Online courses are a great way to scale your knowledge-based business but it can be quite a headache to figure out what’s the best way to manage and deliver your courses while not breaking the bank.
In this post, I share how I analyse which method is best for the most common scenarios as I’ve seen through my own experience.
There’s no right or wrong answer, just whatever is right for you and your situation.
In this post, I’m comparing:
- Teachable (hosted platform)
- Thinkific (hosted platform)
- WordPress + LearnDash LMS plugin + Vimeo (video hosting) + Amazon S3 (file hosting) + web hosting + Member access plugin (Memberium or Memberpress or WPfusion)
My current stack and setup:
In another business of mine, I have the following technology stack and setup for our online course and membership installation:
- A separate WordPress installation from the main business site, this is strictly for the online courses and membership area.
I did this because the layout, design and needs are completely different from the main business site which is more for marketing purposes.
I see a lot of questions about how to use/setup a different theme and/or design for their online course/membership area from their main site and this is the best way to do it. (I do not use WordPress’ multi-site feature).
- Web hosting: This will depend on the whether you’re just starting out and/or you have relatively small amount of traffic to your site and your budget.
For new sites and/or smaller and lower traffic sites (or sites just starting out), I use Siteground.
UPDATE: For new sites, I now prefer to use WPX WordPress hosting as they have a great plan and specialize in WordPress hosting. If for whatever reason, your budget cannot afford WPX (even though it’s pretty competitive), then start with Siteground as I already mentioned.
They have great features, pricing is reasonable and most importantly support and reliability is very good (based on my own experience and you’ll find tons of customer recommendations on discussion groups).
For a larger membership sites and/or sites with larger volume of traffic or you have the budget, then consider WordPress hosting from WP Engine.
UPDATE: WP Engine is still the preferred wordpress host if your budget allows it. However, I have a new favourite web hosting stack but ONLY if you’re comfortable handling your own Virtual Private Server (VPS) and DNS settings, CNAME records, MX records, etc. – if you are comfortable with this, then Digital Ocean cloud hosting (get $10 credit here) PLUS Server Pilot control panel ($10 credit as well here) is a great combination. Both on price and features.
- LearnDash is used for our WordPress learning management system (LMS). I previously used WP-courseware but found LearnDash to offer more functionality for our needs, but don’t get me wrong, I think wp-courseware is still a solid LMS for WordPress.
- Memberium is our WordPress membership access control plugin. I had used aMember before and absolutely kicked myself for not switching to Memberium much, much sooner.
aMember’s intgration with Infusionsoft was truly hair-pulling. aMember’s support is very responsive, but the product itself is just not up to par anymore.
Memberium is probably the BEST membership WordPress plugin on the market that integrates with Infusionsoft (and Active Campaign).
I say this because I have had a bit of back and forth communications with the lead developer of Memberium, David Bullock, and he is a very good developer and extremely helpful in discussion/support forums. He has a great understanding of how to work with the Infusionsoft API that few other developers have shown.
If you don’t use Infusionsoft, and you don’t have the budget for Memberium, then Memberpress is a good alternative for membership access management.
UPDATE: Since August 2018, we have left Infusionsoft (it’s a long story). Since we no longer use Infusionsoft, I had no need to stay with Memberium (since Memberium works only with Infusionsoft and WordPress), but if you do use Infusionsoft, Memberium is still one of the BEST membership plugins that integrates with Infusionsoft (in my mind).
We’ve migrated to Active Campaign for our marketing automation (we’re an authorised reseller) now and I’m using WPFusion to handle access management (and to link my WordPress site to Active Campaign) to the content plus WooCommerce. So, far I’ve been quite happy with this setup.
The thing I like about WPFusion is it just works. It also looks like it’s nicely developed to integrate with tons of API’s. One of the complaints I had with aMember and Thrive Themes is their developers didn’t know how to properly integrate the Infusionsoft API and pull in all the tags from Infusionsoft (I had over 3000 tags). Memberium handled that perfectly and with no issues, and I see WPFusion handles it with no issue at all too, so those are big points from me in my book.
