You’ve got a brain brimming with knowledge. But how do you translate it to your first online course? Don’t be overwhelmed. We’ve broken the process into eight key steps you can take one at a time. This time, we’ll work through the first 5 steps:

  1. Come up with an idea
  2. Identify your audience
  3. Understand your audience
  4. Research the landscape
  5. Position your course

The foundation of an effective course isn’t years of teaching or an advanced degree. It’s far simpler than that. The key to a great course is…

1. A great idea.

Before you do anything else, you’ll need to establish the idea behind your course. What do you know that you can share with the world? It can be anything, from flower arranging to content marketing to advanced HTML.

Brainstorm by making a list of all the things you know and all the skills you have. You might be surprised how much you have to offer! Get your idea machine started by checking out our article “If You Can Tie Your Shoes, You Can Teach an Online Course.”

For hypothetical purposes, let’s say your course idea is motorcycle repair. You’re ready to share your wealth of information about fixing up bikes. Now what?

2. Identify your audience.

Time to figure out your target audience – that is, the people who want to learn what you have to teach. Some questions you should ask yourself:

Who would be interested in learning about this topic?

In the case of motorcycle repair, you might identify your potential audience as:

  • People who own motorcycles
  • People who own motorcycle repair shops

That’s a large group of potential customers, considering there’s over 10 million motorcycle owners in the U.S. at last count. Let’s assume you also want to focus your efforts on people who are Internet connected, and have the digital savvy to take an online course. That narrows your audience a bit. Now narrow it even more, asking yourself:

What sub-groups might be interested in this topic?

Be creative! Try to think of as many different sub-groups as you can. Just a few examples:

  • Male motorcycle owners
  • Female owned motorcycle repair shops
  • Motorcycle owners in dry desert climates
  • College age motorcycle owners
  • Antique motorcycle owners
  • Motorcycle repair shops in large cities
  • LGBT motorcycle owners
  • Yamaha motorcycle owners

You own several Yamahas, so you decide that Yamaha motorcycle owners who are digitally savvy will be your target audience.

(You can combine sub-groups, too, but make sure you don’t create such a small niche that you’re aiming your product at just a handful of people.)

 3. Understand your audience.

You’ve picked your audience, now think a little deeper about them. You’ll want to establish some assumptions about what they want from your course. Do they want content that’s:

  • Cheap or expensive?
  • Buttoned-up professional or down and dirty?
  • Text or multimedia?
  • Quick fix or long-term investment?

Dive into their psyche, too, and try to establish WHY they want what they want. Would they take your motorcycle repair course because:

  • They’re looking to save money by doing their own motorcycle repairs, with the goal of taking their family on vacation?
  • They’re an aspiring repair shop owner and need to learn the basics?
  • They live in a rural area with no repair shops and need a sure-fire way to get their bike up and running?
  • They’re dating a girl who loves motorcycles and they want to impress her by fixing her brakes?

4. Research the landscape.

Now that you’ve got some insight into your potential customer, you need to get insight into your competitors. Take the time to explore your course topic online to see what’s being offered already and how it’s being positioned. Searching for something like “How to repair a Yamaha motorcycle” is a great start in our hypothetical situation.

Are similar courses being offered?

If the answer is yes, that’s great! That means there’s a viable market already in place.

Think of a bookstore. There are books by 10 authors on the same topic, but that doesn’t mean there’s not room on the shelf for a new author: you.

If there are no similar courses offered, be wary. Being the first in a market requires a bit of trailblazing. And there may be a good reason the trail hasn’t been blazed yet.

How are other courses positioning themselves?

Take a look at how your competition is trying to stand out from the crowd, if at all.

  • What audience are they going after?
  • What’s their brand name, logo, color scheme?
  • What classes do they offer?
  • What other products do they offer?
  • How are they different from other courses?

5. Position your course

You’ve seen what your competitors are doing, now it’s time to set yourself apart. That means creating ways for your course to appeal to your audience and stand out from your competitors.

Think of your course as one flavor out of many in an ice cream shop. Everyone comes in looking for ice cream, but why should they pick your flavor?

You have to offer something unique to win over your customer.

Let’s say your competitors are mostly offering motorcycle manuals with a few supporting text descriptions about each repair, with very little personality or positioning added. To put it in ice cream terms, that’s quite vanilla! And although a lot of people like vanilla, a lot of other people will be looking for something different.

Add flavor to your course by offering something your competition doesn’t. Let’s say your motorcycle course will include:

  • How-to videos
  • Opportunities to engage with a likeminded community
  • A fun, helpful attitude and approach

You’ll want to create a positioning statement to clarify your positioning. It could sound something like this:

“While other motorcycle repair websites rely on product manuals with dry descriptions, Fix My Yamaha provides fun, easy-to-understand step-by-step videos that show you exactly how to complete each repair, in addition to an active community of commenters who share their unique experiences and tips.”

Do you think that positioning will resonate with your target audience? We bet it will.


You’re more than halfway through building your first course. To recap, you’ve learned how to:

  1. Come up with an idea
  2. Identify your audience
  3. Understand your audience
  4. Research the landscape
  5. Position your course

Grab a piece of paper and start brainstorming course ideas! And check back next week for Part 2 of this topic, where we’ll show you how to create your actual course content.

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