This post has been updated August 2017.
For the past few years, the majority of my income has come from online courses.
They are literally the perfect product.
- Fun to make
- Premium pricing
- have an impact
- help more people
...the list goes on!
After years of being an entrepreneur - running businesses of all kinds (physical products, service businesses, design/architecture, consulting - all of it) - I discovered online courses.
And within months I was making more money with less work than ever before.
I’ve never looked back.
And now online courses are the only thing I’ll spend time building.
Online courses literally ARE my business.
Today, I’m going to show you how to come up with a profitable course topic idea. This really is step 1 in the process of creating and launching a course.
Think you just don’t have what it takes to come up with a great course idea? Think again.
Everyone has a course idea in them, you just need to think about things from the perspective of your former self to tap into them.
Are you stuck trying to figure out what online course you should create?
I know this speed bump really holds people up, so I want to address it head on.
You probably already know that online courses are my favorite business model, my favorite product, basically my favorite thing ever.
Here’s the thing:
Your “big course idea” doesn’t have to come to you in a bolt of lightning.
In fact, it probably won’t and it really SHOULDN’T.
Let me explain:
Your course topic and idea needs to address a need that your customer or reader has. It’s not really about YOUR idea - it’s about what your customer really needs and wants.
So if you’re racking your brain trying to come up with “The Golden Idea” and waiting for it to come to you, stop.
There is a better way.
And honestly, these strategies for finding your course topic are a lot more reliable, and more likely to be profitable because they are based on numbers, data, and yes a little bit of gut feeling.
The biggest thing to remember is that you don’t need to be selling B2B (business-related) courses to make a full-time income!
There are so many examples of people making a living selling courses about art, dog training, hobbies - literally anything you can think of can become a course.
So don’t discount your industry or your background and skills as “not course material”. It absolutely is. You just need to start thinking about things from a new perspective, where value comes in a lot of different shapes and packages.
You can literally teach an online course about anything.
I love seeing unique case studies of people who are making a living teaching an online course about hand lettering, learning how to code, using Scrivener or Evernote to their potential, creating the perfect wardrobe, or working on relationships.
The biggest thing is just to realize that although you might feel like the only courses out there talk about making money online, that’s a huge myth. And no matter what industry, niche, or weird hobby or subculture you can think of - I guarantee you there are a few “unknown” people making BANK creating courses for those very specific groups of people.
DOWNLOAD THE FREE COURSE CRITERIA WORKSHEET!If you like to see things visually mapped out, download our worksheet to help you figure out which of your ideas will be the most successful!
The first step is figuring out what you will teach people in your online course.
Most likely you are considering launching your course using your blog as your platform.
If this is the case, your course should relate to your blog. If your blog is about cooking, don’t try to sell a class about personal finance. (I’ve seen some people try to do this - even if you ARE a personal finance rockstar, don’t try to sell that to your food blog audience!).
When you’re creating your first course, you want to attract the audience you already have to take your course, not sell them something totally unrelated.
Another thing to point out, is that you don’t necessarily need a blog as a platform to launch a profitable course. It can be helpful, but not absolutely necessary.
If you’re starting from scratch with no audience, you will do 60 days of pre-launch list-building strategies to build up your pre-launch list before you launch your course.
This is all explained in detail, including making landing pages and getting those first few hundred subscribers, in Launch Your Signature Course™. Go grab the free launch checklist right now to see what I mean about pre-launch list-building.
What makes a profitable, successful online course?
Specific AudienceYou need to create a course with a specific person in mind. If you think your customer is “everyone”, your customer will turn out to be “no one”.
Specific, Real ResultsNobody buys a course that promises a happy life. Or “success”. Or “more fun”. The more specific and results based your course is, the better.
Addresses a pain or problem that people have, and offers a solution.Not to get all negative, but a course that offers a solution to a real pain or problem, instead of promising some perfect future, is even more likely to be successful. If you can tap into the pains and frustrations of your audience, they will pay you to stop the “pain” or stress they are feeling.
I firmly believe in creating niche courses for a very specific audience.
But I’ve also had a lot of success creating more broad-topic courses that can appeal to more people, while I’ve seen some people struggle because their course was SO specific and they had a hard time finding their audience.
I’m not trying to be confusing (go niche! no wait! go wide!) but instead showing you the two sides of this coin.
Have you ever seen this grid?
- High End Coaching (premium price, small audience)
- Mass Market - (low price, huge audience)
- Unicorn - (high price, huge audience)
- There’s also another square on that grid - the small audience/low price square, but that’s not the greatest business model UNLESS it’s a passion project.
The two sides of this coin that you want to focus on are the High End Program square and the Unicorn square.
Most people start with the high end program in mind - something VERY specific you can sell for a premium because of how niche it is.
This is a powerful approach when you have a very small audience or customer base because you can still make a lot of profit from a small number of people at a higher price. You don’t have to sell 1,000 seats in your course, and still make great money.
The other option is going for the Unicorn, which is when you have a high priced course that has a large audience. It is harder to pull off at first (because you need to be able to get in front of that huge audience).