- Vimeo video hosting. I was using Amazon S3 initially as my video hosting but found it was not really built for this and had lots of video delivery issues and switched to Vimeo which is the best value for the money I’ve found.
So, for videos just be aware, you should use a dedicated Video hosting service or some kind of content delivery network (CDN) to ensure video playback is optimized for all your users. (Amazon S3 alone is NOT built to do this properly, you’ll need to add Amazon Elastic/CDN too)
- Amazon S3 for file hosting (not videos). Amazon S3 is still one of the best way to host file downloads.
- Infusionsoft is our marketing automation and eCommerce cart. This integrates with Memberium very well so many of our purchase, subscription and cancellation processes are all integrated tightly between Infusionsoft and Memberium.
UPDATE: As I’ve mentioned above, we no longer use Infusionsoft as our marketing automation vendor. Don’t get me wrong, the product itself is still one of the better marketing automation software on the market for small businesses but I have major issues with the way they run their company and treat their long-time customers (we had been with Infusionsoft for 10 years!).
So, now we’ve migrated to Active Campaign as our marketing automation software. Active Campaign is not perfect either (there is no system that is going to be 100% perfect) but so far it does what I need it to do and does many things Infusionsoft could not do out of the box. One of the big complaints with Infusionsoft is how we have to buy so many third party apps to do things we want.
Just a reminder, this is my specific setup and configuration that works for this particular business.
I share this with you as an example and a guide but you don’t have to have this exact setup depending on your needs and existing technology stack.
If you need help/suggestions for launching your online course or membership site, please feel free to reach out to me at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I offer very affordable coaching in this area and many other aspects of your business.
Criteria/what I’m looking at:
In evaluating these different setups, I’m taking the following issues into consideration:
Time to setup and launch
Course delivery features
Customer data ownership
Impact on your cash flow
Exporting data and ability to migrate to another service
Design and customization
Single-point of failure risk (business continuity)
Time to setup and launch
Unless you’re comfortable with WordPress and the inner-workings of everything else that goes into your own WordPress online course deployment, the hosted platforms will get you launched quicker.
If you’re comfortable with WordPress and integrating with an LMS (like Learndash) and possibly including a membership access control like Memberium, then timing-wise it won’t be that much more versus the hosted platforms.
The hosted platforms are suitable for those of you with no tech or design background and are going the do-it-yourself route.
If you’re comfortable with WordPress or have someone on your team who is comfortable with the setup, then go with your own installation.
As I find it can be quite painful to migrate from one platform to another, so I always look at the longer-term picture.
Also, if you’re a new business and this is going to be your core offering that brings in the revenue, then you want to get up and running making sales as soon as possible.
But if you’re an existing business and you may not need to count on sales from this course to keep you going, then you can consider the WordPress installation route.
Course Delivery Features
I won’t spend too much time on this area because hosted-platforms and your own installation with an LMS all pretty much offer the same functionality:
- Drip content
- Discussion forums
- Coupons & discounts
These are pretty standard features with any of these solutions. I’d say all three platforms are pretty even in this area.
A cost comparison is not going to be quite apples to apples but I’ll do my best to make the closest comparison as possible. As always, do your own due diligence. *All costs are current as of the time of posting, if you see pricing that is not current, feel free to let me know and I’ll update it.
For your own WordPress installation, I’m including the costs of:
- Worpresss (WP) = free
- Learndash LMS plugin (for one site) = $159/year
- Thrive Themes membership (includes WP themes and Thrive Architect page builder) for design = $228/year
- Memberium license (for one site) = $564/year, I also include an option with Memberpress = $119/year instead of Memberium; UPDATE: WPFusion, I’m using the Plus plan ($347) – Note: depending on your business setup, if you use Learndash or Woocommerce to sell your courses, you may NOT need a membership plugin (in my case I have included it since I also sell membership access in addition to courses, so keep this in mind)
- Web Hosting (Siteground, GrowBig plan) = $71.40/year or WPX Hosting = $249.96/year (for 5 sites)
- Video hosting (Vimeo Pro plan) = $240/year
- File hosting (Amazon S3) – this cost will vary depending on your file storage usage = $15/year
For both Teachable and Thinkific, I also include the cost of separate web hosting for your main business website as I’m assuming most people will have a separate website hosted elsewhere since Teachable/Thinkific are mainly for online course delivery.
