If you have expertise in any topic or skill, one of the most exciting opportunities open to you these days is the opportunity to launch and grow an online course business.
The global market for e-learning is projected to grow to more than US $240 billion by 2023, and solo entrepreneurs and small training businesses are claiming a significant chunk of that market. If you have ever been tempted to try your luck as a course entrepreneur, now is definitely the time.
In this post, I take a look at the process for creating a successful course business and provide tips to help you position yourself for success.
1. Assess Your Market Potential
When you develop a course of any kind, you want to be sure you understand the needs of your prospective learners and the learning outcomes that will serve those needs. However, as an entrepreneur, there is an additional, critical question to address: will they buy it? After all, having a need and being willing to pay to address that need are often two very different things.
Fortunately, even if you currently have zero customers or prospects, there are good ways to get a sense of the potential market for your course. One of the easiest and most powerful is search. Draw up a list of 5-7 short phrases (3 to 5 words) you feel confident a prospective learner might use when searching for help on the problem or opportunity your course will address. Next, run searches on them on:
- Google (of course!) – Add “course,” “lessons,” “workshop” and other similar words to your search terms. Do items similar to or closely related to your potential course topic show up? Do you see any ads or “Shop on Google” links? These are actually good signs. They mean there are businesses that think there is money to be made from your topic.
- Amazon– Particularly in the Kindle store. Are there eBooks for sale in your niche that seem to be popular? (i.e., – a “Paid in Kindle Store” ranking below 200,000, as a rule of thumb. Look for this information under Product Details.)
- Udemy – With it quickly becoming the Amazon of online courses, it’s worth seeing if your search terms bring up anything significant on Udemy. Take a look at how many courses turn up and how many ratings they have gotten.
It’s important to note that you want to see reasonable signs of demand in the searches above. It’s tempting to think you should go where no one has gone before, but in most cases this is a serious mistake. Yes, you want to position yourself and your course in a unique way, but you also want to position yourself where prospective learners are already spending money.
The searches above are just a quick, but powerful first step. Each of the steps that follow help you continue to assess and understand your market while also moving you towards your course launch.
Related content: How to Assess Your Market With Search
2. Create Related Content
Well before creating a full-blown course, it’s important to create high-value content related to your course as a way of attracting people to you and – at the same time – to test out your theories about what your prospective learners most want and need.
The searching you did in step one will almost certainly give you some good ideas about topics to address, but another tool I recommend at this point is BuzzSumo, a search engine that gives you visibility into what content is popular by topic or on a specific website. Just type your topic or keywords into the BuzzSumo search field, click “Search!” and you will get a table showing what content is getting the most likes, shares, and links on that topic. This is critical information, because you want to create content that will be linked to and shared.
For the topics you feel are most likely to attract your audience, start creating incredibly useful content that helps your target audience solve specific problems or take advantage of specific opportunities. There are no hard and fast rules to what form this content should take, but these days, short videos (around two minutes is generally considered a “sweet spot) and longer form blog posts (700 to 1500 words) tend to do well. Infographics – which are highly shareable and can be created quite easily with a tool like Canva – may also be a valuable part of your content mix.
Some of this content should definitely be published on your own Web site/blog, but you will also want to publish some of your very best stuff on sites your prospective learners are likely to visit. This may mean guest posting on popular blogs, providing high value responses in discussion groups, or publishing on LinkedIn. Keep an eye on what seems to get the best response – e.g., comments, shares – and put more emphasis on those approaches over time.
You don’t need to wear yourself out creating massive volumes of content – as little as a single highly useful blog post can attract a lot of readers – but you do want to create enough to start pulling people to you. Your goal is to raise your visibility, build your brand, and position yourself well for the next step.
Related Content: Benefits of blogging. Or, is your blog the asset it should be?
3. Build Your Audience
Having a market is one thing, but what you really want is to build an audience, meaning an identifiable subset of people from your potential market who have actually shown interest in what you have to offer.
