Avoid critical errors before you even start! Online course success starts at the beginning – with choosing a topic to teach online that is designed up-front to actually sell.
We’ve helped thousands of course creators create, market, and sell their courses, and we’ve learned the key activities that lead to the highest success along the way.
Ready to dive in? The first step is to download your workbook, then follow along to plan (or revisit!) your course topic:
This post is the first in our new getting started series, designed entirely around building a successful online course from the ground up – complete with our experience helping thousands, and lots of wise input from industry experts and fellow course creators along the way. Let’s dive in!
You might be an author, a speaker, a coach, a business owner, or you have some sort of expertise that is worth sharing in your niche.
You’re here because you’ve got expertise that you’re ready to turn into courses.
Picking the topic of your first course is less about figuring out what you can teach, and more about what you should teach first. If you know a topic well, it’s likely that you have dozens of courses that you could start putting together today.
The challenge is figuring out where you can have the biggest impact, and what the first course you start working on should be. This isn’t what would be the most fun or the easiest to put together, it’s how you can best solve the problems your audience has (and that excite you along the way)!
We want to build the right course, at the right time, for the right people. That includes identifying a topic that your audience is motivated enough to pay money to change.
This is a common answer I hear when asking about target market:
“My course really appeals to most small business owners. Small business owners have similar challenges – they work in their businesses more than they can afford to work on them, and they have limited resources especially with their time. I can really help them out.”
But here’s the key – going back to our secret to success: someone won’t purchase your course because they like what you are selling, they will purchase your course because they have a specific problem that you are going to solve.
And, in order to make it clear that you can solve their problem, you need to be VERY specific. Otherwise, you create a course that is written for anyone, but appeals to no one.
Let’s pick a topic like copywriting. Now, let’s say you’re a musician, and you’re working on the online presence for your own small business, your fledgling band. You go looking for a course helping you do that, and you see this:
Copywriting For Small Businesses
You’re a small business owner, not a wordsmith! Learn how you can use these copywriting tips to make your page stand out, get more customers, and make more money by using only your keyboard.
Sounds pretty good, right?
Now, what if you then found this course:
Copywriting for Musicians
You’re a musician, not a wordsmith! Learn how you can use these copywriting tips written especially for musicians wanting to make their pages stand out. Get more fans, sell your music, and get back to being a rockstar by using only your keyboard.
You can see what I’m getting at here. If you appeal to too many people, you will appeal to no one. Don’t make this mistake! When given the option, your prospective students will always be drawn to the course that is MOST specific to them (and – pro tip: there’s nothing stopping you from making different versions of your course for more specific audiences, once you get going!)
Even better – if I run across the musician course and I have a FRIEND who is a musician and I knew he was struggling with the problem this course aims to solve, I would send him the link in a heartbeat. It would probably come with a note saying something like “I know you were struggling with your website the other day, and I found the PERFECT course for you! It’s written specifically for musicians like you. Check it out.”
That’s the kind of solution that we want our course to be, to our own audience.
With that in mind, let’s dig into defining our own audience.
I’m starting with a couple of assumptions:
- You have expertise in one or more areas, and you want to create an online course related to your area of interest. (Stuck on this? Check out steps 1 and 2 in the workbook for some tools to help!)
- You’ve already got some idea about the specific groups or types of people who can benefit from your knowledge.
The goal here is to simply brainstorm about WHO you can serve. Some of you need to think more broadly, some of you need to think more narrowly.
Get out a pen and a piece of paper and start with the big groups, then break them down to more specific niches.
If you are an accountant and thinking about your potential audience, the list might start to look something like this:
As you do this, the goal is to simply start thinking about how what you’re offering would differ for each of these groups. Once you have a decent sized list of the types of groups you can serve, go ahead and pick 3 that stand out to you (you can always come back and do these steps over again, so don’t stress too much about which ones to choose!)
There are a few factors that should warrant moving groups up the list:
- Markets you have a particular interest in, and that you’ve already started to think about the specific ways you can help (like the copywriting for musicians example above!). You’ve got to love what you’re teaching – avoid picking something because you think it’s better, but that you know you’re going to struggle to get excited about.
- Markets for which you have an existing email list of potential customers (your list might include past customers, your own opt-in email list, industry contacts, LinkedIn connections focussed on an industry, etc. This can be a huge head start.)
- Markets you have an existing connection to. The easier you can relate to a particular group or have some inside knowledge, the faster the next steps will be. If I want to target paediatricians, that’s MUCH simpler if my sister is also a paediatrician and can explain how the industry works, than if I have no connection to the industry at all.
The ultimate goal is to find the Goldilocks of niches – not too big, but not too small. We need a group that’s specific enough that you are targeting a unique group of people, but not SO specific that you will never find them.
Armed with our most promising niches, this next step is where you hit the virtual pavement to answer the question, “Now that I know WHO I might want to get in front of, WHAT are the problems that they have, that I can help them solve?”
Discover the (urgent!) pains your audience has today
One of the biggest pitfalls course creators make is to decide the course that they want to teach FIRST, then go hunting for people with the problem. You will have more success if, instead, you go looking for the PAINS your audience has relating to your area of expertise, and then put together the course that solves their specific problems (and not the other way around).
You’ve got multiple courses you could create – the goal here is to pick the one that is MOST needed by your audience (and that has an audience size that is just right).
There are three primary ways that you can find what pains your prospective students are experiencing today:
- You are a member of your market already. “Wanted to help accountants just like me…”
- You can immerse yourself. Join & observe. Find communities and join them. Read up. Learn. Search forums for people asking for help. Look for blog posts about the issues. Dive in and become a member of this community.
- You can ask & interview. This can take the form of surveys or interviews of folks who really know and understand this group. Get in front of members and experts of the market, and start by talking to them.
This step can take hours, days, or even longer – but the key is to ACT rather than get stuck here. A small, mini course to get the ball rolling is the best bet for your first project (rather than diving in now to your monster-everything-you-can-teach one!), so don’t let yourself get stuck here!
The end result of this process will be a long list of specific groups you can assist, and what you can help them with.
If you’re a photographer, this list might start out looking something like this, based on your research:
Once you have some ideas about what you can (and want to) teach online, who you can teach it to, and what their specific pains are, it’s time to test your assumptions with evidence. The key? You’re looking for proof of a market, but not an over-saturated or overly broad one.
Remember the goal: the right course, at the right time, for the right people. The course that solves a problem that your audience is motivated enough to pay money to fix.
This is my favourite step, and it’s where we start making sense of the pages full of brainstorming you’ve now got in front of you! We need a way to evaluate ideas against each other. This is not an exact science, but this list can help tip the tables so you can make an evidence based decision on which topic to choose (rather than simply an emotional one!)
Here are some things to consider when evaluating your options and are looking at market need:
Use the worksheet to evaluate your potential topics against this list, and your ideal first topic will become apparent. Just as you’re looking for evidence that folks really do have this problem and are searching for and paying for solutions, this will also reveal markets that are REALLY over saturated – so the winner isn’t necessarily the one with the most points! Remember Goldilocks: not too big and not too small. Pick the one that is just right.
Once you’ve put in the work, pat yourself on the back!
You’ve taken the steps to choose a first course topic based in reality (and not just your gut!). Now, you’re ready to design your offer.
Watch our blog for the next post in this series: how to name your course and craft your offer.
Before you leave – if you do just one thing today, grab your free workbook that will take you through this rapid process to choosing your course topic! That will also ensure we can let you know when the next post in the series is ready.
Happy course creating!