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I purchased my first “make money online” course back in 1995. I didn't even have a driver's license yet, but I found a course for $20, dutifully mailed off my $20, and received a floppy disk in return. The course was a scam, just a notch or two above a glorified chain letter – and the #1 way they proposed you make money was to blast out unsolicited emails (this was before CAN-SPAM rules) and sell the course.
There were a few other ideas mentioned in the short document, along with a piece of software that helped you send emails (and unintentionally take down my hometown ISP). Nothing I received offered any transferable skills. I earned perhaps $60-80 from it, but it definitely wasn't a sustainable business. In 2019, it would be wildly illegal.
Since that time, I've graduated, gone to college, and spent more than a decade in online and affiliate marketing. I've managed affiliate programs, worked with hundreds of clients ranging from small businesses to multinational corporations, and I've been reasonably successful as an affiliate myself. I've also worked behind the scenes with a number of people and companies that teach affiliate marketing or broader online marketing skills – some good, some absolutely terrible. I haven't had a day job since 2008.
All of this is meant to tell you one thing – I know what I'm talking about.
Whether you want to learn blogging, affiliate marketing, e-commerce, freelancing, or some other marketing-related skill, it can be hard to figure out which courses and instructors are worthwhile. To help you out, I've pulled together my thoughts on the matter, based on years of doing this full-time (and seeing many, many free and paid courses).
Before we go ahead, I should also mention one more thing – pretty much everything you'd ever hope to learn from a course IS available online somewhere for free. Courses are NOT necessary, but they can greatly reduce the amount of time needed to master skills. They're also great if you want to learn but you're not even sure what questions you should be asking. A course just puts it all together and guides you through it in an orderly fashion (or so you hope).
The Things That Don't Really Matter
Before we get into the things you should look for, let's talk about the things that don't really matter one way or another. There are some things that seem like they might be really good or bad,
Every review I see comes from an affiliate…
It's not uncommon to research a course and realize it's virtually impossible to find a review that doesn't come from an affiliate of the course. That's especially true of courses about blogging and affiliate marketing. After all – if you took a course and decided to review it, why WOULDN'T you use your affiliate link in the review?
The problem is that positive reviews don't mean as much when the person reviewing the course stands to make a significant sum of money (especially if they're not even comparing it against another course and talking about the pros and cons of each).
When I can't find unaffiliated reviews of a course, I just ignore the reviews completely. It could be wonderful, and they might all be right. It could be that nobody wants to say bad things because they want commissions. It could be that all the negative reviews were pushed down into search oblivion by the positive reviews.
If you don't feel you can find unbiased reviews, all you can really do is disregard them and focus on other ways to determine quality.
How do I know if reviews are done by affiliates?
Great question – there are a few tell-tale signs to look for. The first is that when they link to the product or course, it's not just a plain link. Try hovering over it with your cursor on a laptop or desktop computer (or copying the URL and examining it if you're on a mobile device).
Let's suppose the course is called “Super Duper Baller's Moneymaking Guide” and their website is https://SuperDuperBallersMoneymakingGuide.com. This is fake, of course (and if someone happens to turn that URL into a real course, I'll be sure to change this post).
A non-affiliated review would just link to their site as I showed it above. If they linked to the course with the words “Buy it HERE”, you'd see https://SuperDuperBallersMoneymakingGuide.com when you hovered over those words.
An affiliate review would likely have a string at the end or some kind of shortened URL. Let's say the reviewer in this case runs a site called Georgina's Review Site. Examples:
In other cases, the affiliate might have a special coupon code rather than any kind of unique link. The coupon code would be unique to them and it would tell the course owner who sent the new sale so they could be credited accordingly. In rare cases, some courses or products will even make an entirely unique domain or landing page for one reviewer – but that's not something you run into very often.
The course doesn't come with an unconditional money-back guarantee…
In modern industrialized nations, most of the things we purchase come with a money-back guarantee (although good luck trying that with college or healthcare). A lot of people, then, expect that if they don't like a course, they should be able to return it.
Unfortunately, a lot of people suck. Even if a course delivers on its promises, the return rate for information products is often outrageously high unless there are some limitations. Desperate people flit from course to course, hoping to find the big secret that'll turn their life around (there's no secret, only smart, consistent work). They frequently lack the time or money to invest in whatever it is they're trying to learn about, so they refund. A lot. It can create problems with your payment processor, and it definitely creates more customer service workload. By not having a super-relaxed return policy, you keep out a lot of people who probably shouldn't be there in the first place, and you cut down on headaches.
Piracy is the other big problem. Most courses deal with it occasionally, but the more open your return policy, the worse it tends to be. Certain unethical people buy course after course, refunding almost as fast as they purchase – then offering up someone else's hard work for free.
So no – I wouldn't let a tough return policy scare you off. Most courses WILL refund you if you diligently do the work they recommend and you just aren't getting results. The only thing I'd worry about is a 100% hard-line NO RETURNS EVER, NO EXCEPTIONS kind of policy – and even that can be appropriate for things like coaching and live events where the instructor gives up time or money to make a place for you. That's a bit different from an ebook or online course center.
