Ian Brodie is the best-selling author of Email Persuasion and creator of Unsnooze Your Inbox - *the* guide to crafting engaging emails and newsletters that captivate your audience, build authority and generate more sales.
We were talking about how to pick the best topic for your online course and Alexis made one of those points that seems so obviously right in hindsight that you wish you'd come up with it yourself!
Most advice on picking your topic is a variation on the theme of picking a big problem your clients typically have. Ideally an urgent one with significant financial impact they'd be willing to pay to get rid of.
But what Alexis pointed out was that for an online course, the problem also has to be one they can fix themselves.
If you think about the work you do with clients there are some problems where, once they know what the issue is, you can just say “go do this”. Those sorts of problems are good topics for online courses.
But there are other problems where you need to delve deeper with a client to diagnose things. Or give them regular feedback to help them course-correct. Or where they may need lots of personal support and motivation.
Those aren't such good areas for online courses.
Now obviously some online courses include an element of group coaching too, or the occasional one-to-one call. So the rule isn't a hard and fast one.
But generally speaking it's a very good criteria to use. Just ask yourself “if I told my client what to do in this area, would they be able to just get on with it and get great results by themselves?”.
A final way of getting a “wow” from your audience for your course is pinpoint precision.
In other words if they see your course as the absolute perfect fit for their very specific problem. The final piece in the jigsaw.
Here's the thing though. Every would-be marketing guru will repeat the standard advice that you need an ultra-specific niche. “An inch wide and a mile deep” is the mantra.
You want to be the perfect solution for someone, not the second best for everyone. But your common sense also tells you if you go too narrow you shrink your market.
In the real world you need to do both. You have to maximise the benefits of narrowing down but avoid reaching the point where you stop benefitting from it.
How do you find that point? Ask yourself 3 questions:
By focusing on this specific area, will customers feel the course will be better for them? Are there specific problems and challenges they face in this area that the course can focus on?
For example, my guess is that lawyers would feel that because of their client relationships and legal restrictions, a marketing course for lawyers will be more useful to them than a more general one. On the other hand they probably wouldn't see any particular value in a course on Excel skills for lawyers.
By focusing on this specific area, will it reduce the amount of work you have to do creating or marketing the course?
For example, a course on marketing for corporate lawyers could focus on relationship building with senior executives rather than on more general broad brush marketing and advertising – giving a major reduction in the amount of training material needed. And by marketing the course only to law firms with significant corporate law practices you can use more direct, high value approaches and avoid wasting time and money on more general marketing.
Do the increased attractiveness of the course and decreased amount of work needed to create it outweigh any reduction in market size?
You have to think realistically here. If, for example, you do hybrid courses with a significant live component then you'll have limited capacity. So a decrease in potential market size from a million to half a million won't make any difference to you as both are exponentially bigger than you need. On the other hand, if you do low-cost self service courses then a big reduction in market size for a small increase in the attractiveness of the course might not be worth it.
At the end of the day, it's a judgement call and relies on your knowledge of your customers and course. But asking yourself those three questions means you'll be making an informed decision, not just picking a focus for your course because you hope everyone will buy it or just following generic advice to narrow down.
And the thought process you go through to make that decision will also help you make a better course.
The second way of getting a “wow” from your audience when you announce your course is to make a brand new promise.
And obviously, it needs to be incredibly attractive promise to them to get that “wow”.
Now the reality is that today, all the big promises have been made.
Get rich, lose weight, meet your ideal partner, get more clients.
No one is going to go “wow” if you just repeat one of these old, worn-out promises unless they've been living under a rock for the last few decades.
So there needs to be a (truthful) twist on the promise.
One way to do that is with a “without clause”.
That's where you enhance the promise by removing something they don't want that normally comes with it.
Lose weight without diets. More clients without endless posting on social media.
It has to be true of course. You have to be able to deliver on that promise.
But if you can it can be very powerful…
…provided they've not heard the exact same promise before.
In some markets a simple “without clause” will sound brand new. In others – like marketing for example – it's probably already been done countless times.
Getting more clients even if you hate marketing, if you have no time, if you're an introvert…all done many times before.
So it's trickier in mature markets. But not impossible.
