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Starting with success: How to plan your course content

After you’ve settled on an idea for your online course, you need to start thinking about the best content types -- videos, workbooks, PDFs, and et cetera -- for reaching your audience. We’ll take a look at the pros and cons of different content formats and discuss the best uses of each as well as address accessibility concerns for your audience.

Most first-time course creators, when they sit down to build their course content, take the “brain dump” approach: put every lesson you can think of on a list, and then use that as an outline to create your course.

This approach is ineffective because it focuses on information rather than results. You don’t need to teach your student everything you know about a topic. You just need to teach them exactly what they need to know to achieve the result you promised.

There’s no limit to how complex you can get with your instructional design, but to get started, just use the simple framework below; it will be more than enough to deliver the results your students crave.

Start with the end result

At Amazon, one of — if not the — most successful product companies in the world,  they write a press release announcing a product launch  before they even start working on the product.

They don’t publish the release, of course. But the internal process of writing the press release makes them focus on what’s most important: the elements of the product that are exciting and useful for their customers.

Amazon starts with the end result, and builds backwards from there.

And that’s how we’re going to approach your course, too.

Picture of Val Geisler

Val Geisler

The best way to dive into building a course is to work backwards from the job you’re helping them accomplish all the way to the value the end result will bring to their lives. For instance, Your Signature Experience helps small business owners create a system and order for their customer experience.

That seems valuable on the surface, sure.

But the actual value that brings to the student is freedom: less time spent wondering if they did step X, Y, or Z, better referrals from wildly happy customers, an easy handoff of tasks to a new team member. That’s all a sense of freedom. Your very first module needs to start with that actual value and build from there. Start with ‘why’ and then dive into teaching the ‘how’.

So think about it: what is the end result you want your student to achieve?

When you begin to build your outline, the answer to the question above goes at the top.

Then, your first module* will help get your student bought in to why they’ll be doing everything they’re doing for the rest of the course.

*Course sections are typically referred to as “modules”. So when you see the term, think of it like a chapter in a book.

After that, break the end result down into the various steps that need to be taken to achieve it.

For example, for our How to use knives like an expert course, we’ll need to cover:

  • General knife safety

  • Knife care and cleaning

  • Choosing the right knife for different tasks

  • Common techniques (how to mince, dice, brunoise and julienne)

  • How to cut more efficiently

  • Next steps to “level up” even further

Remember that your goal is not to teach everything you know. It’s to teach everything your student needs to achieve a result.

This “start with the end” approach is the same one that  Claire Suellentrop  and  Gia Laudi  used for their marketing course:

Picture of Claire Suellentrop

Claire Suellentrop

When Gia and I were mapping out our course content for SaaS Marketer Essentials, here are the 3 things that helped us most:

  1. When new subscribers sign up to attend our free weekly SaaS marketing workshops (these are separate from our course – they’re the content we make available to everyone, like you would with blog posts), we immediately send a thank-you email. Inside that thank-you email, we ask: What was going on that brought you here today?

This question is awesome, because it gives us ongoing insight into the biggest struggles our audience has, all related to SaaS marketing. So when we were finally ready to put together a course, we had tons of data to review. We dug through hundreds of responses, looked for the most common pain points, and could then start creating a course to solve them.

  1. Once we knew the pain point we needed to solve, it was time to actually map out the content. We began at the end: first, we envisioned the outcome our audience wanted – which was made much easier by reviewing all those replies we’d collected – and then worked backwards, listing all the steps our audience would need to take to reach that desired outcome. Then, we could group those steps into lessons, based on the order in which our audience would need to complete them to reach that outcome.

  2. Before ever sharing SaaS Marketer Essentials with the public, we quietly launched a beta version of our course to just our email list. We learned this trick from two other brilliant course creators, Joanna Wiebe (founder of Copyhackers) and Marie Poulin (founder of The Digital Experience Collective). We worked really hard to create a great experience for our beta students, so even in beta, they still got value (two even got title changes at work, and one got a raise!). But at the same time, we learned sooo much from them about how our course could be even better. Now, we’re in the process of revamping our course content based on that experience, and can’t wait to share the new-and-improved version of SaaS Marketer Essentials with the world this spring.

Once you have the end result broken down into its component parts and dropped into an outline, you’re ready to plan your course content.

Planning your course content

At this point, you know what each course module will teach. Now it’s time to decide how you’ll teach each lesson.

Will you create a video course? An audio course? A text or PDF course? Or some combination of all of these?

In the next chapter, we’ll show you how to create each of these types of content, even if you’ve never done it before. But first, let’s choose your media format(s).

A simple guide to choosing course media formats

The “gold standard” for online course content is video, and there are good reasons for this.

Video course content is multi-sensory (students see and hear the content), and thus can be more engaging, more interesting and more “sticky” than other types of content. It also has the highest perceived value of the four primary formats.

One report by Forrester Research  suggests that when it comes to information delivery, 1 minute of video is worth 1.8 million words.

For that reason, we recommend including some video content in your course.

(And don’t worry…that doesn’t mean that you have to appear on camera if you don’t want to. More on that in the next chapter.)

Different types of content tend to be better-suited for different formats.

In our knife skills course example, video is an obvious choice for showing off how to do specific techniques, while buying a knife might be better delivered as a PDF that the student can easily reference while they shop.

In your course outline, indicate the content format for each lesson you’d like to create.

Screenshot of the online course content planning template by Podia

Pros and cons of different course media formats



Engaging, multi-sensory, builds the strongest relationship between the student and teacher.

Can be more time-consuming to create.


Students can take the content “on the go” and listen anywhere.

Easier to get distracted while listening to, can be harder for non-native speakers to understand.


PDF guides are easier to go back to and reference than audio/video, and PDF worksheets help walk students through doing the work.

Typically lower engagement than audio/video.


This is the “easiest” to produce for creators that are comfortable with writing. Requires no additional tools or skills.

Writing well can be difficult (but anyone can learn!).

A note on accessibility: When publishing video and audio content, consider that you may have students who are hearing-impaired or who don’t natively speak your language. Make sure that everyone can benefit from your content by including transcripts of any video/audio files. Transcriptions can be done cheaply through a service like Fiverr.

Now that your course is outlined, you’re ready to build your content!

Next chapter

How to build awesome online course content (with examples)

Now that you’re equipped with inspiration, an idea, and a firm grasp of the best content types to build your online course, the fourth chapter of this guide takes you from concept to development with detailed how-to instructions for creating your materials. We’ll cover the ins-and-outs of how to produce screen recordings, talking head videos, audio files, and text-based supplements.

Start reading →