How to Research Your Course Audience
How do you learn more about your audience if you can’t ask them directly?
We’ve talked before about the importance of finding your audience. It’s not just about their age or knowledge level, which are both important for choosing appropriate subject matter. It’s also about the life experience of your learners, what they bring with them to the course, and how you can connect with it through the lessons you offer and the examples you choose.
The best way to research your course audience is to ask them directly. This is fairly straightforward if you’re designing a course for an organization. And, if you’ve been running a blog and have enough dedicated readers who would actually respond to a survey (or even drop a few comments), you can go that route, too.
But what if you’re just launching your first course and you haven’t built an audience yet? In this situation, you’re half deciding the audience you want to attract, and half responding to the demands and interests of that audience, as you learn what they are.
This kind of market research requires a lot of refinement as you go. But as you begin to fill in the picture you need for your audience, you will be able to create a course that better matches what they want. Here’s how to start.
1. Look to your competitors.
Competition is a sign of a strong market, because it indicates an interest in the type of course content you want to create. While you don’t want to copy your competition in every respect, there are plenty of things you can learn from them. If you can avoid making some of their mistakes, you will save yourself (and your future learners!) some time and effort.
However, this can also become a case of the blind leading the blind, if you aren’t careful. If your competition hasn’t done their own market research, you may find yourself repeating their mistakes rather than learning from them.
So, keep a critical eye on your competition. Find peers you admire who seem to be doing well. And if you find someone who isn’t designing the kind of course you would want to take, trust your instincts and do things differently. If nothing else, looking at you competition will give you some food for thought.
2. Search for online forums and discussion groups.
Many professions have peer-to-peer forums and discussion groups you can listen in on if you’d like to learn more about their interests. Professional forums can often offer deep insights into the hopes, fears, aspirations, and daily struggles of your target audience. That said, if you’re having trouble finding niche forums in your subject range, sites like Quora and reddit can be great places to start.
If you aren’t familiar with them, Quora is a site where users can ask and answer questions from other users. Search for questions other users are asking in your field, and read through some of the answers they receive.
Reddit is more complex and can be confusing to anyone who isn’t familiar with online discussion groups. For this site, you will want to look for a subreddit (i.e., a sub topic or thread) in your area, and see what people are saying.
A note of caution on both these sites, however: members do not want to be pestered with marketing questions. These forums exist for peers to discuss issues with each other, and they don’t like to feel exploited. Use these to listen in, but avoid asking specific marketing-related questions, unless you’re in a group dedicated to those purposes.
3. Find other blogs and resources.
It may be that some of the best resources you find are other blogs. Unlike forums and discussion groups, these are run by industry leaders who usually have thought pieces or advice columns to share. What you learn from them can inform the content you create, or even inspire blog posts of your own.
In fact, you can save yourself some time by including this step in your own competitor research. Many of your competitors won’t have blogs, but those that do will have some important insights for you to learn from.
Running out of steam with your online searches? Books, magazines, and even your local library are also good resources. You may be teaching an online course, but that doesn’t mean you can’t look for resources the old-fashioned way.
4. Google exhaustively and run down rabbit holes.
Finally, put your search skills to work and start Googling. It may take a while to start hitting on keywords and search terms that yield productive results, but as you do, you’ll learn more about the industry lingo.
Keep track of the keywords that lead you to the most interesting results. While you’ll want to back this data up with keyword research, they will give you some clues to how you can run your own content strategy, once your each that point.
As you go, keep an open mind and be willing to run down some rabbit holes. It may be those long shots don’t teach you much, but you can’t know whether they were worth it until you give it a try.
Don’t trust the “if you build it, they will come” mentality.
If you never look at the courses around you, it’s easy to become carried away with your own ideas. You may reach the end of your course creation project with a wonderfully designed course, trusting an audience will appear once it’s made. But doing so is a gamble that doesn’t always pay off.
Don’t get me wrong: sometimes you make a course and it’s a hit and your learners are happy. Other times you earn some modest success, but you might have earned more with some audience research. And in the worst-case scenarios, you may end up with the workings of a great course, but one that needs extensive revisions before anyone will actually buy it.
As always developing a viable online course is a balancing act between the time you spend the design and production phase, and the information you gain once that course goes live. But in this case, the more you can learn about your audience, the better the results will be once you put your course in front of the learners it was designed for.