I've been around the block more than a few times, but Jon Buchan's big promise of teaching you to write cold emails so engaging and charming that people would enjoy and appreciate getting them was new to me. And I did indeed go “wow” and buy the course.
Another way of getting a wow from your promise is to pick a smaller but highly unusual promise.
I bought a course a while back on being 10x more productive with my writing.
That's not a big end-result promise like more clients. But in a mature market where there are lots of people who know that being 10x more productive with their writing will bring them big results, it works.
Another course I bought recently was on running mini-workshops. The promise was to teach you how to set up and sell a lot of places on low-cost live online workshops which would eventually lead to more high value clients.
It was an unusual offer I'd not seen before and to convince me to buy they needed to convince me that mini workshops would be easier to sell than something high ticket…but could lead fairly quickly to those mini workshop attendees buying something bigger.
That's the trick with a smaller but highly unusual promise. By definition it's something no one else is offering. But to get a wow you need to show people how it can give them something big in terms of end results.
That sudden “hang on, I've never considered this before but blimey, this could absolutely get me what I want” realisation is amazingly powerful and a big driver of sales.
It needs you to think through “what can I promise that's different, but that leads to a big result (and that I can prove leads to that result)”.
It needs a bit of creativity. But it can really pay off.
I said last time that one way to get your potential customers excited at the prospect of buying your course is if it's delivered by someone who gets them to think “Wow! I'd really like to learn from them”.
You don't have to be famous to get this wow effect. You don't even need to have built up a relationship with them for years like the example of Steve Folland I shared last time.
What matters is that they believe you have unique insights that will help them, and they feel they know you and like you.
A great way to do that is to consistently add value over time in emails like this or a podcast show like Steve's.
But you can accelerate the process too.
You have to draw a balance between adding lots of value and building a relationship fast with the people who are ready, and overwhelming the people who aren't. But thanks to a bit of tech cleverness it's all doable.
For example, on the “thank you” page people get to after they sign up for your emails you can offer them a one-click signup for an upcoming webinar or a series of videos.
In that webinar or video series they can see and hear you which accelerates your relationship. And if you pack it with some of your best and most surprising insights it'll build your credibility fast too.
And since they have to click a button to sign up for it, only the people who are ready will get it and you won't overwhelm the people who aren't.
You can do the same with your early emails after someone signs up.
I always send more frequent emails after someone has just signed up under the logic that the reason they signed up was because they're actively interested right now. So it's unlikely you'll be overwhelming them.
But you can take it one step further. If you have a lot of ideas to share in one area, put a link at the bottom of the email which they can click to get more content. And ideally make that content video based so they can see and hear you to build your relationship faster (though a comprehensive article can work too).
Just to clarify: I'm not saying the only thing in your email is the link.
I'm saying put in a great tip or idea like normal (for your typical subscriber) and then have a link to bonus content for those that are especially interested.
Again, it means that those who aren't ready right now don't get overwhelmed, but those who are ready can get more and build a relationship with you faster.
That way you can become that “wow person” in weeks or even days (for some of your subscribers) rather than months or years.
If you want people who aren't actively searching to buy your course you need something that makes them sit up and take notice. A “wow” factor.
I've found there are three big ways to get that “wow”.
The first is the person delivering the course.
Most people aren't going to get excited by the prospect of yet another course on cookery or photography. But Gordon Ramsay's first ever course? Or Annie Leibovitz? That's different.
You don't have to be world famous for this to work either. Just famous in your little corner of the world.
I've just interviewed Steve Folland for Course Builders TV, for example. Last year he launched a course for people just starting out as freelancers.
Why did people buy his course? Primarily because his Being Freelance podcast has been running for nearly a decade. To them, hearing that the OG of freelancing was putting out a course was a “wow, I must have it” moment.
The second way of getting a “wow” is a brand new promise.
All the big promises have already been made of course. Get rich. Save money. Get productive. Get fit. Lose weight. Find love.
So brand new promises are usually exciting new ways of achieving those big goals.
Years ago I bought a course on cold emailing from Jon Buchan of the Charm Offensive. The promise behind the course was learning to write cold emails so engaging and charming that people would enjoy and appreciate getting them.
Now I don't do cold email or cold calling or anything like that. But I bought the course.
