If you’ve already tried to create an online course, you’ll know that it’s not a simple case of “build it, and they will come”. A better approach involves finding your audience first. But how does one go about doing that?
Many instructors start with a course idea. They create it, then try to find a market that’s willing to buy it. Unfortunately, this approach often fails because of several reasons:
- there are not enough students interested in the course;
- the course’s content does not meet the needs of the students; and
- the course’s content meets the needs of the students but fails because of an unrelated reason.
Nowadays, it seems ill-conceived to approach course creation this way. Instructors need to create their courses using an audience-first approach. As a result, audience research, problem analysis, and solution validation must happen first. It should happen before an instructor even thinks about a course idea.
Instructors need to understand their student’s problems. If they don’t, then they cannot provide a solution that will attract an audience. The following three questions can help an instructor:
- What does your audience want or need?
- What is the market niche that your course will exploit?
- How can you test your course idea before launch?
An instructor must find the most critical problem that a cohort of their potential audience is experiencing. For example, a Computer Science instructor could learn that a sizeable number of past and present students struggle with exam questions related to algorithms. Following this, they can validate this assumption by having a conversation with the students in question. What does the student need from an online course on algorithms?
The ideal candidate for such conversations is likely a student who cares about receiving a benefit from their educational experience, whether it be learning or performance goal-oriented. An instructor must then try to understand how such a student currently deals with the knowledge gap and how they wish they could address it in the future. It is not the time for an instructor to propose any solution, rather an opportunity to dig deeper into a student’s reasoning. At the end of the conversation, the instructor can ask for anyone else facing a similar issue and who might be worth interviewing.
After several interviews, the instructor will have thought of various course solutions to address the knowledge gap that students are currently experiencing. However, a solution is not the same as a product. A solution can help the instructor understand how to address the student’s knowledge gap. In our case, the instructor might think that it’s enough to create an entire course on algorithms, but how should they deliver it? As a result, the instructor needs to think about:
- How to package and market the online course
- How long should each module of the online course be
- How to assess the student’s understanding of the online course’s content
- How to ensure that the online course’s content will allocate enough time to covering relevant topics
To validate the solution, the instructor needs to talk to the students again. On this occasion, the instructor can propose an online course that will fill their knowledge gap. This conversation is an opportunity for the instructor to figure out how to prioritise their online course content.
In our example, the instructor’s audience may only be interested in the practical component of algorithms. If an instructor did not opt to have a follow-up conversation, they would not know this. They would spend time and money building an online course, only to discover that it wasn’t what their students wanted. However, as the instructor has validated a solution and product, they are best placed to find the most impactful course idea.
We noted our instructor targeted his course at Computer Science students who struggled with algorithms. In doing so, our instructor has identified a niche. When creating online course content, you need to ensure that your audience is:
- shares particular attributes and problems
- crave for a solution that is custom made for them
The instructor is incorrect in saying: “my course for everyone interested in algorithms”. The statement alone is rather generic, and it means they could not find their niche. There will be students at a university or research level that find the course too simple. There will be students at a secondary school level that find the course content too difficult. As a result, the instructor will quickly learn that neither group will benefit from the course.
The instructor is correct in saying: “my course for secondary school students struggling with exam questions related to algorithms”. In teaching Computer Science secondary school students, the instructor already deeply understands the community. As a result, they can figure out how big the potential audience will be and price the course accordinly.
Before creating their course, an instructor needs to attract their target audience. In our example, their connection with past and present students may likely not be enough. An instructor can do this by first creating a mini-course that they can use to get their foot in the door and subsequently grow their audience. It could be something that they give away for free in exchange for an email address. As a result, the instructor can start building an email distribution list for marketing their completed course.
When creating a mini-course, an instructor should never work from scratch. Instead, they need to take a single topic that contains transformational mini-course content and start there. In our example: if the instructor’s course takes students through searching and sorting algorithms, then they could offer a module on linear search as a free mini-course.
The instructor should not give away any of the real juicy stuff but the foundation that potential students need. Once they’ve gotten a taste of the online course, they’re going to be itching to learn more. In offering a bit for free, the instructor can use that as a hook for their audience and increase their conversion rates.
With the above, the instructor’s audience must get invested in the course that they are creating. They should ask when they can sign up long before the instructor opens sales. In future articles, we will explore the idea of “building a course in public” and how instructors can get their audience to co-create their course with them.
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Murray, J., 2019. How to build an audience for an online course or membership. [online] Janet Murray. Available at: https://www.janetmurray.co.uk/how-to-build-an-audience-for-an-online-course-or-membership/ [Accessed 15 January 2021].
Timm, M., 2018. How to Find an Audience for Your Online Course. [online] Teachable. Available at: https://teachable.com/blog/find-audience [Accessed 15 January 2021].
Kahl, A., 2020. Zero to Sold: How to Start, Run, and Sell a Bootstrapped Business. [online] The Bootstrapped Founder. Available at: https://thebootstrappedfounder.com/zero-to-sold/guide/#You_Probably_Have_it_Backwards_How_to_Start_a_Bootstrapped_Business [Accessed 15 January 2021].