5 Steps

For choosing a profitable online course topic

InstructorHQ provides tools and hosting to launch profitable online video courses. Naturally, we know most of you need help with this, so education is at least half of what we offer. We want to make it easy for you to come up with the right ideas, create the courses and market your course to its full potential.

The first step in the process is coming up with great ideas for online video courses in the first place.

We’ve created a video for this very topic – and for the deep-dive, we want to take you through a well-practiced 5 step process to simply and effectively create a course that you can make, and people are willing to pay for.

It’s not guesswork, it’s simple research, and below we give you the tools to make the best start to creating online video course and avoid ideas that don’t have an audience.

Video version of this article here

Podcast version of this artilce here

instructorHQ Podcast

Step 1: The big list



  • Put everything on the list, and start with the headlines (don’t get bogged down in details)
  • Keep your list and add to it over time. Some ideas will take longer than others to research.
  • This is not a ‘TO-Do’ list, it’s a starting point for research
  • Do the real research, don’t make assumptions
  • Rank your ideas after you’ve written the list, and make a note of your gut reactions

At this point, list everything. Everything you might want to teach, even if you don’t know everything about the topic YET. Everything you already have experience and skills in. Everything you think might be a ‘good idea’ or profitable.

Quotation Marks

It was a pretty complete list. The kind of list one makes when one cannot fall asleep because one's thoughts keep swirling through one's brain like a bunch of sparrows on crack.

-- James Patterson, Nevermore

Don’t censor yourself at this point. Dan Scott call this the ‘brain dump!’

Put it ALL down, because you’re not going to do everything on the list, but the more you write down, the more you’ll start to see trends in what you think you can do, what you’d be willing to do (based on how interested you are in creating a course) by further learning and research, and what you ‘think’ people might be interested in.

At this stage, it’s a sort of rough map of things to explore. You’re going to find a few dead ends, ‘too hard’ basket ideas (after a couple of minutes of research), some ideas that you have a unique take on, and of course some serendipity in connections between topics you never thought about until you saw several similar ideas on the page together.

Every map has ‘here be dragons’ when there is not yet reliable information to navigate with. Don’t panic! Some basic investigations will let you know if it’s Barney or Smaug you’re dealing with. Is this something you could easily overcome and pursue or is this topic full of hazards or you don’t know enough to create a whole course? Too many competitors is not a hazard, it’s usually proof that there is enough interest/profit to sustain many different courses.

Don’t sabotage your list with too much detail at this point – write down what you are interested in teaching. After reading it through a couple of times, start writing down the alternative or extra ideas that start swarming through your mind. Write it all down. And go with your gut. Have an instant objection as you are writing an idea down? Jot it down too. You’ll be coming back later to prove or disprove your ideas with some simple research (we’re going to show you how and where).

Next course ideas list

Example of instructor Daniel Scott's 'big list'

Read through your list a few times and keep adding notes and ‘gut feels’ as you go. Especially look out for ‘this is how I’d teach that’ thoughts that might give you the unique approach that makes your online video course stand out, even in a crowded topic.

Many if the ideas you come up with will be ‘done to death,’ in that there are already a lot of courses available on that subject. Write them down anyway. And again, you just might have a fresh approach that gives you the edge in even ‘oversaturated’ areas.

Not all of us are ‘list makers’ with the patience for a lot of details. For you ‘headlines’ folks, it’s a good idea to come back to the list later and fill in a few of the ‘blanks’ or questions your ideas raise.

Let’s give a hypothetical example. “Make an ax.”

That’s the headline, and for some, that’s it. Great, now go write down a few other ideas, don’t sweat the details. Some of the more analytical folk out there will start asking “what sort of ax. What level of complexity or quality? Is this for beginners or an experienced audience? What sort of tools are needed, and how will that limit my potential audience?”

Again, if you’re a ‘gimme the headlines’ kinda person, just write the big bits and come back for the detail. If you’re really into the minutia, don’t go crazy just yet – the ‘big list’ is more about quantity than quality in your first couple of passes.

There will be a lot of fluff and the odd weird idea that will be quickly cut as you reread the list – but remember, even the oddball ideas have their audience, so write it ALL down then do some actual research and planning before you discount it.

Also, don’t be afraid to write down ideas you’re not fully capable of making a course for YET.

You can learn new skills; you can build up from one course to the next – as you create your first course you might see how other ideas can become follow on courses for your audience to graduate to.