For me, the skill of writing so engagingly that people who weren't expecting your email would enjoy and appreciate it was a “wow, I must have it” moment.
The third way of getting a “wow” is pinpoint precision.
If your course promises to do something for people that they believe is their specific, almost unique problem then hearing your course exists can generate a “wow, this is perfect for me” moment.
For years Mark Dawson has run a very successful course on Facebook Ads for fiction authors.
Part of the success, no doubt, is that Mark is a very successful author himself, so it has a bit of the person wow factor.
But a large part of is is because it was the first course of its type specifically targeted at fiction authors.
Before that, almost all Facebook ads courses were either generic or focused on ecommerce or online marketing or business type products.
This was the first course that fiction authors could look at and think “wow, this is perfect for me” and not worry that the techniques taught wouldn't work for their type of business.
Precision doesn't have to be for a type of business either. It could be a very specific problem. Or a goal for people with a specific roadblock (sales techniques for introverts, for example).
Of course, pinpoint precision means a smaller potential market.
But it's much, much better to have a small market that thinks your course is perfect for them than it is to have a huge market that thinks it's no different to anyone else's.
And you'd be surprised at just how big the market of fiction authors wanting to sell through Facebook ads is, or the number of introverts who need to sell.
There are other ways of getting a “wow” too, if you get creative. I was wowed by the first video product launch I saw. And the first cohort-based course. And great production values and little different twists always impress me.
But the easiest ways of getting a wow are though who you are, the new promise you make, or the precision of your offer.
I've been doing a little audit of courses I've bought over the years to try to identify what persuaded me to buy them.
And that forensic-type audit is really necessary. In many cases my recollection of how I'd come to buy something was very different to what the email trail showed had actually happened.
What it revealed was three common factors behind almost every course purchase I'd made. I suspect these three factors will be common to your customers too.
Firstly, and obviously, the course was in an area that was important to me.
Not necessarily something I was actively looking to fix at the time. In fact in most cases not.
But somewhere where, when the opportunity came up, I looked at it and immediately thought “yes, that would be really helpful”.
Secondly and also obviously, the course was being offered by someone who'd built up enough trust with me that I was willing to risk my time and money on them.
At minimum, I trusted their content enough that I was paying enough attention to their emails to notice the course being offered.
More usually they'd reached a position with me where when I saw their course being offered I thought “yeah, I think they know what they're talking about and I feel good enough about them to trust them with my money and my time to go through this course”.
But here's the thing. There are lots of people who offer courses in areas that are important to me and who I trust enough to buy from – but I don't.
They're necessary conditions, but they're not enough.
What makes the difference for me, what gets me to buy from one person but not from another, is a “sit up and take notice offer”.
A wow offer.
Typically that means the course is offering something I've not seen before. A new way of thinking. A new method or technique. Something that almost literally takes my breath away with excitement when I first see it.
And usually there's some kind of associated urgency too. It's the pilot of a course, it's on special offer, it's a once-every-quarter thing.
For example, over a decade ago I stumbled across the initial release of a course that taught you how to write story-based email sequences based on techniques they use for TV series.
Many of the things I learnt are commonplace now, but back then my instant reaction was “wooah – I've not seen anything like this before – this could really work – I have to have it”.
More recently I bought a course on running mini-workshops to reach lots of people at low cost, rather than the “high ticket” stuff that's so prevalent these days. Again, a different approach I'd not seen before.
When you buy a course that you've been offered (rather than one that you've searched for based on a specific and immediate need) you really need that wow factor. That rush of excitement that comes from seeing the possibilities of something new.
Does your course pass that test?
If you emailed out an offer to 100 people right now, how many would say “wooah – I've got to get that”?
Getting that wow factor into your offer is hard. Of course it is.
But if you can get it, it makes a massive difference.
I hope to explore some different ways you can get that wow factor into your courses in the next few emails.
Us marketing people tend to bandy about platitudes like “people need to trust you before they buy from you” without really digging into what they actually mean.
Of course people need to trust you before buying from you. Duh.
But what kind of trust? Trust is complex and multi-faceted.
I trust my Mum to love me and think in my best interests. But I wouldn't trust her to fix my computer if it was broken.
When it comes to buying online courses there are a few different levels of trust involved. One of them you might not normally think of.
