Heights Platform Get Your First $100k Without Paid Ads: How to Grow Your Online Course Business Organically

Get Your First $100k Without Paid Ads: How to Grow Your Online Course Business Organically

9 minute read

Should you buy ads or use organic traffic to promote your online course?

Many creators who are just getting started with their online courses often make the mistake of jumping right into paid advertising. Since many famous brands and creators are using ads, you may think that paid ads are the best way to promote your product.

That's not always the case, especially if your resources (experience, time, money) are limited.

So how can you grow without using paid ads?

Barb McGrath is an online course creator who teaches SEO and digital marketing using Heights Platform.

In the first year after launching her online course, she earned six-figures without using paid ads. How did she do it?

How Barb Made Six-Figures Without Paid Ads

In today's article we will explain why you should not dive right into paid advertising and what can you do instead.

Why Paid Ads are Not a Good Idea for New Creators

Being able to pay for traffic and to get eyes on your content right away has benefits. However, if you are a new online course creator with limited resources, it may be best for you to try other marketing strategies first. Here is why:

How to grow an online course business without ads! Do you need to spend money on ads?

#1. Paid Ads are Expensive

In order to see concrete results from a paid marketing campaign, you would need to invest a considerable amount of both money and effort. You might have heard stories of how some very experienced creators are able to run ad campaigns where for every dollar they spend, they get two dollars in return. That sounds great, but what they don't tell you is how much time and money they had to spend before their ad campaigns became optimized to the point that they were that profitable. 

Most social media platforms let you choose an amount limit to spend per day in your advertising campaigns. However, you will not massive sales by spending very little every day.

Research shows that the average business spends around $10,000 per month on Google Ads alone, and happy to spend high dollar amounts for individual clicks. And these are just the average businesses, world-recognized brands spend a much higher amount.

To compete with these giants, you'll need to put in money and time before seeing any concrete results. This brings us to our second point:

#2. You are Competing with Major Brands

Paid advertising does not guarantee immediate results (or results at all). Even for successful campaigns it often takes multiple touches to instill brand awareness on a prospect.

Big brands have enough resources at their disposal to afford the time commitment that comes with paid ads.

Think about it from your personal experience. Did you ever purchase a product after seeing one ad on social media for the very first time? Probably not.

For you to get to know a brand and make a purchase decision, it would take more than just looking at one ad. You would have to see the ad many times before actually noticing the brand. After that, you would probably check out the website, and if everything goes well you'd purchase their product.

To achieve this and compete with other major players in your industry, you need to have enough resources at your disposal to run long, targeted ad campaigns, and you need to know your numbers. 

What do we mean by that? Thriving brands that advertise know how much it costs them to acquire a customer and more importantly, their customer's lifetime value or "LTV". Lifetime value is the average total amount a new customer can be expected to spend with your brand. If you are a new creator you might not know this number yet for your business. Larger brands that do are willing to invest all of the profit from an initial sale into acquiring a customer because they know over that customer's lifetime they will make more in return. A business can use this number along with the conversion rate of their product to determine the maximum cost per lead (CPL) they can afford to spend. 

Can you say the same about your course yet? If you don't know how much a customer is worth to you, then you don't know how much you can spend on advertising. 

Want to learn how to figure out these numbers for your business? Try our free online course and membership site pricing calculator to experiment with pricing ideas. 

#3. You Need Extensive Knowledge

In addition to being expensive and time-consuming, paid ads are also hard.

To set up a single ad on Facebook or Google is not difficult, however, a single ad will most likely not bring you any results.

To create ads that convert, you need to test different campaigns over and over again, retarget your best audiences and create multiple ad campaigns for different goals. You'll need to try potentially hundreds of creatives and minor adjustments to ad copy in order to find that winning ad that is profitable for you. 

This is why there are so many marketing agencies that specialize in running paid ads for other companies.

It isn't only the ads you need to optimize though. You'll also need to ensure that your website and email marketing are dialed in and converting organic customers before moving to paid ads. 

If your web page and email sequences aren't converting your leads to customers then you won't be able to generate a positive return, regardless of how much you spend on ads.

#4. Makes it Harder to Gain Customers' Trust

If you only use paid ads as your main marketing strategy, it is harder to create a real connection with potential customers.

As time goes by, people are becoming more and more skeptical about sponsored content.

Whereas a recommendation from a friend or your favorite influencer is held in much higher regard.

In order for a consumer to trust a brand, it takes more effort, resources and different marketing strategies.

What Can You Do Instead of Paid Ads?

As we previously established, paid ads may not be the best idea for online course creators, especially if you are just starting out or have limited resources.

So let's see what marketing strategy you can implement instead to promote your online course organically.

Word of Mouth and Referral Programs

Your customers' testimonials are the best marketing tool you could possibly use.

92% of consumers agree that they trust recommendations from friends and family above all other forms of advertising.

Word of Mouth is a promotion strategy that leverages person-to-person recommendations about a product. The reason why word of mouth is such a great way to promote your business is its authenticity.

If a friend recommends you a product they bought online, you instantly trust their recommendation.

So how can you get started promoting your online course with word of mouth?

First of all, your program needs to be valuable to your clients. If they enjoy taking your online course, they'll be more likely to recommend it to their peers.

“There's almost an immediate effect when people sign up, and they think our course it’s great. So then they tell their friends.”

Dino & Micole - creators using Heights Platform

Dino and Micole are the founders of Rustico Cooking. Among other marketing strategies, they leverage word of mouth to promote their membership site.

Read The Full Story of Rustico Cooking

If you already have a good product that solves your audience's needs, try starting a referral program as well.

