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How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

How To Build an Email Course To Generate Leads & Revenue

Successful creators make it easy for people to learn about their service or product with lead magnets. You see them everywhere:

“Enter your email to download this free PDF”

“Register for my Office Hours Webinar”

“Subscribe to my newsletter”

This approach works because you are providing value without expecting something in return—which builds trust, and makes it easier to say “yes” when you present an offer in the future. 

And you get their email address! This means you’re no longer at the mercy of social media algorithms when it comes to communicating with your target audience.

While lead magnets are a great addition to the top of the funnel, not all lead magnets are created equal.

This article will show you why email-based courses make great lead magnets, who they work best for, and how to build and launch a course that converts customers using beehiiv. 

Let’s dive in.

Understanding the Basics of an Email Course

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

So, what is an email-based course?

An email-based course (or just “email course”) consists of a series of emails covering a particular topic that teaches the reader something valuable. It acts as a standalone learning experience that they couldn't get from 10 minutes of Googling or prompting ChatGPT.

Why does this format work so well?

It’s comprehensive and digestible

Your readers get the depth of a long essay, broken into bite-sized pieces which reduces anxiety and creates momentum.

It’s flexible and familiar

Like other online course platforms, you can use a blend of text, video, graphics, and surveys, but your readers don’t have to deal with a login or learn a new tool because it all takes place within the comfort of the inbox, where people are already used to learning stuff thanks to newsletter innovators like Morning Brew and beehiiv. And a special shoutout to Slack for moving most work communication out of email.

It’s automated and personal

You get to sit back and relax while email automation does its work, but your readers can interact directly with you when they have questions (and you get a lot of engagement data along the way, which makes improving the course that much easier).

So if an email course has all the ingredients to be a lead magnet that sets your audience up to be customers… Why are so many of them so underwhelming?

First let’s talk about who they work best for. After that we’ll show you how to build one.

Who Should Build an Email Course?

Besides the very obvious fact that your audience should be comfortable with email, email courses are especially great for people selling services and products in crowded markets. 

Why?

In a situation where your ideal customer has a lot of options, an email course is an effective way to differentiate yourself and help them become a more educated buyer. 

So, unless you’re an elite children’s whistling coach… there’s a good chance an email-based course should work for you.

Planning Your Email Course Content

How you structure your email course can make or break its success. The easiest way to decide what you want to cover and how you want to break it down is to identify the X, Y, and Z in the ad-lib below. The more detail, the better.

  • My ideal customer is X

  • I help X achieve Y through my expertise in Z

  • If X knew more about how I do Z, they would want help achieving Y from me.

In other words, you’re going to show someone how to solve a part of their own problem. And yes, this means giving away a bit of your secret sauce. But you’ve probably heard the saying, “People don’t pay for information, they pay for implementation.” 

Someone who knows what goes into solving their problem 1) understands the benefits of working with a professional; and 2) knows when they’re getting a fair price. 

Let’s break this down a bit further.

Identify Your Target Audience

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

Understanding your audience is the first step towards driving conversions because it helps you identify critical pain points or desires.

You should be able to describe your audience in detail. What they want, what keeps them from getting it and why, and what their buying process looks like. Here’s an example:

Let’s say you run a digital marketing agency focused on local service businesses with fewer than 10 full-time employees. 

One challenge your customer faces is finding budget-friendly strategies for optimizing local SEO without having a full-time marketer on staff. 

By building an email course that teaches service business owners how to optimize local SEO in 2 weeks or less, you’ll show them what it takes, how to do it, and why it’s a worthwhile investment… and 9 times out of 10, they’re going to want someone to help them actually get the work done.

Since you’ve shown them what “great” looks like, you’ve positioned yourself as a trustworthy expert – and it’s going to be easy for them to want you to make “great” happen for them. 

Decide the Concept You Want to Teach

Before you dive into outlining your course, decide what outcome you want your ideal customer to achieve. 

In the case of the digital marketing agency we just discussed, the course outcome for small service businesses would be a clear understanding of what goes into a local SEO strategy that achieves 80% of the desired results with 20% of the effort.

From your target outcome, you can work backward into an outline of topics.

A good rule of thumb is that each email should cover one topic and each topic should be oriented around a single “a-ha moment”. 

Creating a-ha moments is about showing people new ways of seeing, thinking, and doing, that they otherwise would not have considered (without a lot of extra research – but that’s why you’re here: to fast-track their learning experience with a-ha moments.).

Determine the Course Duration

There is no “perfect” length for an email course. You will want to strike a balance between:

  • Ensuring comprehensiveness 

  • Keeping it crisp and to the point

The duration of the course depends on the complexity of the concept. Fortunately, by breaking it into bite-sized emails and keeping each email focused on a single topic, complex concepts can be communicated very effectively through email courses. 

Choose the Right Course Frequency

Daily emails are the best option if you can stick to one topic per email. This keeps the course moving along and the “streak” going for the reader. 

Developing Your Email Course Content

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

Outline your Course

Create a list of the essential topics and their subtopics that you’ll need to cover to communicate your concept.

An example for someone interested in starting a newsletter might look like this:

  • Analyzing your passions

  • Analyzing real market demand

  • Shortlisting potential topics

  • Researching newsletters in those spaces

Develop each topic further by outlining the subtopics you’ll want to touch on. Getting the outline right will save you a lot of time when you start writing – it’ll also ensure that your course flows thoughtfully from idea to idea. 

Close with a Tasteful Upsell

Keep it simple, keep it classy. Remember, just because you have their email address now doesn’t mean they’re ready for an onslaught of upsells. Here’s a simple list of ideas to use in your call-to-action template when closing out your course:

  • Thank you for reading

  • I spend a lot of time thinking about and doing {thing they just learned}

  • If you are ever looking for a partner to help you achieve {thing they want to achieve} here’s how you can get in touch with me

  • For course graduates I’m offering {a sweeter deal}

Building your Email Course

What to expect

Long story short: it can be a lot of writing. If you’re starting from scratch – or if you’ve already written a lot of content and you’re just looking for ways to integrate it into a new format – you’re going to spend a good chunk of time drafting, editing, building email automations, and testing. 

Is it worth it? 

Only if you want an evergreen lead magnet that works 24/7, simulates a conversation, grows your email list, and makes it easy for your prospects to become customers. 

If that sounds good to you, you’re going to need an email marketing platform.

Choose an email marketing platform

While most email platforms nowadays have the basic functionality required for an email course, minor differences in UI, functionality, service, and the rate of innovation can make a big impact

The key features you’re looking for are…

  • Landing page builder

  • Embeddable forms

  • Flexible email editor with robust design capabilities

  • Powerful automations that can handle multiple triggers

  • Responsive service (for whenever you hit a snag)

  • Accessible analytics

All of these features, and more, are available on the beehiiv Scale plan. 

One example of a beehiiv email course pro is Will Steiner.

Will’s the Head of Brand and Content over at the Altruist.

In 2020, Will launched one of the internet’s most successful email courses (that ultimately got acquired) – biglater.com

After 3 years of experimenting with Big Later (a 39 email course with a 70% open rate and over 2,000 customers), he decided to launch his own paid course all about building email-based courses.

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

We partnered with Will to rebuild his entire course on the beehiiv platform. 

Master the Email-Based Course dives into the details of creating compelling content including how to integrate principles of learning experience design, how to build self-pacing, and more… all on beehiiv. 

His course has been a hit with his students (including creators like Dickie Bush and Amanda Goetz) because you immediately see how effective an email course can be. 

We asked Will what goes into writing highly engaging emails. 

Here’s what he had to say:

“Even if you just have their attention for a few minutes, you can leave an impression with these tactics: 

Don’t skimp on details. Details put meat on the bone. Details make learning feel meaningful.

Examples and stories make reading more fun. A good example brings life to a theoretical concept. A good story infuses emotion into the learning process, which helps solidify the message in our brains. 

Set expectations regularly. Tell them what they’re going to learn, how long it will take, and what they will get out of it – our brains crave path, duration, and outcome.

Get your readers to engage with you throughout the course by posing questions and ask them to reply directly. It changes their relationship with your content when they realize you’re available to them."

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

Setting up the email course automation

If you’re new to email marketing tools, building an email course is a great crash course in learning some of the key functionality. 

And if you’re an email marketing pro, the set up part should be a walk in the park. 

The instructions below will guide you through building a basic email course on beehiiv. (As a note, you’ll need the Scale plan to use beehiiv’s automations).

Step 1: Create a Subscribe Form

Edit and format it to your liking and then grab the code to embed the form on your landing page. (if you already have a website you use for landing pages, you can embed it there. Otherwise, follow the directions in Step 2 for beehiiv specific instructions).

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

Step 2: Create a Standalone Page

 Create a standalone page and embed the code for the form onto a landing page as an HTML Snippet. (you’ll want to add the copy discussed in the next section to make the page more compelling)

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

Step 3: Create a Trigger for Form Completion

Create an automation that triggers based on the new Subscribe Form you created. This will trigger the automation when anyone (a current or new subscriber) fills out the form you put on your landing page.

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

Step 4: Set Up Your Flow

Set up a basic flow with a one-day delay between each email.

Step 5: Fill out the email content and turn on all the steps in the automation

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

When everything is set up and activated, each step in the email will be in color (as opposed to grayed out). Now it’s time to test!

Note: This is the most basic way to set up email automations. More advanced configurations, for example, how to let the reader skip the delays (and the best ways to use the time in between emails), are taught by Will in Master the Email-Based Course.

Launching and Promoting Your Email Course

Before you go live…

Do this: Leverage your existing email list, friends, acquaintances, etc. in your target audience for a “sneak peek” before you open up the course to the world.

Empowering your existing audience allows for concept validation before full commitment. You’re able to build it up as a launch and ask your list for things they want to know more about around your chosen topic. You can give premium subscribers early access and collect feedback. 

And most importantly, you can get an early batch of testimonials. Testimonials are the most effective way to increase conversion rates on landing pages. Please read that sentence again so that it sears into your brain.