Obviously, people need to trust you're not going to take their money and rip them off. That goes without saying and I would expect everyone reading this has the sort of business that's already established that kind of trust.
But with online courses, it needs to go deeper.
Courses are complex. It's really difficult to tell from a course description if the course is quite right for you. Especially if the marketing focuses only on the benefits you'll get from it and not the nitty gritty details of the course.
Is it at the right level or is it too advanced or not advanced enough? Does it cover tactics you have the skill or desire to learn? Will it work for your particular type of business?
Because of that uncertainty, I'd want to know if the people providing the course “played nice” with buyers.
In other words, if you bought the course and discovered it wasn't a good fit would it be easy to get your money back? Or would you have to go through all sorts of “did you complete all the exercises, can you prove you actually implemented what we taught” kind of nonsense.
For many courses I'd also want to know that the seller would go the extra mile to make sure I succeeded with the course.
Maybe it's just me, but I find that when I take a course my situation often doesn't quite fit with the examples being taught and I need to ask questions to apply the knowledge to me specifically.
Will my questions go unanswered? Will I end up getting feedback from someone employed by the course creator who can parrot back the party line but isn't expert enough to tweak the advice for unusual situations.
Or will the expert themselves give me the best of their thinking to help?
These are all questions of trust.
They're all things that can't really be quantified or controlled by contract or service level or known for certain in advance.
They're about whether you trust the course provider will be looking out for you. When the need arises, will they go the extra mile to help?
Of course, we don't analyse that stuff rationally before taking a decision to buy. We just get a good feeling about them and it makes it easy to buy.
Or we don't get a good feeling and we hesitate.
What gives us those good or bad feelings?
It's all the interactions we've had with that person before. Either in real life or more likely with online courses, from our online interactions.
Do they come across as a nice person in their emails? If we message them, do they take the time to answer and try to help us?
The impression you give about what sort of person you are is often as important as the “value” you give in your emails.
And that's where the final, more surprising role of trust comes in.
Because you only get to make a good impression on someone if they're actually paying attention to you. If they actually open and read your emails (or your social posts or whatever way you communicate with them).
That final level of trust is “do they trust you to always send them useful, interesting communications?”
If so, you get the chance to build the other levels of trust you need.
If not, it's game over.
If your messages appear in their inbox but they don't trust they'll get something useful from them, they'll stay unopened. And you'll never build that deeper trust needed for them to be ready to buy.
I've found there's often a big difference between why people think they buy courses and why they *really* buy.
And also in how they buy them.
It's really helpful to understand the difference – otherwise you can truly mess up your marketing.
Unfortunately, if you ask people how and why they buy, they usually tell you what they think happens rather than what actually happens.
So often a better source is to be more forensic about it. Look at the last few course purchases you or they actually made and track what happened.
You'll find there's often a big difference between your real experience for that specific course and what you imagine happens when you think more generically.
In my case for example, if you asked me how and why I buy courses I'd say that when I have a need for a course I'll go out and search for the best course available on that topic. I'll do pretty thorough research and weigh up which one I think will get me the best results, will be a good fit for me personally, and is from people who seem trustworthy.
Is that what actually happens in practice?
Yes. Maybe 5% of the time.
But when I look back at the courses I've actually bought in the last few years the vast majority of them didn't happen that way.
What happened far more often is that I got notified of a new course becoming available by someone I follow.
Usually that was because I subscribe to their emails. Occasionally it was through going to their website and very rarely because of something they posted on social media.
Now if I'm subscribed to their emails or regularly visit their website it implies I'm already interested in their area of expertise and already trust them.
And it means I rarely do a thorough search for alternatives.
Mostly I'll just check out the details of the course to see what I'd be getting, think about whether it would be useful for me, whether it's in line with what I'm aiming to focus on in the next few months, and whether I'll have the capacity to do the course.
This idea that I do a thorough search triggered by a need is a bit of a fantasy really.
I probably think I do it that way because when I do I'm actively concentrating on the process.
When I normally buy – the more reactive way – I'm not concentrating on the process so deeply or for a very long time. So I don't remember it so much.
Anyway, the important point here is that if my customers are anything like me (and my experience is they are), then they too will usually buy courses in that more reactive way.
