A big misconception about ideas is that they just appear in our minds at the right moment. You just need to wait for inspiration to come and you’ll find the perfect idea for your online course!

Wrong, wrong, wrong. There’s a reason why people get the best ideas in the shower, in their dreams or on a plane. Your brain is seeking new information, learning things and just working constantly. It just takes a while to mull things over! And even then, how can you be 100% that it’s going to attract learners? In order words, how do you know that your idea will sell?

Picking an idea for an online course that sells well means that it’s time for you to think like a scientist and not base an entire course on your assumptions about what people need. Also, you’re not going to lose money if you test your ideas first, but might actually end up in that situation if the course isn’t attracting enough clients.

How to do this? First, put on a lab coat because it’s going to require some experimenting. Second, here are the questions to ask yourself in order to come up with the best online course idea that will actually sell:

What can you do?

To come up with a great idea for an online course, you should first know what are your strong points and interests. Maybe you’re already a business owner who has a lot of experience in a field, or you’ve learned how to DIY and want to share your method.


Read more: Why business owners should sell online courses


The so called magic formula is: what you are good at + what you love to do + what you can offer.

What you are good at means that you have enough expertise in an area to be able to teach it to someone else. What you’re interested in is picking a topic that you truly enjoy and won’t get bored of it halfway through making the course. Finally, what you can offer is what you can realistically achieve in terms of time, logistics, and what could best fit the needs of your prospective learners.

Which brings us to the next question…

What do people want?

Deep down, we all want to achieve our goals in order to become better, smarter, happier, healthier, etc. as close as possible to that ideal self. People need something practical and engaging that’s not too easy or too difficult for them.

In reality, people tell you all the time what they want and need. Take Google searches for: “learn how to code” or “how to start a business”. There are entire Facebook groups, forums and conferences dedicated to a certain audience.

Your job at this stage is to listen. Active listening goes a long way when you are researching ideas. Of course, what you want is to narrow down the conversations you are having and try to pay attention to things that are relevant for people that could be your learners at some point. You don’t want to create a generic course that speaks to everyone, you’re doing this for a specific audience.

Does brainstorming work?

The short answer is yes. If you’re already very familiar with the field and think you can find some interesting ideas, write them down. If you’re stuck and need to get the ball rolling, you have plenty of options for finding inspiration.

Where to find ideas:

  • Your own experience: trust your instincts. If you’ve worked in a certain domain and you have this experience you can probably come up with a lot of ideas on your own
  • Your competitors: see which courses are popular. It’s OK if there are similar courses on the market since you will put your own spin on things
  • Forums and sites where people ask for help/discuss ideas: look for language that signifies a problem such as: “how do I, I don’t know how to, I wish I could…” people sometimes feel more comfortable talking online about their problems so you will surely find plenty of examples out there. Even snooping on other people’s posts on Twitter using hashtags can help you get an idea
  • Networking: sometimes you spend a lot of time around a group of people and see the same problem coming up, whether it’s time management, financial education etc. Take time to discuss this with people, throw some ideas out and see what they think of it
  • Google: searching for keywords and trends can get you an idea of what people are looking for
  • Amazon: you can find examples of the most popular books and ebooks that sell well for a particular topic
  • Podcasts: there are plenty of podcasts centered around a specific problem, from improving your fitness to becoming a minimalist

    Read more: How to create successful podcasts for your online course

Write a best ideas list

Once you find a few ideas, it’s time to cut them off the list. Yes, that’s hard to do, but remember that you only need one winning idea to sell courses.

Let’s take productivity as an example. In my research I’ve found that people that work full time and study at the same time need to manage their time better (I’ve used Quora to find this problem actually). Here’s my idea for an online course: Best productivity tips for working students. While this idea can be refined in the future, my idea works because it’s:

  • concise rather than general
  • speaks to my buyer persona: working students
  • practical – I can come up with a curriculum on my own
  • a niche topic in the larger context of time management

So, it seems that I’ve found my best selling idea and can get cracking. Except how do I know that working students need my course? How can I be sure that this idea is good enough?

Putting your idea to the test

Testing is the most important part. This is where you confront your assumptions about what works and doesn’t work. Businesses do this all the time before launching a new product on the market, but you don’t need a big budget to validate your online course idea. In fact, testing should be almost one hundred percent free:

  • Write a post, make a video or blog: create a sort of teaser to help you understand if the topic strikes a chord with people. For example, I would write a post about my own experience with time management when working and studying at the same time. See how many shares or views it gets or whether people can relate to your idea in the comments
  • Use social media: use social media to get your idea out there – ideally on a forum, group, chat, etc. See what people think, how they’ve been trying to solve their problems so far. A simple How do you deal with working and studying full time? should give you some clues

    Read more: Social media platforms to consider when marketing your online course


  • Perform customer interviews: talk to a person that could fit your buyer persona, whether you prefer a one on one conversation over coffee or Skype. Ideally, an interview should last at least 30 minutes, but you can take your time if their answers are insightful. You can even record the interviews if people agree to it or take notes. Just be aware that you should not tell them your idea first. Instead, ask questions such as: Do you find it difficult to work and study at the same time? Has your GPA suffered because of it? What’s the hardest thing to do? If you want, reveal your course idea at the end and ask for their opinion. Would they take such a course? Otherwise, you will risk people agreeing that it’s a great idea out of politeness
  • Use surveys: surveys offer a quantitative way to validate assumptions. Let’s say I can go back to my university and ask students to complete a survey to get an idea of what they need and whether my idea could work for them. Make sure that the questions aren’t general and that you get at least 30-50 answers from people that are actually your buyer personas. For example, I would exclude from my list students that aren’t working at the moment

And the winner is…

The winner is the idea that you’ve validated and that best answers the needs of people in that particular niche. You should come to the conclusion that 1. a group of people have a problem/pain point/need and 2. Your experience and tips could help them solve it.

The key takeaway of today is that you can brainstorm ideas, narrow them down and then validate your idea before starting to work on a course. Ideally, it shouldn’t take you a long time to choose the best idea. Some people do it in a week, others take up to a month, but don’t prolong this process unnecessarily. If needed, set up a deadline to come up with an idea and as they say “just do it”.

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