If you can think of a topic that can appeal to the most people within your niche, that is unicorn (as in, a cooking course, but not necessarily a “cooking for vegetarians” course (unless that’s what your blog is all about!).
I’ve found in my experience that there’s also a difference in price point between the high end program and the unicorn that appeals to more people.
Your unicorn course might be priced at $97 or maybe even $199, and that’s reasonable enough to attract a larger audience of people that want what you’ve got and can also afford it.
With a high end program, you can go for more premium pricing precisely because it is SO SPECIFIC. So you can potentially create a course that sells for $500 or $1,000, it will just serve fewer people than your unicorn.
And that’s fine! It’s easier to sell a premium, very specific course to a clear audience.
Creating a specific resource for a very specific person/group/demographic/audience allows you to charge a premium price (as long as your target can afford it).
It also signals to your target audience that you’ve created something “JUST” for them. It helps you communicate more effectively and thus make more sales.
For example, Daisy is a social media expert who wants to create an online course about using social media effectively.
In Daisy’s case, she wasn’t sure whether to write a Course about social media in general, or for a specific audience. She was deciding between something like “Social Media for Business” or “Social Media for E-Commerce Shop Owners” or “Social Media for Lifestyle Bloggers”. She asked for my advice, and I think choosing a specific audience, like in the second and third examples, is the smart way to go.
There are a few reasons this is the way to go:
1. Though the foundations of using social media are probably the same across the broad audience of “business", there’s probably a lot of different techniques, methods, and practices that are very specific to your type of business or industry. It makes sense that there would be different information depending on what business you’re in.
2. When people see that you’ve created a guide JUST FOR THEM, they will immediately connect with it. Someone reads the title or description about a social media course for business owners, and they think “hmm I’m a business owner but I don’t know if that will really apply to me and I’ve seen a hundred other books like that so…” *clicks away*.
Or they read the title “Social Media for Finance Bloggers” and they think “HEY THAT’S ME! Wow that’s cool - I bet that has tons of specific tips I can use”. You’re speaking RIGHT TO THEM.
3. You can’t stand out with a course about general “Social Media”. There are hundreds of books and products about rocking it on social media. But you CAN stand out with THE best book about Social Media for Yoga Instructors. Or Social Media for Food Bloggers. In fact, it’s the only way to stand out in a crowded space.
This also opens you up to much deeper joint venture and affiliate possibilities which is a topic for another day.
When I help people find their unique and profitable niches, we talk about CONVERGENCE and SYNTHESIS. These two words can help you choose a course topic as well.
Convergence is combining two topics or things into a new, unique thing. So for example, two topics might be “sustainability” and “fashion” - combine the two into something unique and now you have the foundation of a niche.
Synthesis is adding a qualifier or audience to the mix, thus making your niche course topic even more specific. Make it more particular by being specific about who it’s for. Using the example above, you go from “Sustainable Fashion”, which is a good start, to “Sustainable Fashion for College Students”.
Specific Niche course Examples:
Social Media >>> Social Media for Business Owners >>> Social Media for Yoga Instructors
Copy Writing >>> Copy Writing for Health Coaches >>> Sales Page Copy Writing for Health Coaches
Photography >>> Photography for Style Bloggers >>> iPhone Photography for Style Bloggers
See how that works? Don’t be afraid of “alienating” anyone. Being specific will help you connect with and sell to your audience.
Start small, but think big
One thing to consider when choosing your topic and how niche you need to go is that you can always START with a very specific, very niche course and then re-work the content later on to launch as a course to a broader audience down the line.
This is more advanced (and we go through how to do this in Launch Your Signature Course™), but it can help you bridge that gap between niche and world-domination.
My advice for first time course creators, is to start with something very specific and very niche, and then go from there once they get some feedback and a few launches under their belt.
5 Ways to Find Your Profitable Course Topic Idea
1. The Transformation
One of the most powerful foundations to base your course or product on is your very own Transformation. This is some sort of transformation you’ve achieved and can share with others.
Super Obvious Note - it has to be based on your OWN experience and transformation and YOUR results, which are then translated into teachable lessons that others can do too.
You can’t create a course about losing 100 pounds with the paleo diet if you haven’t done it! Just like you can’t teach other people how to run a profitable business if you haven’t done it!
This is such a powerful place to start with your product idea because it already has one successful student/customer - YOU! So pick something that you can use YOUR OWN results as the basis for.
Every single course I create is based on this principle of the Transformation.
I love using the Transformation Arc as the basis for my courses. It allows you to teach something you ALREADY KNOW how to do. Something personal to you. Something that you are intimately familiar with.
Everyone loves looking at before and after pictures. If you can help someone reach their “after”, you’ll have a very successful course.
In Webinar Rockstar™ I show you how to create and deliver insanely profitable webinars, based on my own unique experiences and proven strategies. It's all based on my own transformation.
There’s a gap between where your students and customers are and where you are (where they want to be) and your product is the BRIDGE.
2. Paying attention (totally normal market stalking)
Finding a pain point to address with a course really comes down to one simple thing:
If you can learn how to pay attention to what people are complaining about, asking for, and having trouble with - you can find so many profitable course topics.
