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How To Create A Self-Paced Email Course

When I realized I had written what seemed to be a course (i.e. not my usual article or book), I was left with a sense of panic. There are so many options for running an online email course, and all of them seem slightly confusing or time-intensive to set up.

Email Course

Then I remembered the autoresponders feature in my newsletter application (I use MailChimp, although every newsletter software has it). I could trigger lessons with autoresponders and deliver course material to where most people spend most of their day: the inbox.

Further Reading on SmashingMag: Link

Another problem was that the course was about writing a book, and some of the lessons were slightly onerous — like “Write a first draft.” So, setting a fixed time delay wouldn’t work because some people complete things like that much more quickly than others.

Instead of automatically firing off each lesson after a set amount of time, I created a series of lessons via autoresponders that fired only when the previous lesson was marked as finished. That way, I got to deliver each new lesson only when the student had finished the previous. This method does not require you to configure any website, plugins or additional software (beyond setting up a mailing list and creating pages on your existing website, which you probably already know how to do).

I made my own course, Write and Sell Your Damn Book, free for a few reasons. First, I was able to bring some sponsors on board to give me enough money to make it worthwhile to create and set up. Secondly, I felt that the course material should be available to anyone, on any budget, who is writing a book.

Thus, the course made money before it launched, but the downside is that it made a fixed amount of money. I set up additional (albeit minor) revenue streams for it — affiliate links on Amazon to recommended books on the same subject, links to my own paid books, as well as the course in Kindle format, just in case people wanted to read the material all at once.

Using the method outlined below, I created a self-paced email course that had over 1,000 registrations in the first 24 hours, and almost 2,500 in the first week. There are other ways to do this using MailChimp, such as triggering the completion of a course with a URL, but this is how I set up mine.

1. Create A List Link

This list is only for people who will take your email course. Make sure the publicity settings are set to non-public and non-archivable (otherwise, people will be able to share the lessons with whomever they want).

Check “No, my campaigns are not public,” and uncheck “Activate the archive bar.”

When creating autoresponders, ensure that you remove the “View this campaign in a browser” link, to further discourage shareability. To take things one step further and make sure only subscribers see some or all of the course’s content, read up on conditional merge tags4.

2. Match The Colors And Fonts In The Course Material To The Registration Process Link

You’ll find these by going to “Signup Forms” and then “General Forms.” Match the fonts, colors and logo of the course’s website for a consistent user experience.

3. Select “Send A Final Welcome Email” Link

You’ll find this option in the drop-down menu on the “Create Forms” page; it will be automatically selected, unless you’ve unchecked the box. Add text to this email (scroll down to edit the contents), informing users to “Click the completed lesson” button in each lesson to get the next lesson.

Later, we’ll get into how to set this up, but essentially each lesson’s email will have a link that users can click when they’re finished to notify MailChimp to deliver the next lesson.

Also, in this final welcome email, let users know when the first lesson will be delivered.

4. Set Up The First Lesson And Autoresponder Link

Go to “Autoresponders” and then “Create autoresponder.” Select the entire list to be the recipients. On the next page, the event that triggers this autoresponder is “Subscription to the list.” Make sure that “Also trigger on list import” is checked if you want to use Twitter cards or if you will be charging for the course (more on this later).

Lesson One5
(View larger version6.)

Choose whether to send it within the hour or at another time and date. On the set-up and campaign information page, give the campaign a subject line and make sure that, under “Tracking,” “Goal Tracking” is checked — this is important because it will trigger the next autoresponder lesson.

5. Set A Goal For Your Campaign Link

A goal is simply a URL that you add to the lesson. For my own email course, I created a few pages on my website that thanked the user for completing the lesson. For example, I added a button to the campaign for lesson 1, reading “I have completed this lesson” and linking to

The URL may be anything, but if you are setting a reminder email (more on this later), then the URL must contain the same folder — in this case, lessons. If you use WordPress, this is simply the parent page, and each individual lesson would be a child page of the parent, /lessons/.

These pages that live on your website are important for firing off autoresponders, as well as for letting the user know that a lesson has been completed and that a new one is on the way.

