Will your online course idea make money? Here’s how to test it against the market.

You’ve finally come up with what you think will be a great idea for an online course, but you’re not sure if it will turn a profit. You’re not alone.

Starting an online course is an exciting endeavor, but to ensure success, it’s best not to jump in blindly. Researching your online course idea can help you avoid common pitfalls and improve your topic, but most importantly, it helps you understand your market. If you want to create an online course that sells, you will need to do some homework. Here’s where to start.

Scope out the competition.

We’ve all had friends tell us their “million dollar idea.” Maybe we’ve had a few ourselves. But most of the time, that oh-so-original idea doesn’t withstand a quick Google search. Turns out, someone else had your idea, too, and they’ve already brought it to market.

This is actually good news: it means your idea may actually be worth a million dollars! Even better, if someone else is doing it, it means there are buyers out there who know how to find it.

It doesn’t matter that someone else has already done your course. In fact, that’s wonderful news, because while their course might be great, it won’t be the same as your course. There’s no single course out there that’s perfectly suited for all students. But by digging into what your competitors are doing, you can learn a lot about how to improve your course, and how to stand out from the crowd

How do you do this?

Pretend you’re one of your future learners. How would that person find your course? Where might they look, and what might they search for? Is anyone running Google ads using your keywords? Has someone published books on the topic? Are there YouTube videos?

Anywhere your learners might search to find your course, you should search yourself first.

This kind of market research is what we call “soft validation.” It means you’ve discovered some circumstantial evidence to suggest your hunch is correct and your online course idea has legs. But you still haven’t run any vigorous testing of your idea.

“Hard validation” means reaching out with some specific questions to real people for solid feedback.

Ask your audience for feedback.

We recommend that online educators begin content marketing early on in their career—the sooner the better. In fact, beginning with a blog before you’ve even created your first course is a fantastic plan. You can blog about the creation process, share knowledge teasers, and grow your mailing list. By the time you’ve settled on a topic, you could have any number of followers waiting for your course to launch.

Of course, not everyone has an audience waiting with baited breath for their newest course. Fortunately, there are online tools to help.

For instance, SurveyMonkey is one of the most popular tools out there for running online market surveys. You can send surveys out to specific mailing groups, or you can set some market parameters and gather data based on demographics.

Online discussion forums, such as Reddit and Quora, are also good places to look, but you should be careful in how you engage with these communities, as they are hostile to explicit sales pitches.

Finally, you can do it the old-fashioned way and start asking your friends and family. Ask them what they think of your course idea, and if they’re your target audience, ask them whether they would ever buy the course. If someone who should be jumping out of their seats with eagerness for your course can’t manage more than half-hearted support, then you could have a dud on your hands.

Create a piece of test content to gather emails.

Hearing that people are interested in your course idea is great news, but it’s a lot easier for someone to say your course sounds interesting than to actually take it. They may have only a passing interest in your course, or they may have too many other obligations to set aside time for it.

One way to gauge your audience’s intent to buy is through micro content pieces. If you create a short video to share with your audience, a high number of views indicates genuine interest. Similarly, a downloadable PDF with a mini lesson or some thought exercises can give your readers a chance to see what your teaching style is like.

These content pieces are also great ways to gain email leads if you don’t have much of a list yet. You can include a form on your website or blog encouraging visitors to download your guide, and use that to promote your email list as well. A healthy email list of interested and engaged customers is pretty strong validation for your course idea.

Pre-sell your course.

Finally, you don’t need to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise funding for your new course. You can start taking sign-ups well in advance of launch—or even when your course is in the concept phase.

Presales aren’t just a great way to gain early funding. They also help you learn from your audience, gather beta testers, and incorporate requested features. And they’re a solid buy-in from your audience. Once you’ve pre-sold your course, you know you have that many people ready to commit to your material. You couldn’t ask for a better way to launch your course.

You won’t know until you launch.

As important as validating your course is, you can’t stay in the testing phase forever. Far too many good course ideas whither on the vine because their creators wore themselves down with endless iterations of tests and prototypes. Either that, or their audience grew tired of waiting and moved on.

At the end of the day, you won’t really know if your online course idea is a good one until you launch. If you’re still unsure about a full course, launch with a micro version. Move forward with your minimum viable product, and expand from there. After all, there’s no greater validation for your online course idea than learners engaging with your material.

Your course could already be online!

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