5 ways to know if your course idea will sell

Sometimes it’s great to just listen to your gut. But when it comes to creating online courses, it’s a good idea to do some research up front.

Even if you’re creating a simple audio course, there’s still going to be money, time and energy invested. Don’t jump ahead on a whim. Take a day or two and do some basic research to see if you’re idea is worth pursuing.

A couple of things to consider when you’re deciding on your topic.

1) Competition is a good thing.

You might feel the need to venture into uncharted territory. After all, isn’t that part of the appeal of becoming an entrepreneur.

However, this can be a fatal (in business terms) mistake when deciding on your course topic.

The fact of the matter is that you should be SEEKING out competition.

Yes…BRING IT!

2) Sometimes listening to your gut IS the perfect idea.

If you find that there really isn’t a market looking for what you want to sell, don’t lose hope. Try to research other ideas that you’re excited about or dig around a bit more regarding your original idea.

When I first got online I made a bit of a name for myself with my Charge What You Deserve brand. I began helping life coaches price their services with more confidence and authority. This was deeply personal to me because I had just come out of a bankruptcy.

I actually started making sales before ever doing research on my topic. I knew, through personal experience and feedback from colleagues, that this was a topic of interest.

However, when you search for “how to price your products” you don’t find a lot of people actually looking for this.

So, sometimes it’s okay to go with your gut. But combine that with good old common sense. If you’re excited about something, but nobody else seems to be then maybe it’s time to move on to another idea.

There are plenty of them out there!

I’m going to cover 5 quick and easy ways to see if there’s interest in your topic:

  1. Amazon
  2. Udemy
  3. Keyword research
  4. Survey your “peeps”
  5. Forums and discussion groups

Why not start with the “King of Content” when it comes to eBook sales…Amazon. An eBook is simply a version of an information product. So is an online course. If people are already investing in books (hard copy or digital) then it stands to reason that this is a good sign that other info product types on the same topic will be popular too.

Research Idea #1 – Amazon.com

The first thing to do is head over to Amazon.com. Once you’re there you want to browse the categories section and look for one related to your topic idea.

I like to search by department and start with Kindle books.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 1.22.54 PM

Once you’re there you can scroll down and look to the left until you see “Kindle eBooks.”

Then find the topic that’s most closely related to your own. So, if you have sales experience and would like to begin your online adventure as a sales coach, trainer and mentor then start browsing the “Business & Money” category.

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 1.25.28 PM

You might want to check out the “Best-Selling” books in your category, but don’t let that distract you. What you want to do is see if there are already successful books being sold on YOUR topic.

Now that you’re in your general category, go ahead and enter a search for your specific idea. E.g.: “Sales.”

Then start browsing some of the books there.

With a topic like sales, we already know that this is an incredibly popular topic so you’d actually want to niche down your course idea rather than create a “how to make more sales” type of product, but this research can still provide some great insights.

One interesting strategy is to go to a couple of the books that are listed first and see their Amazon sales rank. It looks like this:

Screen Shot 2015-08-05 at 1.32.34 PM
You can see here that not only has this book been ranked #1 in a few sub-categories, but it’s ranked at #10,296 in the Kindle store overall. That is tremendous. Anything under 250k or so would be a good sign that this is a popular topic given the vast number of books sold on Amazon.

Ninja Trick

Dig into some of the reviews for these books. Read both positive and negative reviews to find out what people are saying. What do they like? What’s missing? This can provide some GOLDEN ideas for your course content.

If a lot of people are complaining about something being missing, why not try to add that to your course and highlight that in your marketing?

Research Idea #2 – Udemy

If you’re like I was a few months ago, you might not even have ever heard of Udemy (pronounced: yooduh-mee) before now. But Udemy can be a powerful research tool for your own course.

Udemy has over 30,000 online courses serving over 7 million students. While there are other platforms that sell more courses such as Clickbank, Udemy is unique in that it also hosts a massive community of students.

This means that you can see star reviews and the number of students that each of the courses has.

And like they say, you can find a course on virtually anything.

Researching your course idea on Udemy


To get started go to Udemy.com.

If you begin to search for courses you’ll see that there are 15 (as of this printing) general categories ranging from Development and Business all the way to Language and Test Prep.

It’s been my experience that some of the more technical subjects are particularly popular on Udemy, but you can still get a great idea about all of the topics shared on Udemy.

So the best way to use Udemy as a research tool is to simply poke around for a bit. You can type in your specific topic idea in the search bar and see what comes up. If you get too many non-related results then add quotes to your search.

E.g.: Instead of typing web design you would type “web design” to get a more targeted search.

