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The Ultimate Guide to Validating Your Online Course Idea

Ultimate Guide to Course Idea Validation

Online courses are a great vehicle for creating passive income. But how can you validate your idea to be certain it's worth the effort?

My journey as an online entrepreneur began with a book. No, it wasn’t kickstarted by reading some wannabe make money online guru’s blog. It was a single book.

In his best-selling text, The Four Hour Workweek, author Tim Ferriss walks the reader through the process of developing passive income-generating products which, in turn, lead to location, time, and lifestyle independence.

He calls them muses.

Most of us refer to them as assets. It’s a common theme running through popular financial self-help books like Rich Dad, Poor Dad and Secrets of the Millionaire Mind.

The key takeaway from books like these is that rich people are rich because as they earn money, they don’t just pile savings into a 401(k) or a bank account and wait to live off of that accumulated wealth later.

They use the difference between their income and their expenses to build or purchase assets which keep adding to their income. And it’s the fast lane to wealth creation. Very few people get rich waiting for their next raise or commission check at work.

And online courses truly are a perfect muse.

You create them, launch them, and, if done right, they can generate passive income with almost no additional time input for months and sometimes years afterward.

But read that last statement carefully…if done right.

While online courses make a perfect digital asset, or muse, the are no two ways about it…

Creating an online course involves a lot of time and hard work.

I’m currently in the middle of putting the finishing touches on a new course which is running a full 3 months behind schedule. This isn’t uncommon.

So before investing that time and energy into the course creation process, it is absolutely critical to take an objective look at the potential market for your course to go into it confidently knowing that the odds of success are optimal.

But what do you do to ensure that those odds are optimized?

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to vet your prospective course idea before you jump into content creation. Most of the resources we commonly recommend for evaluating market demand for course topics are free, however, some do require a small financial investment.

That being the case, we recommend evaluating your prospective course topic in the order these steps are presented. If you find out during the first step or two that your idea is a bust, there’s no point in proceeding further and spending a little money for that final bit of validation.

Validating Course Idea Quote 1

The 7 Step Course Idea Validation Process

Step 1: Evaluate the monthly search volume for your topic.

In this first course demand evaluation step, we’re going to consult the world’s largest information broker…Google.

Google is the de facto origin of research for almost everyone these days. If you don’t know something or you need to find something, it’s likely you head straight to it.

And since The Big G processes over 2 trillion search queries per day, it’s an invaluable resource for determining market demand for almost anything.

In this step we’re going to use Google’s own Keyword Planner tool to take a look at just how many of those 2 trillion searches per day relate to the course we want to sell.

First, head to https://adwords.google.com and create a free account.

Once you’ve set up your account, log in and navigate to the Tools menu. From there, you can access the Keyword Planner.

Choose Search for new keyword using a phrase, website or category.

Now we can simply enter the phrase related to our course in the Your product or service field and click on Get Ideas. We’re going to use online ukulele lessons for this example.

This is where it gets fun. If you snickered a bit when I mentioned that I’d be using online ukulele lessons thinking it was just a cute example, you can see that it’s actually serious business!

In the screenshot below, we’re looking at these factors:

Average monthly searches

In this example, we can see that our initial search phrase receives 1,600 searches per month. But we would also be emboldened by the search volume of our top related search phrases. Ukulele lessons receives 8,100 searches per month, ukulele for beginners is queried 12,100 times per month, learn to play ukulele comes in at 5,400, and learn ukulele notches 8,100 queries. All new good news for the aspiring online ukulele instructor!

Competition

In the Adwords Keyword Planner, the Competition metric is meant to indicate how many advertisers are vying for paid ad placements in Google’s search results. If you’re planning to purchase ads, seeing High in that column isn’t great since it means you’re going to be bidding against many other advertisers for space and will end up paying a high price for visitors.

But we’re not here to purchase paid advertising...yet. We’re here to see how much interest there is in our course topic. We can see in the screenshot that all of the search terms we’re evaluating are either Medium or High competition. If that many advertisers are willing to spend money on these keywords, then we can rest assured that customers are willing to spend their own money on what those ads are selling. 

Suggested bid

The Suggested bid value is the price that Google is recommending that we pay for every single click to our website to get high quality traffic that could result in a lead or a sale. These numbers can range from a few cents per click for low-dollar items or services to over $100 per click for colleges who are advertising degree programs.

In our example, we see a range of $0.68 to $1.30 per click. That’s a good sign and it makes sense. It means that customers are paying for online ukulele courses, but it wouldn’t cost us a fortune to crack into this market and if we chose to market our course through paid ads we could do so on a modest budget and still turn a profit. After all, most online ukulele courses run around $20 a month, so we wouldn’t expect to see advertisers spending $30 per click. 

