How to Do Market Research for Course Creation

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market-research

Give People What They Want

 

If you have an idea for an online course to sell, it may be tempting to start creating the course without doing your homework.

Unfortunately, that is a very risky way to go about launching something you will put a lot of time and energy into.

Why?

  • You don't know if anyone will want it.
  • You won't know if the content in your course meets any felt needs.
  • You won't know if it will sell enough to be worth whatever you put into its creation and marketing.
  • You won't know if you are truly creating something better than what is already out there

The end result – You could end up heartbroken and with far fewer sales than you were expecting.

However, you can really improve your odds of success by investing adequate time in market research.

Sound market research will give you the best chance of having a viable target to hit before you start launching your arrows.

Goals of Market Research

 

Here are some important questions you are trying to answer through your market research efforts.

#1 – Understanding What the Market Really Wants

 

People typically buy things to solve problems or to meet felt needs. In order to get people to part with their money and purchase your course, you should do whatever you can to understand what those needs and problems are before you start creating a course.

Examples – Courses Purchased at Udemy

I recently purchased a course at Udemy for a few different reasons.

The course is called The Udemy Freedom Blueprint: Course Creation. Its about creating successful courses to sell on Udemy.

Why did I buy it?

  1. I was interested in learning the course creation process and marketing strategy from a successful Udemy course creator.
  2. I wanted to observe how he structured his course and what tools he used to engage his students.
  3. The course was only $10.99 on sale so the risk was very low. I was confident I would get far more value out of it than the purchase price.

What problems or needs was I trying to solve by purchasing?

  1. Cost effective way to fill a knowledge gap so I could adapt and synthesize methods for my own potential future course creation
  2. Learn what I can to help others via this site

I was basically buying knowledge to: (1) help me possibly profit in the future and (2) benefit others in my own writing.

Probably most people buying the course share purpose #1 with me. But reason #2 may not have been something the course creator anticipated.

Reason #2, buying the course to help teach others with the knowledge gained, is a problem that the course can help solve and is thus a potential market segment. It may be a large market segment or a small one. But unless you talk to people about what needs they are trying to meet through purchasing a course, you won't know.

Market research helps you understand why people are actually buying. Some of the reasons will be obvious but some won't. Everyone has different needs and problems. Unless you ask what those needs and problems are, a market segment's true reason for purchasing will remain hidden from you resulting in lost sales.

#2 – Do Paying Customers Exists?

 

It would be terribly depressing to launch a course and have no one buy it. You may think you are solving a great problem only to find out its a solution no one wishes to pay for.

Market research will help you identify whether your information has any real market value. I will cover some techniques you can use later in this article to help determine whether or not a market exists.

#3 – How Much Will the Market Pay to Acquire a Solution to Their Problem?

 

Unless you have humanitarian or non-profit goals (which are good goals), typically course creators are trying to maximize profitability. They are trying to find the sweet spot where a certain number of buyers paying a certain amount yields the highest revenue.

The sweet spot may be a large number of buyers at a fairly low price (which seems to be the strategy the popular course platform Udemy uses most often), or fewer buyers at a very high price, or a target number of buyers at a mid-range price.

Pricing strategy is a whole discipline of study in itself and beyond the scope of this article, but one thing market research will do is give you a better idea of what people (and how many) are currently paying for similar courses to what you want to create.

Since it costs money to attract a high volume of visitors, it may not be the best strategy for you to try and copy Udemy's high-volume, low-price course model unless you know you can get a lot of customers for fairly cheap. Most course creators are probably better off charging higher prices to fewer customers.

But how do you know how much people will pay?

The answer to this question depends on the perceived value of the problem you are trying to solve.

If your course can help me save on average $10,000-$30,000 dollars on my next home purchase, I probably can justify paying several hundred dollars (or more) to get that information (especially if you could guarantee my success somehow).

However, if your course teaches me how to get greener grass, I probably wouldn't be willing to pay that much for it. But someone else might; especially if they owned a golf course or exclusive club with very nice landscaping.

