Indulge me for a minute and let me guess what kind of inner dialogue you may be having around the online course you’d love to create:
“Yes! I have a bunch of different ideas for a course. This is going to be amazing.”
“Hmm, I wonder which one I should pursue?”
“I should pick something I’m passionate about.”
“Nope. I need to learn all about (insert your industry’s newest fad) and create a course about that.”
“Or should I just teach what I know and hope there are people out there that need to learn about it?”
“Maybe I’ll just flip a coin.”
“Screw it. I’ll figure it out next week.”
(Next week comes.)
“I’ll worry about it next month.”
Any of that familiar? Do you get so lost in your sea of course ideas that you’re not sure what to do next with all of those ideas?
Not to worry, I’ve got you covered. Here’s what to do to go from gaggle of course ideas to actual course creating on 4 basic steps.
Rank Your Course Ideas for Market Need and Profitability
If you’re anything like me you have a bunch of different things you’re passionate about and could teach if you wanted to. But could does not always mean should.
Why not? Well, I’m guessing that if you’re bothering to create a course, you’re also hoping to make some money from that course. And if you want to make money, you need to make sure there’s a group of people out there just as eager to pay you money for your knowledge as you are to share that knowledge.
In other words: the common advice that you should only ‘do what you’re passionate about’ isn’t exactly the whole story.
Yes, you should teach something you’re passionate about. Your energy for the topic will come out naturally and make for a better learning experience for both you and your customers.
But you don’t want to teach just anything you’re passionate about – you want to choose your right passion and teach about that.Don't teach just anything you're passionate about. Choose the right passion and teach that Click To Tweet
Let me explain using my own experiences as an example.
One of the things I happen to be passionate about is backpacking. I live in the mountains of Colorado and love nothing more than escaping to the backcountry and disconnecting for several nights in (literally) the middle of nowhere.
With that passion comes another: as with any good hobby backpacking comes with plenty of outfitters happy to take all of my money to make sure I have the latest and greatest gear with me while I’m out on the trail.
And take my money they do: I love keeping up to date with all the latest technology and making sure I have the best of the best. I’m extremely well versed on the ins and outs of backpacking gear and could spend 5+ hours breaking down the ins and outs of this season’s line of rain jackets for you.
I’d love to monetize this knowledge with a course if I could. But you know what? No one really cares. No one’s going to pay me $497 to tell them which rain jacket to buy. They’re perfectly content to instead buy a magazine gear guide for $5 and figure it out themselves.
Luckily for me, my course story doesn’t end there.
I have another passion: helping people to build and scale their online business. It’s something I’m very good at and have been doing for 10+ years in one form or another. And unlike rain jacket advice, people will pay for help with their business.
The point is you want to pursue course ideas that can be reasonably expected to fill a large market need, or at least a large enough need to meet the personal financial goals you have for the courses you create.
How do you tell whether or not your ideas will fill a market need? Whether they’re the equivalent of a backpacking gear course or a course that helps people build their business?
Here’s an easy way: draw a box like the one below, split into 4 quadrants labeled ‘Passion Project’ (bottom left); ‘Exclusive’ (top left); ‘Mass Market’ (bottom right) and ‘Magic’ (top right).
Next label the bottom of the box ‘Potential Customers’ and add an arrow pointing to the right symbolizing more customers as you move to the right. And label the left side of the box ‘Price’ with an arrow going up, meaning the higher up you move, the higher the proposed price.
Now you’ll start plotting your different course ideas into the different boxes. This is a quick way to sort your ideas visually so you can begin to wrap your mind around which might be your most profitable.
Hint: this does not have to be perfect. Guesstimates are all you’re looking for at this stage.
Here’s a definition of each box to help you figure out where to place each of your ideas:
Mass Market: This is where you’ll get lots of customers but at a low cost. Think books and big box stores. And of your ideas that are relatively generic and that a mass of people would be willing to pay a little bit for belong in this box.