Once you have attracted these people to you with valuable content, you want to do everything you can to convert them into viable prospects. By “convert,” I mean persuade them to identify themselves as someone willing to be contacted by you. The best scenario for this, even with the growth of social media, texting, and other forms of communication, is to get them to sign-up for your e-mail list. Someone willing to hand an e-mail address over is going to be a much more likely buyer of your course than someone who simply follows or likes you.
To capture and effectively use e-mail addresses, you’ll need an account with an e-mail list service provider like MailChimp, AWeber, or ConvertKit, and you’ll need to put a sign-up form for the list on your Web site.
Of course, you probably already realize that just sticking a form on a Web site doesn’t get many people to sign up these days. Having attracted visitors to your site with something of value, you’ll usually need to offer them some additional value to convert them to list subscribers. Very often, this is simply an “upgrade” to whatever content attracted them in the first place.
For example, if one of the key pieces of content on your site describes a particular instructional design approach, you might offer a free, downloadable template in exchange for joining your list. A download of this sort is typically referred to as a “lead magnet.” Having one or more lead magnets on your site is one of the most effective tools there is for converting visitors into subscribed prospects with whom you can maintain contact. And, of course, contacting them is exactly what you will want to do as you head into the next step.
Related Content: Build An Audience – What I Did (and You Can, Too)
4. Pilot Your Course
All of the previous actions, in combination with your own experience, will put you in a great position to create a course that really resonates with your audience. But don’t go whole hog yet.
Start with offering a pilot.
And not just any pilot. This pilot should be a “minimum viable product” and you should offer it in a live online format.
By “minimum viable product” I mean it should require the minimal amount of effort on your part to deliver an experience that meets your audience’s fundamental needs. It is the solid base upon which you will be able to build – and improve – your full-fledged course later.
Delivering your pilot live – using a platform like Zoom or GoToTraining – supports the minimum viable product approach. For a pilot, you will want to outline a basic curriculum and create any truly essential supporting materials – e.g., slides, worksheets – but you won’t invest a lot time in design and development. Rather, present the core content and leverage your interactions with students to flesh out the curriculum and identify changes and additions that will improve the experience.
Run the pilot course over a period of days or weeks – whatever is appropriate for what you are teaching – and in addition to getting student feedback on the content, be sure to collect from students – these will be invaluable in marketing your productized course. Speaking of which…
Related Content: The Key to Avoiding Online Course Failure
5. Create A Product That Scales
At this point, you have been attracting more and more people to you, you’ve converted many of them into prospects, and you’ve managed to run a successful pilot with some of those prospects.
We’ve now reached the point where too many wannabe course entrepreneurs start. That is, the point where – because you have taken the time to understand and build your audience – it actually makes sense to invest the time and effort required for creating a full course product.
In most cases, this will mean creating polished recordings of any video or audio content. Making any necessary edits and design enhancements to supporting documents. Setting up any self-serve interactions that were not part of the pilot – like, for example, online self-checks and assessments.
It will also usually mean deploying the course in a platform that will support e-commerce, help you manage your learners, and provide tools like reporting. Fortunately for aspiring course entrepreneurs, there has been a real boom in affordable platforms that – unlike traditional corporate and academic learning management systems, are geared specifically for marketing and selling online courses.
Related Content: 15 Platforms to Publish and Sell Online Courses (and Counting).
Having gone through the steps above, you are now well prepared to launch your course out to your broader market.
Just as importantly, you have created a foundation on which you can continue to grow and, ultimately, create a thriving business. Over time, you should continue to assess your market, build your audience, and leverage student feedback for course improvement, new course ideas, and testimonials. Do all of this consistently over time, and you will be on a clear path to success as an online course entrepreneur. If you have questions along the way, feel free to drop me a comment below.
A version of this content first appeared as a guest post by me on eLearning Industry.