How to Pre-Sell Your Online Programs

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Let’s be real: Some wildly popular online business tactics seem to employ magical thinking, and pre-selling is definitely one of them. Asking people to pay for an online offering before you’re even done creating it? Lunacy, right? Something only sketchy infomercial guys would ever consider doing.

Wrong. This practice may sound unrealistic, but we’ve used it, we endorse it, and we want you to embrace it. (And you know we’re about as far from “sketchy” as it gets.) Read on to find out why pre-selling your online courses and programs is a practice that all entrepreneurs should consider utilizing.

What is pre-selling?

It may sound like selling a class or package before a publicized launch date, but pre-selling is actually the practice of creating a private launch before the offering is completely built and perfected. Why do this? Because it validates your concept and means you get paid for conducting market research. Because it allows you to sell your pilot products instead of offering them for free. Because it WORKS.

As any seasoned entrepreneur will tell you, the most revered concept in the business world is predictable revenue. If you sink time, energy, and money into an endeavor, you want to be sure it will pay off. Unfortunately, simply asking your followers if they’d shell out for a product or program will not get you reliable feedback: Most people are inclined to tell you what they think you want to hear, so polling yields dubious results. What people say and what they do are often divergent.

So to determine if an idea really has profit potential, you need proof that people will pay. You need to build something you know you can sell, and then push it into the market and see how much it can earn. If it does well, gather user feedback and iterate on it. Improve it, revise it, and resell it. Follow these steps until you’ve got a business model that’s predictable, reliable, and consistently profitable.

How do you decide what to build?

So if polling your people won’t work, how on earth do you figure out what they want? They key is to read between the lines. Ask questions that gauge interest, and get people talking about their pain points.

Let’s assume you’re a professional photographer looking to break into the world of online courses… Instead of asking your followers, “Would you buy a course on lighting your photos?” ask, “What do you struggle with when composing your photos?” Let the conversation unfold, and collect the data. You may find out that lighting isn’t the problem, it’s staging, or equipment, or something you never could have imagined being a total pain for less-experienced photographers.

Don’t construct your offering around your own interests or expertise; Build it on what your people want and need. Start assembling your product based on their indirect input, and then pre-sell to make sure they’re serious.

How to pre-sell your online offering

First, make sure your potential profits will be worth the investment of time needed to create something great. Assume that 2-5% of your total audience will actually buy your digital product. Multiply that number by your offering price, and you’ll get your projected profit total. Is it enough to make the product worthwhile? If not, it might be a better use of your time to focus on growing your following; when you have more email subscribers, you’ll have a shot at larger profits. If the calculation yields a good-enough number for you, you can dig into pre-selling.

Here are two of the main pre-selling strategies used by the pros:

Create a Beta Group: Offer your product at a discounted price, be transparent about the fact that you’re doing this because the product is still being developed, and pop everyone who’s willing to pay for it into a private group. They’ll know that they’re participating in an experiment, but they’ll be comfortable paying because they want early access and the opportunity to offer input directly to you. (And they’re thrilled to be getting a discount!) Create a private Facebook group or email list or some other kind of closed group for these folks, and offer the content to them as you create it. Once they’ve completed the entire program, gather their feedback, revise your offering, and launch it publicly.

Host a Webinar: Write a series of emails that build trust and engage your potential customers, offer a free webinar that teases your offering, and then nudge them toward a private pre-sale on the paid offering. The webinar itself can be short, but should be fun and useful so it actually increases the likelihood of viewers purchasing your product. This strategy is helpful if you aren’t sure you can gather a big enough group of Beta testers who will be willing to pay.

Beta groups are ideal for entrepreneurs who have a fairly enthusiastic or loyal following. It can be challenging to convince people to pay to work through the kinks of an incomplete product with you, unless they’re already fans of your work. The webinar strategy works for just about everyone, though it does require some extra prep and content-creation on your part.

A handful of pre-selling don’ts

To be clear, there are risks to pre-selling; Taking money for a product that’s not yet complete is especially dicey if you’re a procrastinator who might not see the build through to completion. Handle this process with care, and please consider these warnings:

Don’t promise specific results: Unless your course or program has been taken by dozens of folks and they’ve reported boosted metrics back to you, NEVER pre-sell by guaranteeing measurable results. This is especially important if your offering is more informative than tactical.

Don’t plow ahead if feedback is negative: If you go the Beta group route and the reviews are abysmal, consider trying a different topic or format. Even if you’ve already sunk some time and money into this offering, it may still fail to resonate. Honor the input you receive from your initial customers.

And, on a related note, please be open to suggestions for improvement. It can be easy to assume that you know better, especially if you’ve constructed your offering around your core expertise, but if you want to continually improve your products, you’ve got to be open to constructive criticism.

So what happens if your pre-sale only gets one taker? Or you decide you want to focus on a different project? You simply refund the person who has paid and then regroup. It’s totally fine to have a low sales goal for your pre-selling efforts; three to five participants can be plenty! But if the signals you’re getting are that interest levels simply aren’t high enough, don’t force it.

What happens if your pre-sale meets your revenue goal? You’ve hit on a winner. Build it out, heed the feedback you get from your first customers, refine and hone, iterate, and celebrate. Pre-selling is a tried-and-true method for ensuring your ideas are marketable, alluring, and sustainable. We’d love for you to leverage this tactic to accelerate your own success.