How I Build (and Sell) Online Courses | Part 2: Choosing a Great Course Idea

The foundation of any successful course is a great idea.

Build your course on a great idea and you can screw up everything from marketing and design to pricing and audio quality and still have a successful course.

On the other hand, you can record with the best camera, have the slickest landing page, and sell to an audience of hundreds of thousands of people, but if the idea is a dud, the course will be too.

So, how do you know if you have a great idea for your course?

Well, I’m not sure you can know for sure until you actually build it and get students into it.

But over the years, I’ve trial and errored my way into a little system that’s been pretty successful at helping me generate great ideas for courses and—just as importantly—filter out bad ideas.

In short, I think there are four basic elements that go into a great course idea:

  1. Expertise. Is this something I have a high level of expertise, experience, and useful knowledge about?
  2. Excitement. Am I genuinely excited about this idea—and have I been for a while?
  3. Demand. Are people really willing to buy a course on this topic?
  4. Differentiation. Do I have a novel, distinctive, or unusual approach to this idea?

In the rest of this post, I’ll walk through each of these in more detail using my new course on procrastination, Finding Focus, as an example.

1. Expertise

Is the idea for my course something I have a high level of expertise, experience, and useful knowledge about?

You don’t need to be the world’s foremost expert on a topic to teach a good course on it. But you do need some real expertise if potential students are going to feel confident investing both their money and time into a course on the topic.

Your expertise could be formal. For example, I spent 6 years in grad school studying anxiety and another 6 years in private practice working with individuals to overcome anxiety. So when I set out to create my previous course on chronic worry and anxiety, Creating Calm, this was easy to check off.

But for my current course on procrastination, this wasn’t something I have a lot of formal expertise in. I didn’t write a dissertation on it or study it much in grad school, for instance.

However, as a psychologist, I do have a lot of expertise in human psychology, which is, of course, a big part of procrastination. And procrastination came up quite a bit in my work with clients, so I spent a lot of time researching what we know about it, what sorts of things have been proven to be effective, different philosophies on it, etc. What’s more, I’ve spent the last 7 years writing about procrastination and motivation in many of my articles, so I have a fair amount of authority and expertise built up with my audience specifically.

In short, you do need real expertise but that expertise probably doesn’t need to be formal.

What matters is that potential students trust that you can help them. And some form of expertise is critical for that trust.

2. Excitement

Am I genuinely excited about this idea—and have I been for a while?

Genuine excitement about your course idea is critical because creating a course is a lot of work (not to mention marketing, selling, and maintaining it!) And if you’re going to successfully do it, you need the intrinsic motivation that comes from genuine excitement about a topic.

The key distinction here, though, is that you need sustained excitement about your course idea.

Excitement is cheap; sustained excitement is rare.

We all get intense but short-lived bursts of excitement about all sorts of topics and ideas, many of which might seem like THE PERFECT IDEA for a course. But if you decide to make a course based on how excited you’ve been about a topic for the last week and a half, you run a serious risk of investing many, many hours of time, energy, and money into a course project only to realize you actually weren’t that excited about it and then abandoning it and wasting that time and energy.

Last fall, a month or so after launching my previous course, I was brainstorming ideas for my next course and had a handful of ideas that pretty easily passed the expertise filter:

  • Emotion-focused communication
  • Insomnia
  • Procrastination
  • Emotional fitness mini-course
  • Atypical grief
  • Values work
  • Self-awareness

But as I thought about them through the lens of sustained excitement, a few dropped off the list…

  • Emotional fitness is a topic I’m excited about generally, but I already cover a lot of it in my Mood Mastery course. So even though I know there’s a lot of demand for a briefer course on this topic, right now I’m not very excited about doing another course on it.
  • Atypical grief is something I’ve become very interested in but only recently. And while I think I have the expertise and a pretty unique angle on the topic, it’s still too new to know if my excitement is sustainable. Maybe in a year or two 🙂
  • I have a lot of expertise helping people improve their self-awareness. And it’s something I get asked about frequently. But to be honest, I’m a little burnt out on this topic and kind of bored by it at the moment.

So, after passing my list through the sustained excitement filter, I was left with four options:

  • Emotion-focused communication
  • Insomnia
  • Procrastination
  • Values work

Now that my list was narrowed, I moved on to my third element…

3. Demand

Are people really willing to buy a course on this topic?

As a subject matter expert, it’s not hard for you to see the value in a lot of the topics you understand well. Unfortunately, when you’re selling a product or service like a course, your potential students have to see the value in it too. And realistically, they have to feel the value as well. It’s got to resonate emotionally, not just intellectually, if they’re going to invest in it.