For Thinkific, I’ve based it upon an annual fee (paid monthly, not with the annual discount) for the Business Plan = $1,188/year PLUS separate web hosting (same Siteground hosting plan) +$71.40/year = $1,259.40/year
Teachable I’ve based it upon an annual fee (paid monthly, not with the annual discount) for the Professional Plan = $1,188/year PLUS separate web hosting (same Siteground hosting plan) +$71.40/year = $1,259.40/year
*This comparison does not include transaction and processing fees
**Prices are based upon prices at time of publication of this post
Below is a cost comparison chart for your convenience.
WP (no membership plugin)
Depending on the plan you choose, with hosted platforms, you may incur more fees per transaction than through your own installation.
All methods above will have some sort of transaction processing fees if you’re using Stripe and/or Paypal or some other merchant account.
In some cases, you may need to look out for bank fees if withdrawing funds from your credit card processors to your bank account.
One “cost” not listed in this section, is what would be the cost to your business if the platform was unavailable or had an outage? See the “Single-point of failure” section of this post.
As a course/content producer, ensuring copyright ownership of your content is pretty important.
Basically under any of these choices, you technically own your content and are free to take it with you whenever you want.
So, there’s no real worry in this case.
Customer data ownership
Having access to your customer contact data is absolutely important to any long-term business.
So, if any platform doesn’t allow you to access this data, then you don’t really own anything.
Luckily, the hosted course platforms and having your own installation isn’t going to affect you in this aspect.
This is one of the biggest issues I have with platforms like Udemy, because you don’t own the customer data.
This ends up tying you up with a particular platform and you could end up spending time and money pushing people to a platform like Udemy and not have anything to show for it if you don’t have a way of communicating with past students if you move away from this platform.
Same goes for crowdfunding sites. You do not have access to any backer or customer data, so you don’t own those customers per se.
So, keep this in mind when choosing a platform or service.
One of the elements most new entrepreneurs or new online course creators make is not knowing when you actually receive your cash.
When you make a sale is not equal to when you receive your cash and cashflow problems is usually one of the biggest killers of businesses as the cash you receive may not meet the speed with which you’re spending cash.
Cash flow is very different from whether you’re business is profitable. Your business can still be profitable but run into cash flow problems.
If you want to know how to better manage your business’ finances, go here.
Whether you’re using the online platforms or your own installation, if you are using Stripe and/or Paypal or any other merchant account, there is a delay between when you make a sale and when you receive that cash into your bank account.
This can vary due to various factors such as (but not limited to):
- Whether your sales have met the minimum payout threshold
- The terms of payouts with your merchant provider (this can vary greatly)
- With Paypal you have to go in and manually withdraw your funds to your bank account; most other providers like Stripe automatically transfer the funds to your bank account within a week (and if you met the minimum transfer amount).
So, just a caveat to pay attention to this as this is not mentioned in most analyses I see.
Whatever option you choose, you want to be able to migrate your data and content easily to other platforms.
While you can export your sales data from the platforms, importing into whatever you’re using is another question.
From my own experience, importing from other solutions is a nightmare and can lead to a lot of holes in your data.
Anytime you have to migrate from one system/platform to another, there are ALWAYS going to be things that go wrong or data you can’t migrate easily.
It’s not as easy as most make it seem.
Exporting your content such as videos, text and download files should be easy as copying and pasting. This is fine if you don’t have a lot of content but could be pretty time consuming if you have a lot of content to migrate.
So, keep this in mind.