Searches by month 

Another interesting insight we can gather from this report is how the searches trend throughout the year. Working with our WP Courseware customers for the last 6 years, we’ve realized that there are many course niches which tend to have cyclical sales cycles. These graphs can help you get a feel for what your sales might be like from month to month after you launch your course.

In this example, we can see with most of the related keywords that the searches tend to peak in December and January. That makes perfect sense since ukuleles are often given as a holiday gift in December and then picked up to play in January.

Step 2: Evaluate trends around your topic.

Considering the massive amount of data that Google gathers from daily search queries, it’s no surprise that they’ve built a tool for analyzing that data.

Google Trends is a dream come true for marketers and public relations professionals. The search data is anonymized, categorized, and aggregated to provide an unbiased view of the interest in any topic…in real time…anywhere in the world.

Pretty darn cool, right?

In the screenshot below, you can see that I’ve zoomed out on my prospective course topic, using the search term ukulele instead of online ukulele lessons. This will allow you to start with a broad view of the trends related to your topic and then starting drilling down to see how those trends change as you enter a more specific search phrase.

In this example, I’ve chosen to view the past five years of data for my search term. By now you can likely guess the dates that the 5 peaks in the screenshot correspond to…yep, the week of the Christmas holiday.

We can also have a look at where this search term is popular. Not surprisingly, ukulele receives a high percentage of its searches in Southeast Asian countries.

Step 3: Use advanced search operators to find current course offerings.

In another recent article, we talked about “niching down” down four levels deep within the broader market for your prospective course, how to do so, and why it’s important. When we share this strategy with our customers, we refer to it as the 4 Deep Method.

We also briefly covered how to use advanced search operators to find existing course offerings related to your prospective topic.

Why is this important?

  • It tells us if there are courses related to your prospective topic that people are already willing to spend money on.
  • It can signal whether or not the market for your prospective course is already saturated.
  • It allows us to discover and explore untapped 4 Deep opportunities within our market.

“Search Term”

Placing quotation marks around your course topic indicates to Google that you want it to return results which include that exact phrase. It’s meant to reduce ambiguity within the results and increase relevancy, which is perfect for searching for course topics.

OR

Using the OR operator obviously allows you to gather results for more than one single phrase. The ukulele is very similar to a Portuguese instrument called a machete. I’d be willing to guess that there aren’t a lot of folks out there searching for online machete lessons, but I could use this operator to search for “ukulele course” OR “machete course”

+

Again, it’s pretty obvious how the plus sign would be used, but it allows you to append additional words or phrases that you want to force the search engine to include. 

~

The tilde is an advanced search operator that many people aren’t familiar with. However, its usage is simple. It can be used preceding a search term when you want to gather results which include a synonym for that term. This is an important operator when researching exiting course offerings as courses may often be called classes, programs, certificates, curriculum, seminars, etc.

The final constructed search query would look like this:

You can find a very comprehensive guide to the entire list of available search operators in this article.

Step 4: Evaluate social media engagement for your topic.

When you find something really helpful or interesting or you’ve done something you’re really proud of (like learning a new skill through an online course), where do you go to pat yourself on the back?

On social media, right? Well, so do billions of other people.

BuzzSumo is a tool that collects social media mentions which can then be searched by keyword or topic. It’s also a very helpful website for evaluating the “buzz” around your course topic. Keep in mind that once again, you may need to zoom out if your course topic is very specific. BuzzSumo collects a lot of data from social media platforms, but the way people discuss things within your course’s intended niche can vary drastically.

However, for this example we’ll continue to look at online ukulele lessons. As you can see in the screenshot below, there’s actually quite a bit of hype around uke lessons in social media circles. This is good news. And note to self…when it comes time to market our new course, we need to follow Jake Shimabukuro’s strategy.

Step 5: Use Udemy to find out what micro-topics are being covered in courses within the niche.

We’ve written about Udemy before and why it’s not the best choice for marketing and selling online courses if you’re serious about earning good money teaching online. However, since Udemy is one of the largest course marketplaces in the world, if people are paying to learn about topics in your prospective niche, those topics are probably ending up in Udemy courses.

I would encourage you not to look to Udemy for guidance on actually creating your course. The quality of courses on Udemy is very low. Many digital entrepreneurs out to turn a quick profit crank out hundreds of low-quality courses, place them on Udemy, and reap a few dollars from the sale of each course.

But Udemy can help us evaluate demand for specific topics within our niche to show us what people are willing to pay for and where there may be opportunities to fill in a gap within a niche.

In our results, we can see that there are currently 23 courses on Udemy related to the ukulele. The listings include a number of beginner courses, but we’ve discovered that there are also courses in music theory, how to make your own ukulele, and several courses on how to play specific songs like Old MacDonald and Happy Birthday.