What’s the benefit of Mass Market? You reach a ton of people. The challenge? Especially for new course creators? It takes a lot of effort to create the kind of reach you need to truly gain mass market share (and the revenue you’re looking for since this is a low-cost product).
Additionally, customers aren’t as loyal here as they are in some of the other boxes – because of the low cost and relatively generic ideas that work in this box, customers don’t have much reason to invest in the product or in you. Even if they do buy it’s easy for them to forget all about it. Mass Market is a tough one for new course creators.
Exclusive: This is where your private retreats, 1:1 coaching and the other exclusive, high ticket items of the online business realm usually live. Any of your ideas that require high touch and appeal to a very small but invested group belong here.
The benefit of the Exclusive quadrant is that it can be a lucrative place to hang out, and many new course creators come from this quadrant where they’ve been offering 1: 1 services.
However, it’s not always a great place to position your actual courses. This is because the goal of most courses is to reach more people with a more affordable version of your 1: 1 services, not to duplicate your 1:1 services.
Passion Project: The Passion Project quadrant is the course danger zone. Stay far, far away from this one.
This is where any of your ideas that resemble my backpacking gear course idea reside. This box represents ideas where there are only a few customers and, even worse, those customers aren’t willing to pay much, if anything, for the information you provide.
So where does that leave us? In the Magic square! This square is reserved for your ideas that you think will attract a large number of customers who are willing to pay a high price for the knowledge you have. These are the ideas that solve a big burning pain for a lot of people.Magic happens when you solve a big burning pain for a lot of people. #teachonline Click To Tweet
Common examples include things that can catapult a person’s business forward, solve major health issues or change a person’s quality of life. Which of your ideas fit here? Which ideas do you think lots of people will be willing to pay top dollar for? These are your winning ideas.
How’d you do? Here’s how to know whether you have a green light to move on to the next stop or whether you have some work left to do.
Green Light: Do you have at least one idea that fits in the upper right quadrant Magic box? If so you’re ready to move to step 2.
Warning Light: Be honest about your passions. They’re passions because you love them, which means you might be in danger of being biased and misreading the market. Trust me, I’d love it if a million people wanted me to teach them about the merits of rainproof hiking pants. But they don’t. And I’m ok with that.
Make sure you’re ranking your passions fairly and that you truly believe anything you’ve put into the Magic box belongs there. If you’re not sure, go back to your list of ideas and see what ideas you have that do belong there.
Rank Your Course Ideas for Your Preferences, Your Knowledge, and Your Audience’s Pressing Pain. Find the Intersection.
Now that you have your ideas sorted into potential profitability, it’s time to narrow down those that ended up in the Magic box to decide which one you should pursue first.
How do you narrow it down to the right idea without resorting to the coin flip you’ve always used before?
Easy. You find the idea that’s the best mix of your passions, your knowledge, and your potential customer’s burning needs.
Here’s how to do it. Start with a Venn diagram similar to the one below.
In the Passions box, list your passions. In the Knowledge box, list everything you’re knowledgeable enough about to teach a course about the topic. And finally, in the Customer box list the burning pains your Customers need help solving.
Now compare the lists, find the topics that appear in all 3 boxes, and compare those topics to the course ideas that ended up in your Magic box in step 1. Whichever Magic box course idea fits best with the topics you just identified here is your winner.
Why? Because it hits everything you want in a course idea: you’re passionate about it, you have enough knowledge to teach it, your potential customers need it and you’ve determined that enough of them exist and are willing to pay for it. Sounds like a winner to me.
Think you’re ready to move to step 3? Here’s how to know for sure.
Green Light: You’ve identified a course idea from Step 1 that also fits inside the intersection of your passion/knowledge/need Venn diagram.
Warning Light: None of your Magic box ideas from Step 1 fit inside the intersection of your passion/knowledge/need Venn diagram. If this happens, identify which of the 3 circles of your Venn diagram your course idea doesn’t fit in, and see if you can tweak your idea just enough that it will fit.Find the idea that's the best mix of your passions, knowledge and customer's burning needs Click To Tweet
Test Your Course Idea
Congratulations! You’re so close. Now that you’ve found the course idea that appears to be both profitable and in your passion/knowledge/need sweet spot, it’s time to test the idea in the real world.
