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Why Creating an Online Course is Like Planning a Family Reunion (and how a survey can help with both)

Have you ever been sure you know what people want only to find out you were wrong? Is there a way to get it right the first time?

Recently my sister-in-law Jenny was trying to organize a family reunion. It has been a few years since Dad died and we haven’t been together since then. She sent out multiple emails: the time is now, the kids are getting old, lists of planned activities, where would you like to meet?… etc, etc, etc.

But no one responded.

So I took a cue from my mom and put on my bossy pants (older sisters can do this). I wrote a compelling email cajoling my sister and brothers to tell Jenny what type of family reunion they wanted. Choose this, choose that, etc.

And the response was… well… crickets.

You see my family was having a hard time saying what they wanted. They could say what they didn’t want, but they couldn’t tell Jenny what they did want, so they said nothing.

It can be like this in business too. You ask clients what they want you to create and they don’t know. People can tell you what they don’t want or don’t like and they can tell you what they have done in the past, but they can’t tell you exactly what they do want.

You have to discern this. And that’s where using a survey comes in handy.

I first learned how to use surveys to design products in Course Builders Bootcamp, but the real expert in surveys is Ryan Levesque. Surveys are great because you can test your market to see if your * big idea * is actually a viable business idea.

Survey for Your Family Reunion?

I admit it seems a bit weird to survey your family but there is some logic here: If you can use surveys to find out what your clients want why not do the same with your family? It turns out this is not a new idea. Experts in planning family reunions have been recommending surveys for years.

Of course there is no easy answer if you want to have a successful course or reunion- it’s going to be a little work to get the information you need. But with the right information you will create a better product or experience. Surveys help you do that.

Do You Need a List?

You do not need an audience to survey, but it sure makes things easier. So keep working on building your list.

If you really want to get started on creating a course before you have a sizeable audience you can share your survey via online advertising and in forums you belong to, etc.

Personally, I had trouble getting responses via Facebook ads for a course I was planning despite their ability to precisely target my potential students. Fortunately, my family (my ‘list’) was a bit easier- everybody answered the survey promptly.

Free Survey Tools

Free and affordable survey services are available online. If you are new to using surveys try one of the free versions available from SurveyMonkey, SurveyGizmo, PollDaddy or Zoomerang; each has its own guidelines about how many questions can be in the survey and how many people you can survey.

I found SurveyMonkey very easy to customize and collect data; my family liked it since it looked ‘professional’.

Short and Sweet

The secret to survey success is to keep it short and sweet, gather only essential data, and ask for permission to contact people afterwards. That way, if you need more information you can get it. But by keeping things short, you are more likely to get valuable answers.

What Types of Questions to Ask?

When creating a survey ask open-ended questions such as ‘what would you want to ask me about XYZ?’ And ‘what have you tried for XYZ problem?’

Ryan Levesque reminds us that people will not tell you what they want, they will only tell you what they don’t want (i.e. what their problem is) and what they have done in the past.

Avoid Multiple Choice Questions

Family reunions are an exception to this rule since you may want to include a few logistical multiple-choice questions such as time of year, age of attendees, food sensitivities, etc. It’s very important to keep the questions about planned activities for your reunion open-ended so that you get more ideas.

If you suggest too many things in a multiple choice format you will miss really good ideas from your family. It’s sort of like ‘leading the witness’

Both Jenny and I had trouble getting the family to respond initially because we were asking leading questions and kept using multiple-choice formats. We had assumed that everyone would want the same type of get-together we’d had in the past but in fact people wanted something different and didn’t know how to say.

The open-ended questions on the survey gave people a way to let their real preferences be known.

The importance of listening to your group cannot be stressed enough. By listening you will create something that they want.

What to Do With the Answers?

Your job will be to analyze the data to discern what to create. In your survey promise them you won’t sell them anything but do ask for contact information to follow up.

You won’t actually follow up with everybody, only the surveys with detailed answers. You’ll follow up with the people who sound like they have a problem you may be able to help solve. Learn more in this video.

You can even create a spreadsheet with the survey answers. Then sort the answers by length and complexity. This makes it easier for you to learn what people want in your course—those with the longer, more complex answers are more likely to make a purchase to solve their problem.

It Takes Time

Set aside 1-2 months to create, gather, and analyze the data for a course. Don’t take shortcuts in the surveying process. You want to make sure you really understand what your clients are telling you.

