Choosing where to publish your online courses is a much more important choice than you might think.
It might seem like a harmless choice for beginner course creator, but in fact this choice could make or break your changes of creating a sustainable long-term business.
Let's explain in detail and with real examples from our own creator story which option is best for the long term success of most online course creators: self-hosting or marketplaces, which one is it?
Table Of Contents
In this guide, we will cover the following topics:
- Platforms vs self-hosting
- What is an online course marketplace platform?
- Online course marketplaces - pros and cons
- The reality of your first real marketplace sale
- Actual number of paying students
- How hard is it to sell courses at higher prices in a marketplace?
- The consequences of opting out of marketplace affiliate programs
- Do marketplaces really promote your course on social media?
- Why marketplaces have large revenue disparities per course category
- Do marketplace platforms promote your course via email marketing?
- Can you get access to the students email in a marketplace?
- Can you sell other good and services to your students?
- Are there demands for course exclusivity?
- How big is a typical course creator revenue compared to expected
- What about publishing in multiple marketplace platforms?
- The reality of working with a marketplace platform
- What is an online course self-hosting platform?
- Online course self-hosting platforms - pros and cons
- Comparing sales in self-hosting platform vs marketplaces
- Will marketplaces really give you a pre-built audience?
- Making the most out of both self-hosting platforms and marketplaces
- What is our best advice on where to publish your courses
- Conclusions and key takeaways
If you are looking to learn more about online teaching, you can find all our guides in the Academy home page, with the recommended reading order.
The previous article in this series is: How to Sell Online Courses? A Complete Marketing Strategy
Online Course Platforms vs Self-Hosting
When you are just getting started with your online learning business, in those first few months you are going to make one fundamental choice that might determine the success or failure of your business.
Very early on, with very little information available and usually with no previous experience creating and selling online courses, you are going to choose some sort of online service that you will use to publish and sell your courses.
After a little bit of investigation, you will realize that you have two fundamentally different choices:
- either you publish your courses on tens of marketplaces available like for example Amazon Video Direct, Udemy, Skillshare, LinkedIn Learning, etc.
- or you choose to publish your courses in your own website, using a self-hosting platform like for example OnlineCourseHost.com
This choice might seem harmless and you might have the impression that you can always go back and take the other option, but actually making the right choice from the very start is essential, as this choice carries huge implications that you will only be aware of much further on.
Let's learn exactly why, and let's start with the option that you are probably most tempted to follow: marketplace platforms.
What is an Online Course Marketplace Platform?
There are many online course marketplaces out there, so we won't cover any specific marketplace in this article.
These are online services that allow you to upload your online course, set the titles and descriptions of each lesson, set a one-time fixed price for your course and then publish it.
Like the name indicates, these are marketplace platforms, where your online courses will show up listed next to the courses of other content creators.
Online course marketplaces - Pros and Cons
The most important feature that make these marketplace platforms so tempting (especially for beginner creators) is that they offer access to all their course creation software completely for free, or so it seems.
Also, marketplace platforms come with a pre-built audience, to which they will in principle advertise your courses to.
So from your point of view as a beginner online course course creator, this looks like the ideal scenario. You get access for free to all the software you need, and you get an immediate audience to sell your course to.
Sounds great in principle, but what are the long-term implications of this choice?
Make sure to fully understand the marketplace rules before committing long-term
When we first started several years ago, we were very excited to record and build our first online course in a marketplace platform.
The way that we saw it, the prices listed there were around $50 to several hundred dollars per course. We did notice that the prices where very frequently discounted to $10 though.
But the courses on our topic (web development) had sometimes hundreds of thousands of students. So with that number of students, we did a little bit of math.
What was worst case scenario? If we managed to attract even 1000 students per month, and only manage to sell all our courses at a full discount of $10, worst case we would have a revenue of $10,000 per month!
That is $120,000 a year, a nice comfortable six-figure business right there. That is a nice income to have almost in any part of the world except the most expensive cities, and it was just the beginning!
And the courses seem to have a lot more students than 1000. We are talking tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands of students. So it looked like a no-brainer to publish our courses in a marketplace, and after a few months of recording and editing, so we did.
