Choosing an Online Course Platform for Your Nutrition Business: Pre-Built or Self-Hosted?
Online courses and membership programs are all the rage right now, and for good reason: they’re scalable (meaning you can create them once and sell them over and over), they’re virtual (meaning location isn’t limiting), they’re easily accessible, and they’re convenient (both for the creator and the customer).
Online courses and programs can be especially appealing to nutrition entrepreneurs as a way to increase your offerings, broaden your potential customer base, add value to 1:1 programs, or to diversify revenue streams. RDs and nutrition professionals are currently offering online courses and membership programs across the board, from PCOS to mindful eating, flexible dieting to fitness programs, food sensitivities to fertility, and tons more.
I personally love using an online course platform for delivering education as a nutrition professional because it adds both flexibility and control to your business, plus allows you to break down barriers such as time-constraints and client reach. (aka you don’t always need to have specific hours of the day available for clients, you can be location independent, and it doesn’t matter if you live in a town of 745 people.)
But the big question is – WHICH online course platform should you use?
Should you use something “third-party” or “pre-built”, like Teachable or Thinkific, or should you go self-hosted and use a plugin or custom design to host it on your own website (like Memberpress, Restrict Content Pro, Zippy Courses, WP Courseware, Lifter LMS, Learn Dash LMS, etc.). (There are also options that are somewhere in between, like Course Cats + AccessAlly, or are complete “systems” that include email providers, domain management, membership sites, etc. like Kartra + Kajabi, but those are for a different post.)
Instead of specifically breaking down ALL the options for online course platforms or membership sites and comparing them line-by-line, in this post I’m going to give you a personal look at my experience using one of each, using the RD Entrepreneur Symposium as an example. (I also use online courses and programs for my personal nutrition business, but the needs are less robust.)
Before we dive into each type of online course platforms, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself:
- How do you want to deliver your material? (Text, video, downloads, live interaction, group chat, forum, etc.)
- Will it be a course format or a membership model (one-time payment or monthly, quarterly, annual subscriptions, etc.)?
- Will content be available all at once, or will it drip out over time?
- Do you want people to be able to purchase one thing, or will you need a “shopping cart” feature, allowing for multiple options? (i.e. will you be selling courses, memberships, digital downloads like ebooks, or a combination.)
- Do you want it to have a certain aesthetic or design?
- Do you want it hosted on your own domain?
- How do you want to collect payment?
- What’s your budget?
- How much tech knowledge (or desire) do you have? Are you willing to spend time on technology or is your time better spent elsewhere?
- How tech savvy is your customer base/audience?
- Do you need an affiliate program? If yes, what affiliate features do you need?
- Do you have a website/hosting that can meet the demands of a self-hosted course.
While keeping the answers to those questions in the back of your mind, let’s dive into my personal experience: (I’m also happy to answer individual questions in the RD Entrepreneurs Facebook Group)
I’ve used Teachable (which is pretty apples to apples to Thinkific for the most part) as well as a self-hosted plugin option based mainly on Memberpress using my WordPress-based site. (I say mainly because it actually involves a lot of plugins, which we’ll get to in a minute.) So here goes:
Pre-Built Course Platform
Let’s start with the “pre-built” platforms, specifically Teachable. (Keep in mind they make upgrades/changes all the time and I haven’t actively used the platform since October 2017)
(Example Teachable sales page header)
Teachable is pretty cut and dry: you make an account, choose an account level (which you can change as you go), customize some design aspects like colors + logos, upload your content, and bam, you’re off and running. (If that sounds simple it’s because it is.) Pricing for Teachable varies from Free to $99 (or a “high volume” version for $299). The features vary between plans, but the biggest difference is the fee taken for each sale (and how long it takes to get paid). For example, Teachable keeps $1 + 10% on the free plan, 5% on the Basic Plan, and 0% on the Professional + up plans if you use a custom gateway. You can get instant payouts with the professional + up plans; the others are monthly payouts. Translation: you’ll want to pick a plan based on the features you need (ex. the free plan doesn’t include the affiliate program) and the price of your course + how many you plan to sell (at a certain point paying more per month will end up saving you on the transaction fees!)
Here are some of what I consider pros for Teachable.
– Extremely user-friendly, little-to-no tech knowledge needed
– Plug-n-play: upload your content and you’re ready to go
– Built-in sales page: you don’t need to design a sales page from scratch, it’s incorporated right into the site. You can insert different modules, add images, html, your course curriculum, buttons, and more extremely easily, and it links directly to your payment processer.
– Built-in payment processor. PayPal and Stripe (aka credit card) processing are built in – you don’t need to do anything fancy or use additional services to be able to collect money.
