Not so long ago in order to launch a protected online course membership site you would spend thousands of dollars and couldn’t do the job without a team of programmers and designers.
The landscape has changed however.
Nowadays we suffer of other side of the madness.
We have so many solutions, that we end up confused and paralysed because we don’t want to make a mistake!
This article will add a little bit to the confusion by mentioning and listing the main competitors in this online course platform niche.
However my goal is not to confuse you, mostly these will be just honorary mentions just so you would be aware of these options.
I’ll try to do my best to simplify things for you!
In 90% of the cases you’ll want to use Thinkific or Teachable (which is the reason why these two solutions get the most attention).
But YES, there are those 10% of specific cases who might want something else.
There are three main types of solutions (jump around to interesting one):
Let’s discuss each of these types one by one!
1. Hosted Online Course Platforms
This is the biggest focus of this page, as it will be the most suitable for most cases.
The biggest upsides of these platforms are:
- the ease of use, you can easily learn and build course platform yourself without hiring any designer or programmer
- you don’t need to worry about hosting of course videos and files
- you get page builder + membership site + shopping cart + learning/teaching tools = lots of solutions in one place
- speed – you can set it all up very quickly
With this solution you’ll still need:
- Your own main website (your foundation) – WordPress or Squarespace
- Email Provider – Convertkit, Mailchimp or Aweber
Optionally you’ll use: Infusionsoft, Ontraport, ActiveCampaign or Hubspot for advanced sales & marketing automation.
Who Are The Biggest Players In Hosted Online Course Platform Niche?
There are many options, but Thinkific, Teachable & NewKajabi are the biggest ones:
- Teachable (112K traffic)
- Thinkific (43.3K traffic)
- NewKajabi (30.7K traffic)
- Ruzuku (4.4K traffic) – (it’s for more artsy people), it’s smaller..but in some cases could be good (like textile art), check out this Ruzuku Case Study by Clara for more.
- Zippy Courses (2.4K traffic)
- Podia (formerly Coach) (1.5K traffic)
- Academy of Mine (1.4K traffic)
*Data taken from Ahrefs in Apr 23, 2018
The main reason why I am focusing only on biggest platforms is because biggest players are on top for a reason.
We are looking for long-term solutions and big, established platforms are much safer bets than new, upcoming players.
These solutions must be wonderful, but they are still in their early stages and you should consider them at your own risk.
Teachable & Thinkific has got most of the limelight, so I’m not gonna repeat myself here. If you want to learn more about them go to their dedicated review pages (on top navigation) or this giant Thinkific vs Teachable comparison page!
I really like NewKajabi, I do, and this will be a viable option for some people.
NewKajabi aims to be all in one solution for your entire online presence.
They will host your site, offer email marketing, sales and automation tools.
They will give you a sales funnel builder and landing page builder with great student learning experience.
Basically NewKajabi does everything Thinkific & Teachable does plus:
- they would want you to use them for their main website
- email provider
- sales funnel builder
- advanced sales & marketing automation
All of this sounds great until you see their pricing.
Their basic plan is $129/mo which is alright, but for that price you don’t get unbranded white-labeled website and you don’t get affiliate program.
You only get it for $389/mo.
This is a deal breaker if you already have software you use and love.
If you want to use your beloved 3rd party software + NewKajabi, the price you’ll pay for it will be ungodly.
NewKajabi promises a lot, but I just don’t have the confidence that they can provide EVERYTHING in one place in high quality.
NewKajabi cannot be better than WordPress for site management
NewKajabi cannot be better than Clickfunnels for sales funnel building & testing
NewKajabi cannot be better than ActiveCampaign in email marketing and automation.
It’s just not possible, they are GOOD, but you’ll get basically “the lite” version of other platforms all in one place.
- You learn one platform and do it all there, for people who hate using different tools and making many integrations maybe this is an answer
- You don’t need to learn any coding technicalities, you can build out powerful course, website and sales funnel by clicking the buttons.
- They have great onboarding video course, that allows to learn how to use their platform quickly.
- It’s pricey – (You can only remove Kajabi branding and get affiliate program for $389/mo)
- As long as you follow their templates it’s all good, but whenever you want to be more creative and get off their road, it’s gonna be super hard to do it.
- Shopping checkout still has Kajabi branding in URL even despite you having custom domain.
- Because Kajabi does everything finding right features quickly becomes confusing.
