How To Create An Online Course: The Ultimate Guide

Outlining Your Online Course


Your Course Outline is the centrepiece of a lean approach to course development.
To minimise the risk involved in developing a course and to ensure it really meets the needs of your audience you're going to pre-sell it.
In other words you're going to offer it for sale (usually in pilot form) before you've built it.
And to do that you need two things:
  • You need a way of giving enough details about the course to potential buyers so they know if the course is right for them
  • You need to be confident you can actually build the course so that you don't sell it and then let your buyers down
Your course outline gives you both of these.
A good outline tells potential buyers what they'll get from the course: the outcome and the benefits of that outcome, along with enough about the contents that they'll know it's the right course for them.
And a good outline also gives you enough details of the content to know whether you'll be able to create the course and about how long it'll take you. (And obviously you can update the outline to make sure it's achievable for you if initially it's too challenging).
With your outline you're balancing two factors:

The steps logically needed to deliver the primary outcome of the course

The key things your potential buyers want to see in the course

Logically, you want to strip down your course (at least in the first version) to focus only on the key steps absolutely necessary to deliver the outcome of the course. But in practice, your buyers will also have a number of other things they want from the course which might not be directly outcome related. You have to make sure you're delivering on the these too to maximise demand for the course.

Your Outline “Sells” the Course

Before you have testimonials or other proof that your course works, potential customers will look at the course outline to give them confidence that your course will give them what they want.
They typically look for 3 things:
  • Does it look like this course can genuinely help me achieve the outcome I’m looking for (ie do the steps in the course seem like they make sense based on what I know already)?
  • Does it look like the course will be a good fit for me personally and what I need?
  • Does it look like the course is different and that I’ll learn something new from other courses I’ve done before?
Your course outline should tell them this, and on its own it should be enough to fill up a pilot with paying members without needing to do a ton of marketing.
In practice, when you run the course it might not go exactly like the outline said in the exact same order - but it must include all the elements you promised.
The chances are you already have a good idea what the logical steps are to deliver the primary outcome you defined for the course. But even if you're confident you understand what your potential buyers want from the course you should always confirm this by doing research.
Even if it just confirms what you already think about what needs to go into the course it will tell you the language your potential customers use and how to position your course to maximise sales.

Using Research to Build Insight into Buyer Wants and Needs

There are three types of research you can do to build your insight into what your buyers really want.

Desk Research is where you build up your background knowledge of your topic area and feed your ideas by:

  • Finding previous published research into your market (e.g. their problems and challenges)
  • Benchmarking competitor offerings to see what their courses cover
  • Reading reviews of books or courses on related topics to identify the key areas of need and potential gaps in the market
  • Observing conversations in relevant online forums or on social media

Small Scale Personal Research is where you:

  • Hold casual conversations with people who are representative (or who have insight into) your target audience
  • Ask them qualitative questions to understand their major problems and goals and whether your ideas for the course would get a good reception
  • Use the insights from this step to feed wider survey research
Ideally you'll hold these conversations in-person or over the phone. But you can also get a lot of insight from asking them in a Facebook Group or Online Forum.
The advantage here is that group members can build on each others answers and you can begin public conversations with them about the topic. The disadvantage is that being in public they may be less candid and honest with their answers.

Broader Survey-Based Research is where you:

  • Survey a larger list of potential customers to make sure the initial impressions you got are backed up in the broad base of your potential customers
  • Ask quantitative questions to confirm demand for the course and identify the main priorities to be covered (e.g. allow them to pick their main priorities based on answers you initially got from your small scale personal research)
  • Ask qualitative questions get more feedback on what should go into the course

Small Scale Personal Research 

Small Scale personal Research allows you to quickly "cut to the chase" and validate your course topic.
You're going to “interview” a small number of people who are representative of your target audience to get their initial feedback.
“Interviews” could be face to face over coffee, over the phone or video call, or by email or on social media. Though the more in-person they are the better the feedback you'll usually get.
You’re looking to understand whether this course topic will sell, and to refine what you should include in the course. If the feedback is positive you’ll use what they say to feed into the next step of doing a broader survey.
You’re probably already doing a degree of this informally already - that’s where your ideas for the course came from. But this step ensures you have a fuller, more up to date, and more in-depth picture.

