Don't Do It Yourself

The 5 Best Online Course Platforms in 2019 to Build a 6-figure per Month Empire

The wealthiest bloggers in the world make 80% of their income from online courses and can earn upwards of $100,000 per month in passive income (full study here).   Most are not technical wizards, they just rely on e-learning tools to allow them to easily create and sell ecourses.

Course platforms are designed to make it easy for you to create and sell your online courses.  They handle payment and student access, course design and navigation, hosting your videos, and helping you market your courses.  All this makes it easy for you to focus on the important stuff like creating content.

If you have a course idea you think will sell, then picking the right online learning platform is the first step to building your own 6-figure per month education empire.

I’ve analyzed dozens of online learning providers and boiled the list down to my top five favorites.  In this comparison of online course platforms, I’ll review the pros and cons of each.

Table of Contents

Note, this post does include some affiliate links, but that does not impact my honest recommendations.  If you visit a course website through one of my links and ultimately sign-up, you pay nothing extra, but I earn a small commission which helps me provide all this content to you for free.

Comparison of Online Course Platforms

Online Course Platform Ratings

Course Platform
OverallOnline Course Platform Review - 5 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 5 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 3 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 3 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 1 Star
Ease of Use for
creators
Online Course Platform Review - 5 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 4 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 4 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 3 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 3 Stars
Flexibility to
customize
Online Course Platform Review - 5 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 5 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 4 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 3 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 1 Star
Marketing toolsOnline Course Platform Review - 4 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 5 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 3 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 3 StarsOnline Course Platform Review - 1 Star
AffordabilityAverage with good free
option
Most expensive, but
includes many tools
you'd otherwise pay for
separately
AverageAverageFree to start but very
high transaction fees
Editor's NotesMost flexible platform.
Best place to get started
for free and upgrade
later as your needs grow.
Read my full Thinkific review
Robust all-in-one toolkit.
No need to pay for a
separate sales funnel
builder or email mgmt.
Read my full Kajabi review
Avoid high transaction
fees on lower plan tiers.
Read my full Teachable
review
Great customer service
and affordable plans.
Read my full Podia
review
Main advantage is a
course marketplace.
Otherwise, Udemy is very
limited in all regards.
Read my full Udemy
review

Pricing & Cost Comparison

Course Platform
Free optionYes, but with $1 + 10%
transaction fee
Monthly billing tiers$0 / $49 / $99 / $499$149 / $199 / $399$0 / $39 / $99 / $499$39 / $79$0
My Pricing Plan
Guides
Thinkific Pricing Plan
Guide
Kajabi Pricing Plan GuideTeachable Pricing Plan
Guide
Podia Pricing Plan GuideUdemy Pricing Plan Guide
Discount for annual
pre-payment
20%20%20-26%17%0
Transaction fees0%0%0-5%0%3% for your own
referrals, 50% for
marketplace sales

Note: 3rd party payment processors like Stripe and PayPal will typically take 2.9% + 30 cents per transaction and are not associated with course plans.  This is standard for any credit card charge on the Internet.

Read my detailed Pricing Plan Guide that gives you a side-by-side comparison of ALL the price plans across online course platforms.

Course Creation Feature Comparison

Course Platform
Visual page builder
Bulk import course
content
Custom domains
Multi-language
support
Multiple instructors
Prerequisites (content
locking)
Quizzes, surveys,
exams
Course completion
certificates
3rd party integration ($)3rd party integration ($)
Student discussion
Course reviews /
testimonials
Course reporting and
analytics
Social media logins
API and SSO for
developers

Customer Support Comparison

Course Platform
Phone
Email
Chat

Course Marketing Feature Comparison

Course Platform
Course marketplace
Run your own affiliate
program
set commission structure
Built in Email
Marketing
3rd Party Email
marketing
integrations
Drip feed course
content
Built in sales funnel
builder
Marketing automation
triggers
Zapier integration ($)Zapier integration ($)Zapier integration ($)
Sales page templates
Reporting and
Analytics
Time limited courses

Payment and Checkout Feature Comparison

Course Platform
Course pricing
maximum
NoNoNoNoYes, $199.99
Access your fundsInstantly (students pay
you directly)
Instantly (students pay
you directly)
Varies based on your
plan (can be 1-2 mos.)
Instantly (students pay
you directly)
2-3 mos. (students pay
Udemy)
PayPal and Stripe
integration
Payment plans for
customers
Coupons
Upsells
Course Bundles

Types of Course PlatformsDifferent Types of Online Course Platforms

There are dozens of eLearning platforms to assess, each with different specialties. Let’s look at the main types.