– Pricing options (to use Teachable): you can opt for different levels and change them at any time. The main difference between the levels is how much money they keep on each transaction. If you opt for the $99 you have the option of using a custom gateway, which means they don’t take anything per transaction outside of that monthly fee (though PayPal + Stripe fees are still collected). You can downgrade or upgrade at anytime without it affecting your course (unless you lose a feature by using the free option) [see $ details above]
– Ability to offer different types of content – video, text, downloads, etc.
– Built in-affiliate program (with paid plans): if you use their gateway they will automatically pay affiliates for you; if you use a custom gateway you can pay on your own. (They recently added more affiliate options, which is a big plus.)
– Great official support and large community Facebook group for support
– Built-in navigation/formatting
– Easy to offer different payment options (one-time payment, payment-plan, etc.)
– Built-in upsell feature (add another option for sale after purchasing, without having to re-enter payment info)
– Easy to duplicate courses (can duplicate to create different versions or as a base for a new course)
– Can only host on your own url if you’re using the $99/month and up plan (meaning you are sending people away from your site if it’s not on your url)
– Limited custom design (you can match brand colors + logos, but not the actual format of the course)
– Lacks multiple pages (only have sales page – would need to link to another site/landing page if you want more pages, like additional info, deeper course descriptions, etc. <— although, there is now a “blog” feature, so you might be able to circumnavigate this issue that way, haven’t played around with it)
– While you can email from the program, it doesn’t integrate with email service providers directly (but you can use Zapier if you want)
– Unless using the $99/month and up plans, you’ll pay an additional fee (by %) per each transaction
Pro or Con
– Lots of people are using Teachable now. This could be a pro because people already have user profiles and are familiar with how to navigate the platform. This can be con because for the most part, your course will look just like every other Teachable course.
Some more “looks” at Teachable:
Back-end view (curriculum/navigation):
Now let’s look at a Self-Hosted Plugin on WordPress (specifically Memberpress)
(Example sales page header on site using Memberpress.)
I researched self-hosted options to death before finally landing on Membrepress. I initially chose to use Memberpress with an LMS (learning management system, aka “course” platform). I tested out both LifterLMS + LearnDash LMS, but ultimately decided not to use them because the actual LMS feature felt excessive for my personal needs, and I didn’t find it easy to customize (aka match my site aesthetic). If you really want that built in course feel (progress bars, completion certificates, quizzes, etc., a LMS or course plugin would be beneficial). Memberpress is really designed for membership sites, but the core function is that it protects content on selected pages/posts, etc. so can also be used to host a course. Pricing: $129/yr for Basic, $249/yr for Plus, $369/yr for Pro. The main differences here are how many site licenses you get, plus what “add-ons” come with it. (So make sure you know your needs.)
– Completely customizeable (you’re simply restricting access to certain parts of your site, so the design aspect will depend on your theme)
– Integrates with other plugins (affiliate programs, course plugins, LMS plugins, etc.)
– Can build to meet your specific needs
– Lives on your own url (or subdomain if you choose), meaning people never have to leave your site.
– One time/annual fee (no additional fees for use/payments, etc. Payment is per year if you want to continue to receive support + updates <– highly recommended)
– Can add plugins and features based on what you require (and leave off any you don’t need)
– Multi-site licenses available depending on level of plan purchased
– When integrated with an affiliate program: affiliates can link to any page on your site and still receive affiliate credit, not just the sales page. (This can be handy when using waiting lists, etc.)
– May require use of multiple plugins/programs to achieve desired functionality (ex. affiliate program plugin, course progress plugin, login/logout plugin, media player, cloud storage… this could be a “pro” if you like to customize things.)
– No built-in navigation – if you want people to progress from one module/lesson to another, you’ll need to make sure you add those links/design manually. (can get tricky if you rearrange things after the fact)
– Lots of moving pieces, especially if you offer different courses and memberships (ex. course specific welcome emails, landing pages, membership access rules. Might also be hard to remember how you have everything set up if you’re not using it freqeuntly.)
– No builit-in, one-click upsell feature
– Need to create a separate membership to offer different pricing plans (not a big deal, just one more step)
– No “shopping cart” option or integration (can’t buy multiple courses/membership/downloads in one checkout)
– Consider costs of potential extra storage depending on how you host your content
Pro or Con
– Requires SSL certificate on your domain for secure payment processing (not a big deal, just good to know – you definitely want security but might need to purchase the certificate)
– Needs adequate hosting bandwidth – you may or may not need to upgrade the level of hosting you have
– Need to build your own sales page – pro if you like to customize and are comfortable with the technology (essentially like a blog post, not high level tech), con if you want it pre-made. – Integrates with certain email providers but not others.
