info-product, online course, or mastermind program out the door. Ship it! Don’t split hairs and lose tons of time making your choice. Make an informed decision, then get to work building your online course and growing your business.
Okay. Let’s create your perfect Tech Stack!
Email is the foundation of your marketing and email addresses are the most valuable asset you own. At its most basic, your email service should be able to handle a high volume of messages, allow you to create multiple lists or use tags for the different phases of your marketing funnel, and provide analytic insights (showing you who’s opening what). We also recommend a service that lets you pre-schedule and automatically deploy your emails and includes pre-designed templates.
This cleanly designed, easy-to-use service is perfect for beginners. You can send 12,000 emails to up to 2,000 subscribers for free. After that, you’ll pay a monthly fee based on your number of subscribers and the amount of email you send. One of Mailchimp’s drawbacks is that their user interface and autoresponder sequence has a few quirks to it, but their overall usability and slick design is a definite plus.
If you need a little hand-holding, Aweber’s live chat support and toll-free service hotline might be right for you. They offer a $1 trial for your first month, and prices start at $19/month after that. Folks have complained about Aweber’s sometimes-clunky message editor, but its functionality is top notch. Plus, it offers pre-designed opt-in forms you can embed on your site, and split testing and opt-in tracking for all those forms.
Infusionsoft is more than just email, it’s CRM software that offers contact management, marketing automation, sales automation, and e-commerce. You’ll pay quite a bit more than you will for MailChimp or Aweber (packages start at $199/month), but growing businesses will appreciate the range of services. Also, InfusionSoft is a “contact-centric” service, which gives you more segmenting power than Aweber or Mailchimp.
This CRM platform features contact management, marketing dashboards, partner programs, and API integrations in addition to a payment platform. We love their custom order forms, recurring billing feature, and abandoned cart follow-up. Price is Ontraport’s only drawback — you’ll pay at least $297/month.
Once you have your email system up and running, you need to add subscribers to your list. You can do this with opt-in offers — nuggets of content that you give to people in exchange for their email address. We also call these lead magnets, or “carrots,” from the old adage about “the carrot and the stick.” (You remember: some folks are trying to get a donkey to pull a cart, and they find the only way that works is to dangle a carrot in front of his nose.) Give your audience a choice between multiple carrots, and you’ll see a great conversion rate.
This super slick platform gives you three helpful tools to collect new subscribers. Create instant landing pages with LeadPages, pop-up windows with LeadBoxes, and one-click opt-ins with LeadLinks. Don’t worry…it integrates nicely with all major email providers, and even WordPress. Prices start at $37/month.
- Embedded Opt-in Boxes
If your email provider has an opt-in box feature, put it to use! Create an opt-in box within your email system’s parameters and embed it on your product website, sales page, or landing page to easily collect email addresses. (All of the above Email Service Providers support these!)
With Unbounce, you can quickly publish, test, and optimize opt-in landing pages. No need for IT support…you can make your own A/B tests with their drag-and-drop landing page builder, learning what your prospects like and increasing conversions. Starter package is $49/month.
Your website is your first impression, so make it a good one. If you’re just starting out, you might not have the budget for a team of UX specialists, designers, developers, and copywriters to help create your site. Fortunately, there are plenty of Do It Yourself options available, with contemporary templates, customizable design, and lots of plugged in features for you to use.
Before you choose your website builder, you should decide whether you want to buy your own domain and have your site hosted there (www.YourProductName.com), or whether you’re okay with your website being hosted as a subdomain of another site, like WordPress (www.YourProductName.HostingSite.com). Using your own domain is the more professional choice, but if you’re concerned about cost, you can always start with a free subdomain and upgrade later.
You can’t go wrong with a WordPress site. Perennial favorite WordPress.com lets you create a free site with hundreds of customizable templates. (You can also upgrade to your own custom URL for an annual fee.) If you have some coding savvy, sign up with WordPress.org for more control over your site’s look and functionality. To get themes, head over to ThemeForest for some great themes to instantly drop into your WordPress site.
Squarespace’s claim to fame is its variety of ultra-modern templates. Definitely for the very hip among us! Squarespace sites are also built with commerce in mind, a nice change of pace from trying to shoehorn an information product site into a blog template. Prices start at $8/month to sell a single product, and top out at $24/month. Another nice bonus? You’ll get a free custom domain.
If you’re looking for a single page website, Populr.me is for you. The drag-and-drop functionality is easier to use than WordPress.com’s interface, but your options are slightly more limited. Pricing ranges from free (with Populr branding included on your page) to $50/month.
Your sales page is where your customers are going to read information about your product, and then decide to purchase. Essentially, it’s your storefront. Maybe it lives on your website, or maybe you’re creating multiple standalone sales pages that are targeted to different audiences. However you present it, your sales page needs to sell!
The most important part of your sales page is the message. Spend time talking to your potential customer in their own language, explaining that you understand their pain points and have a solution that will teach them what they need to know. It’s more important that you spend time perfecting your sales copy than perfecting your page design, which is why we recommend templated solutions like WordPress and LeadPages to create your sales or landing page. (See descriptions above.)
Did you ever get a shopping cart with a busted wheel? It was so hard to push in the right direction, and so darn squeaky, that you left it right in the middle of the aisle and walked out of the store. The quality of your online shopping cart is even MORE important than the quality of a real-life shopping cart. It has to be intuitive, easy to use, and trustworthy (read about PCI compliance here) so you don’t lose customers in the middle of a sale.
