So you think you've got a great idea for an online course. But how do you know if it will be popular or not?
Too many people never even start creating an online course because they're afraid of failing.
I get it. The idea of sinking hundreds of hours into creating the perfect online course is terrifying if there's a chance it might fail.
Thankfully there are ways to validate your online course idea and know that it's going to work, before you put in all that effort.
Wouldn't it be nice to have a good idea about the demand for your course before you even start creating it?
And wouldn't it be great if you could establish that there was interest and build a group of people waiting for you to launch your course at the same time?
That's what we're going to take a look at today in this step by step guide to validating your online course idea.
Creating an online course can be a great way of creating a passive income for yourself.
This is true whether you're a brand new internet entrepreneur looking to take your first step, or somebody already established online looking to diversify their income sources.
But in either case, the idea of putting in all that effort to create a course without knowing if you'll sink or swim can be intimidating.
Everybody making an online course has the same big question: will it actually sell?
And not knowing the answer to this can actually stop you from making your course at all, which might be a huge mistake.
-> Wondering how much online course teachers make? Check out this article
Luckily there are lots of free and easy ways to find out if there's really a market for your online course idea.
That's what I mean by validating. You want to increase your confidence that people are actually going to pay for your course before you make it.
And if you follow the steps below, you may even start to build up a list of people waiting to buy the moment that you're ready to launch.
- Check out these 50 online course examples for inspiration
Step 1: Ask Your Audience
If you've already got a following, then you're in an awesome position. You've already got your own custom-made market research group that is likely willing and eager to give you their thoughts and opinions!
You might have a following on Youtube, Instagram, Facebook, your own email list or blog, or some other platform.
It doesn't matter if you have 500,000 followers or 100 - these people already like what you do and are most likely to be interested in any course you make. They'll also likely be happy to provide feedback on your course idea.
It's quick and easy to send out a short message to your followers, just something like:
"Hey guys, I've been considering releasing an online course about (XYZ topic).
I've had a great response when I've discussed this topic in the past, and my course would go more in-depth and cover topics like T1, T2, T3.
What do you think, is this something you'd be interested in?"
You'll be surprised how many people will be (virtually) jumping up and down saying "Yes, I want to learn more about that from you".
You can get your message out through a blog post, your email list, a YouTube community post, or whatever medium you normally use to communicate with your audience.
Don't think you have an audience?
That's okay. There are other methods we'll cover in this article that will work for you, plus you've still likely got people you can ask about this without even realizing.
You've got all of your professional and personal connections that you can ask for their opinion, or ask your family and friends what they think of your course idea face to face next time you see them.
When you ask your audience for their feedback, it doesn't just help you validate your course idea. It also gets your followers excited and engaged.
As part of the process, you might slowly release teasers and little bits of information about the course to get people hyped.
You can even get people to sign up and trade their email to see lesson one of the course before it's actually released. That gives you a great way to email market your course once you're ready to launch it.
We'll cover this idea of building an audience who are ready to buy your course in Step 7 below.
Step 2: Use Google's Catalog of Tools
Google has plenty of free tools available for marketers to use, so where do you start?
1) Basic Google Search
I'd start off by getting a high-level view of your niche by doing a basic Google search. Look for your keyword or niche, and do another search adding the words "online course" to the end of your query.
The first thing to look at is before you even get to the search results. Take note of the number of the total number of results displayed at the top of the page, right under the header.
If you're getting a million or more results, that's a good sign that it's something people are searching a lot and interested in.
If you're getting 50 million results, that might also mean it's a super competitive niche and you may want to reconsider your course unless you're sure you can beat the competition.
Next it's time to go down the list and look at all of the results in page one. How relevant or close to your search query are they?
The best case scenario is that there are 1-3 online courses at the top of your search results, but when you look at them they look quite outdated, incomplete, or easy to beat in terms of content.
Ideally the remaining search results on the page are in-person courses or aren't related to courses at all.
If you have zero online courses that come up when you search, your niche might be a bit too small. You'll need to validate your idea a bit more before you give up on it though.