If we go into the course description pages, we can see the course content as well as how it’s structured, how many lessons there are, the time required for the course, and if any supplemental resources are provided.

We can also check out how many people are enrolled in the course, which is another good indicator for evaluating demand. The first course in our Udemy search results has 2,680 students enrolled. That’s a really good sign for our prospective course topic…we just need to find an angle of approach that will help our course stand out so we have a unique selling proposition.

Step 6: Comb through the Kindle Store for info-products.

Amazon has made it incredibly easy for authors to self-publish their own ebooks. And since it’s the largest retailer in the world, its digital book marketplace is a gold mine for topic research and evaluating demand for your prospective course.

Also, as I’m sure you’re aware, some people just looooove to write product reviews on Amazon. For some folks, it’s almost a full-time job. That means that not only can we see if people are spending money in our niche, how much money they’re willing to spend, and the sales volume for particular products based on how many reviews are left, but we can also read discussions about our niche. This is huge!

All we need to do is select the Kindle Store for our search and then take a look at those results:

If we go into one of the more popular ebooks, we can start reading what folks have to say about it. This is an invaluable tool for finding what people wished had been included, but wasn’t. Any time you find one of those comments, make a note of it. That spells opportunity for you later, either in the form of a few course lessons that only you have published or sometimes even an entire course that exploits a larger untapped demand.

This is an example of the kind of golden nuggets we’re scouring the Kindle Store for:

Step 7: Find out if people would actually buy your course.

This is where the rubber meets the road. It’s time to find out if consumers would actually spend money on our idea as a final check to validate our course topic.

You may want to grab a cup of coffee at this point.

This is my absolute favorite product and idea validation strategy and I’ve been using it since around 2010. To be completely transparent, this strategy was also culled from a read of The Four Hour Workweek, but it works…and it’s fun.

If the first 6 steps turned out well enough that you’re moving to step 7, you’ll either finish this step completely fired up to begin work on your course or motivated to move on to evaluating another potential topic that will make it successfully through this phase.

There are a few steps within this final step of validating your potential course topic, so let’s dive in.

1. The first step is to begin collecting links to product pages and sales pages that have either a) led you to purchase something recently or b) you believe would be effective at converting visitors into paying customers.

2. If you’re an experienced marketer or copywriter, you can skip this step. But for the rest of us (or if you’d like to brush up on some skills), it’s time to spend some time educating ourselves on how to create a great sales page.

Consider it time well spent either way. No matter which topic you eventually create your course around, you’re going to need a great sales page.

There are several key ingredients to creating a sales page that turns website visitors into paying customers, and discussing those elements in detail is beyond the scope of this article. However, there are plenty of resources to help you study up. Our friends at CopyBlogger are our go-to resource when we need advice on marketing, sales, promotional, or email copywriting and the same applies here:

The 10 Essential Ingredients of Successful Sales Pages

3. Using the valuable lessons you learned during the last step (you did complete the last step, didn’t you?) and the sales page examples you’ve been collecting, it’s time to begin crafting a sales page for your yet-to-be-created course.

Now, when I help our clients through the demand evaluation process and we make it to this step, 9 times out of 10 they’ll spend about 30 minutes throwing together a sloppy page. They think, “I haven’t even built this course…I’m not going to waste half of my day creating a sales page for it!”

My response is something along the lines of, “Oh, so you’d rather not fully validate the demand for your course, spend 6 months building it, and then find out that it’s a flop?”

This typically leads to them spending several hours the following day building a really good sales page for their prospective course. Hey, I’m just trying to help!

In reality, if you already have a website, you can put together a sales page that will get the job done in 2 to 3 hours. If you’re using WordPress, there are even free themes you can download and install which come with pre-designed sales pages that you could likely modify in 1 or 2 hours.

If you don't have a website that you can build this sales page on, you can easily spin up a very simple (and free) site on WordPress.com.

4. Now that you have your sales page created, you’re going to place a Buy or Purchase button on the page…at least 1 button at the bottom of the page and possibly a mid-page button as well. IMPORTANT: Do not include your course’s price on the sales page.

5. Next, you are going to create a Checkout page. You should design this page to look like an actual shopping cart/checkout page, but it will not have any of that functionality. On this page, you’ll want to create a field with your course title and price (again it should look like the visitor has actually added an item to a shopping cart…I’m certain that you’ve seen plenty of examples). You’ll then use a form builder plugin to create First Name, Last Name, and Email entry fields (if you’re using WordPress we recommend Formidable Forms). Finally, you’ll place a Continue Order button on the page.

(Note: If you have no idea where to begin with setting a price for your fictional course, read this article.)