Choose Your Interviewees Carefully

You’re going to talk to a small number of people - so they must be representative of your target audience (or know them well and be able to answer on their behalf).
In a broader survey of hundreds of people, one or two outliers won’t affect the results. But if you’re only interviewing 5 or 6 people, getting input from one person who doesn’t properly represent your audience can really skew your results.
Also remember you don’t need everyone to respond enthusiastically to your ideas. Not all (in fact only a small percentage) of your audience will ever become buyers. So if only half of your interviewees think your ideas for the course is a good one, don't worry. On the other hand, if no one responds enthusiastically, that would be a warning sign.

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 trigger  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:

  • It will give you confidence you’re on the right track
  • It will give you a lot of input and the confidence to progress fast
  • It helps your marketing by generating interest and awareness in the upcoming course and by building a waiting list for the pilot

Even if you don't have a big mailing list you can still run a survey:

  • You can put the survey invite on your social media profiles or in a group you run
  • You can ask permission and post it in relevant groups or forums run by other people
  • You can message it directly via LinkedIn or Facebook messenger - or send personal email to your contacts
  • You can ask a friend or contact to send it to their email list or contacts if it would be valuable to them too

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:

  • A question that gives insight into whether this is a priority issue. For example "On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), how big a problem is winning corporate clients to your business?" or "On a scale of 1 (low) to 5 (high), how valuable would a course that showed you how to land your first corporate client be to your business?"
  • A question that identifies the biggest problem/goal so you can focus the course round that if possible
  • A qualitative (free format) question that allows your most motivated audience members to tell you what they want from the course. Leave this quite open to allow them to interpret for themselves. For example "If I was to create an online course about landing your first corporate client, what would be the #1 thing you'd like to see in it that would be the most valuable for you?
  • 1-2 additional questions for key areas of uncertainty you need to resolved (e.g. if you want to know whether they want video or written lessons)

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.

A Google Forms Survey

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:

  • Re-read your interview notes from your small scale personal research
  • Then look at the summaries (usually pie charts) of quantitative questions on your broader survey research
  • Finally, skim-read all the qualitative comments/answers from your survey

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 your course was on how to analyse an industry using Porter’s 5 Forces model you’d probably have a module on each of the 5 forces plus one to bring it all together.
  • If your course was on baking bread, you’d probably have a module on each of the sequential steps in the process: mixing the dough, autolysing, rising, proving and baking

If you’re struggling to break down your course, try using the “backward chaining” technique:

  • Start with the final outcome of the course in mind
  • Think “what’s the very last thing you need to do to achieve the outcome”? - e.g. for baking bread it might be “take the bread out of the oven”
  • Then think “what’s the step I need to do just before that” - e.g for baking bread it might be “put the bread in the oven at 240°C for 40 minutes”
  • Then repeat the previous step until you reach the first step of the process: - e.g “leave the bread to prove” « “shape the bread and put into proving baskets” « “leave the bread to rise” etc
  • Once you have all the steps, simplify and combine to get to your 3-6 steps

If you have a proprietary model or framework you use, that can be a great way of breaking the course down. For example:

  •  Steven Covey’s “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”
  • Charlie Green, Rob Galford and David Maister's Trust Equation of T= (C x R x I) / SO
  • My own  Authority Breakthrough 3 Circles model (Build Your Distinctive Point of View, Reach Your Target Market, Deepen Your Authority)

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:

  • Will the steps/components you’ve come up with delivered the primary outcomes of the course? 
  • Do they cover all the areas you identified that the pilot course must have from the perspective of a buyer? 
  • Is it obvious from the steps/components that the course really will deliver the promised outcome? (ie does it make logical sense)
  • Is there some element of uniqueness or difference visible in the outline  - e.g. the steps are very different to how other courses do things? 

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.

Choosing the Best Technology Platform for Your Online Course

Choosing the Best Platform for Your Online Course

Review and select the best technology to use to run your course during your pilot and beyond:

  • The 5 technology pillars of online courses
  • Technology choices for your pilot
  • The 3 options for building and running your course long term
  • Technology choices for your course launch and continuing operation

Learn more about  Choosing the Best Platform