In your research, you may find out that the average joe homeowner isn't worth a lot to you and instead you probably want to target owners with highly valuable properties. In fact, if you could promise a cost effective way to train their groundskeepers online to get that fantastic green grass and save them in-person training or outsourcing costs , you could probably charge quite a bit due to the value of the problems you are solving.

But you may not have known that market even existed without doing your research.

#4 – Is the Potential Market Big Enough for You to Become Profitable?

 
 You need some idea of the size of a market to understand the revenue potential of your course. Are there 1,000 potential customers for your course? 10,000? 100,000? Just 10? The size of the potential market is going to help guide you in your pricing and marketing.
Finding out how large a potential market is can be difficult. However, with competitive research, you can at least establish a floor or minimum simply based off existing sales.
 
How do you find out existing sales? Some places like Udemy make it fairly easy. I will cover this a bit more below but if there are thousands of people already buying similar courses, you know that a viable market already exists.
 

How Typical Solo Entrepreneurs Do Market Research

 
Market research isn't an idea that is foreign to most solo entrepreneurs and you may even be doing some form of it now. Here are some methods, and problems, with how I have seen the average solo operator (including myself in the past) do research.
 

Relying on Unreliable Keyword Data

 
You can't really do business online without having some knowledge about keywords. I won't go over the basics here but I want to point out a few major problems with typical keyword research:
 
  1.  The data is faulty – it doesn't matter what free or expensive keyword tool you might be using but nobody but the search engines (and maybe Internet Service Providers), ultimately knows the real numbers of how many times people searched using which keyword phrase. Making market assumptions based on dubious keyword data can be a huge mistake.
  2. Keywords often won't tell you intent – there could be lots of reasons why someone entered a keyword phrase into a search engine. Even if someone searches on “how to hit a golf ball straight,” this phrase won't tell you if they are willing to pay money for that information. The searcher might be a 14 year old that doesn't have a credit card or PayPal account for all you know. Keywords tell you what people are searching for, not why.
I am not saying you shouldn't do keyword research but you do need to know what the keyword data is telling you and what it isn't to avoid being misled.
 

Talking to Friends Rather Than an Actual Market

 
You've probably seen this (or done this) before – someone gets an idea on how to make money online. They go tell their friends. A few friends think it is a great idea. The entrepreneur, thinking his idea is great because a few friends do also, starts spending time and money making it a reality.
 
Here's the big problem – you're friends probably aren't your target market.
 
It doesn't really matter what your friends think. If they aren't willing to possibly open their wallets and pay you for your product their opinions aren't worth much. It's really easy to find friends who want to encourage you and not tell you something you don't want to hear. But that isn't helping you.
 
Instead, you need to talk to your target market – the people who may actually decide to pay you.
 

Operating on Assumptions

 
Solo entrepreneurs sometimes make decisions based on assumptions rather than researched facts. This can lead to all sorts of problems. Assumptions are often no better than guesses.
 
Imaging the following scenario. You go into your doctor and find out you need a surgery to remove a mass growing on your heart in an area where it could be easy to make a mistake and cost you your life. You ask your doctor if he has operated on a tumor in this area before and he replies, “No, but I am pretty sure my standard procedure will work.”
 
Are you going to be OK with your doctor's assumption?
 
Of course not. You want your doctor to operate based on proven facts and procedures, not assumptions.
 
Yet so many solo entrepreneurs launch business endeavors online with assumptions that may not even be close to reality.
 
  • You might think a potential market is much larger than it really is
  • You might think you are solving the right kinds of problems
  • You might think it will be easy to gain customers inexpensively
  • You might think there isn't much competition already serving your market
  • You might think the market will spend twice as much on your product than it really will
  • You might think the market will only spend $20 when in reality many of them will pay $150.
There is nothing wrong with making initial assumptions but you must then, like a disciplined scientist, seek to prove or disprove them with market research. Let the facts, and the target market, speak for themselves, not the assumptions in your head.
 