Then you can click on some of the relevant courses, see how many students they have and read the reviews.

As with all of the research strategies, you don’t want to put too much stock in any or all of them. You can rely on instinct and experience, but as I mentioned before, you want to make sure that people are already buying what you want to sell if you want to increase your odds of success.

 It’s all in the Numbers – or IS IT?

One quick note is that if you see a course that has 5k students and a price of $195, that does NOT mean that this course has generated $975,000. A lot of course creators start off by offering their course for free so that they can get early reviews and a gathering of students.

Also, Udemy thrives off of BIG sales. They run promotions almost monthly and these promotions offer massive discounts. A typical promotion will be $17 for any course so if you’re a course creator who participates in Udemy’s marketing promotions it’s likely that the vast majority of your sales are from these scattered promos. That being said, you can still make a nice extra income by selling your courses on Udemy.

Research Idea #3 – Keyword Research

Next, go to Google’s keyword research tool. You can check that out here:

https://adwords.google.com/KeywordPlanner

If you don’t have one already, you’ll need to create a free Gmail account in order to access this tool, but it’s worth the extra few minutes to do so 😉

Using Adwords research can be powerful, but don’t get lost here.

The idea is to see what people are already searching for online to get an idea about how popular your topic is.

Keep in mind that just because somebody is searching doesn’t mean that they’re buying. This is why I start you off with researching on Amazon and Udemy first.

That being said, you can see how often people are searching for a specific term related to your topic and then you can see if other folks are spending money to get in front of those searches. If so, that’s a very good indication that you’re on to a profitable topic.

Once you sign into Google Adwords, you’ll want to search for new keywords.

Research online course idea with Google keyword planner

Next you want to enter a term that your potential students/clients might search for.

In this example, I’ll use “How to publish a book.”

Online course idea on how to self publish a book

Click “Get Ideas” at the bottom of the page and you’ll be taken to a page full of useful info.

Google Adwords creates groups of words that they feel are related. Looking at these groups can open up new ideas for your topic, but it can also be a goldmine for finding keywords or phrases to write about when it comes time for the marketing. But more on that later 😉

The first thing to take a look at is the “Avg. monthly searches” column. This will tell you approximately how many people are searching for these terms each month. In most cases, the more the merrier.

Create an online course on self-publishing

Don’t worry about competition. If it’s high, that’s fine. You’ll learn how to stand out from the crowd and you won’t be relying strictly on Google to get traffic to your courses.

But the next number that you DO want to take a look at is the “suggested bid.” This tells you how much people or businesses are willing to spend each time someone clicks on their ad. In this example, people are paying between $5 – $8 EACH time someone clicks on one of their ads. That’s a great sign that “there’s gold in them there hills.”

Hmm…maybe my next book should be on how to publish a book. But I digress!

Research Idea #4 – Survey Your Peeps

Let’s dive into how to use a simple survey tool to test the waters before taking the plunge.

If you already have an email list or a following on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn then one of the best ways to get feedback on your topic idea is to just ask.

I use SurveyMonkey.com to survey my list. It’s free, fast and effective!

It will take about 10 minutes to set up your free account and create your first survey.

Survey tool for researching your online course topic idea

There are two very important rules that I want you to apply when you send out a survey.

Rule #1) Keep it SHORT. People are busy. They’re doing you a favor. Keep the survey short and concise. I recommend that you create a one-question survey and move from there. I’ll tell you what to ask next.

Rule #2) Start with an open-ended question. You’ll probably be tempted to ask something like, “If I create a course on X will you be interested?” Or, “Which of these 4 topics interests you the most?”

This is a tricky path to go down. When you GIVE them response options out of the gate, they’re going to respond to one. In the first example above a lot of folks will say “yes” but that doesn’t mean that this is an urgent problem that they want resolved. Maybe they’re just being nice or maybe it does seem like something that’s of interest at that moment.

Likewise, with the second example, “which of these 4 topics interests you the more?” you will find that people WILL respond to one of the options. This just means that of the 4 there is one that they are more interested in. But that does NOT mean that this is something that’s keeping them up at night.

And THAT is what you want to find out; what’s keeping them up at night.

So this is how I want you to approach your survey. You’re going to send at least two short surveys. The first is exploratory and the second is clarifying.

Exploratory Survey

The first survey will have a single open-ended question:

Feel free to tweak the questions a bit to suit your specific business. For example, you might focus on helping people achieve exciting goals so it’s not necessarily about overcoming a problem or concern.

Here are two examples:

Example 1:

“What’s the ONE thing that’s preventing you from achieving [desired result]?”

