April 30th, 2013 E-Learning

sell-elearningOne of the most attractive concepts for any instructional designer is the ability to sell their elearning courses over and over again. The same technology that makes learning more accessible is the same that can be leveraged to distribute learning to a wider audience. Problem is, there are many people who just don’t know the best way to get started.

Every week I receive inquires from my fellow instructional designers asking how they can get into the direct sales game for their courses. I did a quick search and didn’t see any real resources available, so that’s why I have decided to create this mini-series on the subject. Every Tuesday for the next four weeks I will write a post on the topic, offering up ideas, tips, tricks and strategies. My hope is that this series inspires you to take the necessary steps to get the ball rolling.

Without further ado, let’s jump into it. Today I will be discussing techniques to help you find your niche (that is, the “topic” for your elearning courses).

A look at the Traditional ID Model

Most instruction design gigs allow you to sell your instructional design services on a contract basis, but when you think about it, you are getting paid only one time for your one effort. There certainly isn’t anything wrong about this, and it is a great way to gain the skills necessary for creating “winning” courses. In fact, I would recommend that you first build your skills before you go trying to sell your elearning courses (besides, nobody is going to want to purchase something that looks unprofessional). You will also get the opportunity to learn the various technologies involved in this industry – short term consulting gigs are great because you’re essentially being paid to learn.

And you know, just because you want to sell some elearning courses doesn’t mean that you don’t have to quit being an instructional design consultant. You can create courses to sell on the side to supplement your income, and if or when it becomes big enough, you can make the transition. I am a big proponent in limiting your risk where risk isn’t necessary. Don’t go quitting your day job just yet… let your day job fund this venture.

Finding Your Niche

The absolute first thing you must do if you want to sell elearning courses is to find your niche, and this is arguably the hardest part of the process. Some of you might be saying:

“but Justin, I am an instructional designer, I can create training on anything – on any topic!”

This is true. As an ID, you do have this ability. That said, you need to also think with your marketing hat. If you create elearning courses on five different topics, this means you have five different audiences that you need to market to. Perhaps in time this makes sense, but you will find that it pays to be specialized – you need to narrow your market and “own” that space before expanding. From an online sales position, this will make life a lot easier.

So how do you find a niche? There are a variety of ways to approach this, and it comes down to your personal preference. Many people will say, “follow your passion”…and I agree to some extent. But if you’re passion is beekeeping, then the market might not be that large for elearning. That said, having a passion for the market is extremely helpful when you get to the marketing stage. Without some degree of passion, you will burn out. This I can promise, and all your hard work will be wasted. So make sure that you at least pick an area where you have interest and wouldn’t mind learning a lot more about.

Niches are all around us, and there are many ways to discover them. I happen to know of one cool method for finding a niche that will guarantee an audience starving for information…

Don’t be “Dumb”!

What if I told you there was a company out there that pours hundreds of thousands of dollars into market research in the effort to find viable training niches, and that you could jump in and leverage their hard work? Well, there is 😉

Many of you have probably heard of the “Dummies” book series before, or are at least familiar with the concept. An entire book designed to provide “how to” information for a large variety of topics. This also happens to be a FANTASTIC way to help you identify a niche. Go to their website, grab a pen and paper, and start jotting down the titles of the books that you feel you might have an interest in creating elearning for. There is also a handy search function on their site, so don’t be afraid to type-in some of your favorite topics to see what comes up.







Do NOT just take an exact book and create training for the topic. The Dummies series has the luxury of a solid brand name and broad marketing channels which enables them to take on these bigger markets. Instead, you will want to narrow your topic a bit more – a good way might be to focus just on a few chapters within one of these books and generate training around those to begin.




Also, don’t limit yourself just to this site. There are other similar sites, such as the “Idiot’s Guide” series (knock-off of the Dummies books) that you should take a look at too. Quite honestly, these sites will provide you with more than enough ideas, or at the very least spark an idea that you can look into further on other sites.

Once you pick your possible niches, you’ll want to further refine your search. The resource just discussed is really all you need to start generating your ideas, but feel free to check out other places on the web (Amazon for instance). Also, if your area of expertise is not listed in the resource above, don’t worry! If you have in-depth industry knowledge on a certain topic area, then you have an advantage in knowing where the market isn’t being met. My advice is to always start with what you know, then venture out from there. If you already know that there is a segment in your industry that is dying for elearning courses, then run with it!

