If you want to build a successful and sustainable business from your online courses, the most important part of the process may not be what you think it is.

Most people, and I used to be one of them, assume it’s just about creating great courses.

Don’t get me wrong, this is an important part of the journey. But “the” most important?

Nope! 😉

That title definitively goes to your Sales Funnel.

And if you’re like most course creators… you don’t have one.

Or if you do, it isn’t nearly as effective as it needs to be!

Surprised? You’re not alone, I for example, used to be in your shoes.

But think about it for a second… your sales funnel is what finds, nurtures, and converts your audience.

You can have a great course, but without a great sales funnel nobody will find it.

As course creators, we’re part of a booming industry that’s set to reach $325 billion soon!

Amazing, right? Lots of opportunities. 👍

But all this comes with competition (a lot of it), so reaching the right audience gets harder and harder.

Unless… you have an effective Sales Funnel that takes your people on a memorable journey.

That’s what I want to share with you today, I’ll show you the multiple phases of a funnel and the various stages that go into each.

I’ll give you examples, practical advice, and the steps you need to take to implement everything.

So without further ado, let's start learning everything that you need to know to set up an effective sales funnel for your online courses. 😉

Table Of Contents

This post covers the following topics:

  • How To Sell Online Courses with an Effective Top of Funnel
  • Before You Begin
  • Phase 1: Top of Funnel
  • Awareness Phase
  • Paid Ads
  • Articles/Blog posts
  • Social Media Content
  • Video/Audio Content
  • Networking and Link Building
  • SEO
  • Interest Phase
  • Lead Magnets
  • In-Depth Guides / Articles
  • Video Tutorials / Demos
  • Short Webinars
  • ReTargeting Ads
  • Conclusion and Next Steps

How To Sell Online Courses with an Effective Top of Funnel

So what is a sales funnel, and what goes into one?

Here is what a sales funnel looks like:

A typical sales funnel, that is applicable to an online course business

As we can see, the funnel is a sequence of steps through which your customers have to go through, before purchasing (and after, to purchase again).

It's easier to make people aware of your brand, when compared with convincing them to purchase your courses.

There are usually a ton of people aware of your courses, but only a few of those will buy them, for all sorts of different reasons.

As you move people through the process of interacting with your brand and closer to a sale, there will be less and less people on that interaction stage, so that is why the funnel gets tighter as we get close to the Purchase phase.

There are three main stages in any marketing funnel:

  1. Top of Funnel
  2. Middle of Funnel
  3. Bottom of Funnel

Within these Three Phases there are Five Stages:

  1. Awareness: This is where much of your lead generation takes place. Your aim here is to capture your audience's attention and stand out from the crowd.
  2. Interest: This is when you begin to nurture your audience. Your aim here is to keep their attention with more in-depth and curiosity-building content.
  3. Desire: This is when you build their trust and establish authority, proving yourself to be the solution to their problems. Your aim here is to highlight their pain, and propose a solution for it.
  4. Action: This is when you present your course. Your aim here is to show why your course is what they need, overcome their objections, and provide clear steps to buy.
  5. Loyalty: This is when you turn a prospect into a loyal advocate (whether they buy your course or not). Your aim here is to build upon the trust you’ve built, provide various up-sell and/or cross-sell opportunities, and capture social proof.

In this series, we’ll turn this seemingly complex process into a blueprint that you can apply directly to your online course business.

It’s easier than you might imagine 😎

In this first article, we’ll focus on the top parts of the funnel (and mainly the awareness and interest stages).

In this phase of the process, your audience will get its first impressions of your brand, and begin the journey of transforming your audience from cold leads into loyal students.

But before we get into the nuts and bolts of this phase, there are a few essentials you need first…

The Essentials You Need Before You Begin

1: A Completed and/or Validated Course

It may sound obvious, but your sales funnel comes after your course!

This isn’t to say you need a fully completed course, but you should have validated it, pre-sold it, or at least have enough to get your students started.

The opposite problem I sometimes run into is course creators that focus on their marketing and sales way too early.

Yes, for your second and third courses you might try to pre-sell them, but for your first course, as there is just so much to learn, I recommend recording the course and then marketing it.