A good marketing strategy is to add some social engagement to the completion page for each lesson, such as “Tweet that you’ve finished lesson 1,” with a hash tag for your course or sharing buttons, so that users can let others in their network know about the course and where to sign up.

6. Set Up Subsequent Lessons By Creating A New Autoresponder Link

Set the entire list as the recipients. On the next page, set “Specific link in the campaign is clicked” as the event to trigger the autoresponder.

Lesson Two7
(View larger version8.)

Then, select the previous lesson. If you’re creating lesson 2, then select lesson 1’s autoresponder from the drop-down menu. Then, choose “Select a link from your campaign” and select the URL that you used for the button that tells the user they have completed that lesson.

Set the autoresponder to send either within the hour or at a time and date of your choosing. I always pick “Within the hour,” so that the user gets the next lesson fairly quickly.

Make sure to track goals for every lesson you create (otherwise, the URL clicks won’t be tracked by the following lesson).

To create lesson 3, you’d follow the steps above but would select lesson 2 from “For what campaign” and the lesson 2 completion URL for “Select a link from your campaign.” And so on, until you’ve added all of the lessons.

7. Set Up Additional Emails (If Needed) Link

In addition to the lessons, you may want to send out a different type of email a day or two after the final lesson has opened. The email could include additional resources, an “About the author” section, or perhaps a review of the course (if you’ve got one).

Select “Send to the entire list” for the recipients.

For the autoresponder, select “Campaign is opened” as the event to trigger the follow-up email, and select “For what campaign” as the final lesson (via the drop-down menu). Then, select the amount of time for “When the autoresponder should be sent.” If the email is a review or list of resources, then sending it a day or two after makes sense, while the lessons are still fresh.

8. Set Up A Reminder Email Link

Because the course is self-paced, people won’t get the next lesson if they forget about the email for the current lesson, so setting up a course reminder autoresponder is another good idea.

From step 5, if the same folder is in the URL for each lesson (in this example, /lessons/), then it’s simply a matter of creating a new reminder autoresponder that sends to a new segment of the list.

(View larger version10.)

To do this, start an autoresponder, select “Send to a new segment,” then pick “Subscribers match,” and then “Any” from the drop-down menu.

In the next drop-down menu, choose “Goal Activity,” then “Doesn’t match,” and in the field type in the folder URL of all lessons (in this case, lessons) (don’t type the full URL or any slashes).

On the next page, select “Subscription to the list” as the event to trigger the autoresponder.

When setting the autoresponder, estimate a reasonable time which people would take to complete a lesson. For my own list, I’ve set the reminder to “45 days” after a user has stopped clicking anything.

Remind people that they’ve signed up for the course and, if they’ve forgotten about the lessons, to go back and read the current one (and click that they’ve finished it once they have). I also offer helpful suggestions on how to get over being stuck in the writing process.

Integrate With Payment Solution (Optional) Link

If you want to charge for the course, you will need to collect the user’s money before the course lessons start firing. I use Gumroad to sell items online; while it doesn’t directly integrate with MailChimp, one easy additional step makes it happen.

Giving your course a price can be done in one easy step. (View larger version12.)

In your Gumroad account, click “Add a Product,” and then select the product. Where it asks for a file, create and upload a PDF of the text in your “Final welcome email” that tells people they’ve successfully signed up for the course and will get the first lesson within an hour.

Give it a price, and then “Add” the product. The next screen lets you upload a graphic (or video) and a description of the course. When it’s ready, click “Publish.”

To add an incentive (for example, to reward users with a discount for signing up early), click on the “Options” tab and create an offer. Otherwise, you’re done!

To integrate with Zapier, create a secret “free” offer, which you can use to finish the process, and delete it when you’re done.

Next, to connect Gumroad to MailChimp, sign up for an account with Zapier. Free and paid options are available. If you expect fewer than 100 users, go with a free account. Otherwise, it’s fairly cheap, and it scales. If 50,000 people are signing up a month, then the $99 per month price tag is well worth it.

By connecting Gumroad to MailChimp you can automatically add purchasers of your Gumroad product to your course’s mailing list. (View larger version14.)

Once you’ve got an account, click “Create a Zap.” The trigger service is Gumroad, and the action service is MailChimp. For “Choose a trigger,” select “New sale.” For “Choose an action,” select “Add subscriber,” and then continue. From there, follow the steps to connect both your Gumroad and MailChimp accounts to Zapier.