Hosted Online Course Platforms

All of the platforms in the comparison table above are hosted for you, meaning that they provide all the infrastructure to create and sell courses.   Your course content, videos, and storefront will be hosted in the cloud and maintained by the course provider.

Pros of Hosted Course Platforms

  • These platforms offer everything you need (and didn't know you needed) including payment processing, video and content hosting, customizable web design templates, sales funnels, and email management.
  • You do not need to be tech savvy to setup a course and storefront.
  • You can typically match your own website’s branding and specify your own sub-domain, for example, course.yourwebsite.com
  • They provide ongoing support and maintenance, feature updates, and will handle website security.
  • They also ensure a mobile responsive design and fast page speeds.
  • Their servers are managed to automatically scale to support high volume as you grow.

Cons of Hosted Course Platforms

  • Most hosted course platform plans come with a recurring monthly fee that is higher than options for hosting your own course, although there are some free price plans available and most platforms offer discounts for annual pre-payment.
  • It can be daunting to switch between platforms, although many come with free migration when you sign-up.

Self-Host Your Own Course through a WordPress plugin

There are WordPress plugins and themes available like LearnDash that allow you to host a course on your own website

Pros of Hosting Your Own Course

  • Most self-hosted WordPress plugins, like LearnDash charge a recurring annual fee that is lower than hosted course platforms.  Plans increase in price if you get licenses for multiple websites, although you can typically have unlimited courses on a single website.
  • Most maintained plugins come with feature updates (but you must handle upgrades yourself).
  • Most plugins will work with any WordPress theme to fit into your branding and there is no need for a custom domain since it runs on your own website.
  • You have total control over configuration as the software will be running on your own website.

Cons of Hosting Your Own Course

  • You will need some technical chops (or have to hire someone else who does) to install and configure the plugin on your website.
  • You need to handle your own video and content hosting or use 3rd parties like YouTube, Vimeo, or Wistia.
  • You need to manage plugin upgrades and maintenance yourself as well as handle website security.
  • If your website is not yet mobile responsive, your courses will not be either.
  • You need to worry about page speed and scaling to support high volume as you grow.
  • Most do not come with tools to manage your own course affiliate program.

Learning Management Systems

The term “Learning Management System” is sometimes used interchangeably with hosted course platforms. However, it is typically used to describe more sophisticated and expensive, enterprise level software used by corporate and educational institutions to train employees and classes of college students.

Course Marketplaces

Some course platforms have marketplaces where you can sell your course to students who browse a catalog of courses.   Kajabi and Udemy both have online marketplaces although the Udemy marketplace has the largest number of courses and students by far.  The downside of course marketplaces is you will have to compete with other courses in your niche and Udemy severely limits you in terms of pricing and branding your course.

What to look for in an online course platform

Here are some guidelines to help you understand essential components of course software as well as pitfalls to avoid. You’ll need to prioritize which of these criteria are the most important for your own situation.

What to Look for in a Course PlatformEase of Use and Support

  • How easy or difficult is it to setup a new course and customize your store front? Do you need to be tech-savvy or is it intuitive? To find out, sign-up for a free trial of any platform and spend 20 minutes trying to customize a sample course.
  • Does the platform have lots of tutorials and good customer support in case you have questions?
  • Are you comfortable working with a 3rd party email provider like MailChimp or Aweber to message your students? Or do you prefer a platform that has built in email marketing?
  • Do you want to offer course completion certificates to students? Some platforms have these included and on others you must pay for a third-party provider like Accredible.

Flexibility to Customize

  • How much can you customize your sales page and course to promote your brand?
  • Can you remove platform branding and logo or specify your own sub-domain, for example, course.yourwebsite.com?
  • Does the platform have existing integrations with third party systems for things like email management, sales funnels, and course completion certificates?
  • Does it have Zapier integration with pre-built “zaps”? Zapier is a popular middleware tool that allows you to easily connect to almost any online tool without much tech-savvy.