It might be the case that people are still hungry to pay for a course in the niche and just nobody has created it yet!
If your Google search comes back with an entire first page containing high-quality courses, your niche might be too competitive for you to try and take on as a beginner. But perhaps you can come up with a unique angle or selling point to approach it from.
Pay attention to other little details on the page. Are there relevant ads that come up on the search result page? This is a great sign because it means people are actually spending money to target your search term.
Are there Youtube videos that come up in your Google search results? That can be a great sign that your niche already has a following over on Youtube, which is another whole Google platform to evaluate.
It can also be a sign that people prefer to learn about your particular topic in a visual format, so a video course could do very well.
The key thing to take away from your initial Google search: Competition isn't necessarily bad. It can be a good sign! Although zero competition or very heavy competition may be a red flag that should make you reconsider your course topic.
2) Google Trends
trends.google.com can tell you a lot about a topic.
Let's continue with our previous example and continue to look at the topic of fly fishing.
By default, Google Trends will show you results over the past twelve months. That can be useful, but I'd recommend looking at the last five years or longer as well to see some larger trends.
From the results, we can see whether our topic is seasonal or not. For example, with fly fishing the traffic peaks during the warm months and hits a low point during the colder months like November and December.
Just because your course topic will be seasonal doesn't mean that you should rule it out, but it's definitely something that you should take into consideration.
I also like to look at the longer trends to determine whether my course topic is trending up or down in popularity, or staying fairly stable. So in this case, I extended my search back to 2004:
Uh oh. Here we can see that flyfishing seems to be suffering a pretty steady decline.
It has leveled off a bit in recent years and seems pretty stable now. But when a topic has trended downward in interest so significantly, I'd really have to think twice about whether it's something I want to make a course about.
Maybe I want to make a course about deep sea fishing instead, which has remained much more stable in its popularity over time (albeit very seasonal.)
Below the graph, Google Trends shows you where your topic is popular. You can use this information later in the process to target advertisements to potential customers from specific countries or states.
The page also gives you a list of related topics. In the case of flyfishing, some of the related topics are names of specific fish, pieces of fishing tackle, fishing locations, and other details that might be useful to include in your course.
3) Google Keyword Planner / Adwords
To use Google's Keyword Planner you'll need to go to adwords.google.com and make a free account. It's a tool more made for advertisers, but it can give us some valuable information to help validate our online course ideas.
Once you're logged in, go to the Tools menu, select the Keyword Planner, and search for your course topic.
This gives me relevant keywords that people are actually searching for.
When I search for terms like "fly fishing", it includes terms like fly tying and fishing reels, and it tells me how many average monthly searches those terms get and how competitive those terms are.
It also tells me how much advertisers are paying to get their ads put on those terms. High ad prices are a good sign for us, since it shows advertisers are willing to pay money for those keywords.
We look through the results and see that between 100 and 1k people are searching for "fly fishing for beginners" each month, which seem like prime candidates to buy a course on the topic. The traffic volume seems a bit low.
The traffic volume seems a bit low, but if you could get even 5 of those people each month to buy your $100 course, you'd be making $6,000 of passive income each year from that course.
Step 3: Evaluate Amazon's Offerings
Amazon is the biggest online marketplace by far. You can buy just about anything on their platform.
So I think it would be pretty foolish to not use it as one of your methods for validating your online course idea, or any business idea for that matter.
What makes Amazon such a successful company is at least in part due to their powerful search engine.
Amazon searches have a great way of connecting people who are looking for something with the object they desire. That extends beyond just t-shirts and mugs to people who are looking for knowledge itself.
Perhaps the most important part of Amazon to evaluate for the sake of your online course is their Kindle ebook area.
It doesn't just contain ebook versions of books that have been traditionally published, but also independently created books that have been written by experts on niche topics.
If there are books related to your topic and they're selling well, that's a good indication that there could be room for an online course on that subject.
