If there’s one question you must answer before you go much farther it’s this: Who is your course for?

One of the most common mistakes people make in planning their course: not taking the time to define who their user is. There are two reasons for this.

“Oh, I know my student!” And maybe you do have an intuitive understanding of the problems your students face, but by taking the time to write this out, you just might have a few more flashes of insight that can take your course from mediocre to amazing!

The second: “Everyone!” Thinking that your course could appeal to everyone short-changes the people that would really be interested in your course. And while you might be correct — anyone could be interested in your course, I am certain that not everyone will be interested in your course. If you identify a type of student and focus on their needs, your marketing messaging and course structure become clearer and more succinct.

But you’re not just going to answer the question: “Who is my course for?” To really understand your students and their needs, you’re going to create a student persona.

The Student Persona

A Student Persona is an archetype of the students who are interested in taking your course. Think of it as an imaginary student — and you’re going to filter everything through the eyes of your imaginary student.

This imaginary student will have a name and you should call her by this name. In a lot of ways, she should become a co-creator to your course. Sounds a bit silly, sure. But when you find yourself asking “Would Robert like it if I did this?” you know that you’re doing it right!

One more note: You should really only have one persona per course. For many folks, this is difficult, but the more personas you add, the less focused your marketing and curriculum become. So, if you feel that you absolutely must have a second persona, you are allowed to create ONE secondary persona, but they should be identified as secondary — someone whose needs are not as important as your primary persona. I sound a bit harsh, but focus is critical to the creation and successful launch of your course.

Creating the Persona

In our free training, 5 Days To Your First Online Course, we provide a downloadable template for a customer persona.

Join the course, then print the worksheet and fill in all the details to the best of your knowledge. Don’t fret too much over getting this person exactly right. What you are doing is documenting all the assumptions about your potential students. It doesn’t matter if these assumptions are right or wrong. It only matters that we get these assumptions onto paper so that you know what they are. By naming them, it’s easier to validate (or even invalidate them) and improve your understanding of your student.

Below, under Evolving your Persona, I describe techniques for validating your assumptions.

There are three parts of the persona: Details, Pain and Benefits, and Q&A.


The Details include the name, a quote, and a summary of who the person is. Save the summary and quote for last, but it’s best to name your persona right away.

Three tips on picking a name:

  1. Pick quickly. You can spend a lot of time on a name, but really pick one as quickly as you can.
  2. Be serious about your name choice. Cute names might be fun at first, but they will make it impossible to take the persona — and thus the ideas the persona generates — seriously.
  3. Match genders as best you can. If expect your class to be a mix of male and female students, it doesn’t matter what gender you select. If your audience is mostly women, make the persona a woman.

The summary is a 3-5 word phrase that describes the person’s personality or needs. Make it short. Make it snappy, if possible, so you can recall it easily. In some ways, the summary becomes a short-hand for the rest of the persona, which is why it’s good to wait until the rest of the persona is complete before summarizing the persona. But if have a good summary right out of the gate, use it! Just make sure you re-evaluate it every step of the way.

Lastly, there’s the Quote. Here’s where you get to have a little fun. What’s something that your typical student might say about the topic? This is partly to help humanize this character and partly to help summarize their viewpoint on the topic. The quote doesn’t have to be perfect. You might even wait until you’ve talked to a few potential students before adding a quote. (See “Evolving Your Persona” below.)

Pain and Benefit

Next, describe three pain points the person has today — related to your topic, of course — and how your course will alleviate the pain. You can start with either pain or benefit, but I find it easier to start with the pain — it really puts the benefit in context.

A Pain doesn’t have to be so dramatic such that it is keeping them up at night — it could be something as simple as frustration over an inability to learn about a topic.

A Benefit should be framed as a value statement the student will get from taking your course. It’s best if you look at the Benefit as actually alleviating the pain. In that way, a benefit statement is the inverse of the pain statement.


Now we have come to the heart of your persona: The question and answer session. Here, you actually ask your persona a variety of questions about your topic (and a few other things) to better understand who they are. You are, essentially, conducting an interview with this imaginary person.

In the attached worksheet, we have the first five questions you should ask your imaginary student:

  1. What brings you here? Why are you interested in this topic?
  2. What are the challenges you face to learning more about this topic?
  3. If you were wildly successful, what would that look like?
  4. What are thoughts that keep you up at night?
  5. What are you afraid to ask for fear of looking stupid?

Write down the answers to these questions.

No, seriously. Write them down.

You’ll want to refer back to the answers in the future AND you’ll give yourself room to embellish and elaborate on the answers. The assumptions you’ve made about your target audience must get out of your head. By naming them, you gain a better understanding of why you are making certain decisions. Further, as you evolve your persona, it becomes easier to let those assumptions go.

Next steps

Did you find this information and exercise helpful? Continue your learning now, by joining our free self-study course, 5 Days To Your First Online Course: