Marketing, Professional Development

How we created an engaging online course with a 91% completion rate

Emma Green /

online course

Your CEO Mentor co-founder Emma Green. Source: Supplied.

We spent 12 months putting our online leadership program together.

Twelve months scripting, editing, deleting, filming, market testing, site building, copywriting, deleting, re-scripting, re-editing, re-shooting, re-testing … you get the idea. In fact, we even filmed the entire program, watched it back, deleted it, and started again.

Let’s get two points out on the table: making a (great) online program is a grind, and passive income seems like a distant dream.

But it was absolutely worth it. And not just financially — that’s a byproduct of the main game, which is impact.

An online program enables you to impact people from all over the world, who are looking for the specific help that you can offer them. It gives them the flexibility to fit learning into their lives, and most of the time, it can be incredibly cost-effective.

The big issue with online programs is the average completion rate is low. I tried to do some research to figure out why, and to say there is no agreed benchmark is an understatement. Average completion rates were claimed to be as low as 10% and up to as high as 60%.

Regardless, I was pretty stunned when I read this. I was expecting perhaps a 75-85% average, because our online program completion rate was 91%.

For context, that was 32 students doing a $2,500 program. Not the biggest sample size, I know, but I wanted to uncover exactly why so many of our students completed it, so I could double down on those elements for the next cohort.

There are plenty of high-dollar-value courses out there people purchase and then never finish (I’ll put my hand up for this one), so it can’t just be the money and accountability factors. And there was no industry-recognised certification provided upon completion, so that wasn’t a contributing factor either.

To find out the answer, we did case study interviews with our students, asking all the nitty-gritty questions to get to the bottom of what made our program so sticky.

Here is what I’ve learnt. Hopefully, it helps you with your online program.

1. Created bite-sized lessons

One of the recurring pieces of feedback was the program was easier to complete because we distilled very complex topics into simple, bite-sized lessons. I’m talking between 8-20 minutes per video lesson, five per week, with one accompanying resource for each lesson.

We didn’t overwhelm participants with heavy reading material, or faff about with a huge amount of theory. Each lesson had a few key points with real-life examples, and it was easy for students to learn, retain and implement.

So keep it short and sharp.

You don’t need to prove the course is great by loading students with mountains of information. Your course should distil the key learnings and deliver them in a way that is easy to understand, and is implementable almost immediately.

2. Set clear, firm coursework timelines

When we were going through the year-long content-creation process, we discussed when the program would be available for students. Having it open all year round meant it would be difficult to keep up with student progress, but were we missing out on potential revenue by keeping it to two cohorts a year?

As it turned out, the cohort effect was a huge part of our high completion rates. The program runs for seven weeks, and each week a different module becomes available to students through the online platform. This stops keen students from getting too far ahead, and gives others a reason to keep up.

I watched some students miss a module, and then double up the next week doing two modules to stay in line with the rest of the cohort.

3. Get them to show up  

You’ll remember I said passive income isn’t a thing, and when you’re asking people to fork out thousands of dollars for a learning experience, I personally think you should make yourself available to help them through the process.

One of the best decisions we made was to set a weekly Q&A group webinar. Our students had the opportunity to access a video webinar every Sunday, where they were able to ask our course teacher any questions they had in real time, enabling them to further consolidate their learning of that week’s module. If they didn’t do the coursework for that week, they wouldn’t have relevant questions and they’d miss out on being able to ask questions that gave context to their specific situation.

We had a 70% attendance rate for these, with many people who couldn’t make it emailing in questions prior to ensure they didn’t miss out.

Oh, and people weren’t emailing a generic ‘info’ or ‘contact’ email address, they were emailing me directly.

A human touch goes a long way.

4. Make great content

This one sounds pretty obvious, but I think it has a lot to do with low completion rates. On one hand, there’s definitely something to be said about striving for excellence over perfection, which is a mantra of ours, but on the other hand, you don’t want to half-ass something and put it out there ‘just to get something out’.

Unless you want low completion rates, in which case, go forth.

Test your unique content with a group of your ideal demographic on a smaller scale — with blog posts, podcasts, e-books — to make sure it’s hitting the mark before you go on the adventure of creating the online program.

That’s what you want your students to feel, and it took us a lot of work to make it that way!

It doesn’t have to be professional studio quality, but make sure the basics are there. If you’re doing video, it needs to be easy to watch — a nice clean set and your teacher needs to be well presented. Audio needs to be clear and not muffled or echoey.

If you can nail these basic production elements, then the last piece of the puzzle is ensuring what you’re teaching is well considered, well researched, well planned and well spoken.

Offer this, and your students will want to keep logging in each day with eager anticipation for the next lesson.

There are many other elements to making a great course, but I believe if you get these four things right, you’ll be able to take your students on a transformational journey, all from the comfort of your, and their, own home.

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Emma Green

Emma is the co-founder of leadership-development organisation Your CEO Mentor.