And this is because a good marketing funnel will not fix a poor, broken, or incomplete course!

2: Know exactly WHO your students are

One of the worst things you can do as a course creator is to say “my course can help anyone”.

Even if this is true, this won’t help you build momentum and success.

Unless you want your courses to go unnoticed, you need to speak to “someone”.

You need to know who this student is, where they are, what their pain is (and how YOU can help them).

The better you appreciate who your students really are, the tighter your message will be.

The more specific you can be about your audience, the better. For example, let's say your courses are about civil engineering.

But are you targeting civil  engineering students, or young civil engineer graduates, or seasoned professionals looking to get continuous training on some new niche topic?

Or are you targeting multiple of these sub-groups? This is essential, because the students probably don't have any money to purchase courses, while the other two groups are much more likely to invest in their professional training.

But these groups have completely different needs and pain points; the students are trying to pass exams in the most efficient way possible, but that does not apply to the other two groups!

As you can see, really understanding who your target audience is, and what their pain points are is crucial in order to be able to know what free content and courses to produce for them.

3: An Understanding of WHERE Your Audience is

Following on from above, you need to step back and think about where your audience is (in which platforms 😉).

Different types of audiences gather on different platforms.

Changes are that your audience gathers on Facebook on certain public or private groups. Even if you don't think that is the case, go look it up, you will be surprised.

Other audiences gather on Reddit, on Instagram or on YouTube, even on LinkedIn or Pinterest, while other audiences mostly hang out on Twitter.

You need to do some upfront research and find out where your audience hangs out, and prioritize developing those platforms.

For educational content, most of the times this means a mix of Facebook Groups, YouTube and Blogging, but other platforms might still be important for your topic.

Once you have a course, a great understanding of who your student is, and where they usually hang out, you’re ready to create your online course funnel 👇 👇


The Top of Funnel is where your journey begins. This is when your audience comes across you, and create their first impressions of your brand, your style, and your course.

There are two stages to this:

  1. Awareness
  2. Interest


The journey begins with awareness, capturing your student's attention, and enticing them to learn more through compelling content, branding, and a message that stands out.

Check out our guide on How To Create a Powerful Brand For Your Online Courses to read later as it covers a lot of the essentials. 👍

Your main aim here is to increase traffic to your site and generate new leads.

Without this, the rest of your funnel becomes kind of pointless.

Lucky for you, there are many approaches you can take.

Here are just a few examples you may find valuable as a course creator.

1: Paid Ads

The big advantage of paid ads, is that they will give you results straight away, which allows you to gather early feedback on your course, sometimes while it's still even when the recordings are still ongoing.

By far, one of the best and most effective ways to increase traffic, generate leads, and capture attention is through paid advertising:

  • Facebook Ads
  • Google Ads
  • Linkedin Ads
  • Other Social Media Platforms
  • Other Search Engines / Local Search

As the name suggests, this involves “paying” for the privilege of getting in front of relevant people. These days, platforms like Facebook and Google are so sophisticated they can help you reach your ideal avatar no matter what course you build.

HOWEVER… the downside of this is the cost!

Although paid ads can be effective, they can also lead to a lot of waste.

Still, when it comes to experimenting with your Top of Funnel and generating awareness, paid ads are a great way to build fast momentum.

In a matter of weeks, you can drive thousands of relevant people into your funnel, for only a small cost.

It’s a tactic many course creators use, here are a couple of ad examples from some of them:

When To Use This:

Although effective, paid ads are likely NOT what you need in the very beginning.

At least, you should approach carefully and set low limits to avoid spiraling costs.

As a general rule, paid ads are usually used by course creators to optimize a course  that already works, rather than to start selling a course from the offset.

2: Articles / Blog Posts

When it comes to capturing attention and providing value from the beginning, writing relevant articles is one of the best approaches.

Not only does it become an organic way to generate new traffic and leads, but can also drive much of your paid advertising.

Through articles and blog posts, you can showcase your authority, skillset, experience, and even introduce parts of your online course.

Often, your audience will find you by searching Google and asking questions for things they need help with.

If you manage to help them out in something concrete that they had trouble with, that is going to build your authority in their eyes.