Next, choose your “Product” (which would be your course if you have more than one product in Gumroad), and then continue. Then, choose which MailChimp mailing list to put subscribers in. When you click on “Insert fields” in the email section, Zapier will ask you to create a new purchase of your product. Go back to Gumroad and do that (using the free discount code), and continue with the process. Make sure to select “Email” in the email drop-down menu.

Also, select “No” for “Send a welcome email” because subscribers will get the PDF as a download immediately upon paying. Click “Continue,” name the Zap whatever you’d like, and turn it on!

Now, whenever someone purchases the Gumroad product for your email course, they will be automatically added to the course’s mailing list and will start receiving lessons.

And that’s how you create a self-paced email course using MailChimp, Gumroad and Zapier.

(al, il, ea)

Credits of the image on the front page: Sneaky Pizza15.

Footnotes Link

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Paul Jarvis is a best-selling author, designer and gentleman of adventure. He’s worked with Silicon Valley start-ups, pro-sports athletes, Fortune 500 companies, best-selling authors and the world’s biggest entrepreneurs. He also writes for his popular newsletter, The Sunday Dispatches.

  1. 1

    Or… You could make things better and just use Moodle. ;)

    • 2

      Thanks Rama! There are literally 1,000s of ways to share information on the Internet, my article was just one option :) I’ll check out Moodle.

      • 3

        Cheers! @Paul :) Like WordPress, it also has a fair number of “add ons”. – And I should really have said “Your post rocks!” (I thought I did at the time, for some reason I didn’t or I messed up copy & paste into the comment).

    • 4

      Moodle is incredibly complicated for these sorts of niche courses, though. (Heck, it’s incredibly complicated for non-niche courses, too – I know of many school boards and universities who struggle to get Moodle working seamlessly and that’s with an entire IT department behind them!)

      I prefer to use something like WordPress + LearnDash when it comes to creating online courses that are running on a platform (rather than via email). Simpler to manage, but still very powerful.

      • 5

        I’m a year late on this, sorry. This article just solved a huge dilemma for me. I liked your comment on a LearnDash, Breanne. I am about to develop a paid ecourse that I was going to deliver as an online newsletter using email, sort of a glorified email or via my WP site, not sure yet. LearnDash might be an overkill for my one course but it might be the answer, my many thanks!!

        Loved the article Paul – even though I’m a tad late ha ha.
        Sydney AUS

  2. 6

    Loved this, Paul! Thanks for being open & sharing your process.

  3. 7

    Justin McGill @ Workado

    February 10, 2014 9:08 pm

    Really appreciated you taking the time to outline your process. Always interesting to see exactly how other marketers do things!

  4. 8

    Is there any content in your “lesson completed” page?

    If it makes sense for the course it could be useful to send students to a comments enabled page so that they could share feedbacks, assignments, tips etc..

    Thanks for sharing this Paul!

    • 9

      There is some content, yes. For me it’s a “lesson completed” page as well as an offer to share the course and their progress on it on social media. It could easily be a page/post with comments in your CMS though.

  5. 10

    Justin Ferriman

    February 11, 2014 12:05 pm

    This is a very good article and really highlights the benefits of leveraging the various tools that are available to create real value and lead generation for businesses/bloggers.

    In fact, email courses are a great way to share and teach with an interested audience and to build a brand – it’s something we regularly see with our customers at LearnDash.

    The great thing about the strategy you outline is that it can really be used across any industry and it’s fairly straightforward to set-up. It also is a fantastic way for bloggers to build a loyal following.

    The only thing that I would expand upon in this article is the importance of the image that you choose for the course. Whether it’s the image used for your Gumroad product, or the sign-up form on your blog, it’s really the most important component to getting sign-ups… Yet you’d be surprised at how many people whip something up in MS Paint and call it a day.

    Unless you’re a graphic designer, hire someone to do it for you (Fiverr perhaps?) and your conversion rate will surely rise.