Being observant and aware goes a long way.
Soon you’ll have more course topic ideas than you know what to do with.
If you have a basic idea of who you want to create a course for, or the general topic you want to create it within (because you have a passion, knowledge, or experience with it), but you aren’t sure what “pains” you can help people with, here are a few ways to find that information:
Forums: hit the online forums where your target audience and students are hanging out and pay attention! What are they asking for, wishing for, complaining about? What questions are people asking again and again?
Amazon: check out Amazon for books or eBooks in the category you want to create a course in, and check out the “negative” reviews. What are people’s complaints? Why were they unhappy with the information in that book? Can you help them with that?
Your “competitors”: Are there similar products out there in the area you want to create your course in? How can you improve on that product? Can you do one thing better than them?
Comments on blog posts: Often times popular blog posts, for as much information as they may contain, also leave some questions unanswered and readers will post their questions in the comment section. Look at blog posts related to your topic idea and read the comments. What are people frustrated with? Notice any common problems people have? For this process I like to go to BuzzSumo, search for your topic idea keywords, you’ll see the top blog posts relating to those keywords, and go to the comments. Make notes about what you see there.
3. The Numbers Game: Your most popular blog posts
First, go into your blog analytics.
Which of your blog posts are the most popular?
Have you ever had a blog post or image go viral on social media (Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook)?
Can you expand on what you know about those topics?
This is one of my favorite ways to find product ideas. If it’s getting a lot of traffic, it’s probably a great candidate for a course topic (AND it’s something you already know about!).
Again, you can check Buzzsumo or your analytics to see which of your posts gets the most traffic or social shares.
4. Mad Skills: Teaching A Technical Skill You Have
What skills have you learned in your own education or life? Can you teach these practical skills in a course?
Do you have simple, technical, domestic, or other skills? What did you go to school for?
This can be one tiny thing - doesn’t have to be huge!
Please don’t say “I don’t have any skills”. You absolutely do. You know more about something than someone else does.
You don’t have to be an EXPERT to create a great product that helps people - you just have to be a few steps ahead of the beginners.
This is one course topic that gets totally underrated when it can in fact become your most profitable, successful idea.
- Teaching people how to use a software that you already use
- teaching people how to do a task that you know how to do
- teaching people how to use a platform or tech that you use everyday
These are golden course topic ideas, you just need to realize that the way YOU teach someone how to use something has value.
And you might be using a software, tech, platform, etc. in a way that other people aren’t, or in a way that is particular to your industry.
People buy these types of training courses because they want to learn these skills from someone they trust, someone they know, and someone who is using the tools in a way that relates to THEIR situation.
Obviously Photoshop has tutorials all over the place for using their software. These are free tutorials. Youtube is full of free Photoshop tutorials.
But people still purchase XoSarah’s Guide to Photoshop because it is specifically FOR bloggers, and people love how she specifically teaches the tool and breaks things down in an easy to understand way.
Same thing with my MailChimp training. MailChimp has a knowledgebase of videos that go through how to use the software, but people still want to see how I use MailChimp in relation to my business and the particular things I do and recommend.
If you’re super talented at using Evernote, a writing app, a project management tool, a website platform - think about how you can turn that technical skill into a course.
Just because “you can find it for free online” is not an excuse - people need your unique way of teaching.
5. The Go To Gal and Guy: Things People Ask You About
What questions do you field all day long from reader emails and comments on your blog?
What do your friends and family ask you about?
Are you the “go-to person” for their tech help? science questions? relationship advice? design help?
Think about this:
What resource do you wish you had back when you started…..?
Create the resource you wish you could have had when you first started doing x, y z.
DOWNLOAD THE FREE COURSE CRITERIA WORKSHEET!If you like to see things visually mapped out, download our worksheet to help you figure out which of your ideas will be the most successful!
QUESTIONS TO GET YOUR STARTED
THINK ABOUT YOUR READERS AND CUSTOMERS...
What are their questions and issues?
What are they frustrated with RIGHT NOW?
What do they WANT?
WHY do they come to your blog?
What do their “after pictures” look like and
How can you help them get there?
How will you help them reach their goals?
WHAT MAKES YOU UNIQUE?
Play that up and embrace it. Your quirks are what’s going to make you stand out.
It’s tempting to want to emulate others with success that you admire - but ultimately you will need to be known for your unique skills, talents, and experience.
Many of the products I have launched came from conversations I was having with people in my industry, who started saying “wow, you’re really doing things differently than anyone else out there right now. I wish you would teach people how to do this in your way - it would be such a fresh approach”.
So really find that thing that you do that others are NOT already doing. Find a way to add your personal story and spin to the idea.
Your product should be...
- a reflection of something you have done yourself
- a process or transformation you have gone through
- or skills you have learned and are now ready to share what you know.
Pick something that you are knowledgeable about and that keeps your interest. Think about your target audience and what they want to know.
Do you have a better grasp on your course topic? I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
And if you want to know more about how to create and launch your own signature course, go check out my program Launch Your Signature Course™ and grab your free 90 day launch checklist and timeline. It’s pretty freaking nifty :)