Published On: March 10, 2017By
How can you profit by selling online courses with an LMS? Independent learning tech analyst John Leh shares his advice

Do you sell learning content online? If you don’t, chances are you will soon. And if you already offer online courses, you’re probably looking for ways to expand this line of business.

Why Are Online Courses So Attractive?

What’s driving new interest in digital learning? It’s not just for universities and commercial training companies anymore. It’s a smart strategy that connects you with your customers and others in your sphere of influence.

Corporations, associations, public institutions – as well as solopreneurs and subject matter experts who’ve never designed or delivered training in their lives – all are creating and selling online content at an unprecedented pace.

Topics for online courses span every conceivable subject, from cooking to tree farming and from graphic design to rocket science.

Intended learning audiences are also just as diverse, including students, toddlers (or their parents), hobby enthusiasts, special interest groups, individuals seeking personal or professional development, and the general public.

Content quality also runs the gamut, from basic page-turners to deeply immersive virtual reality. And of course, content costs range from free to ridiculously expensive, with learning experiences that are awesome, terrible or anywhere in between. (However, the cost of online training content does not always correlate with its quality.)

Online training sellers can market content directly to their target audience or to organizations with a large base of potential learners. For example, if you develop continuing medical education (CME) content, you can market it to individual doctors, to health systems with many doctors on staff, to associations that serve clinicians – or all three.

Not surprisingly, with such a diverse spectrum of business opportunities, and with so much ongoing digital innovation, support for commercial training content providers is the most rapidly evolving segment in the learning technology space.

Online Courses: Why Bother With an LMS?

Typically, training providers rely on a Learning Management System (LMS) to bring learners and content together and to facilitate online sales. However, because LMSs were originally developed for employee training or academic use, ecommerce functionality has historically been considered an “add-on.”

The functionality needed to coordinate and deliver mandatory student and employee education is vastly different from the tools that attract voluntary learners and persuade them to pay for training. But until recently, the gap between “mandatory” and “volunteer” LMS use has been considered a problem that LMS buyers must solve separately, through marketing tactics, brand integration, ecommerce tools, creativity and luck.

In the past, LMS vendors were staffed primarily with instructional experts who focused on challenges like the possibility of achieving Kirkpatrick Level 4 capabilities. They rarely included business or marketing experts who understand how learning technology and business strategies work in tandem to build thought leadership, drive brand engagement and develop customer relationships that sell more content

Today there are LMSs designed specifically with this goal in mind. They are developed by people devoted to helping companies grow by addressing a well-defined market need with compelling learning content that people want to purchase and use.

If this is your goal, your first priority should be to find a learning solution that supports your buyers’ ecommerce needs. There are hundreds of LMS solutions with ecommerce capabilities, so narrowing the field from this diverse list can be confusing and time-consuming.

Your best bet is to outline your ideal use cases and select a short list of vendors who satisfy those requirements.

Which LMS is Best for ECommerce? Three Levels of Support

1) Selling Online Courses Directly to Individuals

In terms of technical sophistication, the simplest form of LMS support for online training involves selling courses directly to learners (also known as Business-to-Consumer or B2C).

LMS platforms with ecommerce capabilities typically meet these requirements because the feature set is similar to those in standard online storefronts. At a minimum, you should expect the following features:

  • Ability to browse content catalog before account set-up or log-in
  • Delivery of learning content in any media format – standalone or bundled
  • Support for selling physical products (books and other tangibles)
  • Content reviews and ratings
  • Coupons, promotions, discounts
  • Shopping cart, checkout and payment gateway integration for credit card authorization
  • Immediate access to purchased content
  • Recurring and automated billing
  • Financial reporting, sales analysis and reconciliation reporting
  • Integration with or other customer relationship management (CRM) platform

2) Selling Online Courses Through Organizations

The next layer of LMS ecommerce sophistication is the ability to sell and/or support customers within organizations of all types (also known as Business-to-Business or B2B).

For example, if a hospital buys a continuing medical education course for 100 doctors, how will doctors become aware of the course, find it in the LMS and consume the content? Will they need a username and password?