    Justin Ferriman

    • 11

      Agreed, thankfully I’ve been a designer longer than I’ve been created content for sale :)

  6. 12

    Great alternative to housing a learning module or plugin on your website. You laid out the steps perfectly.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  7. 13

    This idea has so much potential that extends well beyond the idea of an online course. Thanks so much for sharing, you really got my wheels turning with ideas.

    • 14

      Goal-based emails definitely reach beyond just an online course. They’re possibly the most powerful tool in a newsletter’s toolbox.

      • 15

        “Goal-based emails” … ok, NOW my wheels are turning!! Thank you for sharing your process, including details like social sharing and monetization potential. I want to point out that using services like MailChimp and Gumroad that we are already using is so much simpler than having to sign up for and utilize yet another service, in my opinion. I have had to teach myself SO much already…!

  8. 16

    Really good post with great detail. Thanks for sharing. Hope to use it someday before the whole process changes….as things do online.

  9. 17

    This is a great article… thanks for sharing. I have been working on exactly this … creating an online course! The timing of this post couldn’t be better.

  10. 18

    Thanks for this post! It came at a great time for me.

    One question. When you set up the course on a separate email list, how do you make sure your subscribers don’t get duplicate emails from you in the future? I use MailChimp and thought that if someone is a subscriber (list #1) and then they take your course (list #2), they’ll end up getting duplicate emails if you send a weekly blog post for example. How do you handle this?

    • 19

      The only reason I used different lists is because it’s 100% different content now and in the future. You could easily build the same course using a segment on mailchimp, and that’d avoid duplicates.

  11. 20

    Michael Murphy

    February 17, 2014 3:41 pm

    @Suzanne If you’re using two different lists (#1 for your blog/newsletter and #2 for your course) then subscribers would only get emails sent to the list that they’re on. So no duplicates unless you’re sending the same emails to both lists.

    In this case you would probably want to migrate folks from list #2 (your course) into your main list (#1) once they’ve completed it.

  12. 21

    nice !!!

  13. 22

    I use a private WP install, works amazingly good (even better if you know php templating)

  14. 23

    Thanks for sharing! I was thinking about setting up my own email course but it was a bit frustrating to see too many options. I use MailChimp too, glad to see how I can take advantage of this tool in a new way.
    And yeah, goal-based emails have great potential, thanks again for highlighting this!

  15. 24

    Mike Grossman

    April 17, 2014 1:59 am

    Super impressed, totally awesome, just automated a course to prepare people for an exam. They all sign up at various times before the exam and I had no way – prior to this bad boy – to automate this all. Thanks for freeing up 2 hours a week.

  16. 25

    Steve P Brady

    May 14, 2014 1:48 am

    Just curious- why Gumroad and not Paypal?

  17. 26

    I just had some trouble setting this up, because „something“ on my website conflicted with the MailChimp tracking code (that you need to use for Goals).

    I spent some time with MailChimp support who couldn’t figure out what this something was, but who gave me the good hint just to use „Click on specific link“ as a trigger for the next Autoresponder.

    = If Goals don’t work with your setup, you don’t have to use them.

    I’m going to look into the reminder email to see how I can make that work without Goals, but at least the rest is working!

    Also: Thanks, Paul, for this great tutorial!

  18. 27

    Michael Trojanek

    September 1, 2014 8:41 pm

    Great article, Paul.

    To pick up on Suzanne’s comment:

    I wrote an article about how to manage your subscribers with Mailchimp’s merge tags. It covers a scenario where you have one main list (the newsletter) and different other “lists” (email courses, video training etc.), where people should always receive your newsletter when subscribing to one of your products without getting duplicate emails or being spammed with confirmation emails.

    If that sounds interesting to some of your visitors, here is the link:

  19. 28

    Awesome article Paul. Thanks for sharing this!! I use mailchimp for all my correspondence with blog followers & clients but had never thought to launch a course using it. Going to play around later today. Thanks!!!

  20. 29

    Great post – I’ve been helping my clients set this up too and they LOVE it. Is there a way to get around people sharing the emails Inside of MC?

  21. 30

    Incredible – first result on my Google Search Page and answered my question 200%. Thank you for this tutorial.

  22. 31

    Thanks for this! Would this work for a 10 day e-course, where I would be auto-sending out one email a day, starting from when the person signed up?


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