Online courses are one of the most popular forms of web-based business today.
- They’re in-demand, which makes them easy to market
- They support premium pricing, so they can quickly become profitable
- They’re a smart way to leverage the time you put into product creation
Those are all great reasons that developing a digital course might be a smart idea for you and your business.
But if you start from there, you’re going to have a hard time.
The best online courses have their success “baked in”
Because, just like any business (online or off), your business needs to serve the needs of your audience and customers if it’s going to survive … and thrive.
The best online courses have their success “baked in.” Start with thoughtful preparation to craft the exact educational experience your audience wants to buy. And then, of course, deliver that experience.
You might be tempted to skip these planning steps. But if you do, your digital education business will take much longer to get traction.
Pave the road to a successful course with these five steps:
Step #1: Find your market of hungry learners
You may be familiar with the old marketing “riddle” that copywriter Gary Halbert liked to ask:
What’s the most important success factor for a restaurant?
No, it’s not the menu, the service, the quality of the chef, or even the location.
It’s a starving crowd that will show up to buy what’s being sold.
Finding that “starving crowd” will make everything about your business so much easier.
The same is true for all businesses. Your online course needs to find its “hungry learners” — the starving crowd — that will make it a success.
Too many digital business owners skip past this step because they think they have a killer idea. They jump right into developing a product before they really understand the market.
Sadly, that’s a recipe for expensive failure.
Some ways you can find your market of hungry learners include:
- Serving a market you already know well, because you’re a part of it
- Using your existing knowledge about an existing audience to uncover what they want to learn
- Partnering with a subject-matter expert (ideally one who already has a good-sized audience)
- Looking for a niche (paper) magazine — if there are enough enthusiasts to support a physical magazine, there will normally be a big enough audience for an online course
- Choosing an “evergreen” topic, such as fitness, nutrition, crafts, dating, beauty, finance, or any type of vocational training
What you’re looking for is an audience of potential learners that is:
- Big enough to make for a commercially viable business
- Interested in spending money on this topic (you can find out by observing which products or services are already being sold)
Step #2: Uncover your unique positioning with your audience
Once you’ve identified that “starving crowd,” it’s time to figure out how to position yourself with that crowd, so they choose your business instead of another option.
Positioning is a blend of art and craft.
You want to come up with a promise you can make to your audience. You’re looking for something that’s significantly different (or that feels different) from the promises made by your competitors.
If positioning is new to you, start by thinking about:
- The beneficial improvement you make to your customer’s life
- The unique approach or angle you use
- A memorable difference you can communicate
- The remarkable element of your business
- The timeless aspect to the promise you make
There are, as you can imagine, lots of ways to come to an effective, memorable position in your market. A few include:
- Putting timeless principles into a new context: When I created my first online course, I put proven marketing principles into a softer context that was fun and digestible for a somewhat marketing-phobic audience
- Leveraging experience of an industry insider (you or someone else): Publishing expert Michael Hyatt makes good use of this one, using his background as a high-level publishing executive to teach aspiring authors how to build a promotion platform
- Telling a better story: Enterprising folks have been setting up pet-sitting businesses for decades, but Josh Cary (one of our students) told a better story around professionalism and entrepreneurship, and created the successful Petsittingology course and live conference
Step #3: Build an effective learner profile
So: You’ve got a starving crowd, and you’ve identified a compelling promise you can make them.
Now it’s time to craft your plan to deliver that promise in a memorable and useful way.
Most marketers have heard of “buyer personas,” which are also sometimes called avatars.
The learner profile is a very similar exercise. But the focus shifts to who this person is as they come to your course.
It starts with empathy — putting yourself in the emotional shoes of your learner. You want to understand what they’re thinking, feeling, doing, and feeling as they approach your topic and move toward their goals.
You can get started by building an Empathy Map — this article walks you through how to do that.
Empathy Maps: A Complete Guide to Crawling Inside Your Customer’s Head (includes a downloadable blank map that you can fill in)
The Empathy Map exercise is interesting and enjoyable — and it’s also a potent tool for making any product or service more marketable.
An underused tool for uncovering the needs of your learners
Want to take advantage of a powerful but underused tool for finding out exactly what your potential customers want?
“You have two ears and one mouth. Listen twice as much as you talk.”
– DCI founder Brian Clark
It’s social media — too often used as a “megaphone” by businesses who want to shout about how great they are.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with getting into conversations with potential users — that can be a smart and rewarding business tactic.
But it’s also incredibly useful to just keep your (virtual) mouth shut and listen.
Keep an eye out for these “power questions”
- What (and who) are people complaining about in your topic?
- What’s frustrating them?
- What are they worried about?
- What are they dreaming of doing?