You may discover that your * big idea * is interesting to your audience, but they are not willing to pay for it. Or you may find that your audience is interested in another idea completely.

Careful planning and analysis will save you time in the end.  You won’t waste time creating a course or family reunion nobody wants to attend.

Your Goal is to Serve the Group

If you truly want to succeed with your course or reunion you will need to serve the group. To do this well you’d better find out what they actually want vs. what you think they want. Surveys are the best way to do this.

I had thought my family would enjoy a relaxing week at the beach but through the survey I found out that most preferred a weekend with lots of activities. Apparently the teens were a bit bored sitting around talking and reading books.

Take the Time to Create Something of Value

It’s important to create something of value when planning an educational program because it is a big investment of your time and money. You want to create something that your clients will pay for and recommend to others.

Market research can seem complicated and time consuming; but trust me, it’s far more complicated and time consuming to create something nobody wants (I speak from experience here).

A survey is an inexpensive and easy to use tool that can help you plan the right program, one that will truly help your audience. And isn’t that what this is about anyway… helping your audience with a problem?

And as an added bonus, you will even have some of your copywriting done. How much easier will it be to write your sales page if you know the words, the exact words, your future students use to describe their problems? They will feel as if you are speaking directly to them!

Oh yeah…the family reunion? We are headed to the beach for a long weekend. We plan to rent a house in a beach town with lot’s to do for the teens, white sandy beaches for the grownups, and plenty of restaurants so everyone gets a night off from cooking. Sounds like fun to me. I can’t wait.

How do you do figure out what your audience wants or needs? Have you been guilty of ‘knowing’ what people want instead of asking them? What tips do you have about using surveys? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below!

About Sarah Kohl

Sarah Kohl (@SarahKohlMD) founder of TravelReadyMD and is delighted to help you feel better and get more out of your day when you travel. Grab your FREE copy of Resources for Business Travelers with the tools I use every day to keep business travelers healthy and safe.

23 thoughts on “Why Creating an Online Course is Like Planning a Family Reunion (and how a survey can help with both)

  1. Great article, Sarah! I love the parallel between planning an infoproduct and a family reunion 🙂

    One other thing that is cool about asking people for feedback is that this way you get them invested into something you haven’t even created yet.

    And once people invest their time/ideas into something, they would be a lot more likely to buy it (or at least spread the word about it).

  2. Thanks Tim,
    I agree that the survey begins the co-creation process… and this helps people ‘own’ the course.
    This was my experience with the family reunion too. The survey helped get some reluctant family members to join in the process and then commit to the final product (our beach vacation)

  3. Hi, Sarah.
    What percentage of your list responded to the survey? People are busy and most ignore surveys. Hopefully the response rate from your family was much higher. ha!

    I enjoyed your article and I’m envious of your beach vacation. I’m in Minnesota where it is 12F with a windchill of -7. ugh! 🙂


  4. Hi Rob,
    Stay warm. Seems as if winter is a bit early this year!

    100% of my family responded. But it’s a small group and they had a direct benefit associated with survey completion: a vacation that *they* wanted.

    With the few business surveys I have done, less than 50% of clients on my email list responded. But the ones that did were very engaged and left long answers. Answers which are longer and more detailed give you a better idea of what problems are really bothering your clients.

  5. Sarah,

    Thanks for the great post.

    I’ve been using a Survey Monkey survey right on the webpage that delivers my free report immediately after users sign-up. I’ve been getting lots of great information from open ended questions including insight into whether the report answers their immediate needs.

    This morning I started playing around with Google Forms which will automatically populate a spreadsheet with responses as soon as the survey is completed. A free feature in Google. Survey Monkey charges for this.

    As for the family reunion . . . you gotta want to have one in the first place! 🙂


    • Kathryn,

      What a great ideas, thanks for sharing them.

      Using a survey after someone has downloaded your free report is a great way to constantly tweak your incentive to make sure that what you are offering is what people actually want. And it encourages them to read the report since they won’t have an opinion if they didn’t read it.

      Keep us posted on using Google forms to collect data. I love the idea of software automatically populating so that the data is available for analysis without too much fuss.