As you edit your big list, you can start thinking about what order things might go in to create a logical progression. You might need to create a course in ‘simple forge building, and techniques’ followed by ‘creating a simple blade’ and then ‘build an ax.’

If you run with ‘build and ax’ first, you might be cutting out all but the most experienced audience members and cutting yourself out of the bulk of core group you want to reach.

Your ‘Big List’ is not a one-time thing. Keep it going as a ‘living document.’ Keep adding to it over the weeks and months. You’re going to have great ideas all the time, and keeping them in mostly one place like this creates 2 critical benefits. 1. You won’t lose the idea on the back of a napkin. 2. You’ll start seeing your ideas in the context of all the other things you think are good ideas.

Our ‘sequence of courses’ idea is an example. If you write down all the things you could show people to make with a forge, for example, you would start to see a pattern emerge as to what order you should probably create and release courses in.

We are huge proponents of ‘start at the VERY beginning’ and leave no one behind. That means you should first explain ‘what a forge is, and what you can do with it’ because a surprisingly large number of people do not know what they DON’T know.

And because you’ve started building that list, you can always go back and ask ‘what does my audience need to know to make this course idea possible for them to do it? I bet you come up with 3 more courses, topics or chapters in your course for every headline you scribbled down in that first pass.

So just to remind you – the first few go’s at the ‘big list’ should be every idea (good and bad) for something you want to teach or ‘could’ teach, without any self-censorship or excessive detail. Get the ‘big ideas’ out first. You can come back to fill in the blanks or cross things off the list.


Quotation Marks

Checking items off a to-do list doesn't determine progress; focusing on your priorities is what counts.

-- Frank Sonnenberg, Booksmart: Hundreds of real-world lessons for success and happiness

It’s a list of possibilities. The more bad ideas you weed out, later on, will be proof that you really tried to get it all out, meaning there will be a few hidden gems that get shaken out of the dirt.

Nothing on this list is urgent. It will take time to research the great ideas that fit you best and the good ideas that merely make you look or feel busy doing.

Many leadership and strategy writers talk about ‘won’t do’ lists. For whatever reasons, there are some activities that are time sucks, distractions and complete misdirection from what you are best at. If you are a ‘forge master’ with mad blade making skills, an ‘MS-DOS for beginners’ course might be easy to teach because of your experience, but it might also be taking in a direction that’s only going to slow you down from creating unique courses that fire your passion. Pun intended.

You can only climb one mountain at a time and going in multiple directions is probably not going to get it done.

“But ‘MS-DOS for beginners’ is such a profitable niche!!” you say. Possibly (not) but are you going to be as skilled, passionate, and UNIQUE at that as you would be making things with fire and metal?

Again, use that ‘big list’ to see the big picture – what areas are you passionate about? What has a large number of topics that can be shared in multiple courses, not just one? What areas would you be willing to learn new skills to keep expanding your knowledge and capitalise on your experience?

So let’s start editing your list.

Quotation Marks

Before you eat an Elephant, make sure you know what parts you want to eat.

-- Todd Stocker, Refined: Turning pain into purpose

You can use a colour code to mark or highlight ideas worth investigating further, ideas that link with other ideas or, as an example, ideas you need to research properly.

You can also rank your ideas with a number or letter code – A for the best ideas, F for ideas that clearly are not worth pursuing – or 1 for great ideas, 2 for possibly great and so on.

Dan, from the InstructorHQ team uses a letter code for how ‘amped’ he feels about an idea, and then goes back to create a number for each ‘headline’ that reflects how easy (least amount of time) it would be to create that course. A1 – “I’m excited about this idea and it would only take me a couple of days to make this course.” C3 “It’s probably worth looking into, but it might also take a week or more to create a course on this idea.”

As you go through this process every few weeks or couple of months, you’ll have more experience and practical understanding on what’s really involved – so first time around your going to have to put more effort into properly researching your idea before you commit to making a course.

One thing we’d like to remind you is that some ideas take time to take root – so rank away, but don’t delete ideas from your list out of hand. Maybe copy and paste them to a ‘sub list’ of things not for now, or ideas that need a ton of research etc. Even some bad ideas force you in the right direction sometimes, and it’s worth keeping them written down as a reminder that you’ve already tried that, or ‘why we are going in a different direction.’

