As someone who helps people build and sell online courses in the conscious learning space, I frequently get asked, “what should I use to build my website and course platform?”
The choice is between a self-hosted platform such as WordPress or an all-in-one SaaS (“Software as a Service”) such as Kajabi, ClickFunnels, or Kartra.
In this article, I’ll be listing the specific technologies that I use and recommend when building out your course platform on WordPress.
First, we’ll look at the pros and cons of building your site using WordPress using the Thrive Suite of tools. I use their tools for all of my WordPress-powered websites, to good effect.
Don’t be overwhelmed – in the end, I do present some concrete, easy recommendations for how you can move forward with creating your online e-course platform.
But first …
Why NOT run your own site?
Compared to hosted solutions (SaaS), running your own infrastructure comes with a specific set of headaches: hosting, DNS, email deliverability, technical challenges around setting everything up, keeping the site updated and secure, etc. Having a great technical/creative team (which I can provide) can help mitigate these headaches. However, a project of this magnitude is not to be taken lightly – especially during the initial setup phase.
The primary tradeoffs are platform ownership, flexibility, and creative control vs. technical “ease of use” that the SaaS platforms give you.
When using a SaaS such as Kajabi, most of the non-creative (i.e., backend) infrastructure is taken care of for you. Once set up, everything just “works.” You’ll spend a few hundred dollars a month and leave most of the technical issues to the provider.
What could be better, right? There are some downsides. The biggest ones are lack of flexibility – you are locked into whatever features the SaaS solution decides to provide. The second is content lock-in. If you ever stop paying your provider, your content is, well, gone. Sure, you’ll have backups – but it will be a challenging project to move to another provider.
Of less concern to me, but more to some, is that the provider controls your business. If the SaaS provider goes belly-up or believes that you have violated their policies, the SaaS provider could shut your account down. In reality, I’ve rarely, if ever, seen this happen with mainstream sites – it’s far more likely the payment processor will call “foul” for some obscure reason. For that reason, always have multiple ways to accept payment.
If, like me, you value complete control, flexibility, and autonomy for your business, you’re probably considering the alternative – running your own site. WordPress is by far the most popular platform. WordPress powers over 25% of the web – including the Microsoft News Center, Sont Playstation Blog, Pulse by Target, the UPS blog, The Walt Disney Company, Best Buy stores, and Xerox.
However, other software can certainly be used (Drupal, Joomla, and even custom development).
Is price a consideration?
Ongoing licensing cost is not a deciding factor for most sites.
Actual infrastructure such as the services needed and the plugin licenses required to run a professional business on WordPress usually costs about the same as a major SaaS. The upside is fewer limitations. There are no artificial limits on the number of products, active members, courses you can have, the amount of money you can make, or any other nonsense.
Setup fees are significantly more with a custom WordPress solution, in part, because of the flexibility you have when designing your site and courses.
Once built, expect to pay $1,200 or more annually for the licenses and accounts to run your WordPress site. Whatever solution you go with, those prices go up the more content and people you have on your site. You’ll also need to budget for technical support – SaaS experts are generally going to be a less expensive route than the varied skills necessary for running a professional WordPress site.
Similarly, a typical SaaS will cost a few hundred dollars per month to the provider.
For a real business, you want solid infrastructure – just like the big boys. I’ve talked about martech tools in another article, but here I’m going to be talking specifically about a course creation platform on top of WordPress.
Don’t be sucked into $20 hosting plans that promise everything – the downsides of traditional CPanel “hosting” for business requires its article and wouldn’t be particularly upbeat. Instead, get the expertise to run your business and build out appropriate network infrastructure – this includes optimized services for each portion of your stack.
That means that the webserver should be optimized to do one thing – serve your website. Videos are on a different system, optimized for serving video. Email runs on email systems, not webservers. Other large files are served from a storage system (Amazon S3).
Here’s the technology stack I recommend, with a few alternatives. I understand that my list is highly opinionated, and there will be some disagreement.
Servers: use a mainstream provider, such as Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud, or similar. For my clients, I use AWS and manage the machines with SpinupWP. SpinupWP ensures that security patches, configuration files, and installed software are set up correctly.
Other AWS services are configured – such as Cloudfront for speed and S3 to store large files and videos.
Never run incoming mail on a webserver. Instead, use a professional, enterprise-level service for all your email accounts. I recommend Google Workspaces. However, a few clients have had success with Office 360 (a Microsoft product that requires engaging a reseller to support).
For outgoing mail from the network (password resets, alerts, transactional email such as purchase receipts), you’ll need some sort of email service for deliverability. I recommend setting up either Sendgrid or Amazon SES.
That’s the basic networking infrastructure you’ll need/want. From there, it’s time to start building out the site. As I mentioned, WordPress is the CMS platform of choice.
You’ll want to consider a few other services: a payment processor such as Square, Stripe, or Paypal are standard. You’ll also need a “marketing automation system” for your newsletter and email / SMS marketing – I recommend Drip to start. For analytics, Google Analytics is a must to determine what pages are working – and where you might want to make changes. I also like Clicky for real-time reporting/visualization of visitor traffic.
Video Hosting – while it’s possible to place your video content on your own infrastructure (your Amazon S3 account, for example – never your webserver), there are some advantages to using a video hosting platform. The most common are Youtube (great for free content you want to be discovered online), Vimeo, and Wistia (expensive with great marketing insights). However, if you are concerned about your content being taken down, ensure you have backups you can deploy quickly.
WordPress Buildout with Thrive Suite
Great! So despite all the warnings about this being a complicated way to go, you’ve decided to dive in and build your masterful creation (possibly with some help). Let’s see what it will take to build out a fantastic site on WordPress.
Our secret is the Thrive Suite series of plugins – which will handle 90% of our conversion-driven website design and built out.