To tell how sought-after and profitable your niche might be, I'd suggest taking the following steps:
- Go to Amazon.com and on the very left-hand side of the search bar at the top you'll see a drop-down menu that says "All" by default. You probably never even realized this option was there.
- Choose "Kindle Store" from this menu and then search for the topic your course will be about.
- So if you want to make a course about "fly fishing for beginners," type that into the search field.
- If you get search results that closely match what you're looking for, that's a good indication that there's a market for that topic.
- You can further verify by opening up a few book listings. I'd open up the top 5 results in new tabs.
- Then scroll down to the "Product Details" section and you'll be able to see the book's rank. Anything ranked within the top 200,000 is very good and a copy of that book is likely being sold every 1-2 days.
- If you're going to be doing a significant amount of research on Amazon, I'd personally recommend a free Google Chrome plugin called DS Amazon Quick View which allows you to see each product's rankings directly on the Amazon search page without needing to click into each individual product.
Amazon ebooks are notoriously low-priced, much lower than what you'll want to be selling your course for. But they give you a solid idea of what the market is like for your niche.
Your search results won't just help to validate whether your online course is a good idea. Many ebooks on Amazon also have a "look inside" feature where you can preview the first few pages of the book.
How does this help you?
You can look inside the top-selling ebooks on your topic and take a look at what kind of subjects are on their table of contents. That can give you some great inspiration for how to break down your course into individual lessons.
For example, if you open up a book about fly fishing you'll get a table of contents with topics like:
- What is fly fishing?
- Fly rods and line sizes
- Lines and reels
- Leaders and knots
- Fly casting
- Fly selection
- Stream tactics
- Still-water tactics
- Salmon and steelhead
- Salt water
- Striking, playing, and landing
- Care of fly-fishing-tackle
With one quick search on Amazon and looking in a couple of books, you'll have a great head start on creating your online course outline, and it will give you a good idea about the topics people in your niche want to learn about.
By looking at Amazon product reviews you get feedback from paying customers.
They can give you a pretty good indication of what level of quality your customers will expect from your course. Customers also won't hesitate to point out anything they think is missing from an ebook, which helps you fill in gaps and improve your own course.
You might even want to consider buying a couple of the top ebooks in your niche just to get a good idea of what kind of information you'll need to include in your own course.
The Kindle version of most books cost between $2.99 and $9.99, so for under $50 you can buy and evaluate the works of some of your biggest competition!
Many new online entrepreneurs start off by creating ebooks on Amazon to make money, myself included. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It's an easy and free way to start earning some passive income online.
But think about how much money you miss out on by just publishing information as Kindle books instead of a more complete and higher value online course.
Step 4: Assess Existing Udemy Courses
If Amazon is the king of online retail, then Udemy is like the Amazon of online courses.
Looking at courses on Udemy can be a great way to see what other types of courses in your niche are already out there.
It also lets you find potential sub-topics within your niche. For example, maybe instead of making a general course about fly fishing in general, you want to make a whole course devoted to just tying flies or proper line casting technique.
Udemy is not the best platform to sell your own online course, but as a research tool it can be quite valuable.
It is however, one of the biggest course marketplaces on the web. So if people are buying courses about a subject anywhere, it will probably be on Udemy.
The quality of Udemy courses is often quite low. Most are put together quickly and contain the bare minimum information, so I wouldn't use them to measure what a great course on your subject looks like.
Just use the platform as a way to examine overall demand in your topic and get an approximate idea of what people are willing to pay for a course in that niche. It can also show you possible gaps in the market where a specific course doesn't yet exist.
One great thing about Udemy is that you can see exactly how many people are enrolled in any particular course. That's a great way to validate your online course idea.
For example, the top flyfishing course on Udemy has about 1,200 students enrolled. The course is priced at $15 (allegedly 93% off from the regular price of $205, although Udemy courses have a habit of being permanently on sale.) So that course owner has made $18,000 worth of course sales. Not bad!
However, the course only contains 1.5 hours of on-demand video, eight articles, and four downloadable resources.