But to repeat, you need to start ranking ideas on your list to get to work on the most fruitful looking concepts for your courses – but remember, often we don’t know what we don’t know, so be sure to engage in the following steps to great the right (real world) information about how profitable, and possible, a topic is for a course. While the ‘big list’ can be a bit random and sprawling at first, you’re going to use actual research (not your assumptions) to distill from this list which ideas are practical and profitable.

Referring back to InstructorHQ’s Dan (you’ve watched the video, right?); he greys out the courses or ideas he’s actually created but leaves them on the list so he can see where he’s been, and have a better idea of ‘where to next.’

This is why a word/google docs (or Notepad for the seriously luddite) is great, because this is a document you’re going to be adding to and annotating for some time – maps in stone are harder to edit and don’t fit in your pack. If you’re old school and like those little Moleskine notebooks, just leave a lot of space around each headline to add your notes, research, and rankings too.

Quotation Marks

The point of the list wasn't just to tick items off and forget about them, it was to learn something new.

-- Lindsey Kelk, The single girl's to-do list

To use Dan as an example, he’s already knocked off the ‘low hanging fruit’ – all the A1 things on his list – the courses he was excited to make, and could be made in a very small amount of time.

After 20+ courses, he returned to the list for the course ideas that he needed to work a little harder to develop, do some practice, test some ideas and spend more time filming and editing. Now it’s taking a bit longer to make some of the courses, but he already has income coming in from all the ‘A1’ courses to keep him going.

And, as new versions or new tools emerge, Dan’s revisiting older courses (and updating them if there’s been a substantial change) or creating new course ideas for new programs as they emerge.

His list is always growing, but Dan keeps managing it and making forward progress.

A final thought on your list – you can (eventually) do everything on your list, but you can only climb one mountain at a time.

Organising your list into ideas that are profitable, have a demand, and match your skills will make it easier to know which order to climb your mountains in. You won’t be overwhelmed and running in different directions, meaning your efforts will be sustainable, and it’s much easier to produce regular content.

We love sharing the list pruning hacks and topic brainstorm ideas of our team and our successful customers, so be sure you’re signed up for our emails to get fresh ideas.

Next course ideas list

Example of instructor Daniel Scott's 'big list'

Step 2: Do I already have an audience?

Don’t Guess, actually ask the people you already know.

How popular is the topic or course you’re planning? I mean actually popular with a potential audience. Because in the afterglow of your ‘awesome big list of incredible ideas that will definitely rock the world’ you might be also basking in the glow of some big fat assumptions that are little more than hopeful thinking based on what you want to believe.

Quotation Marks

I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.

-- Abraham Maslow, Toward a psychology of being

We’re not trying to be a downer. And the truth is there are a large number of ideas (the majority) that could be turned into a great online video course. But some topics have a huge demand, and some have a VERY specialised (read: small) demand. As an example, how many people would like to learn the nuanced and technical skills of architectural photography versus ‘how to take great photos while on vacation?’

If you are an architectural photographer, you might be tempted to ‘teach what you know’ because ‘no one knows how to shoot architecture properly.’ And you will find an audience. But how much larger (and potentially profitable) is the second idea we suggested? And many of the required skills are similar, meaning you might be wise to think ‘could I do something with a larger audience using mostly the same skills?’

Quotation Marks

Your assumptions are your windows to the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won't come in.

-- Issac Asimov

You can do one or the other, but if you know what’s going to reach a larger audience, you can start to prioritise which ideas are potentially more profitable.

So, instead of blindly choosing topics or simply assuming that ‘everyone is into what I’m into’ you can do actual research into the size of your potential audience.

If you discover an idea has a large number of people searching for information, videos and training, you’re now building something that can make a profit and help people (the more you help people, the more they are willing to pay).

You might discover there is more demand for an idea on your ‘big list’ than another idea – meaning you can make an educated choice as to where you should place your efforts. When you’re organised, you’ll probably find you can do both and just need to rank the order to do them.

Dan points out in the video the importance of knowing your EXISTING audience.

You should know the people and flavours of the world you want to work in. The culture. What Facebook groups or discussion forums are you part of? What shops or suppliers do you frequent? What clubs or communities are you part of?

They’re part of your potential audience for the courses you create – and because you know the culture, you’re going to have a great idea of HOW to approach them.

Starting with the people you know is the best place to see if your idea works. Ask around. What sort of training have they already bought, what are they looking for? You can test ideas on paper or as video clips to gauge reaction from the sort of people you think the course is for.

