5 mistakes new Udemy instructors make

Evan Kimbrell

11 minute read

Watch the 8 min video version
  • Success on Udemy

In 2016, I made my first Udemy course. Oh, those were the days (not really).

IMAGE

When I dove in and started putting a microphone to my face (courses back then were often audio only), I had absolutely no idea what I was doing.

What should I make the course on?

How long did the content need to be?

Did people need to see my face or could I just record slides and audio?

Do people actually watch the promo?

Now after 36 successful Udemy courses, I can say I have a solid grasp of what makes a Udemy course work. In retrospect, I often cringe at some of the mistakes I made in my early courses. Mistakes that without a doubt cost me both time and money.

Every week hundreds of new instructors try their hand at the Udemy game, and the vast majority of them are just as clueless as I was when I first started. If you’re considering making a Udemy course, help yourself (seriously) and go over the 5 biggest mistakes I’ve identified that new instructors make:

Mistake #1
They teach the wrong topic
Some topics are figurative ATMs, and others are deserts full of tumbleweed

Not all course topics are created equally. Some course topics pay their top courses $30,000+ per month, while others pay peanuts. Some topics are crowded with top tier courses vying for attention, and others have virtually no courses addressing them.

For example, let’s say you’re an executive coach and you want to start scaling your knowledge with an online course.

You’re deciding between a course on “Positive Thinking” and “Negotiation Skills”, and. Both are crucial skills needed, you believe, to perform at your best.

Let’s look at the demand for these two topics:

 

 

Top courses in negotiation pull in between $4,000 – $15,000 a month on average, while courses on “positive thinking” pull in between $150-400 a month.

Both courses would take the same amount of effort, but “Negotiation” courses pull in 26x – 37x the amount of money.

Similarly, let’s look at another example. Lets say you just wanted to monetize a couple of your hobbies, so you start looking at two of your favorite things: “Drawing”, and “Embroidery”

 

 

Drawing courses are on average 12.8 hours long with an average rating of 4.6. Embroidery courses on the other hand, are only about 90 minutes long on average and have a rating of 3.7.

One topic is filled with long, well-made courses you might struggle to stand out against, and the other is full of poorly made courses most likely filmed in their entirety in one day.

These are two most common mistakes I see within the greater mistake of “picking the wrong topic”:

The topic has no buyers

OR

The topic is too competitive

Can you make good money with an unproven course topic? Sure, but it’s rare.

Can you make a course that beats out strong competition? Absolutely, but again it’s rare, especially for your first course.

 

 

SIDE NOTE:

Yes, you can make a course for a low demand topic and still see success, but it usually only happens in two scenarios.

Scenario 1 is that you’re making a topic on as brand new thing that’s rapidly growing in popularity, so it’s only a matter of time before people start searching online for courses on the subject. This is pretty typical with new softwares, for example. The market just looks weak because well… your topic isn’t well known yet but it will soon be.

Scenario 2 is where there is demand for this information, but no one has taken the plunge and tried to make a good course on it yet. If there are no courses on the topic to sell, then Udemy isn’t going to have ant data to say that people are indeed interested in it.

When I made my first course called “Mastering AirBNB”, there was only 1 other course on the topic, and it was very poorly made. When I made my course, Udemy noticed that it was in fact a topic people were willing to buy, and eventually started promoting it. When you think about this second scenario though, it’s usually obvious in hindsight. Airbnb hosting is a side business and it makes money for its hosts. Businesses and money making skills are always popular online courses on Udemy, so it had a leg up there. Not to mention, Airbnb was on its way to becoming a global phenomenon and household name – you didn’t need a crystal ball to see that happening.

(You can see how my course first launched as a dud, since the market wasn’t exactly there yet).

As an online course newbie, you might be wondering:

 

Why exactly do we care about “competition”? If my course is good, isn’t that all that matters?

 

This is indeed a very common question we get. The reason we harp so much about competition is because Udemy’s system is entirely algorithmic.

No, people behind desks are not deciding which content gets promoted and which doesn’t (unlike say Instagram in the early days).

Udemy simply has too many courses (over 100,000 currently) to manually keep tabs on what’s good and what’s not, so instead they use a robot that just ranks courses on a number of metrics they correlate with quality (like “average rating“, and “average minutes watched” for example).

Since their robot is… a robot, it can’t actually think critically about courses by themselves. If it detects that your students on average watch 18 minutes of your course, how does it know if that number is good or bad? The way it does it is by comparing your course to other courses similar to yours.

