Whether you’re launching a blog, startup, gadget or even a paid online course–starting with a targeted set of relationships and email list is critical.

There are commons patterns that form the backbone of almost any successful list building process. Getting email subscribers online today, comes down to some variation of these 3 basic steps:

  1. Create a unique and valuable piece of content.
  2. Put that content online and offer it for free (in exchange for an email).
  3. Test creatively bringing people to your site.

Once you get those three steps down, you can continue to use them to get to 10,000 and beyond. While there are many approaches to get subscribers, for this post, I’m going to show you how a mini can be a great way to get you there.

For many, a using a mini course might even be the best way to start building a valuable and targeted email list regardless of what your business.

Let’s walk through going from 0 to 1,000 subscribers using a Profitable Course Idea beta student Startup Sales Bootcamp:

 

free course growth

 

We’ll mix in some examples of other free courses, which have each reached 1,000 subscribers and point to inspirational free course examples that I’ve run into, but don’t or aren’t able to disclose data on.

There are a ton of incentives you can use to get someone you don’t know to subscribe to your list.

A mini course works as a great incentive to get someone to subscribe to you for a few reasons:

  • Higher perceived value - a mini course brings together various types of content in a sequential way rather than separating pieces of content on their own. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
  • New distribution opportunities - A mini course stands out from other types of content. It can be packaged and shipped on ProductHunt to StackSocial and BetaList, a mini course gives you new ways to market your content that you couldn’t have with an open piece of content.

free investor course

  • Offers a great user experience - Allows users to track their learning and accomplish the goal you set in the mini course. You can turn this into testimonials and case studies to help grow even more:
  • Simple to set up - There are a variety of new ways to set up a free course. You can create a landing page and send exclusively email courses. You can also combine this with other types of media. You can even partner with others to co-create the content with you and they’ll help promote it.
  • The course format helps you focus - While providing value to your sign-ups is great, creating a free course sets expectations with the people who sign up. Once you create the content, you’re not committed to doing more and can focus on promoting it. You also have an easy way to assess results by looking at the number of people who sign up based on your efforts.
  • Easy to link back to - Instead of linking to a paid offering you have in any guest blog post, a free mini course gives you a soft call to action that helps build a relationship with new potential customers at scale.

 

free course promotion

 

Before we go on, I’m going to tell you a content secret - we’re not going to do everything in the optimal way.

This post isn’t about how to write your title tags for SEO. We’re  going to focus on creating great content that almost naturally grows the audience you want. You can think about optimizing it later.

With any course launch I’ve seen, your content isn’t going to be perfect, and neither will your marketing. That’s fine and something you should accept now. In fact, the fastest way to getting to get to great content and to build your audience is to move quickly, and learn faster.

There isn’t anyone I know who’s launched something online who hasn’t tried and failed with the first few approaches they used to grow their course, so always be testing.

Trust the process and use these examples as inspiration to win the hearts of YOUR audience.

Step 1: Quickly create a unique and valuable piece of content

I don’t care who you are. Every one of us has the ability to create a unique and valuable piece of content quickly, right now. By chosing a method of creating content your comfortable with, focusing on answering a painful problem, and knowing some techniques to help you move faster.

Chose a type of content you’re already good at creating.

While some use video, many great free courses don’t. Start with the type of content that right now is the easiest for you to create. One of my text only courses has over 6,000 students and has produced real results.

Some ideas for content you can mix into a mini course include:

  • You speaking into directly into a camera. If you want to avoid production costs you can use Camtasia to record from your webcam. All you really need is a quiet spot, some natural lighting, and to elevate your laptop. If you can do this, you can produce professional talking head video without much work.
  • Create a Google doc and convert it into a PDF worksheet with screenshot visuals.
  • Create an audio interview with an expert that you can transcribe.
  • Or just link to a ton of resources with a discussion element that you lead.

Here are a few examples of the types of content recent 1,000 subscriber mini courses have used:

  • For the first version of her free course, Juliana from Startup Sales Bootcamp put together her content into a weekly email that looked like this:

 

free email course

 

  • A single recording with discussion element (easy to do with a Google Hangout or Zoom.us):

 

google hangout discussion

 

  • Meshal conducted video interviews with known experts:

 

video interviews

 

 

growhack course

 

You can even just link out to a relevant piece of content with a discussion element like so:

 

free course

 

The best pieces mini courses will combine these formats to make the course interactive.

If you’re not getting some initial interaction, a quick technique is to message people within your course with a link to the lecture and call to action to discuss.

How to make your content unique and valuable

Rand of Moz argues unique and valuable content is one of a kind, relevant, helpful, uniquely valuable and has great UX.

Creating great content that meets all these qualities consistently is HARD. However, everyone one of us has at least one piece of great content that won’t take us much time to create if we know how to start.

While I don’t necessarily disagree with Rand’s definition of great content, it helps to focus on a specific audience you can find online and identify their painful problems if you want to find the shortest path to content that creates a “wow”.

