There is a huge difference between coming up with an online course idea and coming up with a good online course idea.
For example, you could say, “Hey, I want to start teaching people how to tame and domesticate the wild ducks from their local pond.” And you could create an entire course on how to do it. But that’s shady at best and something not many people will actually be interested in buying. Instead, maybe you could broaden your topic to team people how to hatch and care for ducks in an elementary school classroom. Now that there's a purpose for the ducks, maybe you have an audience.
Online courses are a great way to make a living, but you'll only be successful if you're making a course that your audience actually wants to buy.
A good online course idea will meet these criteria before you start creating:
- There is an audience for it
- It's narrow enough that you can get nitty gritty
- You are an authority on the topic
- You've gone back and validated your course idea
Finding an audience for your course
You can't sell a course if you don't have anyone to sell to, so your first step will be finding an audience. It shouldn't be too hard to find your audience, as you're probably already a member of the very audience you're trying to target.
For example, if you're passionate about dog training, it's likely that you already frequent a few dog training forums or are part of Facebook groups where people share their experiences. And from there, you can start building a name for yourself as a helpful and knowledgable community member.
For some niches, it may not be as simple as logging onto Facebook. Depending on your target demographic, you may be more likely to find your audience on forums, or subreddits, or even within certain Twitter or Instagram hashtags. The key is to find them before you start coming up with course ideas.
Because you're going to be able to use that audience to start finding profitable ideas for your online course.
If you don't know where to start looking for communities try starting here:
Once you know where your audience hangs out, start interacting. Answer questions people have and start networking. You don't need to be spammy or even tell people that you're creating an online course at this point.
Become a thought leader
More than growing your audience, you want to become a thought leader in your niche. This means you are going to try to become one of those go-to people that your target audience goes to when they have a question.
This requires time and dedication, but it will help you gain a better understanding of your audience's pain points while setting you up to have a successful online course launch.
Becoming a thought leader is one of those easier said than done things, but more than anything else it requires you consistently showing up and providing value.
If you're truly trying to become a thought leader it's important not to spread yourself too thin. You can't be everything for everyone so decide who you want to serve and where you want to serve them and commit.
You're better off developing a solid audience on one platform like Quora than you are developing a lukewarm audience spread across a handful of different social media sites.
The most important step you can take in becoming a thought leader is showing up consistently and actually providing value. Every time someone sees one of your posts or interactions, understand that it may be their first ever impression of you and you want it to be great from the start.
You'll eventually find that people are asking the same questions over and over again. In that case, I think it's beneficial to have an organized doc where you can keep the answers to common questions and group them together. When you see a question you've answered in the past you can easily copy and paste and in 30 seconds you've positioned yourself as an expert for the day.
Using your audience to choose a course idea
Once you've become active in the online communities where your audience hangs out, you can begin figuring out what their pain points are and what online course topic would best serve them.
There are a number of ways you can do this. The simplest is to lurk and see what types of questions are being asked and if there are any consistencies. If you're seeing that a third of the posts in your group all touch on the same topic, that's a great place to start.
You can also be more forward and ask people to share their pain points in a thread. You'll want to check the group rules before doing so, but if you're in the clear this is a great way to get direct feedback from your audience.
Once you've got an idea of what you're struggling with, make a list of potential course ideas you can create based on those topics. Try to get nine or ten to work with on the list.
Niching down your course idea
Once you've got your list of nine or ten course ideas, it's time to start getting nitty gritty and deciding on the one transformation you want for your students.
It might be tempting to say, "I'm going to create the ultimate supreme course to dog training" but it's unlikely that you'll actually be able to pack every single thing anyone will need to know about dog training into one, easily consumable course.
Instead, narrow it down.
Create a course on how to train an adult rescue dog. Or how to house train a puppy when you've got a full-time job. Or how to potty train a older dog with a bell.
All of those topics are more narrow and help solve a specific pain point, which is what people are most likely to be looking for.
An online course should be a shortcut to an outcome, and you're better off if that outcome is a tangible change your audience will be able to notice. Sure, it'd be great to make them an expert on all things dog training, but if you're instead giving them a focused course that will help them leash train their rescue dog in five weeks, that single improvement will be more valuable to them than a vague overview.
In other words, don't make your audience wade through a bunch of information that isn't relevant to them or their struggles to get to the good stuff.
When we talked to Joseph Michael, he mentioned going "four deep" with your online course idea. This means you should really narrow down your niche and hone in on a very specific pain point.