What happened next came as a bit of a surprise for us.
Then it came the reality of our first real marketplace sale
After building a branded website and blog and start sending some traffic to our marketplace courses, we were surprised to see that:
When the first sales came in, that most of the courses where being sold at $2.5, and not $10! And even more puzzling, hardly any sales were done at full price.
So what was going on here? We really didn't expect this, so after digging around a bit more, we realized that the following was happening:
- For most organic sales, the marketplace is taking a cut of 50%, so at most you are making $5 per sale
- By default, we are subscribed to the marketplace affiliate program, that encourages course creators to bring more customers to the platform via affiliate links
- If the customer reached the marketplace recently in last few days via an affiliate link, the affiliate will be payed 25% of the sale
So from the $10 of the sale, 50% was for the marketplace, 25% to the affiliate marketer, and only 25% for us
Now these where public conditions, and of course it was our responsibility not knowing this upfront.
These numbers are fairly typical, but will of course differ from one marketplace to the other. In general, the bigger the marketplace the less favorable the conditions for the course creator.
And over time, these conditions tend to become less favorable, not better.
We want to make it clear that it's our responsibility to not have read the terms and conditions upfront, so we recommend whatever platform that you choose to fully understand the conditions and do enough due diligence to fully know what to expect as revenue.
Nevertheless, realizing that the actual price was much lower than expected was quite a disappointment for us. All of a sudden, what looked like a nice 6 fix-figure business became instead a rather low income (in our country).
This is the exactly the kind of thing that we wish we knew before even getting started, in order to be able to make much better informed decisions.
On the other hand, maybe it was better to find out this only later in the process, otherwise we might have ended up giving up and not even start what came to be a successful six figure online course business.
Besides the sales price, what other surprises did we find in the marketplace?
Actual number of paying students
Even though we were sending quite a nice amount of traffic to the courses via a popular blog, the number of paying students was relatively low.
Sure, we were making some sales, but the overall sales number was nowhere near enough to make a full time living: $705 in one month, $1047 on the second month, $838 on the third and an down to $279 on the forth.
It turns out, after further investigation, that (at the time, but not anymore) it was common practice for course creators to increase their total number of students by using large amounts of free coupons.
This does not happen today anymore, but at that time this was a must in order to start generating some early social proof.
And so, like any other course creators we did the same, otherwise our course student numbers would look very small compared to other courses with thousands of free students.
The problem with promoting a course using large number of free coupons is that most free students usually don't end up buying the other paid courses afterwards. They also tend to be less engaged and not even watch the course in many cases.
Free students leave worst reviews than paying students, as they value the course less simply because it was free for them.
Besides getting free students, we also investigated a couple of ways of trying to increase our revenue in the marketplace.
How hard is it to sell courses at higher prices in a marketplace?
The first thing to do is, what about trying to sell our courses at a price higher than $10? It's a pretty low price to begin with for such valuable information, right?
With the information in some of our courses, you could pass job interviews and get a high paying software development job. Surely that is worth more than $10?
We understand that it's an online course and that people never know what they are getting, so there is a risk involved for the student in this type of transaction.
But still, people are probably ready to pay a lot more than just $10 for a lot of courses. We can see the same courses being sold at easily $19 or even $49, depending on the customer's country.
It turns out that, if you set your prices to something like $19 or $49, the problem is that the marketplace runs constantly $10 promotions site-wide. So independently of the price you set, the course is still going to be sold for $10 in most cases, and you will only get typically $2.5 to $5 per sale.
The truth is that price that you chose for the course is effectively not the actual price of sale, for most sales.
That full price will only be showing up as a striked-through promotional comparison price next to the real sales price set by the platform, which is typically between $10 to $12.
The bottom line is that, for most sales, it's the platform that decides the sales price of your course, and not you the course author
But are those $10 ongoing promotions mandatory? No, you can opt-out of those, and only sell your courses at the full price of $19, $49, or any other price that you set.
But you can guess what would happen in that case: with all the competition of all other course being sold at $10, almost nobody is going to buy your course at $49!
You end up opting in to the ongoing site-wide $10 promotions as that is the only viable alternative to even make close to a living in the platform.
