10 Proven Ways to Validate Your Online Course Idea

It’s easy to spend a lot of time and money on course creation… but how do you validate your online course idea before going through all that heartache?

In this post, we’ll cover ten proven ways to test whether your online course will be a winner. Including hands-on tech advice on how to set up each validation method.

Method 1: Pre-sell your course

Pre-selling your course is one of the most popular ways to validate your online course idea. Put simply, it means selling your course before creating the content itself and setting a future date that your students will get access to your content.

Benefits: No time wasted on course creation until you have cold hard cash in your hands.

Downsides: It can be a tougher sell if people know they won’t get immediate access to the content. BUT you can counteract this conversion hurdle by either offering an early bird discount or ramping up the urgency with a Deadline Funnel countdown.

How to set up a pre-sale

It’s surprisingly easy to set up a pre-sale for your course. Initially, you’ll create a mostly empty course in your course hosting platform (we always recommend Teachable), where the lessons include a combination of the following:

  • A welcome message or video
  • A quick tip or gift that they can benefit from right away
  • Details of when the full content will be available
  • Access to any early bird community or bonus materials

If you’re planning on offering an early bird discount (highly recommended for pre-sales), create this reduced pricing plan on your platform or publicise an early bird coupon code with a limited volume if you want to put a cap on pre-sale students.

And next… launch! There really doesn’t need to be much difference between your pre-sale launch and a full launch. Build your email list by offering valuable free content and then plan your launch phase with conversion-optimised emails (like Teachable’s Crazy 8 email strategy) and/or paid advertising.

Once your pre-sale cart has closed, you’ll know whether you got enough students to make the course creation worth your while.

If you did get enough sales, then you can create your course safe in the knowledge that:

  • You have a batch of students already paid up and waiting for your content, and…
  • You’ll likely be able to do a full launch successfully when you’re ready to scale up

If you just got a few students (not enough to justify creating the full course), you can either offer those students a refund or find an alternative way to help them—for example, with one-on-one tuition or services.

This is one of my personal favourite ways to validate your online course.

Method 2: Offer a live round

This is really similar to the pre-sale option, except your students will get access to your expertise sooner after signing up. You’ll launch your course exactly the same as you would normally, but this option means you’ll have a fixed start date and you’ll do it live using a video platform like Zoom.

Downsides: You will still have to spend time planning your curriculum for live delivery. And if you’re not confident in delivering live lessons, it could be nerve-wracking. But…

Benefits: You’ll still spend much less time on course development since you won’t have to perfect every video before you launch. A specific start date can also be a huge boost for productivity because it’ll act like a deadline. PLUS there might be plenty for you to learn from the live feedback from your students that will make your full course even better.

How to set up a live round

You’ll set this up in a similar way to the pre-sale method. Create a course on your hosting platform that contains a combination of the following:

  • A welcome message or video
  • A quick tip or gift that they can benefit from right away
  • Confirmation of when the live sessions will take place and how they can get access on the day (e.g. via your Zoom link)
  • Student survey so you know who your live audience will be (so you can tailor your training for them)

Before your live round start date, schedule a series of emails to serve as reminders and as a way to hype up your students, especially if it’s been a while since they signed up.

Depending on how many people sign up for your live round, you’ll know whether there’s enough interest to justify creating your full course or whether to try out another course idea instead.


Method 3: Recruit beta testers

In my experience, this is the most common method of course validation but not one I’m a big fan of. This method involves developing some or all of your course, then finding testers (discounted or free) to go through it and give you feedback—on the content itself but also on whether they think the course will sink or swim.

Benefits: You can get great feedback provided your beta testers are the kind of people who would actually buy your course (rather than just friends or family). Beta testing rounds can also be a great source of testimonials that you can use in your launch materials.

Downsides: You’ll need to actually create your course before getting validation, which means you may have wasted a lot of time if the idea is a non-starter. People also find it more difficult to value something they got for free or a low price, so poor completion rates are common in a beta round.

Important edit: I want to clarify that I do recommend recruiting beta testers for your course as a way to improve your material. But I think the fact that you have to spend hours in course development mode before finding out if it’s a solid concept makes for a poor validation method. So, great for content feedback, bad for concept validation.

How to set up a beta test

The hardest part of beta testing is finding good testers. I highly recommend recruiting testers who are actually the kind of person who would buy your course. As opposed to random family members or friends.

Where to find these people? Well, that depends on your specific audience. Facebook groups are a great place to ask for beta testers, but if your audience are more likely to be found on LinkedIn or even offline – that’s where you should recruit. Just remember to follow community rules when recruiting, as some groups won’t let you promote content even if it’s free.

Now, as far as the tech goes, this is possibly the simplest set-up of them all. Simply set up your course on your hosting platform and then enroll your beta testers. You can either enroll them manually, create a temporary free or discounted plan for them, send them to your unpublished course checkout or send them a coupon.

Once your beta testers have finished the course, collect their answers to 5-10 predefined feedback questions either by email, video call or with an online form (we recommend Cognito Forms).