If your metrics aren’t better than your competitor’s course, then their system just isn’t going to promote it. Udemy only has a finite amount of slots for marketing courses, so if they have a better course on the same subject, they’re going to give the glory to the other course.

 

How do you see the demand and competition for a topic?

Easy. You have two options.

Option #1:

You can use our free revenue tool at sixfigureinstructor.com/revenue.

Just stick in the topic you want to read about, and it’ll show you what the top courses make per day, per week, and per month. It’ll also show you their lengths, and ratings.

Option #2:

Use Udemy’s internal “marketplace Insights tool”.

To access the tool:

Sign up for an instructor account (it’s free), by clicking “Teach on Udemy” at the top when you login.

Fill out some survey questions, and you’re all set. Then click “Instructor”:

 

Then click “Tools”:

Then go to “Marketplace insights”

Here you can input whatever topic you want to read about and it’ll spit out a bunch of stats and show you the top 3 courses.

Why use our tool?

Udemy’s marketplace insights tool has 2 problems.

1) They give you a 90 day average revenue number for ALL top courses. This isn’t particularly useful (and can actually give you the wrong impression) because a large amount of topics have 1 popular course soaking up 80%+ of the revenue. If you’re faced with a topic like this, you need to know this. This means that your course NEEDS to be better than the top course, and if it’s not then it’s not likely to make any money at all. Really popular courses have a tendency to drive up the average revenue number and make the entire topic look like it’s popular, when that’s not actually the case.

2) Their tool spits out a lot of stats that are not easy to understand, especially for newer instructors. What are you suppose to make a difference in conversion rate of 5% and 18%? How does the revenue distribution amongst channels help you, exactly? If you want to dive into these numbers, check out my post on deciphering the marketplace insights panel, otherwise I generally just say to ignore them.

Picking the right topic with the right demand AND the right competition can be tricky. If you’re flexible about what you can teach, check out our “Opportunities” tool here, where you can see a real-time updated list of the best topics for new courses. The tool looks for course topics with strong demand, but also weak competition. There are currently over 100 topics across 13 major categories that we classify as “great opportunities” because of their income earning potential and weak competition.

Mistake #2
They try to make a "lean course"
The only thing "lean" in a lean course is the revenue

The second mistake we see over and over is when an instructor decides they don’t want to dive in completely, but instead will make a “test course” or a miniature version of their course to “see if it works”.

If you make a limited course to just “test the waters”, let me show you the future: it will fail.

For some reason, there are some gurus running around saying you can succeed on Udemy by creating a “Minimum Viable Course”, and they are very very wrong. “Minimum Viable Courses” CAN work for self-hosted courses that you sell yourself, but for a marketplace like Udemy they’re content suicide.

Why don’t "lean" courses work?

Well, let’s reiterate what we’ve already established.

Udemy ranks and promotes their courses through an algorithm. An algorithm that measures certain metrics to determine the quality of the course. If you get good metrics compared to your competitors, you’ll see blue skies ahead and if you don’t then you’re going to become one of the 100 other vocally disgruntled “Udemy is SC@M!! My 15 minute course on why I”m awesome made no $$. Ridiculous!!!” people.

“Udemy is SC@M!! My 15 minute course on why I”m awesome made no $$. Ridiculous!!!” - The instructor who made an inferior course

Ok, so whats the deal then with making a shorter course and then updating it after its live to fill it out once you see demand? The problem is this: Udemy only evaluates your course for 30-90 days after you launch it.

The algorithm needs data to figure out if your course is good, and once it thinks it has enough data… it essentially stops caring. That means if your course is not 100% what it should be for that 30-90 day window, the algorithm is not going to be impressed and its never going to change it’s mind later down the road.

DON‘T DO IT. “Testing the waters” is a valid strategy elsewhere, but not on a platform built on first impressions. Either do a good job, or don’t do it at all.

Mistake #3
They ignore their competition
If a student is going to comparison shop your course, you should plan for that.

Similar to what I said before, you have to consider your competition whenever you do… anything. This isn’t just limited to the topic you pick, it should influence what you do all throughout your course production process.

Think about it. Udemy’s system only cares which courses on each topic are the best. Udemy students also generally only want to spend their time on courses that are the most likely to meet their learning goals for their chosen subject.

In both situations, your course is going to be actively compared to competing courses, even if you don’t think you have competing courses.

Wait... how can I be compared to competitors if I don’t have any competitors?

In 95% of situations you do have another course that your course will be comparison shopped against. It might not be a perfect competitor that covers the exact same things, in the same way, in the same depth, and to the same audience.