You also end up setting your course price to something like $150 to $200. This way, when this higher price shows up during promotions next to the $10 price, the promotion discount looks much more appealing and this will increase your conversions a little bit.
So this means that typically in a marketplace platform, in practice we don't have the ability to set the price of our courses sales price, for most sales.
And increasing the price of a course to a reasonable value while opting-out of low value sales is not an option, because that would completely kill your marketplace sales.
So what else is there as a way for trying to increase course revenue on a marketplace?
The consequences of opting out of affiliate programs
As we have seen, marketplace platforms usually have an affiliate program that takes a cut of the sale for the affiliate, for example 25% (this depends on the marketplace).
But what if we opt-out of this affiliate program? This means 25% more sales for you, so you will typically get $5 per sale instead of $2.5. That might be an option, as these affiliate programs are usually optional.
However if you opt out of the affiliate program, you will also typically opt-out of other things.
If you opt-out of the affiliate program, the marketplace will not promote your courses on social media or Google Search via ads, which was one of the main advantages of choosing a marketplace platform in the first place.
So many times, opting out of affiliate programs and other marketplace rules means that you don't have access anymore to certain important promotional tools that are essential to making your courses viable in the marketplace in the first place.
Do marketplaces promote your course on social media?
This depends on the course. One thing is for sure, the marketplace will take an extra 25% of the sale price for sales done via their affiliates.
But will the marketplace on the other hand promote your courses to their audience via social media ads or Google Search ads?
It depends. If the course is a high ranking course for the category, then it's likely that the marketplace company will spend some of its advertising dollars in order to bring customers to your course landing page, via a promotional coupon.
Notice that this means that your course will be used by the platform as a landing page, whose goal is to bring to the marketplace new customers.
These new customers will then purchase all other sorts of courses on the marketplace, and not just yours.
The new customers obtained via these ads are customers of the marketplace platform, and not your customers. The marketplace will then try to sell to those same customers other courses that they might be interested in, including competing course creator courses from the same category as yours, since the customer has shown interest in the subject.
Which is OK, but it's important that you are well aware of how everything works.
Do marketplace platforms promote your course via email marketing?
The marketplace will usually promote some courses to their email list via email marketing. While this might sound attractive, remember that you probably have many competitors on your course category (for example, software development).
This means that the marketplace platform will send emails to all students interested in your course category, containing promotional offerings for your courses, but also for those of your competitors.
So the marketplace will be sending out emails that will send some of your students to your direct competition and vice-versa.
If your course is lower ranked on the category and has less social proof, this in practice will not work to your advantage if you are just starting out.
Again, nothing wrong with any of this but it's important that you understand exactly what is going on.
Can you get access to the students email in a marketplace?
It's important that you understand that when you publish your courses in a marketplace, your students are not your direct customers.
You don't have their personal contacts, their credit cards or their emails, and you did not invoice them directly as your customers.
The actual sale, from an accounting perspective, was made from the marketplace company to the end customer. So the marketplace made the actual sale, and not you.
The platform will pay sales taxes on those sales, and pay you back royalties as an author. It works exactly like a book author receiving royalties from a publishing company.
We will cover in another article everything that you need to know in order to set up an online learning company and understand how taxes work for this kind of business.
You can check the Academy Home Page to see if that article is already available.
Right now, it's important to understand that you will not have direct access to your students emails, but you can still engage with them regularly.
Typically, the platform will still allow you to reach your students via email, but only under certain restrictions. First, you can only email them typically once a week, and send two promotions a month, which is actually great.
You won't be able to do a proper email marketing campaign for a course launch under those restrictions, but at least you can still reach your students.
It's normal that the marketplace wants to limit the amount of email that you send to your students. If every course creator emailed their students constantly this would be bad for the marketplace and considered spam.
But sometimes, like in a course launch or an email course, there are good reasons to be sending more emails for a brief period of time. And this will usually not be possible in a marketplace.
It's important to understand that in a marketplace you cannot invite your students to join your newsletter on your own website.
This is a big constraint that you should be aware of, because one of the most important assets for any online business is it's mailing list: an email list of potential customers that you can reach directly with your products and services.
Can you sell other good and services to your students?