To stick with our dog training example, going four deep might look a little something like this:
- Dog training: This is your niche, but shouldn't be your course topic. It's too broad!
- Training adult dogs: This is better, but still very broad.
- Training adult rescue dogs: Now we're getting somewhere....
- Training adult rescue dogs to walk on a leash: This might feel too specific, but that's a good thing! You're solving one very specific pain point that people are searching for.
It can be tricky going four deep, so let's look at another example. Now let's pretend you want to teach people how to create a blog. Here's how I'd go four deep:
- How to create a blog: This isn't specific. What kind of blog? For what purpose?
- How to create a profitable blog: A bit better, now you're targeting people who want to blog for profit.
- How to create a profitable fashion blog: Even better, now you know what kind of content your audience will be creating and can cater your content to them.
- How to create a profitable fashion blog with WordPress. Now we're talking! This is specific and narrow and accomplishes a very specific goal.
Action step: Create a list of at least 10 course ideas that are narrow and specific within your niche. These course ideas should take your students to a clear outcome and all be topics you'd be excited to teach.
Narrowing down your options
Once you've come up with your 10 online course ideas, it's time to narrow them down. First off, circle the five you'd be the most interested in teaching.
Let's focus on these.
From there, you need to go back and reexamine what your audience really needs help with. Take into account how skilled they already are, and how long your ideal audience has already been in the industry.
Testing your top five
If you've got an email list, segment them into five sections to do somewhat of an A/B test. Send a short email with each course you're considering as a title. Write a three or four paragraph mini-guide regarding that topic and see which performs better.
Take into consideration clicks and engagement.
If you're looking for guidance, the five email subject lines you send might look something like this:
- How to house train your adult rescue dog
- How to leash train your adult rescue dog
- How to socialize your adult rescue dog
- How to crate train your adult rescue dog
- How to boundary train your adult rescue dog
Once your emails have been sent out to the segmented lists, wait a few days and collect the data.
You'll probably find that one or two emails got significantly higher open rates than the others and hopefully one of those got better engagement making your job a lot easier.
If they all performed really well or really poorly your job just got a bit harder. If they performed well you can assume that your audience would be interested in any of them, if they didn't you may have to go back to the drawing board.
If it ends up being the latter, go back and reanalyze your audience and challenge yourself to figure out why they weren't interested in the topics you proposed.
Once you're better able to get into their head you can come up with ideas they will be interested in.
Proving you're an authority on your topic
This is the hard part. When it comes to choosing and validating an online course idea, a lot of people begin to suffer from "imposter syndrome."
They'll say to themselves, "Oh, I don't have any certifications." or "I've only learned this myself a few months ago." and decide to abandon their course idea altogether.
The one thing I can't stress enough to online course instructors is: You don't have to be an expert to successfully teach an online course.
In fact, you're often better served not to be an expert. After all, experts have often been in their field for decades and may not remember what it was like to be in their target audience's shoes.
If you yourself just mastered something 6 months ago, you're going to remember the pain points you went through more vividly than someone who has been in their field since they were a child in the sixties.
Being able to recall your own experiences and not gloss over the things that may be second nature to the "expert" is powerful, and why often times people who are newer to the field themselves create more helpful online courses.
"Great, but how do I relay that to my audience?"
Fantastic question! You know what you're capable of and the experiences you've had, now you need to prove to your audience that you'll not only be able to help them but that you're the best person for the job.
If you've been around the Teachable blog for a while, you can likely anticipate what I'm going to say: Give something valuable away for free to prove your worth.
Using lead magnets to grow your audience
While we all are hoping to make money with our online businesses, it's valuable to prove that you're worth buying from by offering your audience a lead magnet.
This should be an online product you create that is in the same niche as the online product you tend to sell. You can give this away by offering it up in online communities, running Facebook ads, or promoting it in blog posts.
Gate the content so that your audience has to give you their email in exchange for your lead magnet and you can start building your marketing list.