So overall it's quite low quality. If you were to create a complete course on the same topic with dozens of helpful videos and resources, you could charge significantly more.
Imagine putting in some extra work to create a course that you would feel comfortable charging $100 for and selling it on your own course platform.
Those same 1,200 people who bought a fly fishing course on Udemy might be willing to buy your course next, netting you a cool $120,000 in sales.
- Online forums based on your topic area
- Discussions at the bottom of relevant blog posts
- Facebook groups
- Quora questions on your subject
- Reddit (search subreddits)
Step 5: Look At Forums About Your Topic
As an online course creator, forums represent concentrated collections of people who are passionate about your particular topic. That can be a gold mine when it comes to course sales!
But forums usually don't take kindly to people who are just coming to spam information about their course.
Before you ask something from a forum group, it's good to spend some time listening. As well as posting questions and replies of your own.
Eventually you'll establish yourself as a respected member of the community.
There are some huge forums like Reddit, and then often you'll find smaller forums based around specific niches.
Just search for: 'your topic + forum' to see what's out there.
A forum can give you a good idea of common questions that people interested in that niche have.
That's great content for your course. And the overall size and activity of membership gives you an accurate representation of how many people are interested in the topic.
Quora is another great resource, although not technically a forum. It's more of a question and answers website. If you consistently provide valuable answers related to your niche, people will take notice.
You don't even need to directly plug your course in your Quora replies. You can simply have a link on your profile and people will start to find it naturally.
Quora questions also rank pretty well in search engine, which could be some extra traffic sent to your website too.
Here's a list of different forum places you can look:
Step 6: Use Your Own Website Data
Creating your own blog is an excellent way to retain ownership over all of the content that you create, as well as your audience.
Especially when paired with an email list or some other way to keep in touch with your readers.
Making a blog will help get you organic search traffic that you can drive toward your course. Using SEO you can really sell and boost your online courses and it's something I recommend all course creators focus on.
But it has other benefits as well.
By looking at your blog's analytics you can easily see what kind of topics get shared the most, attract the most visitors, and generate the most comments.
Your blog viewership will give you a good idea of how many potential course students (or at least cold contacts that you can eventually convince to buy your course) you're dealing with each month.
Look at other blogs in your niche too. If there are other big blogs devoted to your subject, then there is likely a good amount of interest and readers willing to spend money on that niche.
Blogging isn't a short term strategy, but it provides the best long-term results when it comes to continued marketing of your online course.
A big part of blogging with the hopes of eventually releasing an online course is to start an email list. That way you can collect the email addresses of people who could be interested in buying your course down the road.
You can get people to sign up to your email list with a free offer, like a short PDF guide that provides some quick help on your topic, a webinar, or a video.
These offers that you give to readers in exchange for their emails are called lead magnets.
You aren't just restricted to your own blog either. You can post helpful comments on other popular blogs in your niche to network with other popular bloggers, and drive traffic back to your own blog. You might even want to write some guest posts on other blogs in your niche.
Step 7: Create A Pilot Program
If you've followed all the steps above then you should have a nice amount of data by now and be starting to get a good idea of whether people will be interested in your course idea or if it needs some tweaking.
The final step then, is to test demand with a small pilot version of your course.
A pilot program is just a small-scale study that's used to evaluate whether a particular project is worth your time, money, and effort.
You can get started making a simple first version of your course on a relatively low budget of around $300 - $400.
You've done some of the preliminary validation of your course idea using the information above.
But maybe you're still feeling a bit shaky about going all-in. You might want to start small and launch a small pilot project.
You can approach this from a few different angles.
The most popular and least complicated approach is to create a separate "mini-course" that you'll eventually expand into a full course.
Or maybe you're committed to the full course and want to create a "beta test" where you open up your work-in-progress course to a few of your loyal followers.
Either for free, at a discounted price promising "lifetime access," or simply as an early-access pre-order.
However you want to frame it, the idea is to get a few users to take a look at your course and give their honest feedback before opening it up to the public or even creating all of the course material.
1) Start Small
Your pilot project doesn't need to be your entire course.