Method 4: Create a public survey

This method involves creating a survey to understand whether your potential audience would be interested in your course and then sharing that survey in places you know your audience hangs out. You should be able to validate your online course idea based on that survey data.

Benefits: You get to really understand your audience’s needs rather than assuming you know what they like or dislike. You can use this method before creating any of your course and survey data is also great for informing the actual course content itself.

Downsides: Sometimes what people say they like or want is different from what they actually like or want. For example, you might find that some people say they’d love to learn how to cook, but in practice, they won’t actually commit to buying a course.

How to set up a survey

You can sign up for dedicated survey software like SurveyMonkey, but if you already have a form builder like Cognito Forms, that’s also a great option.

There are three main things you’ll want your survey to do:

  1. Understand where this person is at now – For example, do they have experience with your topic already? If so, to what extent? Where did they get that experience? How much have they invested to get to where they are now?
  2. Explore what they like/dislike about other options – Have they tried different courses or learning methods before? What went well for them? What do they wish had been different?
  3. Pitch your course idea, structure and price – When provided with the details of your course, would this person be willing to invest? If not, why not?

And a cheeky bonus step…

Why not use conditional logic to promote your presale or waiting list to those who said “yes” to the final question. 😉

Once you’ve created your survey, share it in the same places your audience would hang out online. You might even like to offer a discount on your course for anyone who completes the survey, as a way to incentivise participation.

Method 5: Poll your own audience

This is a very similar way to validate your online course as the previous method, except this time you’ll send your survey to your own audience via social media or email.

Benefits: You shouldn’t need to get to know your audience to the same extent (since you already know them), so this can be more of a quick poll than a detailed survey. We LOVE this method for choosing between multiple potential course ideas.

Downsides: This requires an existing audience, which not all aspiring course creators have.

How to set up a poll

The most common way to validate your online course with this method would be to create a poll in a platform like Cognito, then share that poll with your audience directly. Simple.

But my favourite method for polling an audience is with email automation. I’ll explain how this would work with our favourite email tool, ConvertKit, but this same method can be used in other tools like MailChimp or ActiveCampaign.

First, you would create an email broadcast that asks something like…

"If I were to create an online course, which of the following topics would you love me to cover? Click on the links below to vote and I’ll create the one with the most clicks!

Topic A

Topic B

Topic C"

Once it’s been sent, you can then head to your reports to see which was the most-wanted (most-clicked) topic.

As an added bonus, you can also set up each link to trigger an automation that tags the subscriber as interested in that topic. Then once your complete, you have a ready-made segment to promote your course to!

Method 6: Run ads to free content

Note: Shout out to Tim Ferriss for this idea. I tried to find the original info from him but it’s been so long that I can’t find it!

This method involves setting up a low-effort or entry-level version of your course that’s in a freely accessible format (for example, as a blog post). Next, you run ads to that content to test how many people click.

Benefits: Get “real” action-focused feedback from your actual future audience, i.e. they really did click rather than just saying in a survey that they think they’d click. You can also run a few different ads with headline or copy variations to test out different ideas and compare the click-through rate. Bonus: you can also retarget the people who clicked when you come to launch your actual course.

Downsides: You’ll need an ad budget for this but you can make it work for $1/day if your budget is limited. Obviously the bigger your budget, the bigger your sample and the more accurate your data.

How to set up validation ads

First, create your free content. The most important thing here is that its title is as similar to your course title as possible. This is so that when someone clicks on your ad, you’ll be confident that it’s validating your course idea.

Once you have your blog post ready, it’s time to create your Facebook Ads. If you’re brand new to Facebook Ads, we highly recommend this guide for beginners. And if you want a more detailed understanding of Facebook Ads, the “Paid Traffic Mastery” course inside Digital Marketer’s Lab membership is second to none.

Ultimately, you’ll want to send ads to your actual ideal audience where the advert content mirrors your course’s planned copy and imagery as closely as possible.

When people click, they’ll get free value from your blog post and start to get a picture of whether people are really interested in your topic.

Once your campaign is complete, the main number to look at is your Link CTR (click-through rate). That is, the proportion of people who clicked on your link out of all the people who saw it in their feed.

An average CTR would be somewhere around 2%. Any lower than that and you may want to tweak your copy or headline to see if you can get it any higher. If you can’t, it might be time to park this idea and road-test your next one.

Method 7: Interview ideal students

This simple way to validate your online course needs little explanation. Essentially, you find people who might be the kind of person to buy your course in future and ask them a bunch of questions similar to the survey method.

Benefit: You can get really rich, detailed feedback that you might struggle to get in survey responses.

Downsides: Again, you need to account for the fact that what people say they’ll do and what people do in reality can be worlds apart. Depending on how many people you interview, this can also be quite a time-intensive method to validate your online course.

How to set up student interviews

This is another simple set-up – find where your ideal students hang out online, approach them and arrange a call.

