Want To Choose The Best Online Course Topics? If You Think Only Of What Topics You Can Teach, You’ll Lose Sight Of What Audiences Want, And Will Pay For
Topic selection is a stumbling block for many Knowledge Commerce marketers. There is so much competition among near-similar courses that you can only score by knowing your audience better than competitors. Don’t just give them what you are good at or what competition gives.
You can never go wrong if you focus on drilling down into your target audience’s main pain-points. Ask yourself: Which pain-points vex your audiences the most? How can you best help solve these for them?
Can you help target audiences solve their problems more practically and faster? Can your course give them solutions they can implement themselves? Are your solutions to their problems short-term fixes or long-term sustainable ideas? Thinking like this makes your course more competitively attractive to buyers.
At Solohacks Academy, we also believe that deciding on a good course topic is about doing the right topic validation. Take time to validate your idea’s demand potential and profit potential. Your hard work has to compete well, magnetize demand and sell at good prices.
1. Courses that sell best and need least pushing are the “how-to” courses: look for topics that can teach action steps
This is an age of information overload. If you choose a topic for your new online course that teaches the theory behind any concept, people find themselves asking, “When are you getting round to the action-stuff?”
It’s the “action-stuff” people want to learn most of all. If the conceptual theory or strategy behind an action sequence is critical, people don’t mind learning those little bits of theory extra – but the hero of your online course has to be a “how-to” if you want to be at least 60% sure of success from the get-go.
There’s a beautifully worded passage from the article “Does the World Need Another How to Article?” by Nika Nikolic. Read this is you ever wonder about the extraordinary popularity and eternal demand for the how-to of anything.
There are a lot of How-To articles. There are too much of them already. From severe ones to the mocking ones, there is no such thing as the end of them. One might deduct that such an abundance of the genre would, through time, cover every possible topic. It probably has.
But the Internet has a memory capacity of a goldfish trapped in a glass bowl. (It’s 3 seconds.) So if a goldfish could wonder, it would, just as our dear Internet, wonder at new things for every 3 seconds. No one remembers an article from 3 months ago. That’s what makes How-To articles extremely popular.
Do I need another How To article as a reader? Yes, a million times, yes. There is still so much I need to learn. Not just for the already known things. But the speed with which technology is evolving, how relationships and cultures are changing is enormous. A bit of reminder here and then never hurts, therefore.”
Hubspot further adds to the high demand for How-Tos. Here’s what they say:
It makes perfect sense, considering How-Tos are inherently educational and great for generating traffic from organic search. Use How-Tos when your topic has to do with educating your audience about how to do something they might not know how to do. Oftentimes, How-Tos can also be strengthened by supporting visual components for concepts that lend themselves to visual explanations, like an instructional video or a visual aid.”
In other words, for your first online course, you can’t go wrong if you pick a “how-to” topic.
2. Learn how to spot your target audience’s pain-points so your course can help solve them: some pain-points are obvious, some are not
Online marketers have it easier than physical marketers. There are some classic ways you can delve into the lives of your potential course customers to see what their pain-points may be.
But while you use these methods, be aware of the fact that many people may tell you of their “symptoms” when talking of their pain-points, but not tell you the real underlying issues they have. They probably may not even know what those issues are.
Like a good doctor, you have to take an educated guess at what their deep-seated issues could be by looking at their stated symptoms. Then you have to try and solve both – the symptoms and the real inner problem.
Given this approach, here are three ways to find customer pain-points:
Ask then to name their pain-points
There are a number of ways you can ask your audience what their biggest pain-points are. The most effective approach is one-on-one conversations. You can add a line to your welcome email that asks new subscribers what their biggest problems are at the moment. You can also send out a short survey and propagate it through your website, email list, and social media.
Listen to conversations online to hear your audiences
Pay some extra attention to comments on your own blog posts or on the blog posts of your competitors. Listen to social media mentions of vexing problems people have in your niche. Look for Q & A sites like Quora to see the types of questions people ask around your topics of interest. Look also at forums online, or social media groups, where people discuss their issues or ask each other for answers. Another good idea: use a chat feature on your site that says “Ask Me” and encourage people to leave you their questions. Look for the questions that come to you more often than others.