If you’re a business coach who helps people transition from a JOB to being self-employed you could ask, “What’s the ONE thing that’s preventing you from transitioning from your job into your new business?”

Example 2:

“What’s your #1 concern about [current situation].”

So if you’re a relationship coach you could ask, “What’s your #1 concern about your current relationship?”

After you send your survey out you can start tracking the feedback. It’s likely that you’ll start seeing some patterns emerge. What you want to look for are the 2, 3 or 4 responses that you keep seeing. Then you want to move to the Clarifying Survey.

Clarifying Survey

The second survey you send out will be geared toward zeroing in on the most popular choice. Rather than relying on the Exploratory Survey solely, you will want to get a bit more detailed.

This survey will have a single multiple-choice question.

All you want to do here is nail down the top choice from the 3-4 that came up during your Exploratory Survey.

To do this, just remind people that they had participated in a survey and you want to share the results and get more specific so you can help them with your upcoming course.

The survey question will look like this:

“Based on the previous survey, I’ve narrowed it down to 4 main ideas. Please let me know which of the following is most important in your life right now. If none are important then please respond with ‘none of the above’ from the choices below. Thank you in advance!”

Then just list the top 3-4 responses from your Exploratory Survey.

Once results start coming in you will be able to see graphically which of the choices are the most popular. To see your results just click on “Analyze Results” in the survey menu bar.

Use survey monkey to research online course ideas

 Here’s what a recent survey of mine looked like:

Survey results for researching online course idea

Research Idea #5 – Forums and Discussion Groups

A powerful way to see what people want is to listen to what they complain about.

That’s meant only slightly tongue-and-cheek 😉 If you go to forums and discussion groups related to your topic it’s likely that you won’t find a shortage of people who are asking for help. This is GOLD when it comes to coming up with your ideas.

In fact, forums and discussion groups might be a great place to start marketing your course, but for now we’ll focus on the research side of it.

Some of the most active groups you’ll find will be on Facebook and LinkedIn. If your topic is B2C (business to consumer) then Facebook will do the trick. If you’re more B2B (business to business) then LinkedIn will be your playground.

Simply login and enter [your topic + group] in the main search field.

Here’s a super quick search for “weight loss groups” on Facebook:

Using social media and Facebook to research online course ideas

Just start typing in the term you’re looking for and you’ll see a list of groups, individuals, etc pop up.

Here’s a search for “Sales Training” in LinkedIn:

Using LinkedIn to research online course ideas
Check out some of the groups to see which are most active. Consider joining between 3-4 groups that you can engage in. Answer questions that come up and contribute for a few days before going in and asking for favors, but you can certainly use groups to include as part of your survey or to promote your courses at a later date.

For research purposes, the key is to just keep your eyes and ears open and see what folks are talking about. What do they need? What’s missing? What are the top problems, frustrations and concerns?

Take note and see how these relate to your course idea. The goal is to create a course that solves a very specific problem. If there are enough people willing to pay for a solution to a common problem, then you can have tremendous success with your online courses.

Research sales training online course idea using Linkedin

So this should get you well on your way to selecting a great, best-selling online course idea before spending time, money and energy creating something that you’re not sure will sell.

If you want more details on how to get better results when you make, market and sell your online course, go here to learn about my step-by-step Profitable Online Courses training system.

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Leave a Reply 7 comments

Let this Mega Company help you select your online course topic - Tom Buford Marketing - November 18, 2015 Reply

[…] (I have an in-depth article covering 5 ideas to research your online course idea that you can find here) […]

Frances O. Thomas - January 27, 2016 Reply

Thanks for putting this together in one place, Tom. I haven’t seen the idea of researching Udemy before. As you said, it’s all a matter of keeping one’s eyes and ears open.

    Tom Buford - January 27, 2016 Reply

    Hey Frances,

    Thanks for the comment. I’m glad you enjoyed the post!

Brenda Smith - January 28, 2016 Reply

Thanks Tom. You probably saved me a lot of time, energy, and frustration with this roadmap to creating my product. Like most solopreneurs, I live in a silo of my own making, believing my idea is the “next great thing” that will have the world beating a path to my door. This first step of researching and testing is critically important.

The Ultimate Online Course Planner - Tom Buford Marketing - February 18, 2016 Reply

[…] If you want more research tips, check out this detailed post:  5 Ways To Know If Your Course Idea Will Sell. […]

Margaret Buj - April 9, 2016 Reply

Thank you for this very informative article, very useful.

    Tom Buford - April 9, 2016 Reply

    Happy it was helpful!

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