For WordPress fans, Thrive Suite includes an intuitive page builder, a fully customizable theme, a shitload of page templates, making building out quality sites fast and easy. It also has specific, business-focused functionality that I’ll describe below.
Today, what makes Thrive Suite so amazing for building out course-based sites? Thrive Suite includes multiple plugins explicitly designed to help you get more people into your business. I’ll be talking about the various plugins separately. They work seamlessly together for a unified experience.
The new release of Thrive Apprentice – the course builder / LMS has made it so that it’s even easier and more integrated to quickly and painlessly build out a site. The 4.0 version of Thrive Apprentice has just been announced, and it includes three new features, two of which are game-changers.
The core of Thrive Suite now supports “dynamic content” … this means you can present different content to your site visitors, depending on what they’ve purchased. In short, this means with Thrive Suite; there’s no need for a separate membership plugin. It also supports “products” so that you can sell pretty much whatever content you want in various configurations.
The other killer feature is the ability to drip content on multiple schedules. What does this mean?
Let’s say you have built out a 12 module course on Fundamental Wellbeing and have set it so that once someone purchases, they receive a new module every week. As an experiment, can you get better results if people take the course in 12 days instead? Or maybe 12 months is optimum for retention. Or hell, for a premium price, let your client have all the content at once! What to do? Of course, you’ll test it.
MOST course creation systems will require copying and pasting your content into a new course for each of your tests. And updating one module means, well, updating every copy.
Instead, you can create different products with the new “decoupled drip” feature in Thrive Apprentice. Each product uses the same course content – but on a different schedule, delivered at whatever pace you desire. It becomes simple to make the other schedules and sell each at various price points while utilizing the same content.
Ok, now we know that we can create beautiful, functional websites with Thrive Suite, and we can build out online courses with Thrive Apprentice; why else do I recommend it?
Thrive Apprentice – as I’ve mentioned, Thrive Apprentice is the course builder for your website. You create and publish courses, handle products, and build out your course membership area within it.
Thrive Quiz Builder is – yes – socially shareable quizzes! These are used inside your pages to add interaction to your courses (or, really, any content). But the real power of quizzes is in growing your business. By creating engaging quizzes, you can increase your email list, boost your social presence and get direct feedback from your potential customers on what is truly important to them.
You could also build a “course completed” badge for people to share once they’ve passed your quiz – that’s just icing.
In addition to a “page builder,” Thrive Architect is a complete funnel builder. Combined with Thrive Optimize for split testing, you can create highly targeted and tested funnels that convert your website traffic into sales. Countdowns using Thrive Ultimatum allow you to configure the precise, time-based funnel you want for time-sensitive campaigns.
Thrive Leads is an opt-in form builder that allows you to design pretty much any type of opt-in form (from simple on-page email capture to banners and sliding popups). You can target the opt-in forms based on specific content and run split tests to determine the best conversion.
Thrive Ovation captures testimonials from your customers and clients, then allows you to display them anywhere on your website based on the tags you define.
As a developer, my favorite backend component is Thrive Automator. It’s a system that works behind the scene to make specific actions happen when other things happen (similar to Zapier, if you are familiar). You select a trigger (user purchases a course) and then an action (grant them access to the forum). With this, there are 10’s of integrations to other systems and the ability to create your own connections.
Automator is compelling and flexible – the basis for my next side-project.
I love the system’s features are the “smart site” and “global colors.” Want to change blue to orange? It’s a click of a button, and all the theme’s colors are changed. Moved to a new location or changed social media accounts? If you’ve used a variable, simply update that one place, and boom! That’s updated in all areas on the site. It even has a notification manager to tell you when events happen, such as a testimonial left on your site or someone signing up for your email newsletter.
Is Thrive Suite perfect? No. But it does replace many other plugins and has many features I haven’t yet mentioned. A WordPress site with just Thrive Suite has the potential to outperform pretty much any SaaS e-commerce website significantly.
There are a few downsides – complex pages can be slow, which is why the developers added “Project Lightspeed” to help you optimize your website’s speed to get higher Google Page Speed scores.
Remember, when building out your online business, speed is essential. If you get frustrated with your site because “things seem slow,” it is too slow. You’ll frustrate your customers and lose SEO rankings. If things are slow, talk to an expert about how you can optimize your site and infrastructure.
One component is missing – and that’s a decent e-commerce checkout system/order page builder. Thrive Apprentice does support WooCommerce (free) so that it’s possible to take payments that way. I find WooCommerce is not the best solution for selling digital products. You can also use ThriveCart or SendOwl, separate checkout services.
I have Thrive Suite working with a beta version of Easy Digital Downloads and plan to release that once EDD 3.0 is released. While not fully integrated, creating high-converting checkout pages and complete payment funnels is a solvable problem – though a bit of a pain point with Thrive Suite alone.
Other Site Plugins
I almost always use a smattering of other plugins when building out a site. These include Rank Math for SEO and WP Activity Log, WPS Hide Login, and Limit Login Attempts Reloaded for security. I find that Thrive Suite pretty much handles it all for actually building out the site.
Where to from here?
I get it; that was a lot of concrete recommendations on what technology to use to build out your next e-learning platform. Here are some ways to remove the overwhelm:
1/ If you want to go it alone and build out your own WordPress-powered course site, go ahead and grab a copy of Thrive Suite and get started! Feel free to reach out with any questions you may have, I love to help.
2/ If you’re looking for the simplicity of a SaaS, go ahead and grab a subscription to Kajabi. You can always upgrade once you make money and need features it can’t provide. Note that for great sales pages, you may also want to get a subscription to ClickFunnels.
3/ If you are ready to move up and would like to discuss how we can build out your next site together – or optimize your current one for greater impact and sales, contact Nick to discuss your specific needs.