You probably shouldn’t test your ‘forge and ax’ course on your Grandma, but what about the guys you share a forge with or the club you belong to? Start with the people in the world you know. Australian commercial photographer Peter Coulson (who runs a really great series of online video courses) says ‘I never take comments from camera club photographers – only potential or existing clients.’

He knows who his audience (the people who pay him) REALLY are.

This will be a little harder when you first start. It can feel a little embarrassing (check out Brene Brown’s vulnerability speech on TED or Netflix) to share your ideas in the beginning but push through.

Not every idea will fly. But the more you understand what your audience is looking for, and who they are, the better your understanding will be as to what courses are needed. Talking to a handful of people in that world will go a long way to gauging the interest in what you plan to teach.

Quotation Marks

The only sure way to avoid making mistakes is to have new ideas

-- Albert Einstein

In the video you’ll see Dan explain his biggest mistake when starting was creating courses for subjects where he wasn’t ‘part of the scene.’ He wasn’t known for creating or teaching the material, and he didn’t know anyone who did those things well enough to get feedback for his ideas.

Worse, he had to break in from the cold to a world/topic where nobody knew who he was, or how qualified he was. This was a huge marketing blunder! Don’t make it your mistake!

Start where people know you, where you can get a couple of references from past clients, friends or community influencers. Start where you’ve already built up a reputation, because ‘people buy from people they know!’

Your audience is much more likely to be interested in your course if you have something or someone to recommend you – especially if it’s someone they’ve heard of.

If you’ve been living under a rock and don’t actually know ANYBODY, then you’d better start now, because making the course is the easy part. Finding a topic with a large and interested audience makes it even easier – but to sustain the sales of your courses, you are going to have to market your courses – that means selling them to the right people. That’s infinitely easier to do with people you have a connection with.

Dan says if he could go back and start again after 3 years, he’d tell himself to start with the courses in the areas he was already well know for: graphic design, layouts and web design. He already knew what the common stumbling blocks were for beginners. He already had a great reputation for teaching this in person, and he had clients willing to endorse him and his work as social proof that he knew what he was talking about. AND, Dan already had people who would love to buy some more of Dan’s knowledge.

Instead, Dan got hyped by the numbers in other areas. He knew enough to research, practice and create online video courses because ‘the demand was there!’ But since Dan was mostly unknown in other software realms, it was VERY hard work to get people to know he even had a course, let alone one you might consider paying money for.

So, before we go any further, let’s say it again – start with the world you already know and that people know you for. That’s more important than pure number sizes for a potential audience.

Dan also learned that building an audience in the same general ‘space,’ in his case the design/publishing IT space (mostly Adobe software), meant that he had a ready-made market for future courses in the same subjects. He built up the audience and now has a ready market for when he releases his latest courses.

Because he learned from his mistake and moved back to creating courses where he had a good reputation and good contacts, he found he could focus on one audience that sticks with him.

If you dropped off somewhere around the Einstein quote, let’s simplify: You need an audience (the next section will be about finding real numbers on what the size might be) and you need to have connections with people to best reach that audience with your courses.

Dear ‘ ax forge’ guy – Don’t pick knitting as your first course because it has a higher demand in ‘audience size’ – ask your blacksmith buddies what they wish they knew when starting out and begin creating your online video course there. Then get them to give you a review when your course launches. More on that in future blog posts, videos and podcasts.

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Go back and start circling the ideas on your ‘big list’ that have an audience, or even a couple of people you know, connected with it. Which ideas already have people who would be interested?

Talk to those people (not your Mum) and run the basics of your course ideas by them. Ask if they have any suggestions for things they want or things not currently on your list. For all the oddball or redundant ideas, there will always be one or two brilliant ideas you didn’t think about.

Dan’s learned to make a mini mock-up of his course ideas (usually some graphics/screen capture and voice-over) to get a response. Even an outline on paper if the course has a lot of parts. Again, you should be looking for some help spotting the missing steps (or filling in the blanks as Dan calls it.)

We will be sharing more ideas on how to test your ideas before you commit to making a course, so be sure you’ve subscribed to our emails.

You don’t have to go all out on testing ideas. Sometimes, all you need is a text or email asking the right people “I’ve listed 2 or 3 options here, what do you think I should do.”

Don’t be afraid to send that message to people with more skills than you – at best you’ll get great insight, at worst you won’t get a reply. No problems.

He’s also learned the hard way to listen when the audience asks for something. Dan thought the idea for a Photoshop training series was already oversaturated – but his growing audience kept asking ‘when are you going to do a Photoshop course?’