Now, part of good marketing and sales is helping to educate your prospective students about why a course on topic X is valuable to them. So, your prospective students don’t have to be so excited that they’re banging down your virtual door to get your course; you can help get them there. But doing so is a lot of work. And chances are, if you’re anything like me, you’re not a trained marketer and don’t have a massive budget to hire one for your course project.

This means you probably want to choose an idea where you already have evidence that people want to purchase something related to it.

In my case, I get emails from readers every day saying they really need help with communication and procrastination—a strong signal of high demand. Also, if I look out at the broader marketplace for solutions on these topics, there are a lot of other products. This competition is a good sign that demand is high. Just search Amazon for procrastination or communication and you’ll see right away that these are high-demand subjects.

On the other hand, values work… not so much. While it’s a hugely important topic, most people aren’t familiar with what it is and how it could be beneficial. And because I don’t want to spend a ton of time on sales and marketing—I’m a creator, so I want to spend as much time as possible creating and teaching, not marketing and selling—for now I’ve ruled that topic out.

4. Differentiation

Do I have a novel, distinctive, or unusual approach to this idea?

Differentiation is your unique angle on your course idea or topic. This is crucial because, unless you are literally the only person in the world teaching about your topic, your students need a compelling reason to choose your solution over others. On the other hand, you can teach about a super popular broad topic that has thousands of other experts and teachers, and as long as your angle is unique—as long as your course is differentiated—you can still sell it effectively.

So, what is differentiation, exactly?

In my experience, there are three main ways you can differentiate a product like an online course:

  1. Content. While your topic might be common, if the what of your course is uncommon (that is, the content inside it), that’s a differentiator. For example, for my upcoming course, I chose a super popular and broad topic—procrastination. However, one of the ways I’m differentiating myself is by ignoring 99% of the typical advice and content you see around procrastination designing the curriculum around how to take a “values-based approach” to overcoming procrastination. So, many of the lessons and exercises in the course are going to be totally unexpected and different relative to the usual stuff of procrastination advice.
  2. Methodology. In addition to your content and the what of your course, you can also use the how of your course to differentiate. That is, the way you go about teaching the course—from your teaching style to the format of the course—can be unique and help set you apart. In my case, something I’m doing differently in terms of methodology is making my course extremely short. Most self-paced video courses take hours and hours to complete because they’re structured to be comprehensive. For this course, I’m choosing to focus in very tightly on a few core ideas and exercises so that students can get through the course very quickly (under two hours is my goal). This will no doubt be a turn off to some people who want a comprehensive course. But it will be really appealing to another segment of people who want something tight and focused.
  3. Personality. We all have different personalities, and as a result, certain people are going to resonate more or less with the way we think about and approach teaching a particular topic. For example, two big parts of my personality are that I’m A) pretty direct and blunt, which is unusual in the world of emotional health and wellbeing, and B) friendly and positive, which helps people feel less intimidated by the topics I teach. The key here is that I’ve identified parts of my personality that are strengths as a teacher and leaned into them when designing and marketing my courses, which gives even more uniqueness and differentiation to the course.

In my case, after going through the first 3 elements, I was left with a few course ideas:

  • Emotion-focused communication
  • Insomnia
  • Procrastination
  • Values work

But after considering the differentiation element, I realized that instead of doing a whole course on values work generically (which would have been hard to sell since most people don’t know what it is) I could use values work as a way to teach a more specific approach to procrastination. This would also let me teach a shorter, more focused course (appropriate given the title 🙂

That idea got me so excited that I decided on the spot to save emotion-focused communication and insomnia for future courses and go with a course on procrastination with a values-based approach.

Let’s Review

If you’re looking for a great course idea or topic, there are four basic elements you should consider:

  1. Expertise. Is this something I have a high level of expertise, experience, and useful knowledge about?
  2. Excitement. Am I genuinely excited about this idea—and have I been for a while?
  3. Demand. Are people really willing to buy a course on this topic?
  4. Differentiation. Do I have a novel, distinctive, or unusual approach to this idea?

Start by brainstorming. List of any and every idea for a course you can think of. Then, work your way through these elements and use them like filters to knock ideas off the list. Hopefully, you’ll come out the other side with at least a couple ideas, which means you’re taken the first important step in creating (and selling!) a great course.

Stay tuned next week for Part 3: How to Structure Your Course

Missed any of my previous entries?

You can find all the posts in my How I Build (and Sell) Online Courses series here:

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