A referral program involves offering a reward to customers who brings you new customers.

It is extremely easy to implement, you could offer a discount to both parties, monetary compensation, a gift or more.

This way, your current customers will feel motivated to spread the word about your online course, making it a "win-win-win" situation for both you, your students and your future customers.

Affiliate Marketing

Affiliate Marketing is also a fantastic way to promote your online course through recommendations.

Differently from a referral program, anyone can be an affiliate, not only your existing students. Affiliate marketing also allows you to reach a broader audience.

With affiliate marketing, you pay a commission to anyone who brings you a new customer by promoting your online course through a special link.

Learn the details of how to get started with affiliate marketing in this article from our blog: A Complete Guide on How to Launch an Affiliate Program to Promote Your Online Course

Setting up an affiliate program and generating unique links for your affiliates can be hard. Fortunately, an online course platform can help.

Heights Platform online course software student affiliate program

If you are a Heights Platform customer, you have access to our free Student Affiliate Program feature, built for our creators.

You can easily generate links for your affiliates, track their referrals, and see how many commissions you have to pay.

#3. Email Marketing

Email Marketing is a powerful tool that can help you promote your online course organically.

The best thing about email marketing is that there is no limit on how many emails you can send to a prospect, and it is absolutely free.

Before you can start sending emails to your potential customers, you need to get their contact details. A good way to do this is by creating a lead magnet.

Learn all about lead magnets here: How to Create a Great Lead Magnet That Converts to Promote Your Online Course

With a lead magnet, you are offering something for free to your audience in exchange for their email addresses.

Once you have their contact details, you can insert those leads into your email campaign and start promoting your online course.

Email marketing can also be used together with paid ads. Instead of concentrating all your resources on a paid advertisement campaign, you potentially lower your cost of customer acquisition with ads promoting your free lead magnet to collect emails this way.

This strategy is also great as it opens the doors to a broader audience (thanks to the paid ad) but you can still keep the cost to a minimum, as you are promoting a free product in exchange for email addresses (you are not trying to get sales from those ads).

#4. Partnerships & Collaborations

Whether you are just starting out with your online course or you have been creating for years, setting up a partnership is always a good idea to gain extra visibility.

Depending on your niche and topic of interest there are countless kinds of partnerships and collaborations you could do.

An easy way to collaborate with other creators is by participating in online events. Being interviewed on a podcast, joining a webinar or live stream, writing a guest blog post are great ways to gain additional visibility and broaden your audience.

The examples above can be considered win-win situations: by being invited to an online event you can gain higher visibility while your host gains valuable content to share with their audience.

Heights Platform online course software creator stories

Other more complex collaborations involve partnering with someone that specializes in your same niche to offer more value to your customers.

For instance, if you are selling online courses and you know someone in the same niche who wrote a book around your topic, you could team up and promote their book to your audience, while they promote your online course to theirs.

These kinds of partnerships are not easy to start and usually require you to do some networking but can be a great way of organically promote your online course.

#5. Free Content Creation

Other than creating content for your online course, it is important to offer free content in the form of blog posts or YoutTube videos or podcast episodes etc...

Creating content is critical when it comes to SEO.

Learn all about SEO best practices in this article from our blog: All You Need to Know About SEO to Sell Online Courses

Offering free, valuable content to your audience has many benefits. Other than helping you with SEO and increasing your Google rankings, it provides additional value to your audience and helps them to see you as an expert in your field.

Content creation is an extremely important part of promoting your online course, however, it requires time and constant effort before seeing the first results.

When is Best to Use Paid Ads?

By now it should be clear that promoting an online course organically is a safer choice than using paid ads exclusively.

However, this doesn't mean that you should avoid paid advertising altogether.

Instead of using paid ads as your only marketing strategy, use them to complement your organic promotion.

Once you have your website copy, email marketing, and your online course itself perfected and getting you sales organically, you'll be able to more confidently start running ads because you know that your marketing is dialed in and converting customers to sales for you!

If you are starting out with your online course business, don't worry about missing out if you aren't running paid ads yet. Instead, focus on improving your marketing and your course. Once you reach the point that you've earned $100,000 or more from your online course, then you've most likely made many optimizations to your marketing and your course itself in order to make that happen. 

You'll likely have a much better understanding of who your audience is, and how you can attract them. This way, when you do start advertising, you'll avoid the pitfall of wasting money on advertising an offer that is not yet converting well. 

When you do start paid ads, it is a good idea to promote your lead magnet and collect emails from potential customers. If you run an ad with the goal of collecting email addresses as opposed to immediate sales, you can add those email addresses in your email campaigns and keep promoting your product or course to them without having to pay to show the same person an ad every time you want to promote to them. An advertising objective of capturing leads will also help you prove if your advertising strategy is working or not. If you know that your marketing funnel works on organic traffic, but it isn't working for your paid advertising, then you have 100% confidence that the ads are what you need to optimize, instead of having to guess at where the problem might be. 


There is no right and wrong marketing strategy to promote your online course. Ultimately, it depends on your time, resources and goals.

The best way to grow your online business is to find a strategy that works for your unique needs.

As a general rule, when you are just starting out it is best to promote your online course using free marketing strategies. You can always experiment with some paid ads on the side to increase brand awareness or gain leads, but don't double down into them until you are confident that you have a sales system that works.

The free strategies we have talked about in this article can be a great starting point for your business. If you want to learn more about other ways to promote an online course, be sure to read this article from our blog: A Complete Guide on How to Promote Your Online Course and Boost Sales