6. The final page we’re going to create is simple. It’s essentially an error page. You can use any tile you wish that makes sense, such as We’re Sorry!, but this page only needs one thing. It display a message along the lines of:

We’re sorry, but enrollment for this course is currently closed. Please check back soon.”

7. You probably already saw this coming, but the Buy button on your sales page should link to the Shopping Cart page, and the Continue Order button on the shopping cart page should lead to the Enrollment Closed page.

8. Next, you’ll want to set up a free Google Analytics account and install the tracking script on your website. This is going to allow us to track how many visitors land on our sales page, how many click through to the shopping cart page, and how many land on the final error page. Our friends at MOZ have a great primer on getting started with Google Analytics.

9. Now that we have a testable purchase process set up for our “course”, it’s time to send traffic there. You’re already familiar with Google’s Keyword Planner tool and now we’re going to be relying on it again in this step.

We want to use the Keyword Planner to find 5 keyword phrases that we think will be the most effective at sending traffic to our sales page.

We also want to select terms that will convert, meaning they will send traffic to our page that would be interested in the content of the course itself.

And finally, if possible, you may want to choose keywords with a lower CPC value to allow you to generate more test traffic for the budget you allocate.

10. Once you’ve selected 5 target keywords, you’ll begin creating one ad for each keyword. Again, learning how to create effective display ads is not something we can cover in a single post. However, I highly recommend that you educate yourself on the process before putting your credit card details into your Google Adwords account. Here are 2 of our favorite resources:

Redfly Marketing’s Adwords Basics

Neil Patel’s Google Adwords Made Simple: A Step-by-Step Guide

11. This is where it gets a bit tricky. While I know you don’t want to spend a lot of money on advertising a course that you haven’t even created yet, remember what we discussed earlier…it’s better to know now whether or not your course will sell, not after you’ve spent 250 hours creating it!

I’ll leave it to you to choose how much to spend each day on running your ads. It’s going to come down to your finances, how much faith you have in this prospective course topic, and what the CPC numbers look like for your keywords.

But the more traffic you can send to that sales page, the better. It’s not only going to prevent you from creating a course that won’t sell (if that is the case after this test), but this traffic will allow you to split-test:

  • Your ad copy
  • Your course title
  • Sales page copy and design
  • Your course’s price

Gathering split-testing results on your course price alone is going to be invaluable if you do pursue a course in this niche. You may find out that by increasing the price of your fictional course by 50% halfway through your test that you receive the same number of people landing on the final enrollment closed page.

What do you think that knowledge will be worth when you launch your course?!

As a rough estimate to ensure at least a small degree of statistical significance, we recommend sending at least 100 visitors to your sales page from your ads. But again, the more the better.

We also recommend that your overall budget for this test spans at least 7 days. In almost every business or niche there are certain times throughout the week where there are peaks and valleys in traffic and sales. Ensuring that your ads run for at least a full week, regardless of your daily budget, helps ensure that you don’t make a decision that leaves out any weekly cyclicality in interest for your course offering.

12. By now you know what the final step will be…it’s time to evaluate the results. This part of the testing process is highly subjective. We could give you concrete guidelines, such as to only pursue course ideas which resulted in 5 visitors on your Enrollment Closed page (meaning theoretical purchases) for every 100 visitors to your sales page.

However, this would be misleading. This decision plays out differently for a $2,000 course than it does for a $49 course. It also plays out differently for course creators who only have the course to sell than it does for course creators who have an entire suite of products they can also pitch to someone who enrolls in the course.

You’re going to have to make the call. If it helps, you can use the free spreadsheet on this page to help you determine the costs and breakeven points for your course to know how many students you need to enroll to turn a profit.

Final Thoughts

I want to come full circle back to the beginning of this article. Online courses are an incredible vehicle for creating relatively passive income online. I begin every single day with a goal to encourage as many people as I can possibly affect to pursue the transformation of their knowledge into an asset that can transform their financial possibilities.

But even though income is passive, the work isn’t. It’s necessary to front load the time commitment to generate this income.

However, if you follow these steps carefully and fully validate your idea before beginning that front loaded work, your investment of time, energy, and financial resources will pay dividends.

Hopefully, we can affect your life in this way as well. If you have any questions, concerns, or doubts about validating your potential course topic to ensure your chances of a successful launch, please let us know. You can post your message in the comments below, or if you’re concerned about sharing your idea publicly and would just like a private, unbiased opinion you can always contact us through our Questions page.

We’re always here to help if you need us!

About Nate Johnson

Nate Johnson is one of the co-founders of Fly Plugins, creators of the first and most widely-implemented learning management system for WordPress, WP Courseware. Since 2012, he has helped thousands of entrepreneurs, corporate training departments, and higher education institutions develop and deploy online training courses from their WordPress websites.

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