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

Craft a Compelling Email Course Landing Page

Your landing page is the doorway to your course. You have about 4 seconds of premium attention before someone decides to learn more or move on. 

According to Will, an effective email course landing page does the following:

“It qualifies the audience by making obvious WHAT the product is and WHO it’s for. In other words, a site visitor can quickly answer the question: Am I in the right place?

It excites the visitor with an idea of what their life will look like when they finish the course. In other words, a visitor can quickly see the positive change it will create for them.

It succinctly explains the benefits and how those benefits are achieved. In other words: What do I get and how do I get it?

It uses some borrowed credibility (i.e. testimonials/social proof) to give the reader confidence that they’re not “going first”. 

And it leverages a call to action that sets the expectation for what happens next. 

With good landing pages, the copy does the heavy lifting. Graphics and visuals are good and help conversion when they don’t distract.”

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

Should my course be free or paid?

That’s up to you. But here are a few things to consider. 

Free courses will get more leads by volume (it doesn’t cost you extra to send a course to 50 people or 500 people).

But paid courses get more qualified leads. People who spend have higher intent – even if it’s only $20 – and their open rates and click-through rates are higher.

If you ultimately want to go the paid route, start free to get as many testimonials as possible. Then when you go paid, don’t underprice your course at the risk of appearing cheap. It’s totally fine to start at $20 as an “early bird” pricing option, but if you’re going to commit to a paid course, signal its real value with the price. 

Oh, and with paid courses, depending on how expensive the course is, you’ll need more content on your landing page. The more expensive, the more social proof you’ll need, and the more people will want to know what’s inside. 

With beehiiv, you can easily create and optimize custom landing pages to increase conversions. 

Generate Leads for your Email Course

When it comes to driving leads to your landing page, you’ve got a few options. This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s a place to start. Let’s break down the pros and cons of…

  • Doing the (smart) Bare Minimum

  • Regularly posting on Social Media

  • Tastefully leveraging your existing Email Marketing list

  • Investing long term in SEO

  • Buying and experimenting with Ads 

The Bare Minimum

First, do the smart and easy thing: put links to your email course in places where people already find you and your message. 

Got a podcast? Put a little CTA in at the end of your episodes. 

Write a blog? Drop a link in as a midpoint CTA on relevant posts. 

Regularly post on Twitter and LinkedIn? Now you can add a CTA as a comment under those posts!

Put it on your website. Put it in your Linktree. Put it where people already see your stuff.

Social Media

Content marketing on social media is a great way to drive traffic to your landing page. 

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

Content marketing refers to publishing helpful content around your course topic.

At the end of your posts, you can add a link to your email course landing page.

Daniel Roman, founder of The Newsie, does a great job of this by promoting his free email course on his X (Formerly Twitter) account:

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

Ask your followers to comment in order to receive access to the giveaway.

Then, once someone comments, DM them the link to your landing page.

Email Marketing

Your existing subscriber list is a warm audience and likely open to the content you teach in your course. If you have already sent a newsletter, a simple way to integrate the course is to add an evergreen link at the bottom of all your emails. 

If you want to run a signup campaign (a dedicated “push” to drive students to your course from your list), you can craft a basic 3 email sequence that focuses on:

  1. Introducing and agitating the problem 

  2. Explaining the high level solution

  3. Presenting your course (as a means of achieving the solution)

By using segmentation, you can run this campaign on a monthly or quarterly basis, going out to new subscribers only.

You could also set up an automation that pitches the course as an offering to all new newsletter subscribers as a part of your welcome email.

SEO

If your topic is niche enough to have manageable keyword difficulty, but generates enough searches where picking up blog traffic by targeting longer tail keywords and phrases is a viable strategy, then it could be worth investing in SEO. 

If the previous sentence didn’t make sense to you, watch this YouTube tutorial and then read it again. 

SEO is a long game. It could be a month or more before your content starts to rank, and even then you might have to do additional optimization to get into the top 10. But consistently attacking keywords and phrases and building up search volume over a period of months (or years) will pay massive dividends down the line.

With the right economics (i.e. free course subscribers to paid service customers), paid advertising can be an incredibly scalable way to grow your business. 

You’ll want to advertise on a platform where your customers spend time and you’ll have to accept up front that it’ll take some time and experimentation (oh, and money) to nail the messaging.

If you can dial in your messaging on free platforms like social media and email, your jump into paid ads will go a lot smoother. 

To grow his course, Will almost exclusively advertises through newsletter sponsorships. They let advertisers target niche audiences who are already deeply comfortable learning through email. 

Build Your Email Course on beehiiv Today

How to Start an Email Course (Step-by-Step Guide)

A great email course will grow your email list, generate leads, produce customers, strengthen your brand, and accelerate your business. 

With beehiiv, anyone can start building an email course quickly and easily (and if you’re using another platform, migrating to beehiiv is super easy). 

In addition to automation, landing pages, and subscribe forms, the platform offers:

  • Popups/gating

  • Website builder

  • AI writing assistant

  • Premium subscription

  • Integrated Ad Network

  • Free recommendations

  • Integrated referral program

  • Paid recommendations (Boosts)

  • Magic links (one-click subscribe)

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