Not Understanding Market Segments

 
Another typical mistake for many solo entrepreneurs is assuming all visitors to your website are essentially the same. They're not.
 
Smart marketers understand the need to segment visitors. All this means is dividing up visitors according to their likeliness of buying. This is done by criteria like geographics, demographics, and psychographics.
 
Geographic segmentation is dividing visitors by where they live. You've probably noticed that people from certain countries are more likely to buy than people from other countries. Visitors from certain cities tend to search on certain keywords more than visitors from other cities. This is simply due to the fact that these people have varying needs.
 
Demographic segmentation is dividing your market based on qualities like age, gender, ethnicity, marital status, number of children, occupation, income, education, etc. For example, a 30 year old mom with two young kids at home is probably going to have different needs and concerns than a 45 year old single male . Yes, some needs will be the same, but if you try to market diapers to 45 year old single males, you will probably be wasting your time.
 
Psychographic segmentation is dividing people based on internal qualities like personality traits, lifestyle, interests, activities, values, religion, and so on (you can read more about the types of pscyhographic segmentation here). These qualities often strongly affect why people buy. For instance, if a visitor values spending as little money as possible and living a simple lifestyle, it probably isn't a good idea to try and market luxury goods to them. They aren't the most likely people to buy what you have to sell.
 
Understanding market segments greatly influences how many people you will be able to convert into actual paying customers. Not everyone wants to buy your course. Strategic course creators know they need to design their product around specific groups of people and their unique needs.
 

Why Solo Entrepreneurs Don't Do Proper Market Research

 
If market research is so valuable, why don't more solo entrepreneurs devote more time to doing it?
 

#1 – They Don't Know How

 
I think one of the primary reasons is that most solo entrepreneurs simply don't know how to do market research, or they don't know how to do it in a way that is disciplined, thorough, and cost effective.
 
Most of the talk on the Internet that targets solo business people pushes keyword research. After all, keywords were one of the first data points that really caught on in the early days of search engines. Search engine optimization revolves around keyword targeting and can be invaluable. However, many marketers haven't moved beyond this basic data point in their research efforts.
 
I would guess that most of what I am talking about in this article is typically associated with much larger businesses that have the resources to do this kind of research. Maybe solo entrepreneurs don't think market research is really something they can add to their already overwhelmed to do lists. But you can and its worth your time.
 

#2 – Market Research is Hard

 
Market research isn't easy, especially when you compare it to keyword research. Geographic, demographic, and especially psychographic data can be hard to come buy.
 
It takes a disciplined methodology to do market research well. There are ways to go about it efficiently but there are no magic shortcuts. It takes work and I bet many solo entrepreneurs probably believe their efforts are better spent elsewhere.
 
Also, its a lot easier staying in the confines of your mind than attempting to understand the thinking of others. Market research involves leaving behind what you think and prioritizing the thoughts and concerns of other people.
 

#3 – It's Time Consuming

 
Market research, done well, is really time consuming. Often it feels like you aren't really getting anywhere. Sometimes you think your work is raising more questions than bringing the valuable answers you need. Other tasks keep nagging you in the back of your head. It's easy to give in and just give up on research altogether.
 
All valuable things take time. Market research is a question of proper prioritization. Is it better to move forward without a target or with one? Is it more strategic to understand as best you can what a market wants before creating a product?
 

#4 – Impatience

 
Because market research is hard and time consuming there is a temptation to become impatient and move on to work that feels like you are actually making valuable progress. It feels better to work on creating a course than doing all that research and delaying the creation of your product.
 
Impatience is something we always have to fight. Impatience has never served me well and giving into it has often caused me to act without thinking a decision through. Checking off an item on a to do list feels better than taking longer on a task and doing it the right way.
 