When you sell online courses, you might do that part-time as a complement to your business. You might have other services and products that you might want to sell to your students, like E-books, online software services, coaching, etc.
Under the terms and conditions of most marketplaces, you cannot sell anything to your students other than other courses in the same marketplace.
Are there demands for course exclusivity?
Depending on the marketplace that you choose, you might be asked under certain conditions to have the courses exclusively in only one marketplace. Some marketplaces work under the principle of total exclusivity.
This usually means that the courses cannot be available anywhere else on the internet. Make sure that you read the terms and conditions, because this would further reduce the revenue that you might get from your online courses.
How much is a typical course creator revenue in a marketplace?
Overall, when you publish your course only in a marketplace, your revenue will probably be much lower than what you would expect, based on the social proof that you can see in other similar courses.
The marketplace will probably take a much larger cut than what you first realized, so make sure that you are well informed of the actual terms.
The nature of the marketplace is to show to the customer a large catalog of courses, but then focus on convincing the customer to purchase only a few of the top products that are presented to them as clear choices.
This means that if you are one of the top selling course creators in the marketplace, it's true that you can do a great living by selling your courses there exclusively.
But for everyone else on most marketplaces, the reality is that it's very hard to make a full time income.
You can still make good revenue in a marketplace, but I think this should be your complementary strategy, and not your main one.
What about publishing in multiple marketplace platforms?
It might seem like a good idea to take your online courses and publish them in multiple marketplaces, in order make the most out of them and create multiple streams of income.
Although this might seem attractive on paper, the reality is quite different. The truth is that depending on the subject of your course, there aren't usually that many course marketplaces available for you to publish your courses.
There are usually only a couple of marketplaces that are truly viable options for doing any sort of meaningful revenue. For example, some marketplaces are very strong in topics like software development, while others are strong on arts and graphics, but usually not vice-versa.
Other course categories like for example how to create an online business might be popular in multiple marketplaces at the same time, but for most type of courses there is currently only one viable marketplace, if any.
Do we think marketplace platforms are bad for course creators?
No, we think that probably almost every course creator should have their content in at least one marketplace, but this should be done in a strategic way.
We are going to cover exactly how we recommend to leverage marketplace platforms later in this article. Right now, let's start talking about the biggest alternative that we have to marketplaces, which are self-hosting platforms.
What is an Online Course Self-Hosting Platform?
A self-hosting platform is completely different then a marketplace.
A self-hosting platform is more of a website builder, that allows you to quickly build your own branded website where you will publish your courses.
Sounds very similar to what you can do in a marketplace, right? And yet the differences are huge, for example in terms of the revenue potential for your business.
Online Course Self-Hosting Platforms - Pros and Cons
The different between self-hosting and using a marketplace is that in the case of self-hosting its truly your website and your brand, and not the platforms brand and website.
You can still in a very similar way create, price, publish and sell your own online courses just like in a marketplace.
The difference is that, unlike in a marketplace, you have full control over your courses. What does that mean?
- On your website, only your courses show up. Each course creator has its own completely separate website.
- You can choose whatever price you want for your courses, the self-hosting platform will never tell you how to price them.
- You can decide when you courses are under promotion or not, and the value and duration of each promotion
- The self-hosting platform won't take half the value of each sale, or anything even remotely close to that (more on that later)
- In many cases, the self-hosting platform will not take any commission fees on each sale, meaning that the whole profit of the sale is for you (except credit card fees, which also apply in marketplaces)
- There are no affiliates commissions involved, unless you decide run your own affiliate program, bringing you new students
- You can sell your courses from your own web domain, like yoga-instructor.com for example, but you can also use a self-hosting platform subdomain like yoga-instructor.onlinecoursehost.com
- You can establish a direct relation with your students, by getting their email and building up your email list, which will allow you to promote future courses or other products and services to them
- The platform won't take your students emails and send them promotional emails offering to buy the courses of other competing course creators
- You can email your students as many times as you need, for example during course launches, etc.
In summary, a self-hosting platform is a web site builder for building your own online course website, where you can sell your courses directly to your students
A self-hosting platform website builder is very easy to use and requires no technical or design skills. You just have to set the titles and descriptions of your videos or e-books, set the price and upload your brand logos.