I don’t know about you, but many people create content like this dude:

 

 

Image Credit: Old Hat Creative

Instead of stressing about what content to create, it’s helpful to FIRST identify the online communities of people you eventually want in your course. Are there community forums or other places your audience hangs out online?

In those communities, look for questions about solving painful problems. Only a small percentage of people in online communities are actually active. Research from the Nielson Group points to around 10% of community participants as being either heavy or intermittent contributors. This means, for each piece of painful evidence you find, you can be sure there’s a much larger audience.

Even if some of these questions seem basic to you, if they’re being asked, there’s likely demand for a better answer. Often, the better we know something, the more we’re afflicted by the curse of knowledge. When we know a solution, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like not to know it. You’ll notice there are many more people who are new to a subject than are experts, so you might to start with great answers to more simple questions.

Take the blog post How to find anyone’s email address on GrowHack. The post itself isn’t perfect. In fact, it’s only 155 words long, and to me and many people in my field appears to be an obvious technique. Yet, this quick article on GrowHack organically generates ~1,000 unique page views a month. It solves a painful and common problem a lot of us have. We can find more of these pains with research.

By doing it in this kind of scientific way, we can get an objective view of what people actually want, instead of potentially answering questions, we think would be helpful but might not be.

One way my lovely fiance and Profitable Course Idea beta tester, Juliana Crispo found evidence of people struggling to grow their startups was on sales community sites like Closing Call where she saw:

Evidence of painful problems in sales:

    • “Making our solution a priority to the prospect.”
    • “..taking my product from a nice-to-have to a need-to-have (all prospects love my product, but finding the trigger to make them buy is hard)”

She used this and other evidence to craft the offer of:

    • An 8-Step Buy-in Method someone can use in a sales meeting that doesn’t feel salesy.
    • A 45-minute workshop with live examples of pain-finding questions.
    • A worksheet to make questions easy to remember and use.

This offer was then turned into a full email course of 7 lessons sent over over 7 weeks:

 

startup sales

 

If you want more on this process, check out the Content Creation Worksheet from Profitable Course Idea. If you like analogies, check out this video from Amy Hoy, who calls her version of this process a “sales safari”.

How to quickly create high-quality content

A few tips to help you move quickly with creating great content:

    • Keep the scope on your free course small - make the piece of content you’re developing short. Once you’ve gotten some momentum, you can always go back. In general, people want brevity;t means you can kill their painful problem faster. Short is also believable.I had a challenge at first with Profitable Course Idea. The people I spoke to who joined said they hesitated because “why would I offer something so valuable for free.” Mind blown.
    • Set a deadline to develop your content - projects have a way of filling the time allotted. Right now you can add a date to your calendar and tell someone about it to hold you accountable to it.
    • Repurpose older content - Do you have a presentation or blog post you’ve done that people love? You can easily reuse this in a free mini course.
    • See if you can develop the free course without the Internet - Once you find a painful problem you think you can solve, turn off the Internet. This can keep you focused on creating content, rather than consuming it (life side note: what would happen if we all created just as much content as we consumed?).

Instead of trying to make your content perfect, once you have the above steps down it can be helpful to move faster. Then, when you have some momentum, you can always go back and update and improve your content based on real feedback, rather than guessing about which changes are important to make. I did this with Profitable Course Idea. After our first 1,000 sign ups, I’ve gone back in, added worksheets, beefed up the lessons and even added video.

Step 2: Create a place for your content to live online

There are many ways to create a place for your content online that looks great, and motivates someoene to join.

Here are a few AWESOME free online courses you can model after (and enjoy):

Each of these free courses have reached over 1,000 subscribers, and were taught by a person or company.

Is there a free course I missed? Let me know in the comments section below and I can keep adding to this list.

When creating your place, the parts of a site to check off that you can use to help motivate someone new to sign up are:

A Hook and Promise

    • Headline - A clear headline that hooks someone’s attention. Better if you can make is sound great.
    • Sub headline - A promise clarifies a more catchy headline. This should communicate the scope of your course and how you solve a painful problem.

Build Trust

    • Social proof - There are many forms of social proof you can use to improve trust. This can come in the form of testimonials, a quote from you where you speak to your own background and credibility. It can be the logos of brands you’re associated with. Eventually this can come in the form of students who’ve taken your process and class!
    • A design that “pops” - If you’re not a designer, you can use a theme or a compelling background image you can find for free online today to do the hard work for you.

Call to action

    • Whether, it’s to add your email address or create an account, there’s an obvious way to sign up that’s above the fold of the page

Urgency

 

course free pop up zapier

 

Although it’s still early to tell - the data collected so far on this pop up on Profitable Course Idea has been crushing it:

 

sumome free course

 

While there are a ton of ways to create a great looking page, if you’re wanting to include all the above, the fastest and easiest way is to set it up your own is with a Teachable site (Yes, I’m the Co-Founder, but Teachable was built for me!).

The below are examples of free course sites using Fedora that:

    • Quickly reached 1,000 subscribers.
    • Are branded, look amazing and were built without a designer.
    • Give you complete ownership of the email address information.