You could, for example, be making a course on how to “Growing your YouTube channel”, while another course goes for “YouTube Marketing: Grow with ads & organic”. If that course is a top course on either “YouTube Marketing” or “YouTube Audience Growth”, then it’s going to be compared to your course regardless of its minimal content overlap.

Prospective students are busy, tired, and often not paying close attention when they buy – you need to keep this in mind. They will do a gut check between your course and the closest comparable, and they’re going to go with the one they are more confident in.

Ways instructors screw this up:

They don’t position their course material in a way that highlights their courses strengths vs their competitors

They don’t attempt to match the length or production value of the competing course

They don’t give any coverage to topics their competitors go over at length.

You are going to be comparison shopped so everything you do needs to standout or at least hold up to “the best other course” on your topic.

If a student scrolls through your course outline, and notices that you only cover 1/3 the topics that the other course does, they’re not likely to buy your course.

REMEMBER:

The vast majority of Udemy students buy their courses on discount, so theres no such thing as a “cheap course”. All courses are “cheap”, which means your lack of coverage can’t be made up for with a lower price.

Make sure you plan for being compared. If your course has something glaringly missing when compared to the others, plug the gap.

Mistake #4
They don't make their course in-depth enough
Anyone can make a 1 hour course. Students want more for their $10

This is the answer that everyone hates to hear. Courses take a lot of work to put together, and the longer they need to be the more effort you’ll need to invest. The fact still remains that a course can be “too short” to sell well on Udemy’s platform.

Why does course length matter?

Some of you might think that since people are busy, they might be put off by longer course runtimes. This is true in some circumstances, but it’s the exception and not the rule.

A course on time management, for example, probably can’t get away with being 30 hours long, after all the students buying this course are probably strapped for time (not to mention a 30 hour course on time management would mean YOU the instructor are not good at managing your time). In most cases, however, students do care about how much content they’re getting for their purchase.

Remember, about 5 minutes ago, when I mentioned that virtually all Udemy courses are sold at a heavy discount (discounted to between $10-20)? This is the primary reason length becomes so important in the Udemy marketplace.

In traditional markets, if your course didn’t have as much to offer you would just adjust the price to reflect that. In Udemy-land, however, you don’t control your course’s sale price. You can control the list price of your course, but not the discount price. That means your course is going to cost the exact same as every other course on the platform, the majority of the time (they’re perpetually “on sale”).

When every course costs the same amount of money, prospective students will start to care about OTHER things, and a major part of their purchase will be how much “bang for their buck” they’re getting.

If you had $10 to spend, which of these courses would you buy:

That’s not to say that length is THE thing everyone looks at in lieu of price, but its a major factor. If your course is noticeably shorter than your competing courses, then you’re going to get fewer sales overall.

What about Udemy Pro?

You might have heard of Udemy’s newest initiative called Udemy Pro. Udemy Pro is a monthly subscription they now offer that gives you unlimited access to a a chunk of their course catalog. Udemy’s goal is to roll this out to the entirety of all Udemy courses in the near future. If Udemy does in fact move the majority of their focus to subscription based courses, will course length still matter? Yes, it will still matter (but slightly less). Why? In a subscription model, you get paid based on the total minutes students watch of your course. Longer courses will generally rack up more minutes, because users that really enjoy the course content will have more to buffet from.

Mistake #5
They don't take their video & audio quality seriously
I can't drink from your pool of infinite wisdom if I can't hear you

When Udemy first started out, most of the courses on their platform were simple PowerPoint deck walkthroughs accompanied by grainy, compressed laptop mic audio. Similar to the way YouTube videos first started out, Udemy courses at the beginning didn’t NEED to be flashy or impressive to get attention, since ALL of courses were of the same low production quality.

Today, it’s different. You don’t need a Hollywood production for your course to stand out, but we do need to hear your voice clearly. Most students now expect to see the instructors face at some point, wehich means you need to fiolm yourself speaking at some point. You don’t have to buy a camera (your phone is fine), but you also can’t just record it on an embedded computer webcam anymore (720p is too low of quality).

To get to a level of quality that puts you in the middle 50% of Udemy courses, all you need is a $50 USB microphone, your phone, and $130 spent on some simple lights.

Better video and better audio is… better, but not necessary. Keep in mind, the better you present your information the more authoritative and credible you’ll come off. The more authoritative & credible you sound… the more students will watch and the more they will buy.

KEEP IN MIND:

The majority of Udemy students are “English second language” so your audio quality needs to be clear to be understood.

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