Despite there already being a truckload of existing (and often very good) courses, people wanted Dan’s course, and it sold (and continues to sell) brilliantly. To quote the InstructorHQ man himself “I should have done it 2 years ago!”

Quotation Marks

If you don't listen to your customers, someone else will

-- Sam Walton

His existing customers were TELLING him there was an audience for his course. Be sure you listen, because often what separates your videos from someone else’s’ is simply YOU! Remember that ‘people buy from people they know.’ However small that connection might be.

Step 3: Marketplace Research

Research and numbers for POPULARITY, and where to find the information

Okay, so here’s how you actually, and easily, start researching the size (in numbers) of your potential audience.

Keywords tests (Google and AdWords), marketplace testing (using the tools built into the various online course websites) and finding your spot within a competitive topic.

We regularly come across new tips and resources in this area, so be sure to sign up for our email subscription so you get the updates and stay up with the play.

Quotation Marks

Most of our assumptions have outlived their uselessness.

-- Marshall Mcluhan

This is another way to real-world test your ideas with numbers to support the feedback you’re getting from people in your ‘space.’ And it’s another chance to dodge those long-held assumptions that are misdirection or roadblocks.

We need to start this section off with the warning that all the data and tools out there can only tell you what’s already out there.

If you’re thinking of something totally new, unexplored, or you plan a radically different approach – you might not find data to support your queries. Again, this is where talking with people who know this topic is important. It’s going to give you something to go by.

It’s also really important to remember styles, software versions and techniques all change over time. You might discover that a course or topic WAS massively popular, and might still be selling, but it’s out of date. Good news for you. So be aware of the version of software, or the time period that your search results are really showing.

Creating a course on ‘how to maintain and repair your 1958 Ford Edsel’ might already be too dated – and if all you searched for was the popularity of ‘repair your Ford’ you might come to the wrong conclusion. Or you might do a deep dive and discover no one thought to do a ’58 Edsel course and there is actually a need for one. Dig a little deeper.

And don’t just use the specialised tools we’re discussing here, because some ideas are VERY NICHE – they have a small but fanatical audience. Do a general Google search and look around. There might be some hyper-specific technique or style that people want help with. Maybe the audience is smaller, but you could charge more, or totally dominate because no one else bothered to make a video course.

It’s quick, it’s easy and it just helps to narrow down your list and find a topic or area that’s going to be successful for you.

Remember – at this stage you’re still technically editing you ‘big list’ and, in no particular order, you’re just refining that list until you get a handful of likely winners that you could start with.

Quotation Marks

Do not stop searching for opportunities until opportunities find you.

-- Gift Gugu Mona

Let’s start testing how many people are searching for the topic or a specific problem that you could solve for people via an online video course.

SearchVolume.io - This is an easy to use (and understand) website that requires no login or paid account.

Paste all the keywords related to your topic (one word or phrase per line) and hit enter. The results you will see show how many people have searched for those words (averaged out by monthly volume).

Let’s say I’m wondering if I should make a course on how to do sound for video – I want to make it easy for people making online video courses to get great audio without stress or great expense.

I’ve chosen ‘audio for video, sound for picture and sound for video’ as my three search phrases.

The result I get back shows:

Keyword screenshot

So clearly more people are searching for ‘audio for video.’ But it’s lower than I expected. Does that mean only a 140 (in the US) are interested in this topic? No, it just means that an average of 140 people per month searched for THAT PHRASE and I should expand my search to include things like ‘video sound’ which scored a 320.

One of Dan’s neat tricks (you can see it in the video) is to put the most simplified version of several course ideas into the website and see which one has more attention. For more tips like this subscribe to the email list as we come up with new tools and ideas regularly.


If you want more information or you’re looking for phrases, try StoryBase. It’s a “long tail keyword research MACHINE. Just enter a keyword and get hundreds of questions and phrases that people use to describe that topic online.”

There’s a free 14-day trial – but it’s a pro tool and costs accordingly.

This is seen as one of the alternative’s to using Google’s AdWords tool.


Another paid keyword explorer at the Pro end of the spectrum it gives you a lot of rich information and tones of blog posts and even a podcast to help you understand it all. Just reading the blog posts about how keyword searches work will help a lot.

Google’s Keyword Planner

You actually find this tool at adwords.google.com and there are a vast number of blog posts and YouTube videos that explain how it works, how to sign up (for free) and how to get the most out of it.