Good old keyword research is one of your best tools
Keyword research on Google is not as easy as directly asking people to name their pain-points or eavesdropping on their social conversations. Keyword research makes you rely on popularity numbers of keyword search terms, rather than get direct real answers from your target audiences. Nevertheless, numbers also tell you a lot, if you know which numbers to set store by. Look at the popularity of a keyword, and also whether the Cost-Per-Click (CPC) bid price on it is high. You can bet your competitors won’t pay for ads on a keyword search results page unless there is good demand for that search keyword.
3. Drill down and get specific to nuances of customer-problems: use micro-marketing techniques to get very narrow with your audience focus
The micro-marketing approach, if taken, can yield great course topics you can exploit.
To understand micro-marketing better, let’s take an example, say, from the real estate industry. For starters, you would expect that any realtor would have a narrow enough niche. He may be targeting a particular suburb of his hometown. He cannot otherwise handle too many clients, or they’d be taking him all around town on house visits.
But what if the realtor then decided to go even narrower? Say, into rental houses that are two-bed apartments within a certain price range.
Now, his own focus will grow with speed. He may see his target audience needs better than before. He may be able to distinguish the little nuances that affect 2-bed home-renting decisions. He may gain clarity on why some sales don’t materialize, while others do.
If he wanted to create courses online, he may be able to develop a host of ideas around some small but really vexing customer pain-points in the narrowed segment he is looking at. He could make every nuanced need the subject of some course. He could have courses tailored to small groups of similar buyers. Every course could nail a small but vital need.
In narrowing his outlook, he would gain depth. The focus of the marketer would become “one inch wide and one mile deep”. It would go away from being as superficial as “one mile wide but only one inch deep”.
The selling arguments such a marketer would use may show what an expert he is in two-bed apartments. He would become the “go-to” person for single people or small families. He would grow a reputation faster as an expert in “small apartment rentals”.
Soon, the realtor would have less marketing to do. His previous clients would help find him more clients. How? This would happen naturally because people with common problems bond together.
That’s why micro-marketing gets easier with time and produces results faster. It works especially well with course topics that have small but sure audiences.
4. Learn about the four different kinds of pain-points people have usually: they will invariably yield good pain-point topics for courses
A lot of entrepreneurs are not sure how to find their audience’s pain-points, to begin with. Pain-points can usually be broken down into categories like these:
- Monetary: Financial constraints are often the biggest problem areas people have. They get frustrated when a lack of sufficient money stops them from progress or success in life. Lots of reasons may contribute to a shortage of money to act on something they yearn to. That’s why helping people find the money they need for something that vexes many of them – or suggesting cost-free or low-cost innovative alternative ideas – is so well-received. Money issues are among the eternal pain-point areas that your resourceful courses could help solve for them.
- Learning: Another typical area where audiences in your niche may suffer could be that they’re having trouble learning the many new skills they need. This gives room to teach them many new strategies, tactics, and tricks to do with keeping pace with an ever-changing world. When some technology is new, or some new trends hit the horizon, there is usually a heavy demand from people who want to catch up. For your own safety, stick to topics that look like they will endure … otherwise, your course too will be off the radar if the fad does a disappearing trick too soon.
- Productivity: All people on this planet suffer from problems of self-control and rigor to get work done. There are asked to build their persistence, patience, stick-to-itiveness, determination, or time and money management muscles. But all these are easier said than done. You could help people turn their areas of productivity-weaknesses into strengths by applying habits and systems. There’s perennial demand for productivity-related pain-points.
- Support: If you listen hard to conversations on social media or forums in your niche, you will invariably hear some target audiences lamenting about the lack of support in your niche. We live in an age of technology, which is fickle at best. Glitches will occur. So complaints are always aplenty. This could be your opportunity for building useful self-help courses, if your niche is filled with competitors who like to act blind or deaf to support-issues.
By no means are all these the only kinds of pain-points people have. There could be more, but for starters, I wanted to give you some classic areas to look into. In general, the more you listen to people you want to serve, the more nuanced problems you’ll come across, which you can solve through differentiated and effective courses.
5. Decide on a course flow with a basic 4-step problem-solution structure: if you’re sure of your course outline, the topic precision is easier
There are some formulae that work very well to keep your course within its scope, and yet create an impression that you are delivering more than expected to help your reader. Let’s see what these are:
If you’re planning a course that promises to solve a customer pain-point or problem, here’s a formula that works every time:
- Why do you have this problem?
- What solution options do you have?
- What can go wrong with the solution and how can you fix it?
- What can you do to 10X your solution?
Let’s take an example. If you’re planning a course that promises an explanation of some new trends or technology, here’s a fail-safe formula:
- What is the new trend or technology and what does it mean for your business?
- In how many ways can you use the new trends or technology to your advantage?
- What are the pros and cons and challenges of adopting the new technology?
- How do your budget for its inclusion in your business? How do you monitor if it’s working for you?
Let’s take another example. If you’re planning a course that promises a sequence of steps to achieve some key tasks, here’s a surefire formula:
- Say why the task is important to gain revenue or save money, and explain in what way
- List the tasks one by one and explain the process to be followed in each step (with diagrams if needed)
- Explain where shortcutting is possible, and where it is not advisable
- Explain how the reader can create a habit or system out of the steps so they can be incorporated smoothly into his workflows.
Notice how we have very simply outlined just a four-step formula for all these examples. The simpler this structure is, the easier to keep it in mind while researching for your course topic and material. Set some red lines for your course, and don’t meander out of those specific areas.
6. When researching your potential course topic, keep your 4-step solution approach in mind: your research will be on focus
You will be gathering a whole truckload of information nuggets as you research several sources of content for your online course. You will, no doubt, need a place to keep all the topic ideas you collect, to later sort them. A great tool to use at this stage would be a mindmap.
What are mindmaps and how are they to be used? According to SimpleMind, the tool I like to use, “A mind map is a tool for the brain that captures the thinking that goes on inside your head. Mind mapping helps you think, collect knowledge, remember, and create ideas. Most likely it will make you a better thinker.”
A mindmap looks somewhat like the diagram shown below.
Image courtesy: Iris
As you gather topic ideas, you branch out from the center of niche into topic branches that fit our 4-step framework. You can put the topic ideas and content ideas you keep collecting under any branch where they seem to fit. You also keep adding sub-branches if new topics you come across require such finessing.
The idea of collecting information around the 4-step approach is to see that you don’t get sidetracked from your course focus. Research has a habit of taking you into places that seem interesting, but could be superfluous to your goal.
Don’t stop to sort it all out perfectly as you gather ideas together. Your goal should be to make your mindmap a kind of repository for all the topic and content ideas you collect, putting it all into some kind of quick-and-easy framework logic that feeds the four-step course format.
After you are through with gathering all the information you’d like to use in your course, you can then worry about sorting the mindmap. For now, see that all the points you collect are given a home on the mindmap wherever you instinctively feel they best fit.
Tools like SimpleMind allow easy drag-and-drop manipulation of the mindmap, after you’re through with initial collection of information, so don’t get over-concerned about how you will do all the sorting.
7. Research the competition to see how thinly or richly they have covered the topic you have in mind: evaluate them from the outside and inside
It goes without saying that if you want to choose a course topic that gets more attention, interest, and sales, you must assess the competition. Since courses have become very popular as passive-earning opportunities, you have courses on almost every topic, some of real value and some worthless.
To research and evaluate your competition, to see how you can offer a better and more valuable course, there are two ways:
Research your competition from the outside
Without actually enrolling for a competitor’s course it’s possible to analyze all of these areas to see where you have an opportunity to score with your course topic …
- Look at the coherence between the competitor’s topic versus his course content or curriculum. Is there a match?
- Look at the balance between strategic concept teaching and practically useful action tutorial content in the competitor’s topic.
- Look at the competitor’s pricing strategy vis à vis his content depth and breadth – and most importantly his content innovation.
- Look at the competitor’s course promotion strategy especially how he sells his topic and its benefits on his course landing page
- Look at the competitor’s student profile … you can see who he is targeting by the marketing and sales language he uses.
Research your competition from the inside
It’s also a great idea to actually enroll for a competitor’s course that is most similar to the one you want to create. Most course creators offer a money-back guarantee if you cancel your studentship within a certain time frame. Use that to pay for and check out a competitor course and then check out of the program while you can still get a refund. That should be enough time to look at the course from the inside. Here’s what you should evaluate about the competitor’s topic choice from the inside …
- Look at the competitor’s topic as if you were a beginner to the course topic. Does the competitor have a way to onboard people who are totally new to the concept?
- Look at the competitor’s topic as if you were an advanced learner to the course topic. Is there enough meat in the course for advanced students or is the topic treated in a too-basic and superficial way?
