3 Steps To Making A Great Online Course (And The 3 Mistakes That Will Stop You)

[Read all the way to the end for a chance to get a free tool you can use to validate your course ideas!]

As the “online course guy”…I am a big fan out courses (obviously). I was never a fan of old-school traditional educational systems, so I think it is fantastic that education is becoming more open-source and flexible. And it’s a great income opportunity for anyone who wants to share their expertise with other people!

That being said…

It can be quite difficult.

I say this from my experience with creating my first courses, and also having worked with dozens of people, helping them in this capacity. When you don’t know what you are doing, it’s incredibly challenging not feel overwhelmed by the process or insecure about what you end up creating. And these two feelings interact and exacerbate each other. Most people find themselves asking…

What if people don’t like what I am making?

Do I really know as much about this as I think I do?

What if it’s not good enough?

How do I know if this is actually going to sell?

So today I want to target 3 of the biggest obstacles that people encounter with online course creation:

  1. Validation – how do you know this course will succeed?
  2. Creation – how do you turn your knowledge into a product?
  3. Confidence and credibility – who are you to teach somebody?

Obstacle #1 – Validation

A typical mistake many entrepreneurs make is to focus on creating something solely because they want to make it. This causes problems for many obvious reasons, but even more so with online courses.

Sometimes it takes a visionary entrepreneur to create some innovative product or service that the average person in their market would never come up with, but this is almost never the case when it comes to education.

That is akin to telling the person who wants to learn about marketing – “I am going to teach you about chemistry instead because I like it more than marketing, and I am going to teach it in the way that I want to teach it rather than the way you want to learn it.”

Of course you could find someone who wanted to learn about chemistry as well, but you can see the potential problems you would run into with this backwards approach.

Rather than going out and building what you want, instead go discover and build what your market wants.

If you want to build a course for local business owners over 30 from Kansas, there is a good chance there is a common desire to learn a particular skill.

This is especially important because of the effect that some refer to as the “Expert Fallacy”.

This refers to the tendency of an expert to forget what it was like NOT to be an expert and to inadvertently assume others know more than they really do about that topic. So ironically enough, the expert will have a tendency to make content that is totally inappropriate for the people they are trying so hard to teach and help!

Just picture that genius professor you had in college who was actually one of your worst teachers.

Here are some simple steps to get started validating your ideas for your content and online courses:

1. Scout out what already exists:
If there are no current products on your topic, that is bad! Is there are successful products on your topic, great!

Just start looking for…

  • An innovative angle (example: I could easily write another article on this same topic, merely picking a DIFFERENT 3 steps to focus on to create online courses)
  • How you can create a product in the same area that targets a different market (example: marketing FOR ice cream shops)
  • What is the feedback on the product? What do people say it is missing? (Amazon reviews and blog comments are particularly good for this)

2. Pick your target market before your idea
It is much easier to create a product to meet the needs of a market than to find a market for the product you just created. If you create a product FOR the people you are trying to serve, exactly tailoring it to their questions and needs, that is one of the best ways to guarantee success.

So rather than deciding that you want to make a course on Facebook ads, instead realize that you are actually interested in helping local businesses with their online marketing. Now you have your target to reverse engineer the actual product by…

3. TALK to your target market
This may seem obvious, but almost no one does it. If you ask a hundred local business owners about what they want to learn about online marketing, you are almost certainly going to get some interesting answers. And the best part is that you will have a list of people to circle back to later once you create the product, and if you are creating a  product that is basically tailored to their exact needs…how can they turn that down?!

Here are some ways to get started speaking with your market:

  • Create a one question survey, and send to any email list or audience you have asking “If you had 15 minutes of my time what would you want to learn about?”
  • Create a list of 20 people you personally know in your target market, and email them this same question
  • Once you are starting to get a general idea of the direction you want to go, start posting on social media with “I am starting a free newsletter on [your general topic] message me if you want to be included!”
  • Each of these begins your list-building for this new idea, then you start polling the list you are building with questions that get more and more specific. “What would you want to learn about in 15 minutes?” becomes “what would you want to learn about guest blogging?” which becomes “what would you want to learn about sending cold emails to land guest posts?”