- When you use Kajabi for EVERYTHING it will become extremely hard to migrate to another place. Instead best would be to build things step by step and patch things together..with different softwares
NewKajabi is right for you if:
- you want NewKajabi to manage ALL ASPECTS of your online business and get 24/7 email support & live chat to help you set everything up & mentor you.
- you are established business who’s prepared to pay 100-400$/mo right from the start
NewKajabi is not right for you if:
- you are just starting out with little money
- you want more flexibility over your business by using different 3rd party tools
If this is something that sounds interesting to you, sign up for 30 day trial.
New Kajabi has very nice onboarding process called “28 day challenge”. It’s basically a video course that leads you through creation of your first course on NewKajabi. If you have free weekend I do recommend to take that challenge either way, just to learn to become a better course creator.
Oh and if you go for the challenge and then decide to cancel, you’ll get unique one time offer for 2x less price for 3 months (in case you want to use NewKajabi, why not get discount?)
2. Online Course Marketplaces
This category deserves a mention even if in my opinion it’s a TERRIBLE solution for 99% of people reading this.
There are three main Online Course Marketplaces:
- Coursera (subscription model)
I’ve used Udemy in past when we launched our very first online course and there were not many alternatives that very easy to setup like Thinkific or Teachable back then.
From the first look it looks very attractive:
- you launch your course on Udemy
- Udemy helps to promote it for you
- you don’t need to worry about any technical challenges
However you must remember that it’s a RENTED PROPERTY.
You don’t own any of the student data and Udemy can decide at any moment to change their policies.
In past Udemy changed the revenue share from 70/30 to 50/50 overnight and that’s when many instructors understood the meaning of rented property.
I experienced this with Facebook very recently so I feel responsible to pass this warning to you.
A year ago I was working hard to build my Facebook business page (from 0 to 10,000 fans) until one day suddenly
Facebook decided it wasn’t good with their policies.
Boom. Page was deleted overnight.
All I could get as explanation were automated Facebook replies.
While this probably won’t happen to course marketplaces, but the main message is that you are giving up control to someone else and that’s not a good place to be.
Udemy is known for their constant discounting policies and most courses are sold for $10 or $20 in spite you pricing something for $100-500.
- at any time can change their revenue share policies, you need to share your revenue
- You don’t own student data (emails)
- You must follow pricing guidelines set by marketplace
- No unique branding – all the courses look the same, it’s marketplace’s brand not yours, your competitors will be listed besides you
- less profit comparing if you used hosted course platform or your own WordPress solution
- Low-cost, low-stress way to test your course ideas
- You can use it to build your brand awareness by offering free mini-courses
- they can help to market the course for you (in exchange for 50% of revenue)
Marketplace makes sense if you are SMART about it and use it to your advantage not letting them use you.
You should NEVER drive your students and your traffic to these marketplaces, try to understand their algorithm and get their audience to come to you.
But it’s more like a marketing trick, not main course platform you should ever use.
If you are in it for the LONG TERM which you should be, you should avoid using marketplaces IF you want to maximize your profits, grow & nurture your own audience and build your brand.
3. 100% Self-Hosted WordPress Solution Stacks
Finally we have arrived to the main alternative that 8% of you will consider.
- 90% of cases hosted online course platforms like Thinkific or Teachable will be best for you
- 1% of case NewKajabi would make sense for you
- 1% of cases using course marketplace could work for you, but more like a marketing trick, not solution!
- 8% of cases you’ll want 100% of control and will want to hack your own solution together with SELF-HOSTED course platforms
Since there is no one tool you can use in this case, I’ll cover several potential stacks of tools you could use together.
I’ll focus on WordPress, because that is the most powerful self-hosted solution and you’ll probably already have your main website hosted on WordPress.
Basically if you choose to go self-hosted path and you want to MATCH what Thinkific & Teachable does you must keep in mind that you’ll need:
- WordPress + website hosting (which you should have already)
- your own video hosting solution (Vimeo or Wistia)
- a visual page builder theme/plugin
- member access plugin
- LMS plugin for better student learning experience (badges, quizzes, student management)
This is what you need to match the setup.
+ in addition you’ll need, the same way as with Thinkific & Teachable:
- email provider
- optionally: advanced automation software if you’ve established business already
If you go this route you should be quite experienced with WordPress or have a programmer, who will help you to set this all up.
This route is for advanced business people.
People who want to be in COMPLETE control of everything, but also are prepared for it to take time & money to happen.
However I would still recommend to at least try online course platform way first, because it is really very simple & quick to set up and maintain.