We like this one because A. It’s Google – they have the search volume to get really accurate results and B. It likes phrases like ‘how to forge an ax’ or ‘steel forge training videos’ etc.

This lets you test how many people are searching for (and obviously interested in) a topic.

Remember to test lots of variations on your phrases, and common misspellings. You may have to resort to ‘make ax with fire’ or similar to see what beginners are randomly attempting.

Be sure to write down the high-volume words and phrases on your ‘big list’ next to the course ideas.

These phrases and words will help shape your course title, your SEO (you know, all the blog posts and social media posts you’re going to create to promote your course) and your marketing materials.

From my ‘SearchVolume.io’ results above, I see a larger number for one phrase. If I use ‘audio for video’ in all my promotions, I’m losing out because far more people are searching for ‘video sound.’ And while it’s not my grammatical cup of tea, Google and Facebook are going to join the dots with a lot more people. You want that.

The other thing I’ve got to consider (and frankly, I’ve not tested enough ideas, words or phrases in this simple illustration) is that not as many people as I thought are interested in this topic. Or maybe I’m going about my research in the wrong way.

I know from experience teaching and in broadcast television, that bad sound is the unforgivable sin that’s almost always impossible to fix afterward. More than ½ of all YouTube videos I watch have poor audio (another ¼ are mediocre at best). Good sound is psychologically more important than picture quality (there’s a ton of actual testing on this). Worst of all, most people making videos don’t know their sound is annoying their viewers and killing off their audience.

I’ve got to do deeper research to find out if the problem is that my ‘target audience’ for this problem is so completely unaware they’re not searching for ways to fix the problem – or they are searching for related topics and hoping this information is part of a larger course or book etc.

I’ve got 2 choices here – and the first one is to go to my audience.

I can start emailing other content creators and asking them ‘is this a problem you want help solving?’ and secondly, I can start searching for existing courses and see if the ones that deal with sound are more or less popular in their category.

So I THINK there is a problem, I need to test if I’m just assuming, or am I making a course no one is aware they need, or am I simply not approaching the problem in the right direction.

Quotation Marks

Don't search for something grand, as your values might be hidden behind something that you discard as ordinary.

-- Dr Prem Jagyasi

The next set of tools can help more.

The market places that resell your courses (such as Udemy or Skillshare) have content creator tools that help you discover what courses have already been uploaded, how much of an audience they’re getting, and how much money they are making.

Sign up as a creator on both sites. You don’t have to have a course ready, and it’s free. The video shows you how to use both sites, but we’ll repeat the headline here:


Create an account (or sign in if you already have one).

Go to the ‘instructor dashboard’ and right under the word ‘Dashboard’ click on ‘Marketplace Insights.’

Udemy kicks it off with a list of topics they want you to create courses for!

What course topic are you interested in

The ideal is to find a topic with high demand and a low number of courses – but notice they recommend what you can sell a course for, and sometimes that number is worth it even if there’s a fair bit of competition.

When investigating your own topics, be sure to check the ‘other topics of interest’ on the bottom right of the page. This might help you reprioritize your ‘big list.’

If you browse Udemy ‘incognito’ or in a ‘private’ browser window, you’ll be seeing it as a ‘regular (paying) customer sees the site. Search out your category and have a look at what’s available and pay particular attention to how each course is rated by people who’ve done the course. If you’re seeing a lot of ‘low’ ranked courses, you’ve got an opportunity.


Starting on the home page, use the ‘ALL CLASSES’ menu (left side) to find the area of your interest (fine art, graphic design, etc.)

The first thing to notice in the results are how many people follow the topic (see ‘following’ at the top of the page). When users (or your potential customers) sign up for Skillshare, it asks them to select a few topics that they would be interested in doing a course on. It’s not sales numbers, but it is a broad representation of interest.

Skillshare music

Other Sites

Lynda.com, Adobe.com and many other websites offer training courses. Google around and find them because many sites will tell you how popular the course is or offer a larger number of courses on some subjects than others. Just because you don’t sell there doesn’t mean you can’t gain insight from what they’re offering.

One of Dan’s hacks is to browse all the sites using an ‘Incognito’ or ‘private’ browning in Chrome or Safari. This means your site logins or recent searches don’t influence the search results or what the website ‘thinks’ you should be seeing.