- Look at the competitor’s teaching style for the topic chosen. Does the topic seem to call for more demonstration or are the course modules just “glorified PowerPoint presentations”?
- Look at the competitor’s course addons like support study material. Is there something among the addons that can enhance the taught portion of the module – like worksheets, templates, or other useful toolkits? Does the topic get enriched by these?
- Look at the competitor’s student community building strategies. Does the course have a student-only discussion forum or a private Facebook Group? Does the community find a lot to discuss on the topic chosen for the course? Does the topic encourage greater student engagement?
After some competitive research you may find many competitors may have new ideas on the topic you too have thought of. Sometimes, they may be executing the topic poorly. The idea is to locate the best ideas and see the real potential in your chosen topic to engender the 3 E’s that any course must offer – education, entertainment, and experience.
8. Research the target audiences to check their expectations of a course on the topic you have in mind: what do they expect to get or not get
There is an oft-repeated axiom in content marketing that before you build your products, you must build your audiences … so that these audiences can tell you what products they want from you. The same goes for course-creation.
How much easier would it be if your audiences can tell you their topic preferences, rather than you having to make offers of topics without knowing their demands? And how much easier would it be if audiences could also tell you their expectations of a course topic, without your having to second guess them?
If you too would like to do less guesswork on course topics and get more intelligence on audience expectations, there are three surefire ways to build an audience community that can show you what exactly they want from your course topic.
Build a Minimum Viable Audience (MVA) in your email subscribers list – or do a JV with other marketers who have big lists
Marketers of courses often talk of consumer research being worthless unless you have Minimum Viable Audience or MVA. What this generally means is that unless you have a big enough group of target audiences to research, you will only get superficial insights into their trends of interest, but you cannot mine deep details of their expectations. The viability we look for here is the viability of an idea for a course topic, where enough people ratify a certain set of common expectations. This gives you a fair idea of how the wider target market expectations may be.
If you already have a fairly large mailing list (say, of 1000 people) you could get ideas by asking them what their expectations of your intended course topic would be. You’d get a collective idea of beginners and advanced students and their common and divergent expectations.
If you don’t have your own mailing list that’s substantial, you can do the next best thing. Do a joint venture with another marketer who has a big enough group of target audiences similar to your own, and pay the marketer a fee to survey his subscribers.
Build a free Facebook Group or a LinkedIn Group where you can gauge “typical target audience expectations” of topics and content for courses
Sometimes, it’s a lot easier to build a free community on a social channel – like a Facebook or LinkedIn group. If you can do this and gain at least 500-1000 members, you can bounce your course topic idea off them to see what their expectations of the topic would be.
One marketer I know did just this – and thereafter made his Facebook Group feel like they were co-creators of the course he had in mind. He would constantly give them updates of his course development on the topic and content they all supported. He would use language like, “Folks, our course now has included the ideas that Sally and Jaime gave us. In the next module, I am thinking we could include the content suggestions we got from Merlyn, Gerald, and Paige. What say? Thanks to all for the richness you’re all helping to add to the course topic!”
I needn’t tell you that by the time the course was created it had been shaped by the expectations of the Facebook Group, and many of the idea-givers enrolled in the course too. After all, it was their collective baby!
Read all the reviews of competitor courses done by bloggers and affiliate sellers, to see how they have compared courses of the same topic
Reviews are especially interesting because when people are forced to compare two or more similar courses, we get a good glimpse about what they see as shortfalls or unexpected good extras. Normally, it’s hard to gauge expectations on course topics unless you have something to compare with it.
If there are not enough reviews of competitor courses, a good idea would be to send outreach letters to say, 100 people who may be in your likely target audience and say you are collecting their opinions for a roundup post you are planning, comparing the top four courses on “XYZ” topic. People would love to contribute if they get a link back from your roundup post, and you’ll win big if the opinions you get harvest some crucial points of expectation that these people express as their opinions of the courses you’ve asked them about.
9. Validate your idea on potential demand for your chosen course topic: there are smart ways to validate demand using a lead magnet idea
To see if there is genuinely a sizeable demand for your intended course topic, you can find out by using “lead magnets”. Lead magnets are free downloadable content – like ebooks, for instance – that attract people to subscribe to your email list. People will be allowed to download the free lead magnet if they give you their email addresses in return.
