How to Validate an Online Course Idea

New players in the online learning market are bringing fresh ideas to online course development and marketing. They’re making millions of dollars in revenue, so they’re doing something right, for example, knowing how to validate an online course idea.

If your online course doesn’t meet a market need, it won’t succeed. No demand, no students. Before you invest too much in developing and marketing an online course, first find out if there’s an audience who is willing and able to spend money on the course. Make no assumptions. You’re looking for proof of market—evidence that will validate your online course idea.

Prepare for the Course Validation Process

To test whether your idea has merit, you must first condense it into a value proposition. Answering these questions will help you refine your idea.

  • Why would someone pay for this course?
  • What pain(s) does the course solve?
  • What outcome(s) can they expect at the end?

During the validation process, you will identify competitors offering a similar course. Make sure your elevator pitch demonstrates how your course is different from the ones already on the market.

Have a small budget at hand. Some of these validation methods rely on attracting eyeballs through different marketing channels, including Google AdWords and other paid advertising.

Speaking of money, run the numbers so you know how much it will cost to develop and run a pilot program and the course itself. How much will you need in course revenue to make the profit you desire?

5 Steps to Validate an Online Course Idea

You may learn, after doing steps 1 and 2 below, that there isn’t sufficient demand for your online course idea. However, doing these research exercises will give you a better sense of what your audience is seeking.

Step 1: Analyze the demand for existing content

Pay attention to what people do, not what they say. What they do is more revealing of their true needs than what they might have told you in a survey last year—or what your committee is telling you now.

Find out if your idea is in demand. Are people clicking links, reading, or downloading content on that topic? Are they participating in events or discussions about that topic? Review the numbers:

  • Website and blog analytics
  • Newsletter analytics
  • Educational event attendance (conference sessions and webinars)
  • Online community discussions

Bear in mind, you might be putting a barrier between people and the content they need. Is your content mobile-friendly? Is it easy to find? Is it available to anyone, or hidden behind a members-only wall? Take into account these barriers before deciding whether a topic is in demand or not. Your committee may be right after all: people are interested in the topic but they can’t find the content on your website.

validate an online course idea with search tests

Step 2: Validate demand with search tests

Now, it’s time to go broader with your search beyond the people who frequent your website and other platforms. Do a Google search on the different terms you think people will use to learn more about your course’s topic. Keep track of what you find.

  • What type of resources come up?
  • Are people offering similar courses?
  • Are there paid Google ads?

If you see similar courses, that’s potentially a sign of market demand. See what you can learn about these courses so you can establish that they are in fact successful. What are they covering? What kind of experience do they provide? How much do they cost? How will your course be different and better?

Paid ads are another good sign of market demand. Competitors are spending money to attract the eyeballs of potential students.

We’re not done yet. Do a search on YouTube to see how many videos, if any, teach a similar topic. Do a search on Amazon to see how many ebooks cover the topic. Read through the comments to see what you can learn: what the book covers, and what comments say it should cover but doesn’t.

Finally, check online learning platforms like LinkedIn Learning, Udemy, Coursera, and EdX to see whether they’re offering courses similar to your idea. Read course descriptions and review syllabi, if possible.

  • Does the platform provide the number of students who have taken the course?
  • Testimonials or recommendations?

If you can’t find anyone else offering the course, you have to ask yourself “why.”

Step 3: Ask your target audience

At this point in your research, you should be able to tell whether your online course idea has a future. Now, it’s time to dig deeper by talking to your target audience. One way to identify this group of people is by sending out a poll to newsletter subscribers and online community participants. Find out who has the problem your course will be designed to solve or who wants to learn the skills your course will teach.

Talk to these people individually or in focus groups. Learn more about their professional challenges and pain points. Ask about the obstacles that prevent them from solving these problems. Find out whether your course would provide the value they seek, and, if not, how it could. Talk about the outcomes they desire.

Get a sense of the types of learning experiences they would enjoy. How much would they be willing to pay for that experience? By the way, don’t forget to give these folks a hefty discount when they sign up for the pilot and/or the course.

Talk to employers to make sure the course provides the information their existing and/or future employees need.

After you’ve revised the course curriculum per their feedback, get back in touch with them for the moment of truth: will they register for the course? If not, find out why. Keep asking “why” until you get the real truth. You need to figure out how to overcome this barrier if your course is to succeed.

validate an online course idea

Step 4: Validate demand with lead magnet tests

If there is truly a demand for the type of content your course will provide, you can find out by using lead magnets. Lead magnets are pieces of content on your website—a checklist, report, or ebook—that attract people like a magnet. To download the lead magnet, website visitors must supply their email address.

Use lead magnets that address the same topics as your course so you can gauge interest in that content. Lead magnets also help you collect the email addresses of your target audience. But, first, you have to attract the attention of your audience so they know about your lead magnets.

Create a call-to-action (CTA) message or graphic with concise and compelling copy about the impact of your lead magnet on your prospect’s job, career, or business.

  • Put this CTA message or graphic on your blog in the side bar or at the bottom of posts. Link the CTA to the lead magnet’s landing page.
  • Put a CTA on your website’s home page or other popular pages frequented by your target audience, including your online learning center and online community.
  • Post the CTA in your social media updates.
  • Use paid advertising to display your CTA on Google as well as LinkedIn, Facebook, or other social platforms used by your target audience.

Webinars are another lead magnet option. Don’t cover too much during the webinar, just give them a taste of the course content. Because schedule conflicts prevent people from registering for webinars, make it clear that anyone who registers will receive access to the webinar later.

Step 5: Run a pilot program

Before you invest a great deal of time and money into designing a new online course, make sure people will buy it by asking them to register for a pilot version. A pilot program will give you the opportunity to try out your idea on a group of beta testers.

Create only one or two modules for your pilot program. You need just enough content to deliver results to your students.

Figure out how you will price the full course, then come up with a price for the pilot program based on the value (or outcomes) you will deliver and the amount of content you’ll cover during the pilot. Discount that price based on the amount of feedback you’ll expect students to provide. They’re helping you as much as you’re helping them.

Keep the class size manageable—enough students for a productive social learning experience but not so many that you can’t regularly discuss the course with each of them.

Make it clear to all participants that the low price is a trade-off for the feedback they will be expected to provide after each segment. You need to find out what they value and don’t value, what they like and don’t like, what’s missing, and what makes the learning experience special. Their feedback will help you design the full course.

What if you don’t fill your pilot course? That’s a sign of something, but what? Despite all previous signs, maybe there isn’t sufficient market demand. Or, maybe the price is wrong. Is it not covering valuable enough topics? Is the timing bad? Go back to your target audience and find out why they’re not buying.

If your pilot is a success, don’t let those students off easy. Collect testimonials for your marketing campaigns. Give them a refer-a-friend promo code for the course. Keep promoting the lead magnets related to the course so you can continue to build your email list. When your course is ready, you want to have a target audience ready too.

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