To further complicate matters, let’s assume “commerce” transactions occur in one of several ways:

1) Directly within the LMS
2) In an external clinical system, and then passed to the LMS via API integration, or
3) Offline, through sales representatives

These different sales scenarios translate into different LMS requirements. Typical B2B LMS ecommerce features include:

  • Bulk purchase of content online
  • Credit account – organizations are invoiced after content is consumed
  • Prepaid debit account – organizations pay for content upfront and account depletes as content is consumed
  • Upload a file of learner identities and user names to create accounts and assign content
  • Tokens (registration codes, enrollment keys and/or vouchers) are purchased in bulk and distributed to a learner for one-time use or use over a predetermined time interval or per course. They can also be used for access to the LMS or content on a per-organization basis.  In this case, the hospital could give 100 doctors a single code that provides direct access to the LMS and the purchased course
  • Bulk purchase discounts (buy two for $X, 10 for $Y)
  • Subscriptions – timed access to content (expires in 30, 300 or X days)
  • Integration with Higher Logic community software or an AMS
  • Delegated client-level administration and reporting

3) Selling Online Courses to Multiple Markets Through Multiple Channels

Smart training providers don’t put all their eggs in one basket. They diversify income streams from across a content business portfolio.

Analyzing performance, efficiency and profitability of these various streams helps guide the way for future expansion. The most sophisticated ecommerce-enabled LMS platforms recognize this need and respond with appropriate capabilities.

For example:

  • Ability to sell a mix of content to any combination of individuals and organizations
  • Client-specific portals with relevant content and branding
  • Branding and sponsorship functionality for courses, libraries, various topics of interest and learning paths
  • Multi-dimensional pricing strategies, packaging, bundles, subscriptions and memberships based on competitive issues and opportunities
  • Global commerce and tax management
  • Support for affiliates and other partners who want to resell content to their customers
  • Remote SCORM packages that deploy content on a business customer’s existing LMS
  • Integration with email marketing, CRM, social media, Google Ads and other cloud-based business applications


There’s good news and bad news for online training content companies (and those who want to enter this market). The good news? Anyone can create and sell online course content now. The bad news: Anyone can create and sell online content now.

Competition is fierce for every segment of the learning-related content world. And the landscape is getting more crowded every day.

Using an employee-focused LMS to fuel commercial training is akin to racing a minivan. And it’s no longer enough just to offer a public content catalog and a simple shopping cart.

If your organization wants to sell more and wants to sell more profitably, you need a coherent, thoughtful business strategy – along with a learning platform designed for today’s relentless anytime, anywhere, any device ecommerce demands.

Thanks for reading!


Want more training business insights? Join our live webinar:

Paving the Way to a Profitable Learning Business: 5 Strategies

There’s never been a better time to expand your business reach and revenue through online training. But what kind of infrastructure is best as a foundation for delivering online courses? And how can you minimize growing pains when demand for learning content increases?

Join Thought Industries CEO and Co-Founder Barry Kelly, and Talented Learning CEO and Lead Analyst, John Leh, as they share five key strategies that will help you drive growth and profit from your learning programs. You’ll discover:

• How to evaluate monetization opportunities
• How to customize a business model for your market realities
• Which content creation approach makes sense for your business
• The fundamentals of learning content distribution
• How to choose the best training delivery platform for your requirements


Need Proven LMS Selection Guidance?

Looking for a learning platform that truly fits your organization’s needs?  We’re here to help!  Submit the form below to schedule a free preliminary consultation at your convenience.

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About the Author: John Leh

John Leh is CEO and Lead Analyst at Talented Learning and the Talented Learning Center. John is a fiercely independent consultant, blogger, podcaster, speaker and educator who helps organizations select and implement learning technology strategies, primarily for extended enterprise applications. His advice is based upon more than 25+years of learning-tech industry experience, serving as a trusted LMS selection and sales adviser to hundreds of learning organizations with a total technology spend of more than $100+ million and growing. John would love to connect with you on Twitter or on LinkedIn.

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