If you have a course topic in mind, you can use lead magnets that address the same topic as your course. The idea is to create a small ebook on the same topic as your course, to gauge popular interest in that content. Of course, such lead magnets will also help you collect the email addresses of interested target audiences, whom you can write to when your course on the same topic is ready.
You can promote this lead magnet at various places on your site. Create a Call-To-Action (CTA) message you can place below all your blog posts. Or promote the lead magnet via your website’s sidebar. Pop-ups are another great way to help people focus on the lead magnet as they read other content on your site.
You can also make social updates for all the social media channels promoting the lead magnet. If you don’t mind spending a bit of money before creating a course, you could run a few ads on social media to promote this lead magnet. See if for a while you can maximize the visibility of the lead magnet to see if it is a topic that many people will like to take with them free of cost. If you get a lot of subscribers in return for the free lead magnet on your intended course topic, you’ve done a good job so far. But you still have to see if people will show the same healthy interest if the topic were extended to a paid course … you won’t know that till your course is ready and has a price tag on it.
10. Validate your idea on potential profitability for your chosen course topic: remember to cover every cost you incur, including your own time
Whenever you need to validate the profitability of a course follow this formula for sure. Tot up all your costs. Then make an assumption of how many buyers you may get within a certain time frame. Set a price per customer. And finally, see if your potential for earnings exceeds your costs, and by how much. That’s your profit.
There are three areas where people make mistakes in calculating potential profitability that they rue later. See if you can avoid these errors:
Setting a price for your course without any comparison reference point
How do you set a price for your course? That depends on the topic you have chosen and the market demand for that topic. One place to check on price ranges that sell is to look at your competitors. Another way to price would to assume that each module of your course is at least worth as much as an ebook on the same topic. So if you have, say, 12 modules of a course, you may look at the price of the course at least being a little less than the aggregate of the prices of 12 ebooks.
A third and more smart way to price a course would be to see what gain the customer may get in his earnings or savings after taking your course. For example, let’s say your course topic is about fitness exercises you can do at home, that can replace going to a gym. If your course makes a proposition that in 6 months a person who is regular with these exercises can lose up to 15 kilos of weight on average, you could set the price at attractively less than 6 months of gym fees. In this case, since the topic of your course is comparable to gym costs, both you and the customer have a reference point against which to evaluate the reasonableness of the price.
Setting a price without giving the customer a reference point for comparison is often dicey, because a customer who is unable to gauge the reasonableness of the pricing will not be quite ready to buy.
Setting a demand estimation that is overly ambitious
The second factor in validating the potential profitability of a course topic is to look at the likely demand for the topic. Two good places to get some accurate assessment of likely demand are Udemy and Amazon. Udemy sells courses that are low-priced, but even so, their bestseller courses on a topic can show you the likely demand at their prices. So too, in Amazon, bestseller ebooks on your topic can show you an approximate idea of the demand for the topic. But obviously, you may not want to price as low as Udemy does for a course. If your prices are higher, your demand estimates should be lowered pro-rata.
You’ll never really get an accurate demand estimate, ever, but you can try to get as close to an ideal estimate as possible. Do remember to factor in seasonal demand fluctuations. A course on Christmas Cookery will surely boom in demand at year-end, but probably not be extraordinary for the rest of the year.
There’s one thumb rule for demand estimation: when in doubt, halve the count. If your mind is imagining that your course topic will attract at least 25 people as it opens, instantly pare the number down to 10-12 probable customers. The more of an optimist and ambitious person you are the lesser should be the demand estimate you settle at.
Setting a cost estimation that doesn’t include everything you spend
When totting up your costs of production of the course, it’s possible that you may remember to include every external cost you incur, but forget to cost your own time and effort. This is a very common mistake most entrepreneurs make. They seem not to value their own inputs and only see those items they have to pay out for as costs.
You’ll never have a profitable course if you always leave yourself out of the cost factoring. In fact, even if you’re not profitable on the course yet, you’ll at least see some money if you count yourself as one of the costs to be paid in cash.
So What Are Your Thoughts? Do Share!
This post is incomplete without your input. The community of Knowledge Commerce solopreneurs would feel galvanized to hear from you … so do share your thoughts on this topic with us, in the comments field below this post.
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- How To Create A Sales Funnel For Your Online Course … 10 Step Cycle
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