Why “Lifetime Access” is Hurting Your Online Course

“Should I offer my students lifetime access to my course?”

It comes up over and over again in online course creation circles.

And resoundingly, people reply “YES, I DO ON ALL MY COURSES, CUSTOMERS LOVE IT.”

And that’s true. Customers do like to see “Lifetime Access!”

Because you’re basically promising them a unicorn. Lifetime access is a myth.

Here’s why “Lifetime Access” is a completely bogus premise:

  • For the length of whose lifetime? Yours? Your customers’? What does it even mean?!
  • Do you really think you’ll be maintaining this course till you die? Probably not.
  • Do you even want to be maintaining the same course five years from now? Do you want to be obligated to, even if you’d rather retire it?
  • What happens if you fail to deliver lifetime access? If you shut the course down, do you refund every single student you’ve ever had? This is strangely never specified with lifetime access. I wonder why?
  • What if you decide to nix only a part of the course? What if a module becomes obsolete, or you want to turn it into a separate product of its own? Are you really going to refund your students’ money just because they lost access to a few specific course materials?
  • What if your business hits the skids financially, or Maude forbid, you have a serious personal tragedy and can no longer afford to host and maintain your course? Are you really going to refund your students’ money?

Lifetime access is a gamble that your student will stop needing your course BEFORE you decide to stop offering it, and a prayer that they won’t notice when it’s gone.

Promising 'lifetime access' to an online course is like promising your students a unicorn: It's beautiful and sparkly and also TOTALLY IMAGINARY. This is why lifetime access is lethal to your business!

At best, it’s a logistical problem, and at worst, it’s a straight up lie.

Don’t believe me that “Lifetime Access” can spell major problems for your online course business? Check this out. THIS IS REAL. 😬

The problem is that online entrepreneurs have tried to translate the age old idea of a lifetime guarantee on PHYSICAL products into the digital space. Only it doesn’t quite work.

Lifetime guarantees of any kind sound really great. You get them on things like tools! Really nice furniture! Fancy ass kitchen knives! Even outdoor gear – REI’s lifetime guarantee was legendary, allowing dedicated customers to fully wear out a pair of hiking boots and then sweet lordy actually return them back for a replacement. Alas, even they could not sustain this, and they recently changed to a one-year wrranty.

So it’s understandable that people would try to translate this system to digital products.

But with physical products, the proposition is:

“Here’s this thing. You take it home with you. Let us know if it doesn’t work out and we will replace it!”

All a company has to do to make good on that promise is remain in business, and maybe shell out a replacement, or an equivalent product.

Whereas with digital products, the proposition is entirely different:


With online courses, your students are making a purchase, but it actually functions more like a rental. The product lives on YOUR LAND, not theirs, and YOU have to maintain it.

I’ve seen this go wrong for my clients, where a course has existed for years but has changed formats and platforms several times. Suddenly, a student who purchased the course in the very first version SIX YEARS AGO wants to know where this one specific worksheet went, or this one specific recording. The links in their email from 2012 don’t work anymore!

They thought they had lifetime access, what gives? Where is this thing they paid for?!

You can see how this has the potential to go seriously wrong.

Excellent customer service as a course creator is all about delivering on your promises. Do not put yourself in a position where you cannot possibly deliver on what you’ve promised.

Lifetime access is a nebulous promise that doesn’t really mean anything.

Here are some alternatives to consider instead:

Option 1. For the lifetime of the course, rather than a person.

This one is pretty straightforward, and it’s probably only a tiny tweak in the language you’re already using to promise lifetime access. For as long as you continue to run this course, all previous students will have access. You should make sure you mention the NAME of the course specifically, so if you later retire it but continue to run a similar course, students can’t demand access to THAT one instead.

How to phrase it:

“You’ll have access for the lifetime of the course, for as long as I continue to run A Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching.”

This is still a big commitment! If the course evolves, you add content and maybe start charging a higher price, you’ll need to decide whether you’re going to give previous students access to all those new goodies, or maintain a separate “as-is” version just for the old students that you’ve made this promise to.

Option 2. For the lifetime of the course, or at least one year.

This doesn’t sound quite as generous, but it’s actually offering a little more security for your students.  If you offer Option 1 “lifetime-of-the-course” access long enough, someone will eventually ask “But what if you quit running it right after I buy it?”

Here, we’re telling them that we will maintain this course for at least one year after they enroll. If it’s a four-week course, they know that you will not immediately close up shop as soon as they’ve finished it and they have AT LEAST eleven more months to reference the materials.

How to phrase it:

“You’ll have access for the lifetime of the course, for as long as I continue to run A Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching, and guaranteed access for AT LEAST one year after you enroll.”

Feel free to substitute any other length of time instead of a year! However, when you make this decision, try to pretend that you are so f’ing sick of this course and you are ready to move on with your life already OMG. How long do you want to have to keep it around once you have personally checked out on it?

Option 3. Till the end of the course + a few months

Now we’re swinging hard in the other direction, where we’re promising them much less, but it might be an even bigger pain in the ass for you to administrate.

Do you actually want to remove them from the course after a certain amount of time has passed? This is easier to do with live courses where all of the students move through your material at the same pace – you can simply unenroll everyone on the same date.

It becomes a little trickier for self-paced courses, where some students might take longer than others to complete the material. In those cases, it makes more sense to talk in time after enrollment and give the slow movers some buffer room.

For example, for a course that typically takes one month to complete, you might say that they have access for six months from their date of enrollment, giving them an extra five months to work through the material.

How to phrase it:

“A Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching is designed to take one month to complete, but you’ll have access for six months after you enroll so you can work at your own pace.”

his is something you should only do if you have a very specific reason that you might want them OUT of the course after a period of time. For example, if this course is acting as a funnel towards a more expensive membership program, you might want to put an end-date on their access to encourage them to make the upgrade for continued support.

Do you actually have to throw them out of that course when that date rolls around? Of course not! But you’re reserving the right to do it.

BONUS TIP: If you’re hosting your course on Teachable, you can unenroll students automatically after a certain period of time by setting configuring “limited access” inside your payment plans. If you’re using a different course platform that does not accommodate that, you can automate this with a paid Zapier plan. You would create a three-step Zap that Triggers on their new enrollment, insert a Delay that waits a certain amount of time, and then add an Action to unenroll them from the course.

Option 4. Amount of time + you can download and keep certain materials.

You can offer a specific time frame that you will maintain the course, but allow them to download the course materials so they can reference them forever. Not gonna lie, this option makes me a little sweaty because I’ve seen it abused, so it’s important to be smart about it.

I typically do NOT suggest that you do this with an entire video course. Sometimes nefarious users take advantage, and your course may later show up on a platform like Skillshare with someone else claiming it as their own material and selling it for $6.

The right way to do this is make the course itself the premium experience, but provide enough downloadable reference material so that someone who has taken the full course can later refer to it when they need a refresher.

For example, let’s imagine that your course currently contains full video lessons that are NOT downloadable. You could choose to add:

  • Downloadable mp3s of the audio only
  • Downloadable text transcripts of the video content
  • Downloadable PDF outlines (like CliffsNotes) of the course content

How to phrase it:

“You’ll have access to A Beginner’s Guide to Birdwatching for six months, plus you’ll be able to download the audio mp3s and course notes and keep them FOREVER AND EVER.”

That’s a pretty good deal!

So there you have it – four ways to provide long-term access to your course that make way more sense than promising A LIFETIME (and unicorns and fairies).


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