There could be entire modules on your course outline that is missing content or "coming soon."
You only need to provide a minimally viable product to give people something to start with. Basically a scaled-down version of the full course you have envisioned.
Your pilot project should be small enough that you can create all of the content for it in a month or two. But it should have enough content that your students will actually get results from it.
Set a small goal, like "at the end of the course, you'll have the skills needed to tie three basic fishing ties."
2) Create Your Course Outline
Once you've got a basic idea of what you want from your pilot program, it's time to make a course outline and plan the overall curriculum for your course.
This should only take a couple of hours at most, since you're likely only going to have a handful of sections in your course.
Keep your outline basic and straight to the point.
You want students to be able to give feedback on what additional information they want to be included in the course. In fact, if you're pre-selling your pilot course, you don't need to actually create any content until after you've started to sell copies.
-> Here's more info about creating your online course outline and structure
3) Set A Price
I like the idea of offering a mini-course for a reduced rate, rather than getting people to beta test your course for free.
People have more invested and will give better feedback about the course if they actually pay for it. When people receive something for free, they tend to take it for granted and you will probably see a much lower course completion rate as a result.
I think the best way to set your price is to look at your mini-course as a portion of the overall complete course you want to create. So if your mini-course has 20% of the content that your complete course will have, charge 20% of the full course price.
So if you plan to sell your full course for $399, then charge $80 for the mini-course.
You can always offer a coupon to existing members later on who want to upgrade from the mini-course to your full course.
This is a great way to create brand loyalty for your early adopters and an easy way to upsell them on your full course.
Without making them feel like they're paying for some of the content twice.
4) Decide How You'll Deliver The Pilot
Now you've got a good idea of what your pilot project will look like, but how will you actually get your lessons to students?
Since your pilot will probably only be a temporary step on the way to your full course, I'd look for a low-tech and simple solution.
5) Sell It
Once you've got your pilot course put together, you'll need at least a basic landing page to direct potential students toward.
All online course platforms provide landing page builders, or if you're using WordPress you might use a tool like Thrive Architect for this.
You can then link a checkout page to the landing page to give people a way to join.
When your pilot course is ready, share the news with your followers, and don't forget to limit the number of people you'll accept into your pilot course (this will also create some scarcity and get the most interested people to commit to it).
If you get a few first customers then this is a great sign that you're on to something.
Keep in close communication with these people, ask them for feedback on the beta version of your course, and do your best to over-deliver on their expectations.
Then, once you've taken on board their ideas and created the full version of your course, you'll be able to launch it with some testimonials from your beta students and in the knowledge that it's somethng people want and get value from.
Step 8: Get Started
Creating your own online course is now easier than ever before.
You just need an idea to begin validating and the motivation to follow through on the work required.
Once you've followed the steps I've covered in this article you'll have a pretty good idea if there's interest in your course or if you need to refine things a little.
And when you know that people want it, it's time to get to work and make it.
For you, that might mean working on your course in the evening instead of just relaxing in front of the TV for a few weeks. Or it could mean taking some time out of your existing work to focus on doing this instead.
-> Check out: How Long Does It Take To Create An Online Course?
But the beauty of an online course is that once it's done, you can put it up for sale and it will continue to bring in money for years to come.
Isn't it worth taking a chance on your validated idea for that opportunity?
If you've done your research and you know there's a need in the market that your online course will fulfill, don't hesitate to get started creating your course and filling that need!
You'll never feel 100% ready, but you once you know there's an audience for what you want to teach your just need to start.
It can be scary to think about spending hundreds of hours creating your own online course that might never get a single student who signs up.
If you follow the steps in this article, that won't happen. Now you've got a few solid ways that you can validate your online course idea and decide for yourself if it's something that people might actually pay for.
While creating an online course can take a lot of work up front, if you do your research and make the commitment, you can get a great amount of income back for the time and energy that you put in for years to come.
If you've got any questions or concerns about validating your online course idea, feel free to leave a message in the comments section below and I'll do my best to help.