How to Discover the Best Topic for Your Next Course

Picking a topic for your online course can be challenging, especially if you have a handful of subjects you could teach. This is exactly where indecision and procrastination can creep in if we're not careful. With so many topics to cover, how do you pick the right one for your next course? How do you know what your people truly want to learn?

Ask them.

I know, it sounds too simple to be true. But it's not. The quickest way to find out what your audience wants from you is to just ask. It's like any confusion that has to do with communication: you've got to start a conversation to clear things up. The part that trips a lot of us up is, you know, the whole talking to people thing.

And I get it. Asking for input can be scary. But not asking should be scarier. Because if you're not asking your customers what they want from you, you're just guessing. And if I had to guess (he, he), I'd say that guesswork is not giving you the results you're after. Am I right?  

Guessing is no way to run your business. Instead, what if you could use real, qualified data to tell you exactly what to make? Well, you can. I'll show you.

The Three Topic Tactics

#1: Check-In With Your Subscribers After They Join Your Mailing List 

We all know that building your email list is key in having a successful online business, not to mention product launches. So when someone signs up for your newsletter or autoresponder, sending them a human email to find out what they're struggling with is a key part of discovering their needs.

If your list is small, it's best to do this manually. Carve out a few hours a week to personally email each person a day or two after they subscribe. If your list is large, you can set up a plain-text autoresponder to go out a couple days after they sign up. Either way, ask them what they're struggling with. Then make sure you engage with them after they respond.

Why is this helpful? Because you'll get qualitative data, which is absolute gold during the research phase of, well, anything! In non-nerd speak, you'll find out--in their words--what is an urgent problem. Urgency inspires action. It's also inferred that they think you can help them with this problem. Other than being a nice ego boost, this is your compass in figuring out which topics matter to your audience.

#2: Survey Your Audience

I've talked about the importance of surveys before. Hands down they are the best way to gauge what your audience wants. Surveys help you go from qualitative to quantitative data, so you can back up your course decisions with solid numbers. 

So why don't more people use them?

Two reasons: 1) many of us think no one will fill them out because we've been hard wired to disregard surveys, and 2) we're afraid of what we'll hear.

Let go of both of these beliefs. They're keeping you from reaching your goals.

If your audience is engaged with you and believe that you can help them, they will fill out your survey. Plus, you only need a small sample of your audience to respond. Aim for around 20%. More is always great.

As for the fear of input. You want input. Input will sway you away from wasting hours creating something that noone wants. It will help you figure out exactly how to best serve your people. Input is your friend.

What should you ask in your surveys? Here's what I would do:

  • Refer to your check-in email to create a list of topics that you know your audience is struggling with. Ask them which ones are most important.
  • Ask them what problem they think learning about these topics would solve for them. (This will help you in your marketing later.)
  • Ask them if they'd pay for a solution.
  • Ask them how much they'd pay for the solution. It's best to give price ranges and let them pick one here.
  • Ask them how they prefer to learn (self-paced, membership site, group-training, etc)
  • Use a mixture of closed-ended and open-ended questions.
  • Keep the survey under five minutes.
  • Ask the people who respond if you can connect with them 1-on-1 at a later time (offer an incentive for this, like a discount on your course).

I use Typeform for my surveys, but you could also use Survey Monkey or any other free survey tool. 

#3: Take on Clients

Stay with me here. 

Every single person I know who has created a successful online course or product business started with clients first. Every. Single. One.

Call it coaching, call it client-work--I'm a big fan of services. You can do them from home. They're low overhead. And you'll quickly find out what's important and urgent for your clients. But most importantly, you'll find out all the things they don't or won't explicitly say. Like the true motivation behind the problem.

Behind every purchase there's an external problem and internal problem. The external problem could be needing to learn how to knit a sweater for a holiday gift. The internal motivation could be wanting to save money or feeling like you're reconnecting with a recently passed loved one who always knitted.

That's what surveys won't tell you.

I've seen this work in my own life as well. Before I began blogging and helping businesses make online courses, I worked as a consultant. I sat with people and learned about their problems and the true motivation behind them. Then, and only then, we crafted a solution.

Eventually, I could create courses much more efficiently because I got really good at recognizing problem patterns. (Hint: A lot of your clients will have the same problems, but motivations are almost always emotional.)

Now that I'm working with entrepreneurs, I'm doing the same thing: taking on a small number of clients. But enough about me. If you've done step one and two, but still don't feel like you know your customer well, consider taking on clients for a while. You can: 

A) offer them a low-cost strategy session, or

B) offer a productized service (service packages at a set cost), or

C) offer premium, custom services that you create a proposal for

All of these will help your clients AND help you gather information for your next course. They'll also boost your reputation and help you get testimonials (which you can and should use for your course marketing). See how it all works together? Magic!

Summary

These tactics are so much deeper than validating if people will buy something. This is about research and efficiency. It's about digging in to find out how to structure your course before you even build it. That's a huge stress-reliever that anybody could benefit from. 

Back to You

What do you do to evaluate a course topic and learn more about your potential customers? Share your stories with me in the comments!

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