Some more “looks” at Memberpress: Note these will look completely different depending on your design!
(Note: backend view looks just like Pages in WordPress.)
Overall thoughts on choosing a course platform:
I’d summarize by saying Teachable is a little more intuitive than Memberpress, but you get better control + customization with a self-hosted plugin. If you don’t mind learning technology or already have a comfortable level of tech knowledge, a self-hosted plugin won’t be that big of deal to use. If you have ZERO interest in tech or struggle with that area, I’d automatically lean towards a pre-built / third party platform like Teachable.
A self-hosted plugin will take more of your time to set up – do you HAVE that time? (Alternatively you could pay someone to do it.) The monthly fee of a pre-built platform may seem steep, but it’s pretty hands off (aka saves you money in terms of time). A self-hosted plugin may seem like it costs less upfront, but you might need more than one plugin to get all the features you want. (and again, time is money.)
Things that will affect the price and value of those fees: the price of your course, potential number of sales, how much your time is worth to handle tech stuff, what level plan or package you have. “Integrations” aren’t always for all programs (aka it might list a certain feature but that feature only “talks” to certain other programs – do thorough research first.)
Also, if your needs are pretty straightforward, don’t overthink it and just pick one. (And hey, sometimes you don’t know what you need until you dive in and try it!)
My specific takeaways having used both and outlook for the future:
While I have a lot more “Pros” listed under Teachable, the self-hosted option wins out for me. If my business was only partially based on online programs I would be more inclined to go back to Teachable because it is SO EASY. Plug, play, forget. Someone else handles the tech and there’s a support team. I see the value in paying that monthly fee now much more than I did before. If you’re only occasionally going to be using courses, HATE tech and don’t want to pay someone to do it, I’d recommend Teachable.
I’d also recommend Teachable if you want to easily be able to bundle courses, provide easy upsells, or have multiple types of digital products.
That being said, I love the flexibility of the self-hosted plugin. The pages can look like anything I want. Each one can be different based on the needs. And for RD Entrepreneurs specifically, I was able to create the custom affiliate program I needed (a huge, huge priority for me). (At the time of my switch you couldn’t change whether affiliates were credited for first or last referral, change cookie period, or choose which courses/products were affiliate-enabled. There were also some tracking issues which was a huge con for me – these are all fixed and Teachable was really great about working with their users for feedback!)
More thoughts. Will I stick with Memberpress as my plugin?
TBD. I put blood, sweat, and tears into the tech side of setting everything up. I’d hate for that to go waste, since it will be so much easier next time around. I also already made my investment in the plugin(s). It’s hard for me to swallow both that investment and the TIME investment, but I’m not sure it’s 100% right for me yet, for 2 reasons:
– ONE feature of my affiliate program didn’t talk to my membership plugin (this was a case for a plugin within my affiliate plugin not speaking to my membership plugin. It was listed in the features but in reality only for certain programs – read the details!!). Not a big deal overall, just added to some of the manual follow up I had to do, which cost me time. (You know I love automation.;)
-The main reason I’d consider a switch is that it doesn’t act as a shopping cart (aka can’t purchase multiple products at once.) I knew this going in, but didn’t really understand how I would want to use this until I was too deep in to make the switch. I’d love to add something like Easy Digital Downloads to the mix, but as of yet, it doesn’t speak to Memberpress, meaning I would also need to switch to a different course plugin, LMS, or different membership plugin (aka all my Memberpress work would go down the drain.)
ALL that being said – unless your needs are really robust and unique, I think Memberpress is a really great option. (It works perfectly well for my nutrition side of things because I’m not offering multiple items and the navigation aspect is pretty straightforward.)
I’ll also add that now that I’ve been on the side of piecing everything together, I have a much greater appreciation for some of the all-in-one options that not only include restricted access + payment processers, but also email lists, forms, etc. The nerd in me would love to see better stats of what exactly led to different sales, etc. (Which I can’t see now because all my programs don’t talk to each other.) It’d be a pretty significant payment jump but now that I’ve seen the other side, I can see the value in that. (But my true DIY-er nature will probably win over.)
* I should also add that my personal “tech skills” level falls somewhere in the mid-range. I’m no guru, but I’ve had years of expereince running my own sites/blogs and I’m a master Googler, so it’s not completely foreign to me either.
So bottom line. Sticking with Memberpress for now, but looking into other options that will allow more features for the future.
You might also like: Why You Need Scalable Revenue in Your Nutrition Business
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