Comparing Sales in Self-Hosting Platforms vs Marketplaces
To make the comparison between marketplaces and self-hosting platforms more concrete, let's say that you are selling an online course for $10 (which is a very low price that we don't recommend using).
If you do this sale on a marketplace, you will maybe make at most make $5, depending on the marketplace conditions. Typically you will make $2.5 or even less than that, when the credit card fees and affiliate commissions are deducted.
But If instead you sell it in your own website as a one-time sale via a self-hosting platform, then you only have to pay a typical credit card commission of 1.4%.
So you get to keep $9.86, which is a lot more than what you would make in a marketplace!
Now imagine that instead of just doing a $10 sale, you would take that opportunity to convince the customer to instead, subscribe to your website at $10/month, and get access to your complete course catalog.
The customer will stay on average subscribed to your website for several months, maybe 3 to 6 months on average and even much more than that in a lot of cases.
Here is the typical retention rates of an online subscription business:
As you can see, many of the customers are still subscribed after 6 months or even one year. In this case, 51% of the customers are still subscribed after one year, so we can say that on average they are subscribed for 6 months.
If you send regularly new course content to your students, typically 30 minutes or so per week via an email newsletter, then these retention rates are normal.
In that case, that initial $10 sale will turn over time into effectively a $60 sale! Compare that to $2.5, that's 24 times more.
What other differences are there, besides the revenue per sale?
As we can see, the potential for revenue when using a self-hosting platform is much larger than in a marketplace, due to the reduced or inexistent platform fees.
There is also the ability to do subscription sales, which is a much better business model than one-time sales, as we have explained in detail in a previous guide - What is the best way to sell online courses?
But besides that, there is also the fact that in your website you don't have to compete with other course creators. If you manage to attract a customer to a marketplace in an attempt to sell one of your courses over there, you are bringing a new customer to the marketplace, and not to your own business.
Once the customer is in the marketplace, they might get distracted with all sorts of different types of courses, and even end up buying the courses of other competing creators instead of yours.
Those customers will also receive promotional emails inviting them to buy the courses of competing creators on the same topic.
None of these things can happen on your own website. Once the customers are on your website, you have their full attention.
Finally, and this is important for a lot of course creators: in your website you are free to sell other products and services besides your video courses.
You might not even have these other products initially, you can add them later. You can for example sell e-books or other downloadable resources, coaching services, private consultations, regular reports on a specific topic, etc.
Will marketplaces really give you a pre-built audience?
Marketplaces today are very crowded, and they are distracting to the user. Do you know that effect when you are shopping on Amazon and you start clicking on another product, then another, etc.?
That's what happens in an online course platform, it's hard to keep the student's attention. Growing an audience is a hard thing to do anywhere in general, including in a marketplace.
You will have to work just as hard or more to build an audience and market your course in a marketplace as in a self-hosted website. The difference is that when building an audience in a marketplace you are adding customers to the marketplace, and not to your own business or mailing list.
It makes a lot more sense for you to invest all that time and effort building an audience linked to your own brand and website, instead of building the audience and sending it somewhere else.
There are a lot of students in a marketplace, but that does not mean that those students will even see your course.
If you don't manage to rank on the top 1 to 3 places of the marketplace rankings and be fortunate that your topic is super popular, you probably won't be able to generate any significant revenue, but this of course depends on the topic.
For existing topics, you will have to compete with established course creators that already have a ton of social proof in terms of number of students and reviews. Those courses are being used as the landing pages of marketplace search engine and social media ads, so the social proof tends to be accumulated in a couple of pages per topic over time.
Making the most out of both self-hosting platforms and marketplaces
Can we combine self-hosting platforms and marketplaces as a successful business strategy?
Sometimes that is possible, it doesn't have to be always either one or the other. What we recommend is that you put your major focus on building an online course catalog on your own website using a self-hosting platform, and grow an audience via an email list.
Over time, the goal is to bring those customers to your website and convince them to purchase a subscription to your complete course catalog. At the same time, you can repurpose your courses and upload them also to platforms, as long as they don't request full exclusivity.
For more detail on how to implement this strategy, make sure to read our previous guide on how to sell online courses.