It’s certainly one of the easiest and cost-effective ways to build awareness, although the downside is often time.

It takes time and energy to plan, write, and promote an article, and it takes time to rank on search engines.

List posts are often effective, as well as in-depth comprehensive articles, like this one that you are reading.

3: Social Media Content

Whether you like it or not, social media plays a huge role in today’s society.

Chances are, at least one of these platforms will allow you to reach your ideal students.

The problem is, social media can quickly drain your energy and waste your time, as too many course creators try to be present everywhere.

This isn’t what I recommend. I suggest choosing your platform wisely, but probably this is going to come down for most course topics to Facebook, Instagram or YouTube.

The content you create is similar to what you do for your articles and blog posts.

Think about your audiences’ pain, the questions they ask, and aspects of your course(s) that provide an immediate to those problems.

Based on those problems, you can produce:

  • simple and quick tutorials
  • In-depth guides

There’s no such thing as the “the perfect” social media strategy, it's all about identifying the right platform, persistence and continuous trial and error.

4: Video / Audio Content

As with social media, video and audio content is a growing force that isn’t going anywhere. In fact, studies suggest that 72% of people prefer to learn about a new product via video instead of text.

As a course creator, this is a big deal - although not all that surprising. 😉

In fact, much of your course likely centers around video and audio.

Whether you enjoy being on camera or not, you appreciate it’s an effective way to teach your students.

The same applies at the top of your funnel when capturing attention and keeping it.

To start, you might want to avoid long, complex tutorials, and instead first gain some initial experience with simpler short and sweet content that answers only one particular question.

So far, the tactics we’ve discussed have focussed on building your own social media following: your YouTube Channel, your Podcast, your Facebook group, etc…

But, and this is especially true in the beginning, you can use other people’s audiences to ignite your own, generate traffic, and create new leads.

  • Write guest posts for other influencer’s blogs
  • Share content in other people’s Facebook groups
  • Appear as a guest on another person’s podcast or YouTube channel
  • Feature in a relevant email newsletter or collaborate on a joint venture

Whatever industry you’re in or whatever type of course you create, there are other people and businesses that have already developed a platform. Their audience aligns with your own.

You can reach more of the “right” people simply by providing value that complements what they offer.

This may include reaching out to fellow course creators with a similar audience, or industry publications, social media influencers, or established thought-leaders that serve the same type of customer.

You should start with the smaller content creators, and then progressively go for creators with larger audiences.


If the Awareness stage is when you capture your audience's’ attention, this is the stage you keep it.

Although studies do vary, it’s suggested our attention has dropped to just 8 seconds online.

Whether this is fact or not, it’s clear that in today’s fast-paced and hyper-distracting world… we have a fleeting attention span. This has nothing to do with you or your message.

As a course creator, your job is to overcome this and pull your audience in with compelling content.

You’ve captured their attention… but how do you keep it?

1: Lead Magnets

Let’s assume you have an amazing and effective funnel strategy that captures attention and helps you stand out to your ideal student.

Through blog posts, ads, social media messages, and videos, you’ve hooked your audience and got them wanting more.

Now what?

The problem is, all that’s happened is they now know who you are.

They’re still on Facebook or Google, and in a few seconds times… you’ve lost their attention for good.

That’s where the power of a Lead Magnet comes in. A lead magnet is something valuable that you offer your potential students in exchange for their email address.

And there are A LOT of lead magnets you can choose from:

  • PDF
  • Guide/Report
  • free Video course
  • Checklist
  • Tutorial
  • Template
  • Newsletter
  • Free Trial
  • Free Gift
  • Discount/Coupon
  • etc.

In fact, free video courses work especially well as a lead magnet, and can be created easily by extracting parts of a premium video course.

Check out how to implement this in this article What Is The Best Lead Magnet For Your Online Courses?.

Whatever you choose as lead magnet, remember that your lead magnet needs to provide your audience with something they need.

This is how you keep their attention.

And this is because, at this stage, they still don’t know or trust you yet.

They’re interested to learn more about you and what you offer, so blow them away with value.

Here are a few examples of eye-catching lead magnets like this.

This one is from OnlineCourseHost.com, which offers you a chance to signup for our free newsletter...