The King of Simple, PayPal allows your customers to purchase your product with their credit card, or, if they have one, their PayPal account. Because so many people use it and have their information saved at their fingertips, your customers will feel comfortable paying this way. The big drawback is that customers must leave your site and go to PayPal to complete their purchase.
If you’re comfortable with PayPal, but want to give your customers a better payment experience, Stripe is your choice. Stripe has elegant, customizable payment forms (mobile friendly!) that can live right on your site. No need for customers to click away.
With 1ShoppingCart, you can create an entire store, or simply allow your customers to make secure payments. They understand the world of online shopping, and offer phone and email support to get you set up and answer questions. (Watch out — they’ll make you pay extra for live chat.) E-commerce packages start at $34/month.
This purchase platform is aimed at creative types, and it’s also used by our good friend Nathan Barry. There’s no monthly fee or subscription plan, but you’ll pay 5% + 25 cents per transaction. One cool feature of Gumroad is its “pay what you want” option, a fun choice for introductory products you might otherwise give away for free.
If you have a brick-and-mortar store in addition to your digital business, Shopify might be for you. They offer a sleek iPad POS system for in-store, and equally slick storefront sites for online. You can even accept credit cards through your smartphone at trade shows, conferences, and meetups. They offer a $14 starter plan in addition to a per-transaction fee.
Your membership site is your classroom, a place where paying students can log in to learn. This portal should be optimized for your students’ success, easy to use and customized to reflect your brand…and the content should be protected for members only.
- Summit Evergreen
The best membership site in the business. Yes, this is our product, so maybe we’re biased...but we wouldn’t have created it if we didn’t see the market crying out for a better solution. Summit Evergreen offers the most powerful technology and highest quality user experience, for both you and your students. In addition to the standard course delivery and quality themes you’ll find in other solutions, Summit Evergreen is build around distributing evergreen courses online, and our customer analytics and distribution settings are focused around increasing your customer Lifetime Value. Summit Evergreen also plays nicely with all of the other tools in your Tech Stack, from email to payment to CRM. We’re adding new features all the time, and you can get set up in minutes.There are plenty of other players in the membership site space, and we respect them and welcome the competition. A few runners up:
- WishList Member
Turn your existing WordPress site into a password-protected classroom portal. The interface is great if you only have one product, but you still have to install and manage it on your own WordPress site. Check out our comparison to Wishlist Member.
A solid option for WordPress users, and a step up from WishList Member in terms of features and usability.
Kajabi has most of what you’re looking for in a membership site: content delivery, drip, even built-in marketing pages. Cons: not 100% mobile friendly, can’t drip content in courses with a limited registration window. Check out our comparison to Kajabi.
If you’re feeling really great about yourself, and you’re ready to jump into a pool with your competitors, hop over to Udemy. They offer great tools for building your course, but you’re competing with thousands of other course instructors on their website. You’ll also pay fees for the students you register, including 50% of the revenue from students Udemy sends your way.
Skillshare is the online version of a downtown art studio with a spectrum of cool classes taught by your friends. It’s less about expertise than ideas, with teachers offering oddball projects and new perspectives. Downside: you don’t earn any money until you reach 300 students across two classes and join their revenue-share Partner Program.
If you plan to teach your course through video (which we heartily recommend), then you need a good video hosting service on your side. Creating and distributing video specifically for Internet users is a specialty all its own. There’s a certain art required to make sure your video plays beautifully on any device, every operating system, and at any Internet connection speed. Here are just a few dedicated video hosting services that will do just that.
YouTube is the video site of the people. It’s not hard to use, so it’s a great place to start out creating video for the first time. There are plenty of resources to help you get started, including YouTube’s own Creator Academy.
Vimeo is your go-to site for high quality video. What you see here will always look better than what you see on YouTube, and that’s its main selling point. Our favorite features: super privacy settings on your password protected videos, and no ads!
Wistia is the video site for marketers, and it’s our personal favorite. You’ll get professional video hosting, marketing tools, and analytics…in addition to a treasure trove of resources to help you create the best videos possible. Wistia’s free plan is amazing, and it’s easy to upgrade to when your business is ready.
Whether you have one customer or one million, customer service is the key to keeping them happy…and keeping your business in business. Here are two options to explore; there are dozens more that we haven’t mentioned here.
Plans start at just $1/month for this customer service solution. Deal with inbound requests through email, web, phone, social, or chat. Give your students a self-service center full of information and resources. And gather insights about the students who are requesting your help.
This support portal is all about customization and personalization. Integrate with your CRM, automate just about anything, and customize your service level targets. Its gamified helpdesk keeps customer service agents motivated and productive. Give it a try with their free plan.
- Help Scout
We’re big fans of Help Scout. You’ll get your customer service basics covered, along with an abundance of clever features to make your life easier. (Really, there are too many great features to list them all here.) Help Scout offers a single plan at a very affordable $15/month, although you can get a bare-bones free plan if you’re strapped for cash.
We hope this list is helpful in getting you on the road to your perfect Tech Stack. Keep in mind that everyone’s needs are different, and therefore everyone’s Stack is different. Just pick the products that are right for you at this moment, and move forward. As your needs change, your Stack will change, and that’s okay.
The most important thing is not to let the amount of choice overwhelm you and stop your momentum. Any of the options listed above are a safe bet, so go for it!
Start building a profitable online course of your own. Claim your free 30-day trial of Summit Evergreen here.