Good Old Google

With your niches in hand, it’s a good idea to take a look to see how often it is being searched. The simple test is to just do an open Google search on your keyword (i.e. Workplace Health and Safety). If you see paid ads at the top of the search and along the right hand side of the results (you know, those links on the boarder of the organic search reuslts)… then you know that there is a market there. That’s because people are obviously paying money for those keywords. Again, this is just a small test, and the point is really to see if there are ZERO ads. If there are no relevant ads, then that market is probably not worth your time.

Next, you will want to use the Google Keyword Tool for some additional research.

  1. Go to Google Keyword Tool
  2. On the left-hand side, select “[Exact]” from the Match Type menu. Make sure only this one is selected. This will tell the research tool that you’re only interested in the number of searches for the exact keyword you enter into the Word/Prase box
  3. Enter your Word or phrase
  4. Click Search

You will now have a list of keywords for your particular niche, and next to each one will be Google’s estimate on the total number of searches for that exact term per month. Some of these will be huge, so you’ll probably want to stay away from that market as it’s likely saturated and has big players. This tool is also helpful in brainstorming extra niche or elearning course ideas since it will provide some suggestions.

Again, this is probably the most difficult part of the entire process of selling your elearning courses. However, it is essential that you get it right. You’ll need to do some leg work in getting this nailed down. Other things to consider during this process include:

  1. Do you have a network in this field that you can leverage?
  2. Is there a local demand for your product (selling locally is a great way to get started quickly)?
  3. Are there already major players in the elearning space approaching this market? If so, can you realistically take market share?
  4. Can the market be segmented even further so that you can establish yourself and services as the expert?
  5. Do you have the passion or drive for the subject area?

That’s all for this week. Come back next Tuesday when we discuss strategies to speed up the course creation process!

Read Part 2

Justin Ferriman photo

About Justin Ferriman

Justin Ferriman started LearnDash, the WordPress LMS trusted by Fortune 500 companies, major universities, training organizations, and entrepreneurs worldwide for creating (and selling) their online courses. Justin's Homepage | Twitter


7 responses

Leave a Comment

Russell Schwartz • Justin,

Nice article! I can’t wait for [PART 2].

Last year, I had an idea for an online course that I could sell. Before I made the huge time investment to develop and pilot it, I wanted to make absolutely sure that there would be demand for it in the market. So I added one more step to the ones you propose:

I searched industry journal articles about surveys that had been conducted in the area of need, and then I did a “meta-analysis” of these articles. By doing this, I not only confirmed that there was a need for the course I wanted to develop, but that this course was a relatively high priority relative to other topics in the industry for which I might develop courses.

— Russ

This is another great strategy Russ, I think that the most important part of this step is to take your time, and put in the research. Putting in the time here could mean that you don’t waste time building something that isn’t sustainable.

Thank you for writing this blog. It was useful, informative, and a pleasure to read, like most of your blogs. Looking forward to the next 3 parts!


Avatar Nancy

Thank you Nancy, glad you stopped by!

Justin, thanks for the thoughtful post. You have some excellent tips listed here. Your post inspired some thought… could an ID leverage an online course for more than one population? After reading your post, I had the reaction that online courses are much more customized than say e-books or something of the like. I wasn’t exactly sure if it was worth it to create a course and throw it out there if my niche market has individual needs that are very specific.

I realize I may sound not as intelligent writing this (yes I know what a niche is) but people want to leverage their potential.

Thought I’d ask to see what you think.

Hi Reid, thanks for the comment. I suppose it is possible to use one course for multiple audiences (i.e. Sexual Harassment Training), but getting your feet off the ground from a marketing standpoint becomes a little more difficult, although not impossible. A good way to go about it is to develop courses with a singular audience in mind, but at the same time considering expansion opportunities (or a secondary audience).

Great pointers. I’ve also have used professional associations and conferences to gauge interest. What is it that people continue to go to these training seminars and conferences to get. Many of these are expensive and often fail to deliver enough substance. With budget cuts and travel restrictions, the ability for professionals to attend these is also shrinking.

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