For a quick roundup – use keyword searches, google searches and existing online course marketplaces to search of how popular your topic is, how many other courses exist and where possible try and see if you can add value either with a unique presentation or a higher quality course than much of what’s out there.

Quotation Marks

If you want to find the real competition, just look in the mirror. After a while, you;ll see your rivals scrambling for second place.

-- Criss Jami, Killosophy

And remember to make detailed notes alongside your ‘big list’ of possibilities.

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Step 4: Profitability

How much money is potentially attached to a topic?

Quotation Marks

Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.

-- Frank Zappa

You can be as altruistic, creative and generous as you want, but if your topics not profitable to a level that sustains you, you can’t go on creating.

It costs money to create. Especially if you create video content that requires time and equipment far beyond the comparison of the blogger who simply wishes to enlighten the world with their brand of thinking.

You need the income to create content.

Zig Ziglar hits it out of the park with this thought: “Our number one objective is to make a profit so we can hit our number one priority - which is to help people be all they can be.”

At InstructorHQ we think helping people with their problems and sharing the wealth of your knowledge should be the first thing that motivates you. Be helpful and people will love you for it.

We also know that the internet, your family, and a large number of your friends would prefer you do it for them. For free.

You need gear, you need time (which is NOT free) and you need income to be able to create courses.

Money is not always the goal (some of you are more honest and are waving your hands right now and saying ‘oh yes, it is!) but we need to discuss how to keep you up and running.

The actual title of this post (and the video) is ‘How to Choose a Profitable Online Course Topic.’

So how do we find out how much money is potentially attached to a topic?

At InstructorHQ we’ve found 3 basic methods for researching how much money a course could POTENTIALLY make over the lifetime of that course.

There are a lot of factors that are hard to account for and are unique to you, especially how many courses have you previously sold and is there already an audience for your course? See Step 2 if you’ve forgotten already.

So, we consider this a chance to estimate your potential income but it’s better than guessing. Much better in practice. No, really, stop guessing and do these 3 things.

Udemy Marketplace Insights, as we saw in the previous section, has a terrific set of tools that includes how much the courses have been selling for. You don’t have to sell with Udmey, though InstructorHQ can facilitate that for you as well as putting you on every other website that’s relevant to your audience – but as we said earlier, sign up for free and use the tools.

Dan’s adamant that this is the clearest and most direct way to gauge what you might earn and should be your first port of call.

Once you’ve looked up a course, start with the ‘Median Monthly Income’ figure. It’s going to give you the ‘average’ for what ALL the courses in this topic are earning. It’s a safe number to work with because most of you will fall around the middle ground, especially in the early days of creating your own content.

So ask yourself: “I could probably make around $50 a month from this course over its lifetime. Is it worth spending $3-400 worth of time and resources to make the course? (of course, your time will vary, do your own numbers).”

If software or technology is involved (cameras go out of date about every 18 months, phones even faster) in your topic, think realistically how long people would still want that version of your course.

Read the fine print: the numbers Udemy posts combine Udemy AND the instructor’s share so you won’t be getting all that money yourself.

If that top monthly figure is low (and sometimes even the median monthly) it might be because it’s a new topic, or there are not enough courses, or the current courses are not doing well for whatever reason. This is your opportunity to create better content and dominate (politely, of course).

Sometimes the monthly median figure is low because of the sheer volume of courses being offered in a subject. But, if that top monthly figure is enticing, and you think you have something unique to offer that stands out from the crowd it’s worth considering.

Udemy’s figures usually cover the current month and the previous 2 months. If there’s a major update in a piece of software or a hot new trend in your topic (possum fur nipple warmers are trending here in New Zealand) that impact might not yet be reflected. Some courses may have a time factor built in that you should be thinking about.

Some topics are seasonal (possum fur does better in Winter) so you’re going to have to do a bit of digging to double-check what you’re seeing here. BBQ courses are another example of something that would sell better in warmer weather – but remember the seasons are flipped between the northern and southern hemispheres.

‘How to make affordable Halloween costumes’ would have reduced numbers most of the year, but a couple of months before October you would start to see a gentle upward trend. But again, Udemy is only giving you the LAST 3 months. It’s not the final word, and it’s only 1 out of a dozen sites.

Dan uses Udemy for research, but knows he sells a lot more courses through Skillshare (the great thing about InstructorHQ is we host your content and help you use any and all platforms you want to sell through, all managed from one easy dashboard! Just saying…). Again, this is just one of several ways to do research in order to choose a topic. Sign up for our emails and we’ll send you more tips as things change or new tools become available.