  6. Yes, the beach sounds great here in Iowa at 12F too. One problem with surveys I have run into regarding the issue of people not knowing what they want, is that you have to think of the answers first and then see how the people you survey respond to them. I guess it’s coming up with specific answers that’s challenging.Thanks for sharing these valuable tips about surveys!

    • Jeannette,

      Stay warm! It’s so hard to accept the cold weather so early.

      Yes, knowing what people want can be so difficult. Good news, you don’t have to know the answers before staring your survey…just leave open-ended questions that try to probe what problems people are experiencing.

      If you ask about what someone wants to know from an expert, as if they are having a virtual cup of coffee with you, then you may get some idea of what is bothering them.

      You are likely to get even more information from the follow-up question “what have you tried to do to solve this problem?”

      With the second question people are sharing their specific concerns, what they have tried which is not working, and gives you some insight as to how much this problem is actually bothering them. The more effort they have put into solving this problem on their own the more likely they will buy your new great product to solve this problem.

      You will have to infer or deduce from this information what it is that they do want. But its a lot easier to do this when you know which problems are bothering them and what they have tried in the past (which didn’t work).

      I hope you find the survey process helpful.

  7. Thank you for the helpful — and very timely — article, Sarah. I’m going through this process with creating an online education course right now. The survey should be going out in the next 2-3 weeks. After reading your valuable information, I’ll be making some changes, and feel more confident about success. In particular, thank you for the advice about open-ended questions and avoiding multiple choice. It makes a lot of sense, and I was heading in the wrong direction!

  8. Penny,

    Good luck on your survey and your new course!

    I have to admit my first few go rounds with surveys weren’t very successful since I only asked multiple choice questions. I had breakthroughs only when I started asking open-ended questions.

  9. Sarah, great article. I love the way you took a very real problem for the small business owner, and brought it “home” by connecting it to a family issue. I think the analogy you used will help many people see how real this challenge can be, and how surveys can be a great “friend”.

    • Henry,

      Thanks for your kind comments. You are right, initially surveys can seem intimidating. In reality they are our ‘friends’ because they help us offer our clients what they want and need.

  10. This was terrific, Susan. My blog is 7 months old and I have 800 in my family subscribers. Since day one, I’ve kept an excel spreadsheet of their #1 struggle. It’s helped me CLEARLY see their patterns.

    Before I read your post, my plan was: 1) give them a free eBook on Jan 1 outlining the top 3 struggles. 2) A week, or so later, offer a free 21-challenge focused on these top 3 struggles. 3) However long after that, take a small beta group (12-18 people) who would pay a discounted rate for the product (I’m thinking some sort of program) I would then build, based on all the feedback.

    Am I on the right track? And, where would a survey benefit my process?

    • Marcy,

      You have been busy. Your attention to detail by capturing the struggles of your subscribers is commendable. I am excited for you that you plan a launch soon!

      You already have a lot of data about your group…but a survey could easily be inserted into your plans in one of two places.

      You could send out a survey now( or the first of the year if you want to avoid the holidays). This is a good time because you haven’t ‘told’ your followers what their problems ‘should be’ in the eBook. Ask open-ended questions of your subscribers, it will help you be sure that your eBook content is spot on. You can then adjust your ebook as dictated by your survey.

      OR you could send out a survey after the eBook but before the 21-day to check to see what your subscribers are concerned about after reading your eBook (but before enrolling in your beta class)

      You want the survey to happen before the beta launch because you want to make sure your program addresses the needs of your group and you want the words, the exact words, your target audience uses so that you can include them in the sales copy.

      Does this make sense? Do you think you will add a survey to the process?

  11. Hi Sarah,

    Your comment does make sense. Thanks to you, I think I will incorporate a survey into my process. I feel like I’ll get the best response if I send the survey out in January, AFTER they’ve read my free eBook, but BEFORE the 21-day challenge (then beta group starts). TY!

  12. Hi Sarah – What a great, step-by-step example for using surveys. I have what I think is a unique idea for a course, but I can’t find anyone else online who offers the same kind of thing. That either means that (a) I would have no competition, or (b) it’s a terrible idea. I’ve been wondering how to get information from potential customers and others who would have information about this – and now I know! Now, if I only had a mailing list… 🙂

    Thanks for the great post!

  13. I’m hopeful that you are ‘first to the party’ with your great idea. Keep me posted on your success. I hope your survey gives you lot’s of ideas about how to develop your course.

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