Designing a Successful Online Course

Creating an online course is an important milestone in your journey to market and monetize their expertise: it demonstrates your know-how is valuable and that selling your know-how is a viable, lucrative business. It’s also an incredible learning experience: as well as planning your course, you will learn about testing your ideas, creating landing pages, building an email list, writing effective sales copy and much more. These are all skills that will serve you well as you continue to create more products.

How to plan, design and market your online course

  1. Choose a profitable topic and/or a topic that you’re genuinely interested in. In order to get the audience interested in your course, you have to have an interesting topic to teach them. What aspect of your expertise will you get most enjoyment teaching? Start with that. It is vital to show that you care about what you’re teaching – your audience can tell when that’s not the case and if you’re not interested, why on Earth would they be?
  2. Be specific. You don’t have to teach an entire topic – you can select an aspect of it and focus on that. In fact, we recommend you do this. Don’t try to create a course that is everything to everyone – you’ll likely end up with a course that is too general and proves to be nothing to anyone. Remember, one problem, one solution.
  3. Find a market for it. If you already have an established niche market from the sales of your product related to your course, it goes without saying that you should capitalize on that asset fully when you’re marketing your course. If you’re new to the industry, you need to find yourself some “hungry learners” through Facebook ads, landing pages and free content. Another way is to carry out market research in order to learn what segments have the needs that your course can satisfy.
  4. Find your place – what’s unique about your offer? Your proposal needs to be unique, but first and foremost, it has to respond to your audience’s needs directly and offer them a solution to their problems. For example, Adda Birnir of Skillcrush has an excellent business model that responds to people who want a job in tech. She offers courses in programming languages for future programmers; in web design for “artists”; in web development for those interested in creating websites and several others disciplines that solve customers’ problems of unfulfilling jobs or lack of technical skills, to name a few. Birnir is an industry insider that created Skillcrush based on her own experiences and offers a unique solution focused on personal development and changing one’s life. You can make the same promise or a different one – just make sure to tailor it to your audience’s needs, to help them solve their problems.
  5. Spend some time learning about your audience. Having an established target audience makes this step easier, but don’t forget that your customers’ needs constantly change and evolve, so don’t assume that they want the same that they wanted last year, for example. Social media offers excellent platforms for “eavesdropping” on the changing needs of your market – be it LinkedIn or Facebook. Most social media offer opportunities for both listening and two-way customer interactions – do take advantage of both.
         If you have an audience, make a point of asking them periodically, “What are you struggling with?” It’s unbeatable market research and will give you great ideas for future products with a ready-made market.
  6. Develop a learner profile. Once you have an audience with real needs and a unique promise, it is time to plan how you’re going to keep that promise. One way to figure this out is through creating a customer avatar. This begins with putting yourself in the shoes of a person who comes across your course while looking for a solution. What are they looking for specifically? What is on their mind? How do they feel? A lot of your course’s details are going to be based on the answers to their questions, so don’t skip this step. Creating an empathy map is a good, structured way to complete the exercise.
  7. Identify the benefits to the customers. Benefits are what matters: the positive outcomes your customer gets from paying for the course. This is why, when you plan your course, you should keep in mind the answers to the questions you’ve asked yourself during a learner profile exercise, i.e. what are the most pressing problems facing your audience; what keeps them awake at night; what results are they looking for. If you do, you will automatically be thinking of the benefits to the customer. Focus on the positive outcomes your course promises to deliver.
  8. Create learning objectives. When you have the benefits figured out, you’d have an easier time creating learning objectives. We suggest that you plan them by following this structure:
    – What is the specific objective (not for the entire course but for this particular step/module)? What will your customer be able to do at the end of each class? Be as specific as possible when you’re writing out your objectives for each part of the course
    – What knowledge and actions are necessary to achieve this objective? Tell your students what they need to know then show them with practical examples how to apply that new knowledge.
    – Tell them what they’ve learned. What has the student learned? Why is it important? How does it fit into the larger objective of the course? A powerful summary is, “Congratulations, now you can do X. This is important because of Y. In the next class, we will look at Z”.

Takeaway points

  1. Be specific about what outcome your course delivers and for whom.
  2. Focus on one problem and solve that: one course, one problem.
  3. Focus on the benefits, not the features.

Action steps

  1. Ask your current audience what they’d want from an online course. Simply drop someone an email asking if you can speak to them on Skype; invite a prospect for coffee to ask them what problems they/their industry is facing. Get out into the world and talk to your target audience.
  2. Identify a general area of your industry and choose a topic or two which you know the most about and have most interest in. Build a course around that. The important thing is to start somewhere. You can’t become an expert based on what you intend to do one day.
  3. Take our free course-building class.

Photo credit: Alper Çuğun via / CC BY 2.0

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