Email Lists are incredible for marketing your courses (please tell me you’ve read a book or at least watched a YouTube video about building your own email list!!). They’re also brilliant for research, including testing your prices.

Dan shows you how he manages his email list in the video. And yeah, it’s a big one because he learned how important it was very early on. He uses MailChimp.com to manage the list and create graphically pleasing emails. There are several services that you can start for free or very low cost on. Here’s a great blog post on alternatives.

Your email marketing platform (we’ll stick with MailChimp as the example) will give you stats on how many people are opening your emails, how many are clicking through to your offers and so on.

So Dan uses funnels and giveaways to build his mail list meaning he has high numbers but less relationship to the people on the list. Dan thinks his conversion rate (the number of people who open the email and eventually buy a course) is about 0.5%. It might sound low, but 3% is absolute rock star territory. So Dan’s conversion rate is pretty normal.

Based on 13,000 people on his list, at a conversion rate of 0.5% Dan can simply multiply that together with a course price (US$10 is the example we are working with here) and out comes a potential income of $650 based on 65 people (that half a percent of his email audience).

This is only one way to sell the course(s)but it also gives you a quick idea of how much you need to charge to be profitable. Compare your numbers against what other courses (on all those different platforms) charge so you are being realistic.

As Dan says, play around with the numbers. Try stuff. And build your email list.

The Lifetime Value of a Student. Economists and marketing gurus tell us that it costs 10 times as much to find a new customer as it does to sell something new to an existing customer. That includes how much time you can save. And as your number of courses grow, if you’re reaching the right audience, you can have a pretty good round of initial sales whenever you have a new release. That spike, in turn, prompts a lot of websites to push you onto ‘recommended’ lists a lot faster and you, in turn, can sell more courses.

Quotation Marks

Make a customer, not a sale

-- Katherine Barchetti

It’s time to repeat that people buy from people they know, and if someone as already purchased one of your courses, they are many times more likely to purchase another. Unless you ignore them and transition to a completely different topic – like photoshop to knitting.

When choosing a topic, look at what your existing customer base is already buying from you and feed the need.

“Don’t find customers for your products, find products for your customers.” – Seth Godin. Boom! Drop the mic! Seth Godin (read ALL his books) nails the way we should think about choosing a topic that you already have customers for.

If you’re just starting out (no courses yet), plan for supporting an existing customer base by asking all your new customers what they want and providing courses that build on or complement earlier content. Use this thinking as you edit your ‘big list.’

Step 5: Making a Final Choice

Which course(s) is the best for you to create?

No one is asking you to choose only 1 sacred and almighty course. We’d suggest you hedge your bets with at least 3 topics to start with – just work them up until they’re ready to produce, then produce one at a time. Keep it simple.

If you want to profit from online video courses, you should consider it’s a volume business. You need a plan to have multiple course that build on each other. If that sounds like a lot of work…well, it is.

Quotation Marks

"How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time"

Like many (most) things in life it takes time, patience, nurturing and some trial and error.

That’s why you should stick with it for at least 3 courses before you start analyzing the ‘numbers’ into the wee hours of the morning.

Dan also suggests that your first course will almost certainly be a learning experience and that by course number 3 you’ll be a lot more polished. You will get better and better and grow in confidence (super important) and technical skill.

Consider choosing a smaller manageable idea for your very first course. You can always remake it in the future if you look back on it and think ‘rookie!’

There it is. You now have several valuable and easy to use tools to choose the right (profitable) topics and course content for you!

Keep adding to your ‘big list’ and researching and occasionally retesting old ideas if you haven’t made them yet. That list will grow with you, and you’ll grow in experience and audience size.

Like gardening, it’s going to start with digging a hole (and ignoring the bemused stares of friends or family). Persist and one day you’ll be one of Bob Ross’ ‘Happy Little Trees’ and people will start admiring your ‘overnight’ success. Just keep going.

Between now and then, InstructorHQ is here to help. Literally, we only succeed if you succeed. And we’re committed!

We’ve got tons of other helpful content: the podcast, YouTube, blog posts, Facebook and don’t forget to sign up for our email list so you get the freshest help and tools because new ideas and new techniques are always arriving. And if you have any questions, get in touch. We really are here to help.

Your next step is to have a look at our course creation checklist that gives you an overview to the whole creation process and links you to the relevant help material like this one.

The End

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