Warning: You might be tempted to skip this step because you feel you’ve done enough testing in steps 1 and 2. I see this happen all the time with my private clients. Please don’t skip this step. It’s a huge mistake.
There’s a giant leap to be made between what you think you know and what actually happens in the real world, and many an entrepreneur has been burned by skipping this step.
And don’t worry: testing your idea in the real world isn’t something that has to take months or even weeks. It can be quick and dirty but you do have to do it.
The idea is to make sure your potential customers will respond to your course idea (and your teaching style) the way you believe they will.
Best way to do this? Tease some information that would be included in your course and see what kind of reaction you get.
A few ways to do this? Post a blog breaking down a lesson and observe the comments you get back. Are people excited? Confused? Begging for more? If you don’t have a blog yourself you can still do this by posting a guest blog somewhere where your potential customers hang out.
Or even easier, create a Facebook post or 2 and post them to groups where your potential customers hang out. Watch and observe people’s reactions. Do you get crickets or do people like, comment, interact and ask questions on the post thread?
All of these are quick and easy ways to test how your best potential customers might respond to your course.
Not sure how to read the feedback you’re getting? Here are some clues:
Green Light: Do people respond to your ideas? Comment on your blog posts? Ask for more information? Ask you to teach them how they can replicate your results? These are all good signs that you’ve found your best course idea. Move on to step 4.
Warning Light: No one comments on your blog (especially if it’s posted on a site that regularly receives lots of comments). Your Facebook posts receive no interaction or the people who do respond are confused. These are all signs you may want to revise or clarify what you plan to teach before beginning to create and sell your course.
Sell Your Course
Now that you know people are interested in your course topic and, more importantly, interested in learning about it from you, it’s time to create and sell your course!
There are 2 great ways to approach selling your course for the first time: beta testing and piloting or pre-selling.
Pre-selling is my favorite strategy so it’s the one I’ll share with you here.
What is pre-selling? Pre-selling is offering your course at a deeply discounted rate to a select group of people (usually your email list, or a segment of your list) before you create any of the content.Pre-selling is offering your course at a discount to a select group before creating content Click To Tweet
Why would you do this? Because it’s the ultimate market test. People will tell you all day long that they’re interested in your project, they’ll comment and share your blog and Facebook posts, but when push comes to shove you need to know people will actually pay you money for your course.
By offering it at a discounted rate before you create it, you’ll find out before it’s too late whether or not they are actually willing to pay.
The second reason I love pre-selling is that it allows you to create your course knowing that people have already paid for it. Or to say it another way, you don’t waste months creating a product that you have no idea whether people will actually purchase or not. You already know.
In my experience this fact alone – the fact that people have already paid for a course – takes so much pressure off the creation process (and adds a little healthy accountability) that courses that are pre-sold are created faster and turn out better than those that aren’t.
This happens because as a creator you’re driven to do your absolute best. Instead of creating something with the hope someone’s going to want it, you’re creating knowing people are already waiting for it. That puts you in an entirely different creative mindset that produces immense quality.
Your customers win big in this scenario too, which means you win even more. Think about it: since you offered them a deep discount, and deliver an incredible product, they gain the solution they needed at an incredible value. And that creates lifelong loyal customers who share your products for you and go on to purchase everything you create.
And that’s the ultimate win/win.
Have you been stuck in the course idea stage for way too long? Have these ideas helped you see how to move past ideas and into action? Are you stuck somewhere else along the way and need help? Please tell me about it in the comments.
Michelle Warner has built a multi-million dollar social venture, raised millions online before raising money online was a thing and has an MBA in strategy and entrepreneurship from the University of Chicago. She helps online business owners and bloggers design, build, grow and scale their business.