I learned this lesson in the painful way. When I was running my web design community, I launched it with free WordPress theme I quickly customised myself with basic CSS and use of plugins. I put my focus on content & building community.
Three years later I got obsessed with idea to create this amazing custom web-design that would set us out from everyone else.
I hired the best programmer I could find, worked with web designer on the perfect wireframe for months.
Overall it took one year for new website to launch for beta testing.
I expected this launch to be the tipping point for our business…
But instead you know what happened?
Nothing. Nada. Silence.
I would have been far better off if I would have invested those thousands of dollars in better content and marketing.
If you go custom path, do it with a caution and right reasons.
But maybe you do know exactly what you want and really do find it important to control every piece of your design and functionality.
In that case read along.
Just so you know I didn’t list all the possible membership plugin solutions as others would do. While it’s cool to list XX best this and that, it DOESN’T help you really.
Here I’ll be only recommending the best viable options, that both I love to use and the experts in the industry.
Ahem, nuf’ said – get on with the list already!
Here are three stacks of solutions you should consider using.
Video Hosting Solution:
- Wistia (just so you know both Thinkific & Teachable use Wistia themselves for their video hosting)
A Visual Page Builder Theme/Plugin:
Thrive Architect ($67 – single license)
This is NR.1 visual editor for business owners, it’s truly powerful and much cheaper than ClickFunnels.
What sets Thrive apart for all the other builders is that they are truly conversion focused and you’ll be able to build advanced sales funnels with their software.
If you want to be capable to design your site and funnels yourself without touching code, Thrive Architect is for you.
Member Access Plugin
MemberMouse($19.95/mo for starter plan)
There are lots and lots of options out there for building WordPress membership sites, but there is one plugin, that stands apart from the rest.
With MemberMouse you can do the checkout on your own site, where on other solutions like SamCart customer physically leaves your website to a different domain and it I believe can affect your conversions.
MemberMouse lets you:
- protect your content with member’s only area
- do one dollar trials
- one click upsells
- split-test prices
- affiliate, coupons, content dripping
- and all the other good stuff + their support is really good.
The only other alternatives I would have you consider are:
- If you already use INFUSIONSOFT you could check out Memberium, which has been built to integrate with Infusionsoft
- If you already use ACTIVECAMPAIGN you could check out ActiveMember360, which has been exclusively built for ActiveCampaign.
LMS WordPress Plugin For Better Student Learning Experience
With MemberMouse you can protect your content and share videos, posts privately with your students, but it is not built for enhanced learning experience.
That’s where LMS plugins come in.
Two of the most popular and recommended solutions are LearnDash and WP Courseware.
LearnDash ($159/annually for 1 site license)
LearnDash gets top recommendation and WP Courseware is always recommended as alternative solution.
What you’ll get is:
- advanced quizzing
- lesson timers
- certificates & badges (for badges check out this free plugin BadgeOS)
- user management tools
There are features that will overlap with member access plugin, but in nutshell MemberMouse is better with marketing/sales stuff while LearnDash is much better with helping you work and manage your students.
If you’ll go WordPress self-hosted path you pretty much should go for this setup:
- Wistia for videos
- Thrive Architect for landing pages & funnel building
- MemberMouse for protected members area & sales tools
- LearnDash as learning management system.
This is definitely a potential path you should take and is VIABLE alternative.
I would however still recommend you to try Thinkific first, because it is the closest to your own solution.
- Teachable = the most beginner friendly as they help to handle payments / taxes for you
- Thinkific = the best advanced user option as they allow you to have fully unbranded white-labeled course platform
- WordPress path = if you love everything WordPress and want to be in 100% full-control over design & code
In conclusion let me just do the final recap on self-hosted path.
The single biggest benefit of choosing to go 100% self-hosted path is that you can customize everything and make it look exactly as you want both in terms of design and functionality. This is great for people who love to hack things together themselves and who are control & design obsessed.
Now How About The Potential Cons?:
- you need to have coding knowledge or programmer in team
- it takes a lot more time to set it all up
- you need to keep track of updates & maintenance yourself (the more plugins you use
- you are pretty much on your own, you’ll get some support but nothing compared to Thinkific or Teachable
- there are a lot more moving elements
Sheesh, that was a lot of ground we just covered, huh?
Alright, now you have the COMPLETE picture in this online course platform world!
I hope I haven’t totally overwhelmed you with information!
If I have please ask me a question below and lets get you UNSTUCK!
Alternatively head out to self-serve recommendation page that will quickly allow you to self-select the right solution for YOU!