As entrepreneurs, we are people of action. We always want to feel as if we are making valuable progress. Generally, that is a good drive to have. However, the wise entrepreneur knows that action in and of itself is not valuable. Action needs to be smart and strategic, not impulsive and wayward. Market research is smart, strategic work.
 

#5 – Overconfidence

 
Perhaps a primary reason why more solo entrepreneurs don't do market research is simple overconfidence. They don't feel like they need it.
 
Perhaps they have had success in the past without proper market research. Perhaps they are so in love with their idea they can't imagine it failing. I know – I've been there.
 
Overconfidence often blinds us to seeing reality. It creates a false reality in our minds and then we are shocked when real life doesn't catch up to our fantasies. Market research helps ground our ideas in reality and combats false thinking that can lead us right over a cliff.
 

Types of Market Research

 
Before launching in to market research for your course, its important to note there are different types of research. I have seen these terms used in different ways but I am following the definitions as given by Bill Aulet in his book Disciplined Entrepreneurship1 and the companion workbook2.
 
  1. Primary market research – “direct interaction with the potential customer to gain knowledge specific to your new venture”
  2. Secondary market research – info from sources other than potential customer
Each of these types of research has value but the most important is primary market research – directly listing to, talking to, or observing, your target customer. Primary research will be the focus of the rest of this article.
 

Primary Market Research Methods

 
Primary market research can be time consuming but its important to hear directly from a target customer as best as possible. These methods can be summarized as Listening, Asking, and Observing.3
 

Listening to Your Target Market

 
Listening means simply reading what your target market is already saying regarding their problems, needs, potential solutions, and comments about using competing or related products.
 
Fortunately, the Internet has made it very easy to find numerous ways of listening to what your market is saying. Here are a few:
 

Udemy and Skillshare Course Platforms

 
One of the first stops I would recommend for doing course creation research are the course platforms Udemy and Skillshare. These as very popular sites where virtually anyone can create a course on a wide range of topics and sell them to a large audience.
 
What's particularly helpful for course creators is the sheer amount of courses and reviews each of these platforms contain. Here is what you can do to take advantage of all this data:
 
  1. Search for any course that is similar to what you are thinking about creating.
  2. Write down any information about the number of students enrolled in the course. This tells you a rough minimum of the market size for that particular topic.
  3. Write down how much the course costs. Realize that often these courses are on sale and some of them rarely sell for the stated regular price. This will give a price minimum for related courses.
  4. Read through the reviews and note the following: What needs or problems did students have that the course adequately met? What needs or problems are unmet? What did the instructor do well? Not well? Pay particular attention to complaints and low review scores. This can be a great opportunity for you to meet those needs in your own course. You can also get ideas about teaching techniques to use in your own course.

The reviews on these sites contain a lot of direct feedback from paying course customers. You get information on minimum market size, pricing, met needs, unmet needs, solved problems, unsolved problems, and tips on how best to create your own course content. That is a lot of great market data waiting to be utilized.

Other Course Platforms to Research

 
In addition to Udemy and Skillshare, there are quite a few other platforms with their own specialties, teacher requirements, accreditation, and topic range. Here are a few you can check:
 
  1. The Great Courses – courses on this site are targeted to lifelong learners who want instruction from some of the top professors in the world without having to attend a college or university. Courses are priced anywhere from $12.95 to $699.95 but sales are frequent so keep in mind that many customers are probably not paying full price.
  2.  Udacity – targets lifelong learners looking to advance their careers in technology fields. Courses are structured more like typical university classes and are typically priced in the hundreds of dollars. If you are looking to create more expensive courses for tech job training, this is a good place to research student comments and pricing data.
  3. Coursera – Coursera partners with major universities to offer online courses, free classes, and even accredited degrees. There is a wide range of pricing and course topics. Lots of reviews and student enrollment data.
  4. Teachable – Teachable is a course creation and delivery platform that anyone can purchase and use to sell courses of any type. There aren't really reviews to look through but you can find out who is selling what type of course and what they are charging. Just do this search on Google to find courses hosted on Teachable – site:teachable.com [course keyword]

Kindle eBook Reviews

 
Though eBooks are a different media format, and typically cost less than courses, they can still be helpful research targets.
 