These are all examples of types of lead magnets…
- Toolkits/resource guides - think of this as creating a shopping list. Walk your audience through everything they need to buy to be successful in what you're teaching
- Free mini-course - you can take the first module of the course you're already creating and repurpose it into a mini-course, or create a mini-course on a complimentary, related topic
- Checklists - again, this can be like a shopping list, or it can be a checklist of skills your students should aim to master
- Handouts - think of this as the supplemental material you may have gotten in addition to your textbook back in high school
- Downloads - downloads work great for people teaching skills like design. Offer free templates or fonts for your audience to use
- Worksheets - these can help your audience work through the preliminary steps they need to accomplish before being successful in your niche
- Webinars - personally, I think webinars are one of the most powerful tools an online marketer has. They are the best way to make a connection with your audience and position yourself as an authority
- Video series - just as powerful as webinars, without the live aspect
- Podcast - podcasts are having their moment right now, so if you can host a podcast that interests your target audience you can get ahead of the curve
With that said, keep in mind that the higher value your lead magnet is, the more your audience is going to trust you. You can easily throw together a checklist in 10 minutes and call it a day, but if you're creating a detailed mini-course on a topic related to your paid course you'll see higher conversions.
Coming up with what your free offering should be, though, is another story. You want your audience to be interested in learning more without giving them so much information that they feel that they have nothing left to learn.
Let's look at some examples of great free lead magnets:
First, we'll continue with our shelter dog training example.
- A guide on rescuing dogs from the shelter
- A shopping list for first-time dog rescuers
- A mini-course on how to minimize aggressive behaviors with rescue dogs
All three of those options are targeted and valuable without taking any value away from your course itself.
With that said, we've seen people successfully offer the first module of their online course as their lead magnet. As long as you're transparent and let your audience know that's what it is, this a great strategy to leave them wanting more from you.
Once your audience signs up to get your free resource, two things happen:
- They get content that they love and that helps them. This proves to them that you're trustworthy, and in turn makes them more likely to buy when you have an online course or other product to sell to them.
- You get an email address to add to your list, which you can then use to either give them more free content or sell them something even more valuable.
If you're really wanting to hook your audience, make sure that like your online course, your lead magnet will be taking your audience through a transformation.
Make it valuable but simple, something they're going to appreciate but is all but fail proof. Being able to bring them a success early on will increase their faith in you and their faith in themselves to be successful in your niche. This combination will have them eager to learn more and they'll trust that you're the person who can help them reach their goals.
A few examples of mini courses or lead magnets you can create that will help increase your students' confidence are:
- A course on meditation: Have your students sit down and meditate. Tell them that it's OK to get distracted and give them tips on regrouping. Even if they get distracted they will feel accomplished for refocusing each time.
- A course on running a 5k. Take your students through a simple pre-run stretching routine. Even if they're out of shape they can still sit down and successfully stretch. Provide alternative stretches for those who may not be flexible.
- A guide on Wordpress. Help you audience set up a menu for their Wordpress site. It's simple but valuable and it's hard to go wrong.
Validate your course topic
If you've successfully accomplished the last three steps, validating your online course idea should be easy.
The idea of validating your course helps you ensure that your hunch that this is a topic your audience would be interested in is spot on.
Validating your course idea can be as simple as sending an email to your audience, or a thorough process that involves preselling and marketing before actually creating your course.
Validating your course the easy way
If you've already built an audience and an email list, validating your online course idea could be as simple as sending in an opt-in to your email list.
Let them know you're working on creating an online course and if they're interested in being in your first round of students to click the link you'll provide and sign up for a segmented email list where they can get exclusive deals when your course goes live.
Your email list is the one platform that will convert better than anywhere else, so this a good place to measure your audience's interest.
Sending a one-off email likely won't lead your entire audience to opt in, or even the entirety of your audience who is interested in your course. But it can show you if there is any interest at all.
If you have people opting in, great! That means there is interest. If not, you can send a follow up email to the people who opened the original one and see why they weren't interested and what they'd rather see.
Validating your course by pre selling
If you don't have an audience yet or you're really trying to be sure that you're on the right track with your online course you can try promoting a pre sale.
If you're not familiar, a presale is when you put your course sales page live before you've finished creating your course content.
You presell so you can drip out your content and get feedback from a small batch of customers. Being able to collect feedback from a targeted audience who wants you to succeed is powerful because you can use that feedback to increase the value of your course and work out all of the kinks before you make your course available to the public.
In most cases, you presell at a discounted price and let your customers know that the course is still under construction and will be finished by a set date.
From there you can decide whether the sales you've made are worth continuing to pursue your course idea or if you should scrap it and regroup.
Preselling has benefits that go beyond just validating your online course idea, too.
- You won’t be wasting a ton of time. If your presale flops and you realize your audience isn’t interested in your idea, you’re much better off if you haven’t poured your soul into 100% of your content. If you decide you don’t want to continue creating that particular course you can repurpose the content you did create and you won’t be at a loss.