Obstacle #2 – Creation

Now you have some ideas about your topic, how do you actually CREATE this beast? I’ll go through your major options and what they are best suited for.

1. Recording your screen and slides

This is the bread and butter of most online courses nowadays. Create some sexy powerpoint slides, start recording your screen (with a tool like Camtasia or Screenflow) and bam! You are now creating your first content for your course.

This is best suited for talking about major concepts during core sections of your course. A good principle is to seek to “show don’t tell” whenever possible, so focus on using this for more abstract points. For anything that can be made more tangible you should use…

2. Recording your screen for walkthroughs

If I AM going to make a course on facebook advertising, then it would make sense to use the above approach to introduce the broad concepts, but then switch to recorded walkthroughs of EXACT strategies of setting up ad campaigns, finding facebook groups to target, etc.

The act of showing this rather than just abstractly talking about it on a slide is clearer and more effective, although combining both will drive the point home even more!

3. Talking head approach

Talking head style

I am a fan of this style, but it also a total pain in the ass! It can look amazing once you create a simple setup for it, but it inevitably takes much longer – you are more likely to run into problems (since now you have to start worrying about external cameras, lighting, how things LOOK as well as sound, etc.) and editing the content also usually takes longer.

On the other hand, it looks much more professional, and there are ways to do it with minimal skill and equipment. Due to the increased complexity and time involvement I typically recommend reserving this for course introductions, sales videos, etc. while relying on screen recordings (mix of slides and walkthroughs) for the core material.

4. Animation

There are some great fiverr.com gigs that allow you to cheaply create logo animations to spice things up with your content, and even some that can create customized promotional videos for you. This one is totally optional and should probably be avoided for your first course for the sake of simplicity.

5. Written material

Including some PDFs with your course is KEY. It adds an additional level of professionalism, and helps you incorporate multiple modalities to drive home important points.

Never underestimate the value of a pretty checklist which summaries some of the main points from your videos!

You can also find plenty of designers on fiverr.com to turn a word doc into a professional PDF handout for around $10 each.

Obstacle # 3 – Confidence and Credibility

There is a definition of expert that I love (although I forget the origin): an expert just means a person who knows more about a given topic than the person they are speaking with.

Think about it.

There are plenty of first-grade school teachers who are extremely mediocre at math, and yet they are fairly the “math expert” as far as those 6-year-olds are concerned.

Compare the teacher with an actual mathematician, and the “expert” status is lost.

The most productive way I have found to maintain confidence is to:

1. Always target a market who knows less about the topic than I do. Some people will inevitably know more than me out there in the world about ANY topic. But that’s fine, I am never targeting them.

2. Create insanely great content. I think people naturally feel confident when they do their best. After all, if you are doing your “best”, then literally by definition you can do no better! On top of this, I have found that students and customers care much more (on average) about quality rather than “official” credibility. As I mentioned above, often the more knowledgeable person with a PhD or MBA will actually be a worse teacher than a dynamic kid who just graduated college who puts in 110% effort.

So just remember…

1. VALIDATE your ideas

2. CREATE awesome content

3. CREDIBILITY comes from knowing more than your audience – that’s it!

Still not 100% your course will succeed? That’s why I built you the….
Download This Free Validation Tracker To Easily Evaluate Your Idea.

1 reply
  1. Dennis J. Smith
    Dennis J. Smith says:

    I like what you are doing and the content you have been publishing. My biggest struggle is actually doing the recording because I don’t get enough alone time or time without much noise. I live in a small town and near the country. So you think it would be quiet and not able to record at night because others in the house sleeping. I just have to make myself do it and see how it turns out.

    Keep up the great work!



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