Course Warning Signs
Now that we know what NOT to worry about, let's talk about the signs that should send you running – or at the very least, backing away slowly.
If a course creator doesn't offer substantial free material, don't even bother. If the only free material they offer is a free course or a few posts loaded with affiliate links that are basically just a way for them to earn commissions from Bluehost or ConvertKit, don't bother. Those posts are fine and they can even be educational, but they're not a good way to judge whether you should invest serious money in a course.
Does the instructor have an email list? A podcast? Free webinars? A blog? A book you can get for <$10-20 on Amazon? Very few people will have all of them, but they should have something. If the course is just a single domain with no blog or supporting materials, move on. You need to try the samples before you decide whether to buy. That's how you figure out whether they're good at explaining things and whether their teaching style works for you.
Make money bloggers & one hit wonders…
This is probably the biggest problem I see with courses and their instructors. Far too many courses are taught by people who do nothing but talk about making money online, or who have only really had one successful site or project.
Why's that a problem? There are a lot of “make money online” bloggers who really don't know much at all about online marketing. Their entire business consists of talking about various moneymaking courses and tools, then pushing them like crazy on Pinterest. If you want to do much more than blogging about making money online, they don't have much to offer you.
One hit wonders are kind of the same. If you're investing your time and money in a course, you need to make sure you're learning transferable, repeatable skills. When somebody's had ONE successful project or site, you often find that they succeeded in spite of their methods. When you see someone who's worked on multiple different sites and projects, who's weathered ups and downs over the course of many years, you know they have a better idea of what makes these things tick. One hit wonders don't always understand why or how their successes happened, and many can never quite replicate it for themselves or anyone else.
This may not be a problem with the most basic of courses, since anybody can tell you how to install WordPress – but if you're looking for some more advanced tactical instruction, seek out courses from people who've been around the block a few times.
A special note about personal finance/make money/life coach bloggers: There's a certain phenomenon I've noticed among bloggers, especially those in personal finance and make money online circles. They tend to be very clique-y, each promoting each other's courses and projects like they're the holy grail of online marketing. I even attended an event in Vegas years ago where course owners were standing out in the hallway recording video testimonials for each other, asking the course owners what they should say and then saying it with great enthusiasm. They were making up income figures on the spot.
Not ALL of these bloggers are like that, of course – but if you look at a course created by a personal finance blogger and all the testimonials come from personal finance bloggers and life coaches…be wary. I'd rather see NO testimonials than a bunch of dishonest circlejerk testimonials.
The reputation coaster…
Too many big bloggers get popular within a crowd, create a sub-par course, then fail to consistently update or improve it. To a certain extent, this goes back to my previous point – a lot of these people just don't know their subject area all that well beyond the limited things they did. The things that make you successful in one case don't necessarily create a great teacher.
The bigger problem here, though, is that having a big reputation can make it REALLY easy to put out a half-hearted effort and let their reputation do the work. There are a couple of very popular courses I can think of right now that suffer from this problem. The courses are extremely basic, poorly organized, partially broken (links that don't work), and generally dated.
Promising Signs in a Course
There's no perfect course or instructor for everyone, but there are definitely some encouraging signs to look out for.
- The course is run by someone who is present and involved. Ideally, you want to learn from somebody still in the trenches, doing what you're doing and staying up to date on tactics and rules. You don't want a career teacher who can't hack it in the field, but you also don't want someone who had one great project and all but retired to sell courses. I've even seen a few people who did well, then went on UpWork and hired somebody to write their “how to” course. Needless to say, they were not great courses.
- The course uses a format that fits with your preferred learning style. If you do better with videos or audio, don't buy a pure text course. The course should tell you up front what kind of format(s) to expect. Many of the best courses use a mixture of audio, video, screencasts, text, spreadsheets, and/or worksheets.
- The course doesn't try to be everything to everyone. Some courses are great for beginners and terrible for the intermediate student. Some courses are amazing for learning Pinterest but terrible for affiliate marketing. Figure out what you hope to get out of it and how it matches up against your skill/experience level. Ask questions if you need to.
- Great free content. If somebody has written blog posts that give you Aha! moments, there's a pretty good chance you'll love their paid content, too.
- The instructor is open about his or her projects/sites. It's unreasonable to expect somebody to share every single project in public – some projects are more sensitive than others, and some things just aren't ready to go public yet. However, if somebody claims to be an expert without giving any examples of their sites or books or whatever you're going to be learning about, that's a bad sign.
- The course has a good outline. If a course goes on and on about how much money you could make, but never really tells you how or explains what you'll learn, just keep moving. A good course should give you a pretty clear idea of what they'll be teaching you.
Above all, trust your gut. Click around on the instructor's blog and try to get a feel for their personality and general presence. Bookmark the course and sleep on it for a night or two. Think about whether you have the time to read/watch/listen and then implement the course. Don't just blindly believe everything you see on the sales page, and don't let yourself get swept away by good copy.