The key of combining self-hosting with marketplaces is to never try to promote your marketplaces courses, by sending traffic to them. Instead, you should try to bring all the traffic to your own website.
All the sales on the marketplace should happen fully organically, via customers that are searching for courses in your topic directly in the marketplace. This means that any revenue generated by the marketplace is just a bonus next to the revenue generated in your self-hosted website, which is your main priority.
Is it always possible to combine marketplaces and self-hosting?
Bear in mind though, that this strategy is not always possible due to the fact that marketplaces usually demand courses to have a price determined by the marketplace itself, or else your course will probably not be viable due to lack of access to certain promotional tools.
That platform price is low and might be around $10, so if you have the same courses listed on your website at $39 and your customers know that your courses are cheaper on the platform, they have no incentive to buy the courses on your website.
You can still do this though, by offering a recurring subscription on your website giving access to your complete course catalog, which will look like a great deal compared to buying only one course via the marketplace for the same price.
But remember that the subscription price will always be compared to the prices on the marketplace, by customers that happen to know that you publish on both.
So if you have 6 courses, and you sell them at $10 on the marketplace and charge a $19 monthly subscription on your website to access them, the customer might think that it's just better to buy them all on the platform instead as they have lifetime access.
So it's possible to do sales in both, but remember that you are competing also against yourself, as you are inevitably sending some of your customers to the marketplace instead of your website even if you don't intend to.
In terms of search engine rankings, your course pages on the marketplace are likely always going to rank higher than the identical course pages on your website, due to the marketplace website having a lot more domain authority and backlinks than yours.
So from a search engine optimization (SEO) perspective, if you decide to publish both on your website and on marketplaces you will always be competing with yourself in terms of search engine rankings, and will end up accidentally sending a small portion of your customers to the marketplace course pages even though you don't promote them actively.
What is my best advice on where to publish your courses?
It's best to publish your courses in your own website first, and then in any marketplaces that make sense as well.
First, focus on building an audience and send them to your own website.
But then, on the side and as a source of extra income, you can also take your courses and publish them on any marketplaces that make sense for your topic.
There is usually no point in publishing your courses literally everywhere, as certain topics won't be popular in certain marketplaces, but do repurpose your courses and publish them on multiple places.
The key is that your marketplace revenue is going to be mostly passive, meaning that the marketplace sales are organic and generated by the marketplace itself via search and the suggested courses features, and not due to you actively promoting your courses in the marketplace.
Your promotion and traffic driving efforts should be going towards bringing students to your website, while your marketplace revenue is mostly passive.
In general, all you do in the marketplace is answer student questions a few times a week and and send the occasional promotional launch coupon via the marketplace marketing tools.
Conclusions and Key Takeaways
Let's now quickly summarize everything that we have learned about online course marketplaces vs self-hosting.
Your best shot at creating a successful online course business is to self-host your course in your website under your own brand, and join marketplaces as well for complementary revenue.
By having your own website, you will be able to build a customer mailing list, which is one of the most import assets that you can have as an online business.
The subscription model is by far the most sustainable, but other things like bundles, lifetime sales and other promotions also make it easier to make self-hosting more sustainable in the long term.
Marketplaces work great too, but in my opinion they should be complementary sources of income.
We hope that this guide was helpful in understanding the differences between self-hosting platforms and marketplaces.
If you have any other questions about this, please let us know in the comment section below, and we will get back to you.
You can find many other guides like this one on all topics concerning online teaching in the Course Creator Academy Home Page.
And if you are looking for a platform to host your online courses, create an account at OnlineCourseHost.com and start creating your courses using our Free Plan.
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Next recommended guide
To check out all our guides on how to become an online course creator, you can check the academy home page.
The next guide that we recommend that you read here at the Course Creator Academy is: How to find the best online course topics (that sell)
Any further questions?
If you have any other questions about online course creation in general or about the choice for a platform in particular, please post them in the comment section below, or in our Course Creator Academy Facebook Group.
Either way our team of course creation experts is happy to help you out.
We will make sure to get back to you and include the answer in this guide. Do you have any questions? We would love to help.
OnlineCourseHost.com Founder & Online Course Creator
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