Marketing Tools

  • Do you want to tackle course promotion yourself or want to list your course in a marketplace?
  • Does the platform come with sales page templates, a marketing funnel builder, or allow integration with 3rd party marketing funnel software?
  • Does the platform have marketing automation allowing you to trigger emails or offers based on things like course completion or inactivity?
  • Can you run your own affiliate program and have a team of affiliates selling on your behalf for a commission?

Affordability

  • Always go for a platform with zero transaction fees. If your course gains traction and starts to sell, transaction fees will quickly eat into your profits.
  • Is there a discount for pre-paying annually?
  • Is this your first course? If so, consider a platform with a free option to get started and learn the ins and outs.  As you begin to sell and you want more options you can easily upgrade into a premium plan.

Payment Processing Capabilities

  • Do you have the freedom to set your own course prices?
  • Does the platform support Stripe or PayPal for payment processing?
  • Do you want the flexibility to offer coupons and payment plans to your students?

Which online course platform is the best?

Best Overall Course Platform - winner ribbonThe best online course platforms are intuitive and designed to help you focus on course creation rather than figuring out how to set things up.

My picks for best platform are Kajabi and Thinkific depending on your needs.

  • Tie for best platform - KajabiKajabi is the best high-end platform to do EVERYTHING for you. It’s priced slightly higher than the others, but that’s because it comes with a bunch of built in tools that you’d otherwise need to pay for separately.   Kajabi includes email management, a marketing funnel builder, hosting, themes, a blog function, and a course marketplace.
  • Tie for best platform - ThinkificThinkific is the best all-around platform with the most flexibility to customize your course.  It also enables you to easily integrate with your preferred 3rd party vendors like MailChimp, Zapier, and many more.  It is one of the more affordable providers and has a quality free option to get you started.

Best Free Online Course Software

Best Free Course Platform - winner ribbonIf you are new to selling courses or starting out on a budget, Thinkific has the best free option of all the platforms.

Best free course platform - Thinkific

Other platforms have free trials for a limited time, free with high transaction fees (Teachable), or free but 50% commission on sales (Udemy).  Thinkific is the only provider with a truly free, viable option to sell courses.

The main caveats of Thinkific’s free plan are that you are limited to 3 courses and you cannot remove the Thinkific branding.  Though you can still add your own branding to both your course and your sales page.

When you see traction and your course starts to sell, you can easily upgrade your plan in order to offer more than 3 courses and get access to additional features.

How to Market Your Online Course

How to Market Your Online CourseThere are a variety of ways to promote your online course.  While I could devote an entire website to course marketing, here are just a few for now.

  1. Use your existing resources: This may seem obvious, but if you are lucky enough to already have an email list, social media following, or traffic to your website, then you can simply message your followers to let them know about your course.  You can also create blog posts and banner ads promoting your own course.
  2. Enlist a team of affiliates: Affiliate marketing is when you find website owners in relevant niches and ask them to promote your course for a share of the profit. You get to decide what percent of the sales price is offered as a commission.  Successful programs often give up 20-50% for sales they would not have gotten otherwise.  All the platforms above come with built-in affiliate management tools to handle order tracking and payouts.
  3. Offer coupons or time sensitive discounts: The course providers above each allow you to create coupon codes.  You can give these to folks on your email list as a special offer or send them to your affiliates to help them drive more orders.
  4. Create sales funnels: Use sales funnel software like LeadPages, ClickFunnels, or Kajabi to nuture your prospective students with webinars, email drip series, free lead magnets, and tested sales page templates.  Student don’t always buy the first time they read about your course.  So you can increase your sales by engaging with them across multiple touch points to move them towards a sale.
  5. Place paid ads on Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Instagram: Consider making a brief video ad that leads to a longer course teaser on your sales page. Video is king these days and converts at a much higher rate than text or image ads.  In any case, start out with a small advertising budget and make sure you get your cost per acquisition down to your desired profit margin before increasing your ad spend.

GrantSpark -Build and sell online coursesp.s. If you need help with marketing or setting up a course platform, my marketing agency, Grant Spark can help.   We work closely with selected course creators to help them realize their vision.  To apply to work with us, send me, Geoff, an email (Geoff AT ddiy.co) with a brief summary of your course and your goals.Grant Spark-Digital Marketing Agency for non-profits and start-ups