Here’s an example of a free course with just an email capture:

 

free email course

 

Here’s another with a promo video. This one requires an account to sign up (which makes your course feel legit):

 

promo video

 

You can also link back to your own site in the header:

 

The Machine E-Mail System

 

Actually building a page like the one below is easy.

 

Learn To Growth Hack

 

Here’s how the insides of that last course looks like if you were to change it:

 

Sales Page Editor

 

If you’re not into code, you can drag and drop blocks to create each of these sites, add text, and your email provider of choice. If you are into coding, you can also customize these blocks however you’d like! Slick, right?

Again, if you have your own method for creating a mini course, that’s quick and easy to set up, go for it. That said, here’s an article on how the sales page editor can quickly build a page with all the elements we just discussed at no cost.

Step 3: Test creatively bringing people to your site until you get to 1,000 sign ups.

Unless you already have a blog and are well versed, I don’t recommend blogging initially as a technique because great blogging is hard work. The benefits of blogging largely come over time, and if you’re doing it right, you’re basically launching a mini course each time you do it. Here’s some more on why I would have launched a course before a blog

Of course, if you already have an audience or blog, awesome. But if you don’t, starting with a mini course makes growth so much easier. Then, when you later actually do create a blog, you’ll have a list of people you can engage with and actually send blog posts to. At that time, you can even take the content you’ve developed in your free course and use it for your first blog posts.

Let’s go into Juliana’s first 2 months that got to her first 1,000 subscribers (which she’s quickly grown beyond at this point). Here’s how it looks like in her MailChimp:

 

Test creatively bringing people to your site until you get to 1,000 sign ups.

 

Given you’ve done the research to find what’s painful to your audience, you now can feel good about going to that exact audience you found and give them the solution.

You’re like a magical content angel, answering someone’s painful problems for free. (Kind of like   Allison and Ashley are quickly becoming our content angels on the Teachable blog.

Once you see some of these approaches, experiment with your own unique way of getting to your audience.

Juliana’s audience is startups selling new products or services and sales executives, which is likely different than yours. That said, you probably participate in some online communities which helps make this step simple.

Here are the 5 tactics Juliana used to get 1,000 subscribers over her first 2 months:

  1. Juliana initially launched her free course on ProductHunt which picked up some traction with an audience of startups and founders:

 

Startup Sales Course

 

2. SalesHacker Guest Post This post became the #2 blog post on SalesHacker, according to the pop up. The post itself linked back to the free course in the signature.

 

SalesHacker Guest Post

 

3. SlideShare This is the deck Juliana had used for an in-person presentation. In an early slide (slide 6) she added a call to action that pointed back to her free course.

Note, that links aren’t allowed in the first three slides on SlideShare. Also, make sure to put the call to action is in the center of the slide.

SlideShare automatically inserts a navigation that isn’t clickable if you mouse over the right and left sides of the deck.

 

Join 1000+ others and check out my email course on sales here

 

4. Social In her free course, Juliana would direclty ask her sign ups to share the course if they enjoyed it. This helped bring in new users and built up her social proof even more.

 

Social In her free course

 

5. Closing Call AMA

Right after the free course launched, Juliana reached out to Ryan Gum who runs the sales community Closing Call. She suggested they do a Ask My Anythin (AMA) that picked up 17 comments, and got the attention of a community filled with startup sellers.

 

Ask My Anythin (AMA)

 

And that’s it! These five efforts were the main ones that brought in Juliana’s first 1,000 subscribers in only 2 months.

 

Free Guides & Courses

 

As time goes on, she’s also getting naturally picked up by other influencers linking to her and listing her as a resource on sales for startups. One example of this is Growth.Supply:

Without much additional promotion from the first two months, Juliana has now grown past 3,000 unique sessions to her sites this past month, which is trending up:

 

 

Also, did I tell you she limits she’s working on this as a hobby?

For another account of the approach, we also had a recent Teachable user talk about his experience using a course to collect emails here: How to Get More Email Subscribers from David Fonvielle.

Want more on growing your email list? Here are some additional, and get this, free courses, you can use to learn more about email list growth. Check them out:

  1. Email 1k - Email 1k is an email course that goes over a period of 30 days. It includes a Facebook group and email advice from a bunch of folks who’ve grown lists.
  2. Profitable Course Idea is my systematic process to vet your idea, get your first subscribers and presell a valuable offer built for your audience. 
  3. 7 Part Guide to Kicking Product Ass This is a free course from Amy Hoy and Alex Hillman. This free email course focuses on product launches, but their process of “sales safari” can also be applied to free courses.

Do you have any thoughts or questions on how to start and grow your first 1,000 subscribers with a free course? Or, do you have a link to a free course you’ve either created or that inspires you? Drop a link to it in the comments below.

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Conrad Wadowski

Written by Conrad Wadowski

Conrad Wadowski is the Co-Founder at Teachable (Create & Sell Online Courses) focused on growth, product and conducting mad science experiments in online education. Previously, I ran a growth hacking school with over 10,000 students.