How To Create An Online Course: The Ultimate Guide
Outlining Your Online Course
The steps logically needed to deliver the primary outcome of the course
The key things your potential buyers want to see in the course
Your Outline “Sells” the Course
Using Research to Build Insight into Buyer Wants and Needs
Desk Research is where you build up your background knowledge of your topic area and feed your ideas by:
Small Scale Personal Research is where you:
Broader Survey-Based Research is where you:
Small Scale Personal Research
Choose Your Interviewees Carefully
Decide on What Format to Use for Your Interviews
The ideal approach is to do short, informal 1-1 interviews with 5-10 people— either face to face or more likely on a video or phone call. Choose this option if you know people in your target audience personally and you think they’d be willing to answer your questions.
You can also mail out to an email list or ask on social media for volunteers to be interviewed - but you need a bigger list/profile to get enough people saying yes.
It's usually best not to offer an incentive for taking part in the research - it attracts people who might not be representative of the buyers in your target audience.
You can also ask questions in a Facebook Group or other forum. You won’t get such in-depth answers, but it’s good for confirmation if you already have relatively clear ideas and the interaction and visibility can grow momentum and interest in the course.
How to Set Up and Run an Interview
For people you already know well, just call or email, tell them you’re thinking of developing an online course about your topic and ask if you could grab 15-20 minutes over coffee or on the phone to get their feedback and insights.
If you have an email list or run a Facebook Group or other forum (or you’re well known in one) send out a message similar to the above but asking for volunteers to contact you.
Keep the number of questions short. Encourage the interviewee to speak even if they don’t answer every question.
You want at least one question that relates to how important they think this is as a problem/issue/goal for them (or people like them). For example:
"I'm thinking of creating an online course that helps startup businesses land their first corporate client. Is that the kind of thing businesses like yours would find valuable and be keen to buy?"
This gives you an initial validation of the market for your course.
You also want at least one question where you ask them what their biggest challenge or issue or barrier is in the area of your course - this helps you prioritise the content of the course. For example:
"When it comes to trying to win corporate clients, what's the biggest challenge or barrier you've faced?"
I also like to add a more general question about the course such as:
“If I was to make a course about landing your first corporate client - what would be the number one thing you’d like to see in it to make it the most valuable and useful to you?”
Sometimes they will tell you the content they want to see - but often the more general wording will tigger ideas other ideas about the course - for example whether they want live sessions, the ability to get feedback, worked examples, a mobile version of the course, etc.
Broader Survey-Based Research
Based on the insights from your initial small scale research you’re going to launch a survey to get wider input.
With a survey you can ask closed questions (yes/no, scale from 1-5, choose one etc) which will allow you to analyse the answers more statistically and confirm whether the initial impressions you got from your small scale research are true more broadly.
You can also ask qualitative questions too, but usually not many on a survey. Aim for people to be able to complete your survey in 5 minutes or less.
Even if you haven't done any small scale research and have relied on your existing knowledge of your market it's always valuable to do a survey:
Even if you don't have a big mailing list you can still run a survey:
You don’t need hundreds of responses to a survey. But aim for at least 50 to give you confidence you're on the right track.
Build on the Answers You Got in Your Small Scale Research
Focus your survey questions on areas that came out as important in the small scale research and use the most common answers you got as the options on survey questions (e.g. “what’s the biggest challenge you face…”) to allow easy counting of votes.
Typical questions to ask include:
Pay special attention to really long answers to qualitative questions as it means the person who wrote it is particularly passionate about this topic (ie more likely to be a buyer).
Close by asking them to enter their email address if they want to be notified about the pilot and get a special discount. That will allow you to pre-build an audience for your pilot.
You can use any simple survey tool to do this - Survey Monkey, Survey Gizmo or just a free tool like Google Forms.
Interpreting the Results of Your Research
Often the results of your research are obvious, but it makes sense to review them systematically so you avoid reinforcing your predispositions and biases.
The first thing to do is to read all the answers:
Once you've read all the answers, “sleep on it”. Let the information sink into your brain so your subconscious plays around with it and starts generating ideas. Come back a day later for more formal analysis.
Interpreting Small Scale Personal Research
The essence of analysing your small scale personal research is simply to read the interviews and highlight interesting and notable points.
Read through the answers a question at a time - that way you’ll be able to pick out common themes for each question
My own personal preference is to print out the interviews and highlight key points in each one. Then transfer the highlights to post-it notes which I then move around to organise in groups.
Look for “quotable quotes” in the answers and use the same language in your marketing.
Interpreting Broader Survey Research
For quantitative questions, try a variety of different graphs and analyses to see which gives the clearest picture of importance and the main issue/challenge
For the main issue you sometimes get one standout issue that you can then focus the whole course on. More usually you’ll get 2-4 and you’ll need to make sure the course covers all of them - and that you highlight these issues in your marketing.
For qualitative questions, read through all the answers to get a sense of the main points coming through. Highlight interesting quotes and common themes and make note of the language and powerful quotes so you can reuse t in your marketing.
Make note of any recurring themes and count how many times each theme is mentioned to get a numerical representation. Or use affinity mapping to group similar ideas coming from the surveys.
Finally, review your notes from both the small scale and survey research and summarise the main themes to identify which questions, issues and ideas need to go into your initial pilot, which would be valuable to include when you update the course (for example for a full launch) and which can be left for a later day.
Creating Your Course Outline
You're now ready to draft your outline.
Start by breaking down the primary outcome(s) of your course into steps or components.
Aim for 3-6 main sections or steps initially. This should be all you need for a pilot version of the course and you can add to it later. A bigger course in future might have subsections within each section, but for your first pilot course keep it simple.
For example, for a course on how to “Learn the Banjo in 7 Days” the main steps might be: get the right banjo, learn to pick and play, learn basic chord positions, how to practice, learn some simple tunes.
Usually the steps or components are obvious based on your experience in the topic:
If you’re struggling to break down your course, try using the “backward chaining” technique:
If you have a proprietary model or framework you use, that can be a great way of breaking the course down. For example:
In these cases you'll have a module with lessons to explain each element of the model or framework. Basing your course around a proprietary model makes the course uniquely yours and gives your potential buyers confidence that this approach is different to things they’ve tried before.
Finally, review your outline based on all the notes you've taken so far and check:
Update or add to the course outline to make sure all four of these areas are covered - then move on to the next step of choosing the technology platform for your course.