It means that my marketing should be more focused on building a following of people interested in my area of expertise and who trust me – and then offering them something fairly unique on a regular basis.
Of course, if it turns out that your customers really buy through a more thorough search process then you need to gear up your marketing to be easily found in a search for a common need and to score well in a comparison against similar courses.
But my feeling is that for most of us, our best route is to build a following and make unique offers.
Reuven mentioned in the interview that he does an email newsletter for corporate trainers so I signed up (in all honesty, more out of politeness than anything since I don't really do courses for corporates any more).
Well, it turns out that Reuven's newsletter is excellent. Very thoughtful and full of experience-based tips on marketing and running live courses for corporates. But also lots of stuff that's very applicable to online courses too.
In this week's issue Reuven talked about how, over the years, he's learned to reduce the amount of content he teaches in his courses to get better results for his students.
Previously he was cramming them with material in order to make them as “valuable” as possible. But the effect was that his students didn't have the time to properly take on what he was teaching.
By reducing the amount of content he taught he was able to add more exercises and Q&A so that students learned what he was teaching much more deeply.
The end result was that they learned more and gave better feedback on his courses. While he had to prepare less material for each course (but think about it more deeply to structure it right for learning).
Reuven listed a number of benefits of the “less content” approach in his newsletter but I'm going to add one here that particularly applies to online courses.
Less content = more momentum.
One of the biggest problems I see with people trying to create online courses is getting bogged down creating the content.
So they either end up never releasing their course, or they finally finish it but are so worn out they have no energy to market it properly.
After that experience they never attempt to create another one. And, of course, it's rarely your first course that makes you the real money. It's your second or third or fourth.
But if instead you really whittle down the content for your course to what's absolutely necessary you can get it created quickly, get it on the market, plug any gaps, then move on to the next one.
It becomes an invigorating virtuous circle rather than a cycle of despair :)
And it actually helps your students learn faster and better.
Anyhoo – if you do training for corporates (or want to get some useful tips you can apply to online courses too) I thoroughly recommend signing up for Reuven's newsletter.
In my last post on courses I suggested that if you were a bit stuck creating your first (or next) online course, to try building a “micro course”.
A micro course is a short 10-30 minute course that's focused on one specific customer problem or goal.
It's much easier to get going to produce a very short course like this. You can do it in one sitting.
But if you want to sell that course (and I suggest you do as it's the only way to properly test the market) then you must do one key thing…
And that's to make sure your micro course is different to what people can get for free on Youtube or other sources.
A larger course is almost inevitably different to the free tutorials you might find on Youtube. But with a short course with very limited scope, there's a risk there's already a free tutorial or two out there.
You can make sure your micro course is different and something people will be willing to buy in a number of different ways:
Firstly, you can tweak the topic to really focus on pain points and frustrations.
Instead of a tutorial on website migration, make one that's focused on hassle free, zero downtime migration without needing tech skills.
By the way, don't make a micro course where the emphasis is on doing something for free. That'll naturally attract people who want to do things for free nand won't be willing to pay for your course!
Secondly you can teach the course in a unique way that helps them get better, faster results.
This could be by teaching your own unique methodology or giving them tools and templates they can use. Stuff they can't find anywhere else and that will make life simpler for them or get them better results.
Remember: busy businesspeople usually aren't paying for the knowledge you share. They're paying for the results they can get from it and they value getting those results faster and easier.
Thirdly you can add features to your course that they can't get with free courses.
A great example of this is to include a Zoom Q&A session where they can get all their questions answered. Or feedback on their work by email.
Adding features like this to a low cost micro course isn't really sustainable if you were going to be running it on an ongoing basis. But as a one-off to get your momentum going with courses it's well worth doing. You don't have to prepare anything in advance – just offer it as part of the course and wait for the questions to come in.
So for your micro course idea, take a look at what's available already for free and think:
How can I change the topic so it's more focused directly on the pain and frustration of my clients? How can I teach it in a different way that's faster, better, simpler to understand, easier to get results from etc? How can I add features that differentiate this from a free tutorial and make it worth paying for for my audience. Or, of course, do two or three of them.
These simple changes can allow you to build a course that's easy to create and will sell well.