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How to sell online courses in crowded markets and competitive niches

Competitive subject areas the perfect place to earn money from online courses. Find out how to gauge competition and establish yourself as an expert in any niche.

August 6, 2018 by Len Markidan

Think about the last time you looked for an instructional video online. Unless you were trying to learn about verb conjugations in ancient Sumatran, how to construct a Rube Goldberg machine out of exactly 2,167 pieces of LEGO, or something equally specific, chances are pretty good that there were at least a few different videos showing you how to do whatever it was you wanted to learn.

This abundance of choice poses a unique dilemma for content creators: how can you create educational content that will attract viewers and grow your audience in a crowded space? How do you compete when everyone else is an expert and you don't feel like one?

First, start by acknowledging that not being an expert is an advantage, then read on as we look at how to sell online courses about topics in competitive subject areas. We'll examine what sets great online courses apart from the rest, why some subjects and topics are more popular than others, and how you can differentiate yourself and your content from the competition.

First, let's talk about how to evaluate the landscape in your niche through competitive intelligence.

How to gauge the competition in your niche

“Competitive intelligence” is a fancy-sounding term for basically snooping on the competition. This kind of research can take many forms, from estimating average monthly search volumes for specific keywords on Google to comparing the language used on two similar websites.

While there are many ways to go about competitive intelligence research, you're essentially trying to learn and reverse-engineer as much information about other content creators and their online courses as you possibly can before launching your own. The reason we conduct competitive intelligence before launching a project is so that we can apply the results of our research to our own projects before we put in the time and effort to actually create an online course.

Using Google for competitive intelligence research

Regardless of what topic your content focuses on, there are several reliable methods for evaluating the popularity of content within your niche. Although there are dozens of specialized tools you can use, a humble Google search can tell you a lot about your niche.

The screenshot below shows a search engine results page for the search term “Ruby on Rails tutorials”. We're not interested in the top result, as it's an advertisement. We've also deliberately used the plural “tutorials,” as using “tutorial” in the singular will give us results for a specific educational product that is known simply as the Ruby on Rails tutorial.

What do you notice about these results? With the exception of the fourth result, they're all very broad and generic—and refer to the Rails tutorial product we mentioned a moment ago.

What does this tell us? For one, “branded” search terms like “Ruby on Rails tutorial” can be very hard to compete with. (This also reveals how seemingly generic search terms can, in fact, reference very specific things.) And take a look at the first three results. They all sound really broad and fairly generic and don't really tell the student what they can expect. The fourth result is a little more specific, but it's still pretty much useless as a starting point, especially for complete newcomers to Ruby on Rails. So what do we do with this information?

One of the best ways you can set your content apart from the competition in a crowded space is to be as specific and detailed with your lesson and/or product descriptions as you can. Many content creators purposefully use broad product names and lesson modules to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. Unfortunately, this not only puts your content into direct competition with more established sites and services that likely have stronger domain authority and better-ranking content, but it also makes it harder for prospective students to figure out why they should choose your content over a competing resource.

So, how would you distinguish an online course about Rails? Let's take a look at a real example.

The screenshot below is taken from Podia creator Chris Oliver's course on integrating Stripe payments using Ruby on Rails. Although Chris's course isn't aimed at beginners, it's a perfect example of how to position your content in a crowded space.

Chris's course focuses on a highly specific task—integrating online payments using Stripe into an e-commerce system. Although this does reduce the potential audience for Chris's course, it actually increases his chances of converting a hesitant potential lead into a sale. Why? Because Chris knows exactly who his audience is—programmers with Ruby experience who are working with payment systems in ecommerce applications—and lays out exactly how students will accomplish this task.

Chris outlines the specific Ruby libraries that students will use in the course, breaks down a complex task into small, manageable lesson modules, and includes several testimonials from Rails developers who've taken his course to further establish and build trust. Chris's Stripe tutorial isn't the only resource for this topic out there, but it is one of the best. By focusing on a highly specific topic, Chris is giving his course the best possible chance of success in a very crowded subject area.

Positioning your online course for success

Now that we know a little more about how to evaluate existing resources in a niche or topic area, how can we use this information to position our online course for success? By aligning the messaging of our course materials with the desired learning outcomes of your prospective students.