Make sure you have your questions prepared beforehand. These can be very similar to the kinds of questions you’d ask in a survey, but don’t be afraid of branching out away from your set questions when it comes to the interview.

As with the survey method, you’ll want to cover three main areas:

  1. Understand where this person is at now – For example, do they have experience with your topic already? If so, to what extent? Where did they get that experience? How much have they invested to get to where they are now?
  2. Explore what they like/dislike about other options – Have they tried different courses or learning methods before? What went well for them? What do they wish had been different?
  3. Pitch your course idea, structure and price – When provided with the details of your course, would this person be willing to invest? If not, why not?

This method is the polar opposite of the validation advert method since the data you collect is going to be conversational rather than hard numbers and stats. But as a bonus, you’ll get much more rich feedback from your interviewee than you would from a click on an advert.

Method 8: Launch a free first lesson/module

This validation method involves creating the first lesson or module of your course and then promoting it to your audience. If they bite? Validated. If you hear crickets? Your full paid course probably won’t be a roaring success either (or you at least need to improve your marketing).

Benefits: Many course creators see this as the lowest-stress option for validation since there won’t be any complicated systems to set up and it means you’ve also made a start on your actual course content

Downsides: People don’t value “free” in the same way as they do paid content, so if you get a significantly unexpectedly low number of sign-ups, take it with a pinch of salt. Otherwise, though, this is a solid validation method and one we often recommend.

How to set up a free lesson

The set-up for this method will vary depending on your chosen course platform, but we’ll focus on Teachable for the purposes of this post. Alternative platforms will be largely similar.

Essentially, you’ll create a standalone free mini-course. This will require students to sign up for the free course with their email address and you’ll be able to see how many students signed up overall.

This method demonstrates that your audience are willing to part with something (their email address) in return to your content, even if it’s not a dollar amount at this point.

Added bonuses are that you have their email addresses to market your full course to later and you can even collect some testimonials and/or feedback.

Method 9: Research similar courses/products

This is one of the most-frequently recommended ways to validate your online course but is actually one of our least favourites.

The rationale behind this method is that if you can find successful courses or info-products that are similar to your own, then you can assume that yours is a solid idea. So this method involves going to a variety of sources and see if anyone else is making bank in your niche.

Benefits: It gives you an idea of what’s already out there for your audience, so you know what they’ll be comparing you to.

Downsides: It’s harder to quantitative analysis—that is, really see into people’s businesses to understand how successful each product is. I also firmly believe that it’s an unsafe bet to think that just because someone else made it, you can too. Even if your course content it just as good, these other products may have extensive marketing experience that you can’t match, so take the results from this method with a bucket of salt.

How to research similar courses

To be frank, we won’t go into a detailed process for this method purely because we believe your validation efforts are better spent elsewhere.

Instead, we’d recommend carrying out your own research into your market using the following sources, but then prioritise one of the other methods.

  • Amazon book ranks – This is a stat you can find on every product listing on Amazon. It tells you how popular the product is in each of its categories. Check out books related to your topic and you can use this stat to gauge how popular they are.
  • BuzzSumo.com – Enter your topic as a keyword and you’ll be able to see the most popular blog posts on that topic based on their engagement levels on social media.
  • Udemy – This is a hosted course platform where you can search the directory for courses similar to your own. You can also view rankings and reviews to gauge how successful each course is.
  • Google – Other than the three options above, Google is your friend. Search for the kind of keywords your students would be likely to use and see if you can find other successful courses or info-products in your niche.

Method 10: Research search volume

If you’ve read this far, you can probably tell we’re fans of quantitative feedback—hard numbers that allow you to validate your online course. So it’ll be no surprise that this final method is also one of our favourite BUT only when paired with one of the others.

This method involves using Google’s Keyword Planner to see how many searches are made each month for content like yours.

Benefits: As mentioned above, you get hard cold numbers with this method.

Downsides: Even if people are searching for information on your topic in droves, remember that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll automatically be able to create exactly the right course for them or market it to them in exactly the right way. There’s still a lot of hard work for you to do!

How to research keyword volume

Head over to Google’s Keyword Planner and sign in with your Google account. You may also need to set up a Google Ads account and add your billing information, but you won’t need to actually start a campaign in order to use the keyword tool.

When prompted, click Get search volume and forecasts and enter a broad range of possible search terms related to your topic. Make sure you’re in the Historical Metrics section and you’ll see monthly search volumes in the table below.

You might also like to check out the Competition column, but it’s important to understand what this information really means. This information is based on how competitive the search term is for Google Ad placements, i.e. if you were running ads, how many other advertisers are competing for the same spots.

This competition information can be very useful but also misleading. For example, it would be great to find a high monthly search volume for an uncompetitive keyword, but if that keyword is something like “free DIY tips”, that would explain why advertisers aren’t competing for it. Not because it’s a missed opportunity, but because the people who search specifically for free stuff are much less likely to buy from you.

That’s all, folks!

We hope you found these 10 proven ways to validate your online course useful.