Search Amazon's Kindle eBook library for topics related to your course material. You can start with searches like “How to” plus your keywords to find books that are specifically addressing problems. Note what the eBook is selling for and look through reviews to see what you can learn about how the eBook solved or didn't solve problems for those who purchased.
 

Social Media Discussions

 
There are also lots of social media postings you can read to learn about your market. Consider the following:
 
  1. YouTube videos – search for “how to” or tutorial videos related to your topic and read the comments below the video to see how well it did or didn't meet needs. Since these are free videos, you may not learn much about what people are willing to pay for but it is still a good learning opportunity.
  2. Facebook Groups – search through Facebook groups and join any that would have people in your target market. Listen closely to what problems or pain they are expressing. Notice also what products or services are currently being recommended by the community for competitor research.
  3. LinkedIn Groups – another great source of target market research, especially in the business world.
  4. Forums – though not as popular as they used to be, there are still plenty of enthusiast forums built around all kinds of interests. These are places where people go to post questions and problems for the community to help them solve. I have learned a massive amount of information from various forums over the years and often turn here first when I am doing research on my own home repair, hobbies, and higher end buying decisions.
  5. Blog comments – reading blog comments can be either torture or incredibly enlightening. Search for blog posts that are related to your course topics and see what people are saying about the post content and what other issues they need solved.

Asking

 

Listening type market research can be extremely helpful but there is nothing quite like asking the opinions of your target market directly.

You can ask questions of your potential market in all the places mentioned above (YouTube comments, Facebook groups, forums, LinkedIn groups, blog comments) and other social media venues like Reddit.

The key here is being respectful of the rules of whatever venue you are engaging in and avoid selling at all costs. Ask sincere, open ended questions (“What is your greatest problem right now?” is often a good one) and encourage your audience to be 100% honest. You may be surprised what people are willing to tell you.

You can also ask questions using more traditional tools like surveys (online, mail, telephone) and focus groups. Online surveys don't have to cost a lot if you already have an audience or you can partner with a site to survey their visitors for a low cost or simply offer to share the results of your research for free.

Helpful ResourceSurvey Software Comparison for Small Business

Observing

 

Observing your target customer means watching them in their natural environments (home, work, in social settings, etc.) which correlate to whatever problem you want to solve with your course content.

For instance, if you are selling a course on how to help waiters and waitresses get higher tips, you might try to shadow a few in their workplace and observe what they are doing right and wrong as they serve customers. You may gain very eye opening data to include in your course about common problems you observe and what to do differently regarding how the waitperson smiles, greets customers, answers questions, recommends menu items, makes customers feel important, and so on.

Observing is helpful since people don't always accurately communicate what their problems really are. For instance, a waiter may know he doesn't get good tips but may not understand what he is doing wrong.

Conclusion

 

Market research is easy to neglect but its an incredibly valuable use of time in getting to know your target market's needs, wants, and problems.

Before you launch into course creation, invest time in market research. There are a lot of hints in this article to help you get started. Following through will give you a much better chance of succeeding in creating a high value course that sells well and exceeds your revenue goals.

Sources

 

1.  Aulet, Bill. Disciplined Entrepreneurship. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2013.

2.  ___. Disciplined Entrepreneurship Workbook. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2017.

3. The “Listening” and “Asking” labels I got from Jeff Cobb's excellent article  “15 Ways to Validate Your Online Course Idea” published at Teachable. Its a great article from a very experienced course creator and trainer and I highly recommend it.

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Jim Rosenquist

Jim Rosenquist

Jim started earning a living online in 1999 and became a solo entrepreneur in 2001. He started Solo Intel in 2019 as a way to help solo entrepreneurs and small operators become more strategic with their online business.

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