Long before they make their first call, new sales professionals are often taught the “five magic words” they should keep in mind during every sales call—“What's in it for me?” Salespeople are taught that these five words are never far from a prospect's mind during a sales call and that everything they do and say should be informed by this perspective. By keeping this question in the forefront of their mind, sales professionals can tailor their questions and responses to answer this question at every stage of the sales process and even preempt prospects' objections before they raise them.

Remember—people don't buy things for the sake of buying things. People buy things to solve specific problems.

You might not be a sales professional by trade—even though, as a content creator, you're in sales by default!—but bearing this sales technique in mind can help you craft powerfully persuasive messaging that will boost your conversion rates and help you make more sales. It can also help you upsell additional products to interested prospects, which can further boost your revenue, because you've already established trust and demonstrated the value of your products.

The people who are thinking of buying your online course probably aren't looking to learn a new skill for the sake of it. More likely, they're hoping to learn something new to help them accomplish something. This might be something more aspirational like satisfying a life-long desire to finally learn a foreign language or something more specific, such as learning a specific technical skill to improve their chances of landing a promotion or finding another job.

When you're writing your online course materials—specifically, the descriptions of your course and its content—think carefully about what your prospective students are hoping to do or gain with their newfound knowledge. Take Podia content creator Nicole Saidy's course on how to Become a UI/UX Designer. This is an ideal example of a course that's been tailor-made with outcomes in mind. It's right there in the title!

However, that's not all Nicole's course gets right in terms of positioning. Everything about Nicole's course page, from the introductory copy to the overall lesson structure, is designed to appeal to the prospective students' desired outcomes. In the Overview copy, Nicole reassures prospective students by acknowledging that making the transition to user experience design can be overwhelming, especially for those hoping to make the transition from another career path. Everything about Nicole's course is designed to be friendly, reassuring, and relatable—all of which position Nicole's course as a reliable, trustworthy resource that prospective students can use to accomplish a tangible goal.

Establishing yourself as a trusted expert

The final step in our guide to selling online courses in competitive subject areas is establishing yourself as a trusted expert in your field and leveraging your expertise as a sales tool.

Trust is integral to every transaction, but it's especially important with online transactions. That's why so many sites and companies “name-drop” their clients. It's not (just) to boast—it's to inspire confidence in prospective buyers. That's why establishing yourself as a trusted expert is so important in differentiating your content from your competition.

Podia content creator Sally Ann Miller's course, Author Success Blueprint, is a fantastic example of how to establish yourself as a trusted expert and build a rapport with your prospective students without name-dropping a Fortune 500.

Although Sally is a best-selling nonfiction author on the Amazon marketplace, she doesn't rely on this alone to establish her authority and credentials. Rather, she leverages her storytelling skills to make her introductory copy warm, friendly, and relatable. She recounts her own doubts about whether she could become an author (something that virtually all aspiring writers struggle with), outlines the challenges she faced when trying to write as a parent of a young toddler, and describes how, on some days, she could only manage to write for 30 minutes or between changing her child's diapers. This makes Sally much more relatable as a person and a teacher and also helps the prospective student visualize how they can achieve their goal despite their own challenges.

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Although many content creators leverage their professional accomplishments to establish themselves as authorities in their niche, you don't need a decade of experience at the world's largest companies to be a trusted expert to your students. In Sally's case, her story about persisting in the face of adversity and achieving an ambitious goal despite major obstacles establishes her as someone who can be trusted to give advice on making it as an author. This highlights another important element of personal branding, which is that being self-taught isn't necessarily a bad thing. In many ways, it makes you even more relatable to your prospective students, as you were once in the exact same position as your students.

Whatever you choose to focus on in your bio and promotional materials, there are plenty of ways you can establish yourself as a trusted expert and teacher:

  • Mention prestigious or well-known companies you've worked for.
  • Highlight how long you've been working in your field.
  • List awards, professional accreditations/certifications, and other accolades.
  • Tell stories about how you overcame challenges to achieve your goals.
  • Use casual, conversational, connective language to make yourself seem friendly and approachable.
  • Include testimonials from satisfied students/clients/customers (with real names/social handles if possible).

Gain an advantage over the competition

A little healthy competition is good for everybody, but selling online courses in a crowded subject area can be tough. However, by simply following the path above, you've already put yourself ahead of 90% of the content creators who simply hit “Publish” and hope that sales will follow.

If you're ready to start earning an income by selling online courses and membership sites, let Podia help. See how easy it is to create and sell online courses with a completely free, no-obligation free trial of Podia today and get ready to start earning an income by showing others how to do what you love.


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