- You get feedback as your audience consumes your course. After the first section goes live your audience might say that they prefer your screenflows over live video, or that the sound quality was a little wonky. You can take this early feedback and implement it into the rest of your course, catering the content to what your audience prefers. But more on that later.
- You’ll be on a deadline. If you have a course full of eager students who are looking forward to weekly updates you’ll be much more likely to prioritize content creation and won’t fall behind.
- You’ll be making money to improve your course. Presales allow you to get audience feedback, and you may decide that you need to invest in a microphone or a better editing system to add value to your course. Now that you’ve made money preselling you’ve got a cushion to do so.
What if I can't validate my course idea?
If you're not getting the response you were hoping for, it can mean one of three things:
- You're marketing to the wrong audience
- You're marketing the wrong course idea to the right audience.
- You're marketing the right course to the right audience who doesn't know what they want.
More often than not we find that it's the second. If you've already built an audience, it makes more sense to create the products your existing audience wants rather than developing the course you hope an audience might want.
If you didn't get a positive response reach out and ask why. Consider using this email template:
"Last week I sent an email to gauge interest for my online course on ______________. I'm always working to create content and products to help make your life easier, and I noticed you didn't opt in and I wanted to know what you'd rather see from me.
I know not everyone will be interested in every product, but I do aim to be as helpful as possible and I'd love to know how I could better serve you. So tell me, what are you struggling with and what do you wish you could get from me? Respond directly to this email and we can chat!
As always thanks so much."
You can use the responses that come from that email to decide what direction you want to take your online course. You can absolutely continue with the topic you originally planned on and start from scratch with audience building, but you'd be better off to adjust your offer and sell a product your current audience is interested in.
When your audience isn't primed to buy courses
If you're really certain that you've found the right course topic and the right audience but you still haven't been able to validate your course idea, you have to ask yourself why.
You may find that your audience isn't primed to be interested in online courses. Perhaps they're unfamiliar with online courses as a whole. Or you're focused in a niche where online courses haven't been a "thing" in the past.
In this case, it's up to you to educate them on what you're teaching and why an online course can help them reach their goals.
During the education phase, your goal is to make your audience want your product before they even know that you have a product.
Make them want to know more about your course topic through engaging and valuable blog posts, email marketing techniques, and social media posts.
Once you’ve got them hooked and wanting to know more, you’ll ride in like a white knight and present the course they didn’t even know they wanted and get them excited to buy.
How to get your audience excited about online courses
If your audience is truly in the dark about online courses, it's going to take a little more than saying, "Buy this course to ___________!"
You're going to have to get specific and offer examples on why online education is the way to go in your niche and why your course is better than trying to figure it all out on their own. Here are a few fast facts from our Benefits of Online Learning blog post, but consider going through and pulling more of your own:
- In 2015, over 70% of academic leaders surveyed by the Babson Survey Research Group expressed that the learning outcomes of online education are as good or better than face-to-face education.
- According to a report by the US Department of Education, “learning outcomes for students who engaged in online learning exceeded those of students receiving face-to-face instruction.” Look around any college lecture hall and you’re going to see a third of students on Facebook, the other third texting, and a fraction of the final third actually paying attention.
- According to research, though, the exact opposite is true. The National Survey of Student Engagement found, “Course management and interactive technologies were positively related to student engagement, self-reported learning outcomes, and deep approaches to learning. Course management technology was most strongly related to student-faculty interaction and self-reported gains in personal and social development.”
- “The in-state public college budget for the 2016–2017 academic year averaged $24,610 whereas the average online course costs just over $100. If you're looking to learn specific skills in an area, you're often going to be better off buying the online course rather than enrolling in a college class.
You can consider creating an entire email marketing strategy that starts off talking about why online courses are so effective in your area. Allow your audience to email you questions about online courses and be prompt and thorough in answering them.
You should also give them an idea of what an online course actually looks like. Sign up for a free Teachable plan and make a mock-up of your course structure to send your audience.
The EdTech industry is still relatively new, so there is still a certain faction of people who remain skeptical. If your audience happens to be in that faction, introducing online courses as a positive thing before you begin marketing to them can go a long way in gaining their trust and selling your course.
Now all that's left to do is commit
Once you've gone through these steps, you can feel certain that your course idea will not only be well recieved by your students, but it will be profitable.