Design and Customization
My recommendation is if you’re considering any of these two, to try it out to see which interface you feel more comfortable using. I won’t give my opinion here since each person’s experience is different, so just try it out yourself.
With the advent of page builders like Thrive Architect, Beaver Builder, etc – having your own WordPress installation is also not so difficult to setup a nicely nicely designed site either – even without much design or coding skills.
So, whichever option you choose, design-wise it’s pretty even in the current environment.
However, if you want a more customized design, then your own WordPress installation would be better-suited.
With every business, it’s an absolute must to setup marketing automation. That means setting automated emails that are triggered based upon actions and events taken by your customers.
In every case, whether a hosted platform or a WordPress installation, you’ll need to buy additional access to these marketing automation services as hosted platforms and your own installation won’t include this.
My preferred marketing automation services to consider are:
- Active Campaign (my current first choice)
- Ontraport (the closest feature for feature competitor to Infusionsoft)
This post isn’t meant to go in-depth about marketing automation but this will be addressed in a future post.
With hosted-platforms, the advantage they have is customer support is included in your plan.
Whereas, with your own installation you’ll either have multiple customer support touch points due to the multiple vendors you’re dealing with and/or having someone on your team who can also manage and support your installation.
With all the vendors I recommend here, I have been happy with their customer support (e.g. responsive, quick response, adequate answers, etc).
Single-point of failure
This point is something most people don’t think about or unaware and the biggest reason for my preference for my own setup (if you it fits your situation).
Of course if you’re just starting out, then getting up and running is probably your most important goal.
Only when you’re able to feasibly do it, I’d move to your own installation.
Or if you are somewhat tech-savvy or have someone on your team that is comfortable with it, then setup your own installation from the beginning and avoid any migration headaches (and downtime).
What I mean by “single-point of failure” is if for whatever reason there is an outage or the service is down (whether Teachable or Thinkific), it means your entire revenue-generating ability is down as well. And if for whatever reason, you’re relying on these services for your main sales pages, sales website, blog, etc, everything goes down with it.
Whereas, with your own installation, you have distributed your risks between multiple vendors so if something happens to one vendor, you switch to another without much downtime to your business as a whole.
In other words, be aware of “putting all your eggs in one basket”.
UPDATE: So, as I’ve mentioned as of August 2018 we’ve dropped Infusionsoft as our Marketing Automation software and migrated to Active Campaign. I had built up 10 years worth of optimized automations and campaigns so migrating away from Infusionsoft after ten years with them was not a decision I made lightly.
So you can imagine how pissed off I was with them to migrate away. Luckily, the migration to Active Campaign was relatively quick and painless, so I was pleased with that. I managed to migrate 80%-90% of our automations within three weeks of making the decision.
I’ll talk about what happened with Infusionsoft in a more detailed post, but the impression I got from them was that they figured if their customers are heavily entrenched with Infusionsoft, they could treat their long-time customers like crap and we’d have no choice but to accept it since it would be such a headache to migrate away.
Well, they were wrong.
But it also shows that the Single-Point-of-Failure issue is real. I just went through it but luckily I had a good idea of what my backup plan would be which led to my quick decision and action in migrating away without much disturbance or down-time to our business.
Summarized Comparison Table
Varies (Instant or longer)
# of authors/owners
Speed to setup & launch
Medium to Long
Use your own domain
Quizzes & Exams
Included with Learndash
3rd Party Plugin like bbpress
Included with Learndash
Email & Live Chat
Varies by vendor
Export all data
Do you own your customer list?
Coupons & discounts
Included with Learndash
Your own affiliate program
Tracking/Ads Pixels & analytics support
Sales Reporting & Analytics
No Single-Point of Failure Risks
I hope you’ve found this breakdown useful, if you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them below.
By the way, I’ll be updating this post as I think of new things to consider and as the technology changes.
If you want help with your own WordPress online course setup, then contact us at: email@example.com.
Disclaimer: Virtual Tree may receive a commission in some cases if you purchase services referred to in this post.