After ebooks, online courses are one of the most popular business models for digital entrepreneurs.
The tech is easier to put together than ever. Audiences know that online courses are valuable and have shown they’re willing to pay. And courses are a natural showcase for the authority you build as you develop great content for your site.
They have tons of great advantages for the course creator.
But if you’re not keeping your focus on your audience and customers … it ain’t gonna work.
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.
So let’s talk about how to do that …
Start with thirsty learners
This might sound a bit obvious, but it’s the downfall of many failed businesses:
Can you reach enough people who want to learn about your topic?
You need to ask yourself questions like:
- Does this topic have a solid number of people who care about learning more?
- Do I have a way to connect with them?
- What are some of their painful problems with the topic?
- Will they pay to get rid of those problems?
- Would they put the time into a course to get rid of those problems?
Some topics are no-brainers. Financial advice, career advancement, and technical skills are all things people will pay to acquire.
Some can be a little trickier to pull off. In my experience, plenty of people are looking for parenting advice online, but they’re often either time-poor or their disposable income is tight (or both).
Parenting advice certainly can be a good topic for a profitable online course, but it may take you a little longer to find the right offering.
If you already have an audience pulled together — maybe you have a blog or a podcast, but you don’t have a business yet — turn to that audience and try to figure out what they’d love to get some help with.
You can also partner with someone who has the audience, but doesn’t want to deal with “all that business stuff.” Fortunately, “business stuff” is a skill set that you can absolutely develop.
Once you’ve figured out where the thirsty learners are hanging out, and what they’re thirsty for, it’s time to decide why they should go with your course to solve their problem, given all of their other options.
Marketers call this positioning. What position do you hold in your market? Are you the expensive one? (Advice: don’t be the cheap one.) The gentle one? The strict one? The flamboyant one? The wonky one?
Ask yourself these questions to start to tease out what makes your offering different from the others:
- What’s the specific beneficial improvement you make in your customer’s life? Is it different from that offered by other businesses?
- What unique approach or angle do you use to get results?
- What memorable difference or experience can you convey?
- Is there a remarkable element to your business — something a person might mention to a friend or colleague?
- Is there a timeless aspect to your promise? Alternately, is there something about your offer that’s uniquely valuable right now?
Know thy learner
You can’t serve customers — truly serve them — until you really know them.
Knowing what they want is just the beginning. You need to know why they want it, how they want to get it, and what they’re willing to do to have it.
It starts with empathy — putting yourself in the emotional shoes of your learner.
You want to understand what they’re thinking, feeling, perceiving, and doing 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. (It comes with a downloadable blank map you can fill in.)
The Empathy Map exercise takes some time, but it isn’t difficult. In fact, it’s pretty fun. But most of your competitors aren’t doing it. That leaves room for you to make your course uniquely relevant and effective.
Design your course for them, not you
Once you really understand your learners, you can organize your course around the experiences they need to have in order to get what they want — in the way that they want it.
Classic educational design uses learning objectives (pioneered by instructional design expert Robert Mager) to shape an effective educational experience.
Your course will have an overarching learning objective (“With 20 minutes of practice a day, you’ll be able to play 5 classical piano pieces well enough to impress your friends …”), and then each lesson has its own mini objective — a concrete, well-designed step along the way to the final goal.
You can go through a simplified version of this process by figuring out the following steps for your learners:
Step #1: Figure out the behavior
Each lesson in your course should teach a real-world behavior your learner will be able to do at the end of the lesson.
At the end of the lesson, what will she be able to do that she doesn’t know how to do today?
Step #2: Figure out the conditions
What conditions or context is this behavior going to take place in?
Will the learner be doing this behavior at work or at home? Will it take an hour? A day? A year?
Is this something that’s going to take a deep commitment, or could it be done in your learner’s spare time?
You need these answers both to design your course effectively and to communicate it to your potential customers in your marketing.
Step #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 lesson 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].
Does this seem a little overwhelming?
Building a well-designed online course is very doable, but there are a lot of small pieces you’ll want to get right.
If you’d like some help with your digital course, Copyblogger’s founder Brian Clark has created a complete course for you on how to structure and build profitable 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.
Of course, most of the “gurus” would never share that with you. Four months isn’t overnight. But it’s a lot more effective than running around for four months working on the wrong things.
If you want to complete the course on an accelerated path — that works, too. But we’ve found that four months is the perfect time frame for a lot of folks to put together a thoughtful, relevant offering — at least the first time they do it.
In all, Brian’s 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 (many of the points in this post were taken from module 2).
- 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. This is the step that slows many people to a dead stop — but it doesn’t have to.
- Launching 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.
Here’s the coolest part
Brian’s course is the flagship of our Digital Commerce Academy. It’s the most-visited course there, and hundreds of people have benefited from it.
But for the price of Brian’s course — Build Your Online Training Business the Smarter Way — you get all the rest of Digital Commerce Academy for free.
You’ll have instant access to courses on crucial topics like how to create marketing funnels and how to market your products and services with social media advertising. And you’ll get access to new courses we create in the upcoming months.
You’ll also have immediate access to more than 20 educational webinars and case studies.
And you’ll be able to get answers to your specific business questions in “Ask Me Anything”-style Q&A sessions with Rainmaker Digital’s marketing and business experts.
The Academy is closed right now …
But we’re going to open to new members very shortly. If you want in, find out more below and add your email address to our waitlist to be the first to hear when we reopen.
Let’s make your digital dreams a reality
Digital Commerce Academy (DCA) helps you build the business of your dreams by teaching you how to create and sell profitable digital services and goods (like online courses) without squandering time and money, stumbling to find the right path, or making unnecessary mistakes.
DCA features full-length courses (including Brian Clark’s Build Your Online Training Business the Smarter Way), 20+ webinars featuring in-depth case studies and education on cutting edge tools, as well as Q&As with the Rainmaker Digital team.
The doors to DCA are currently closed, but we reopen them periodically. Join the waitlist below today to be the first to hear when you can join.