- How do they feel about what they’re doing now?
Social media conversations are free-form and unscripted — and that’s why they’re such a great way to get business ideas. Listen in to discover how people really feel about products and services in your niche.
To do this effectively, find the popular social gathering spots for your topic. These might be Facebook pages, LinkedIn groups, the comments on a popular blog, or any other spot where people can congregate and share their thoughts.
Then spend some quality time in those spots just listening, without jumping into the conversation. Watch for the “power questions” above, and capture them for your ongoing analysis and business thinking.
Step #4: Identify the benefits of knowledge
Wise marketers know about the difference between features and benefits.
Features are what your product or service does.
Benefits are what your customer gets out of it.
When you’re structuring your online course, the features are elements like:
- The curriculum — what’s in the course
- How the course is delivered
- Bonus elements, like Q&A calls or a member forum
- All of the course materials, including workbooks, tutorial videos, PDFs, etc.
And, of course, they all have to be there in order for you to have something to deliver.
But the benefits, and more specifically, the “benefits of knowledge,” are what your learners are going to gain by investing their time and money in this course.
- Positive: What will they be able to become, have, or do as a result of your course?
- Negative: What will they no longer have to deal with (expense, hassle, discomfort) when they’ve completed the course?
By the way, don’t assume that positive reasons are more effective.
In fact, the human brain has an innate bias for negativity — it’s often easier to capture our attention with the negatives we can avoid over the positive elements we might gain.
When you understand the meaningful benefits of knowledge that your course will deliver, you can structure the course so that it works better for learners — and you can market the course more effectively, so that more learners will be motivated to buy.
Step #5: Structure your course for success with learning objectives
Once you know what learners want to get out of your course, you can craft learning objectives that help them attain those benefits.
Instructional design expert Robert Mager pioneered the use of these explicitly stated objectives, as well as a three-step process for crafting them.
Each learning objective needs to be a manageable “chunk” that the learner can readily envision herself completing. Typically, each lesson will have a learning objective.
You’ll also have an overarching learning objective for the entire course.
(Tip: If you have a lesson that seems to require more than one learning objective, or a learning objective that feels overwhelmingly large, break it down into smaller objectives and more focused lessons.)
To craft a learning objective for each lesson:
# 1: Figure out the behavior
For each lesson in your course, you need to understand what real-world behavior your learner will be able to do at the end of the lesson.
What will she be able to do differently, that she doesn’t know how to do today?
# 2: Figure out the conditions
What conditions or context is this behavior going to take place in?
In other words, specific conditions like:
- At work or at home?
- In how much time? A day? An hour? A month?
- How much focus and dedication will this take? Will the learner need deep commitment, or can this be done in her spare time?
#3: Figure out the standard
How well will your learner be able to do this behavior when she’s mastered the lesson?
Will it be at a professional level? Elite level? Or is the course designed to learn a skill at an enjoyable hobbyist level?
How well should the learner be able to implement the behavior to say she has mastered your course material? That’s your standard.
The quick version
To get a jump-start on crafting your learning objectives, fill in the blanks for this statement:
After completing this course or topic, you will be able to [SPECIFIC, REAL-WORLD BEHAVIOR] in [DESCRIBE THE CONDITIONS OR CONTEXT] in order to [DESCRIBE THE STANDARD THE LEARNER WILL ACHIEVE].
This sample sentence will need to be massaged to make sense for your individual context, but it will get you started.
Would you like some help with that?
Build Your Online Training Business the Smarter Way, with Brian Clark
Rainmaker Digital’s founder and CEO, Brian Clark, has created a complete course for you on how to structure and build profitable online courses that your audience will want to buy.
What’s the learning objective for that course?
Build and operate an interactive learning environment in your spare time within four months of signing up for Digital Commerce Academy.
Brian dives deeply each of the five points here — and more — and that’s just Module Two.
In all, the course includes six modules — each one progressing step by step until you’ve built a profitable, marketable online course.
- 5 Key Concepts for Information Entrepreneurs, so you understand what business owners need to succeed with online education
- Designing your Course, to “bake in” the success factors that result in a highly marketable product
- Business Models you can implement easily so that your course meets your financial and business goals
- The Minimum Viable Product framework, which lets you efficiently test the market so you can get to a profitable product as quickly as possible
- Developing Content for your course, so you don’t get bogged down in your product creation
- Launch and Marketing your course — because as fun as building courses is, it’s a lot more fun when they’re making great revenue for you
You can probably figure most of this out with trial and error — but if you’re ready, this course is a useful short cut that lets you get right to the most important activities that will get your course built, launched, and filled with happy customers.
The best part? You can check out the initial lessons of the course for free.