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When it's too early to promote your course

Many people who teach how to create courses recommend that you first market and pre-sell your course, even before you actually build it. Until recently, I did not really have an opinion about this approach. This is not the way that I myself prefer to work, but so many experts insisted that the “market-first-build-later” approach is effective. However, after working with one of my clients, my opinion on this topic has radically changed.

This client of mine contacted me because she needed help with creating a course. In preparation for our work together, she has sent me the marketing materials she had already put together. Her marketing included descriptions of her course, and what the students would be able to achieve at the end of the program.

We started working on her course together, progressively going into more and more detail. The process of designing a course is iterative, rather than linear. We were constantly discussing the goals of this or that element in her course and the best approach to achieve those goals.

As we uncovered and defined more and more details of her course design, we realized that some of the previous decisions we’ve made were not optimal. For example, a key part of her course was an application exercise Experiment. We initially discussed several options and picked one that would be attractive to students from a marketing perspective. However, as we designed the course in detail, we realized that the topic that we initially picked would be too difficult to for the exercise. So we switched to an exercise that would be less complex and more suitable for practicing and receiving feedback. In the same way, we scrapped a few topics that were tangential to the goals of the course.

This process of back-tracking as new insights emerge is very normal and natural in course design.
It is precisely for this reason that we work in iterations, going into a bit more detail with each round. A more linear way of working would require many more changes, leading to wasted time and effort.

As the new course outline and design started to emerge, my client exclaimed: “Wow, I am so glad that I did not publish the marketing materials that I’ve prepared at the beginning. What we’ve created now is much better – but it is also quite different from what I initially thought. Had I started marketing earlier, I would have to explain all the changes to my clients or risk disappointing them.”

And this is when it hit me too: the approach of “market-first-build-later” is very risky. In all of my years of creating courses, I have seen how every course undergoes significant changes and evolutions during the design phase. New insights always come to light, illuminating yet better ways to help students.

“Market-first-build-later” is a bit like publishing the table of contents of your book before you’ve done any research, taken notes, or written a single draft.

So if you market and sell first, you will most probably end up with a following dilemma: having to explain the differences between your marketing and your course to your students, or aligning your course with your pre-existing marketing and delivering sub-optimal results. Otherwise, your students will perceive you as over-promising and under-delivering; they will lose confidence in your work.

In that moment of insight while working with my client, I realized just why my colleagues and I hold off on promoting the course until a clearer picture emerges in the Design phase.

Now, this does not mean that you have to wait until all the minute details are in place, such as the layout of the worksheets and the exact duration of every exercise. But an overall framework of your course’s design much be solid. Typically, you will have this clarity and certainty somewhere around the half-way mark in your course design process.

Marketing before you have gone through the Strategy and entered the Design phase could only mean trouble down the road. Better wait, and be able to confidently deliver what you have promised.