If your goal is to create and sell online courses, then you are going to need some sort of platform for hosting and delivering those courses. 

At a minimum, you’ll need to be able to enroll your learners in the specific courses they have purchased and provide them with a way to then access and navigate through the course content. Most likely, you will also want to be able to track whether a learner has started and/or finished a course, and you might want to see how the learner has performed on quizzes or tests that are a part of your courses. 

The good news is that any decent learning management system, or LMS, can handle all of that. Enrollment, delivering, and tracking for educational experiences is what LMSes - in their most basic form - were invented to do. 

Beyond that, though, things get more complicated. 

Learning management systems have been around for a long time and there are now hundreds of them in the market. Most offer a range of bells and whistles that go well beyond enrollment, delivery, and tracking. Some comply fully with standards that have been established for e-learning, while others comply much more loosely, if at all. Some have “evolved” to the point where they have stopped calling themselves LMSes and position themselves as “talent management systems” or “learning experience platforms.”

And, of course, pricing is all over the map. 

In short, things get confusing quickly when you set out on the seemingly straightforward path to select a learning management system.

Cut the corporate and academic LMSes from your list

Fortunately, there is more good news. 

If you are a company, organization, or solo edupreneur aiming to market and sell courses, the first move you can make, in most instances, is to ignore platforms that were created primarily to deliver internal corporate training or support academic programs

Why?

Well, think about what those systems were designed to do.

Most importantly, they were designed to serve a captive audience. In the case of corporations, that means employees and possibly other groups that are basically tied to the company - e.g., contractors, franchisees. In the case of academia, it means people who have already committed to attend the institution.

In either case, the prospective learners are both expecting and expected to participate in whatever training or education is offered, and the training and education is already paid for. They don’t have to be convinced to pay money for each new offering that is presented.

As a result, the systems don’t tend to have tools to support marketing. They don’t tend to collect or make it possible for you to take advantage of a lot of the data that can be useful for marketing to existing students (e.g., suggestive selling). Worst of all, in many cases, they just don’t have to look or be all that user-friendly or attractive. So, most of them aren’t.

Equally important, the vendors who sell these systems rarely understand the needs of market-facing learning business. It’s just not what they are focused on. So they are very unlikely to provide the kind of support a trade and professional association, training firm, solo edupreneur or other type of market-facing learning business might need. 

Major capabilities of an LMS to sell online courses

So, what do platforms meant for selling online courses do differently?

First of all, they account for e-commerce

Most will have built-in e-commerce capabilities, meaning they enable you to set up a catalog that can be browsed by users who are not logged in, that can be found in public search engines like Google, and that supports credit card or PayPal transactions for users to make purchases. Many go well beyond these abilities by providing features like course bundling, coupons and discount codes, and upselling during checkout. 

If they don’t have their own e-commerce system (or even if they do) LMSes designed for selling education are built for easy integration with other e-commerce options like Magento, WooCommerce, (for WordPress-based LMSes), or the e-commerce provided through your membership or customer management system.

And, that’s a good segue to second key difference. In general, these systems are built for integration, particularly with systems that support marketing, selling, and the management of members and customers. The most flexible of them will offer a range of integration bridges to popular e-mail marketing platforms, Web analytics tools, marketing automation software, association management systems, and CRM systems. Many will also offer the option to use a platform like Zapier to create your own custom integrations.  

Beyond integration (and sometimes as part of integration), many of these systems also account for the need to award continuing education credit. Continuing education credit is one of the major drivers of demand in the market for adult lifelong learning, so if you are selling education to adults, you definitely want to consider whether you need this option - and choose your platform accordingly. Some of the more sophisticated platforms will offer the ability to issue multiple types of credit - e.g., CPE for accountants, CLE for lawyers - for a single course.

Finally, many of these platforms account for the ability to sell to corporate and organizational buyers. These capabilities can take a variety of forms, including:

  • the ability for someone at a company to purchase and manage enrollments for multiple, different learners
  • the ability to set up private login pages and protected areas within the system for specific groups of learners
  • the ability to deploy entirely separate instances of the system (aka multi-tenancy), enabling you to basically sell your customers an LMS along with your content

Those are just a few of the possibilities. In general, if selling business-to-business is part of your strategy, these are the types of capabilities you need - and are very unlikely to find in the average corporate or academic-focused platform. 

Keep in mind, too, that the presence of all or most of the above capabilities tells you a lot about the company that makes the platform. It suggests that the company “gets it” when it comes the business of marketing and selling education. That can make a huge difference when it comes to getting the support you need to get the LMS up and running and really working for your learning business.

How to tell the difference

So how do you know if a company and its LMS are likely to be a fit for a market-facing learning business?

First of all, if you are familiar with either the corporate or academic LMS worlds, you will likely know what the big names, the “usual suspects” are. I won’t name names, but resist the temptation to assume these are a “safe" choice. I’ve seen many disastrous implementations with these systems over the years for all of the reasons I’ve already covered.

If you aren’t familiar with these systems, check company Web sites for language that reflects the abilities above as well as experience in your world. Do you see evidence of the capabilities covered above? Does the company mention business similar to yours when it highlights its clients? If the answer to either of these questions is “no” or even “unclear,” you’d be best off moving on until you find some where the answers are clearly “yes."

Finally - and you knew this was coming, right? - the easiest path is to consider systems that are reviewed by users on ReviewMyLMS. The vast majority of the systems you’ll find on ReviewMyLMS are listed here specifically because they are the types of systems that are a fit for market-facing learning businesses. And, you’ll be able to tell quickly which ones are not. (These are reviews submitted by people who ran into the very sorts of issues highlighted above.)

Regardless of whether you make use of ReviewMyLMS, do yourself the favor of reviewing and understanding the capabilities of an LMS designed for selling online courses. Believe me, it can make all the difference.