Or this one, which provides access to a free video series...

Or this one, which offers a free checklist.

2: In-Depth Guides (Articles or Videos)

In the previous stage (Awareness), we talked about creating shorter articles and blog posts (700 - 1,500 words). Articles still play a vital role here, although you can now dive deeper into a topic and produce longer pieces.

Like the one you’re reading now, for example…

It allows you to still provide valuable information, but this time go a few levels deeper.

Some examples of guides and articles like this include this one I wrote about how to sell online courses, or this one about how to create the perfect online course sales page.

In this phase, your student already knows who you are, but they are not ready to buy from you yet.

So you should keep their attention by providing as much useful information as possible, under the form of free educational content, and in-depth guides are a great way of doing that.

The more the student sticks around learning from you, the more your authority will grow on their eyes, and the more they will trust you, as they get practical and tangible results from your advice.

3: Short Webinars

An alternative to creating a video series is to produce a SHORT webinar.

Used correctly, they can be a great way to “sell” your online course - although that isn’t the purpose of your webinar at this stage in the funnel.

The webinar you need here isn’t a long, hour and a half version with a long pitch.

Instead, a webinar at this stage in the process should be shorter and focus on VALUE.

No sale.

No pitch.

No pressure! 😉

Your focus here is to provide value to your audience in an engaging and interactive format.

Whether this is via regular live webinars or a pre-recorded evergreen version.

When To Use This:

If you feel your audience would best engage with a video but you don’t feel comfortable in front of the camera, a short webinar like this is a good alternative.

It’s still engaging and visual, but it allows you to talk over a slide show and showcase your skillset and experience.

You could focus on something inside your course, or simply a relevant topic of some kind.

So long as you provide value (and don’t focus on the “sale”), this could become highly effective.

5: Retargeting Ads

We’ve touched upon this a few times throughout… retargeting ads can be a great way to turn awareness into interest and drive people toward your lead magnet, guide, in-depth articles, or videos.

They work in a similar way to any other online advert.

Except with a retargeted ad, only certain people see it.

For example, let’s say someone reads your short blog post after coming across it on Facebook.

By placing a pixel (a snippet of code) on your blog post’s page, you can “retarget” this person once they leave your site.

In the coming days, you share select ads that only people that have visited certain pages on your site can see. These could be in-depth articles or guides, a link to your video series or webinar, or anything else that helps keep their attention.

Conclusion and Next Steps

This brings us to the end of our first article in this series that explores how to sell online courses with an effective funnel.

The top of the funnel essentially deals with getting your student attention in the first place, and develop some interest on you as a course creator, that's all. 😉

Before starting to create your course funnel, think about these things very carefully, and so some upfront research:

  • Is your course ready?
  • Who is your ideal student?
  • In which social media platforms do your students hang out?
  • What typical questions to your students have?

You can then use these common questions to create short form content to bring traffic to your website or social media profile, and create Awareness to you and your brand, and get people on your mailing list.

Once you have your students on your mailing list, you need to send them as much free educational content as possible, to help them solve some of their problems, and help them better understand a problem or even get concrete results.

This will raise their interest in you and your courses, as you progressively gain their trust by flat out proving to them that you understand your topic, and that you know how to help them.

I hope this helped and that you are ready for the next steps 🙏 ❤️

A crucial part of the later stages of your sales funnel starts will be having a great-looking course sales page.

You don't need design skills to get a beautiful course landing page like this one, all you have to do is head over to OnlineCourseHost.com and create a free account.

Besides giving you all the tools that you need, we also want to give you all the information that you need to become a successful course creator, so that is why we publish guides like this one regularly at our Course Creator Academy.

I hope this helped, to get notified when I release new guides like this one here in the Academy, you can subscribe to my weekly newsletter:

If you’ve found this guide valuable, you may like to explore our Course Creator Academy for other valuable content, including articles, posts, and guides like:

Thank you for reading, and make sure you move on to the next article in part 2 of this series.

Vasco Cavalheiro

OnlineCourseHost.com Founder & Online Course Creator

LinkedIn   Facebook Page   Facebook Group   Twitter

You are welcome to ask me any questions in the comments below: 👇👇👇👇