How to pick the right Udemy topic

Evan Kimbrell
Watch the 11 minute video version
  • Success on Udemy

Making a course on Udemy can be a tantalizing prospect. They do after all, routinely pay out millions of dollars to their top instructors.

<graphic of Udemy by the numbers>

Similar to how YouTube has minted celebrities out of thin air, Udemy too has the ability to take a relative nobody and make them a prominent thought leader in their space.

So, if you’re ready to dive in… how do you start?

Before you buy an overpriced camera you can’t afford, and before you buy a nice “on-camera outfit” you need to decide WHAT you’re going to teach.

Picking the right topic can be the difference between a course that becomes a darling of the Udemy algorithm, and a course that makes you wonder if it was ever promoted… at all.

So, let’s walk through HOW to pick the right topic.

Step #1
List out possible topics
You'd be surprised at how many options you have

The first thing you need to do is relatively obvious: you need to first generate a list of possible things you COULD teach. Once you have a list of topics you could theoretically pull off, you can then start to narrow your list through market research.

We generally recommend you start by thinking of options, independent of any market data or trend you’re aware of. Some people try (keyword: try) to do this in reverse – they try to find a topic that’s in demand, or quickly trending and then try to see if they can create the material. We think this is a mistake. An online course opportunity is only an opportunity if you can actually make the course. If you aren’t a good fit for the material, then it doesn’t matter “how hot” the topic is.

Sitting in silence and trying to imagine yourself teaching a variety of topics is pretty difficult, so the easiest way we’ve found is to just answer some easy rhetorical questions.

What are you really good at?

Why do we ask this? While you don’t have be a bonafide expert on your subject in order to teach it, if you self-recognize as being good at your topic, it’s much easier to feel confident going into the process. Thinking of things you are “really good at” is also just an effective way of coming up with things you’re proud of, and chances are other people will have some level of interest in being as good at that thing as you are.

What do people come to you for advice on?

Why do we ask this? If other people recognize you as an expert in something, or just someone who has insight into an area of expertise, then chances are you probably know your material well enough to teach it. If your friends and acquaintances come to you for advice, then it’s not a stretch that potential students will also recognize that you know your stuff.

What have you taught before?

Why do we ask this? If you’ve taught it before, then you can save a considerable amount of time with your course by re-using some of your old materials. Half the battle of course-making is curriculum and lesson development, and if you have anything you can re-use then thats a major time saver.

What “hard thing” have you recently learned?

Why do we ask this? If you’ve just learned something, then it’s fresh in your mind. One of the things that makes a great instructor is the ability to understand where the student is coming from and to remember what it was like to also know nothing on the subject. If you JUST learned it, then you probably remember what it felt like to know nothing since.. that was probably only a couple weeks ago.

Answer those 4 questions, and you’ll inevitably come away with a list of topics.

Want to come up with your topic, the easy way?
Our quiz will help you brainstorm ideas and then rank them based on their market potential.
Step #2
Rank your topics
Not all course topics are created equally

The next thing you need to do is organize your list and highlight the topics that have the best potential.

What do I mean by best potential? A lot of people would think “potential” solely relates to the “market potential” of their course, as in “how much can I make?”, but we think that’s a shallow approach.

In our experience, there are 3 main criteria to judge your course ideas by:

Passion
Demand
Credentials

First criteria is what we summarize as ‘“Passion”, as in “how interested are you in this topic?”. Sure, you COULD teach a class on Excel Functions, but do you really want to? Creating an online course is almost always more work than you think, so if you’re not particurally enthralled by your subject, that’s going to make the journey much harder than it needs to be. One of the most gratifying things about creating an online course, in my opinion, is that you get to really dive deep on something you care about. Not to mention, if you LIKE the topic you’re covering, that enthisiasm will translate on camera, and your students will notice. Higher enthusiasm usually means higher ratings.

The second criteria is “Market Demand“, as in ”are people paying money for this information already?””. One of the primary differences between picking an online course topic for Udemy and picking one for an independently hosted and sold course is how you think about “market demand”. If you were selling a course independently on your own, you could conceivably make a course on anything you can imagine, as long as you can find buyers. Finding your buyers and pitching your course then becomes your primary concern. On the hand, Udemy is a marketplace that already has over 100M active learners. Since you don’t market your course, you instead need to find where that 100M person blob is putting their money.

It’s worth mentioning that you CAN make a course on a new topic that has no pre-existing demand on Udemy; however, we don’t recommend this for first time course creators. You’ll have a much more rewarding experience if you stick to paths that are at least somewhat well trodden.

SIDE NOTE:

When I created my first course on Udemy, I made it on how to rent out your space on Airbnb (at the time I was the #1 instructor in all of San Francisco according to Airbnbs ranking system). When I came up with the idea for the course, there were exactly 0 courses on Airbnb. In my case, I think I got lucky and the course picked up a reasonable amount of traction (averaging about $600 a month over 4 years), but it could have easily gone in the other direction. After I published my course, in the span of 6 months another 5 Airbnb courses popped up after they “smelled blood in the water”.

How do you determine if your topic has demand?

Two ways:

Option 1:

Use the free tool we created at sixfigureinstructor.com/revenue and just look up your topic there. We track over 3,000 Udemy topics and tell you how much each of the makes on a fdaily, weekly, and monthly basis. Worth pointing out: we list the REVENUE of each course, and not the take-home pay of the instructor (which is generally speaking 35-45% of the total)

Option 2:

Use Udemy’s own Marketplace Insights Tool. In order to access it, you have to sign up for a free account, sign up as an “instructor” (it’s free), follow some prompts, click on “your “Instructor” tab followed by “Tools” and then finally “Marketplace Insights”. Enter your topic, and you’ll see an aggregated revenue number that represents the average of all top courses.

 

Why do we prefer using our tool?

One of the easiest traps to fall into on Udemy is to think a topic has demand because it has a high “average revenue” amongst top courses. There are easily 200-300 topics where the top course garners 90%+ of the money, and the other courses get peanuts. If only 1 course for the topic is successful, does that mean YOUR course is going to be successful? More often than not, that top course is getting consistently promoted by a large following instructor OR the course was manually selected for promotion several years ago and now has become an algorithmic snowball (we also call this the “legacy effect”).

Step #3
Pick a goal
Set your expectations so you know what you're going into

While you’re doing your topic research on these tools, it’s worth taking a second to decide on a simple revenue goal for your course. What amount of money per month, would you consider “worth it” in order to make your course?

Some people are looking for their first course to bring in “some beer money” (~$100 a month), whereas others are looking for something that could cover their rent / mortgage ($500-1500). Regardless of what you’re looking for, its useful to mentally put a line in the sand, so you can at least line up your first course with a topic that has the demand to potentially meet that goal.

For a quick reference, (generally speaking) 1 hour of video content takes between 10-25 hours of effort to create. If you understand your topic better, have experience recording yourself, or have taught the subject before then you’ll be towards the shorter end of the spectrum.

Keep in mind: A good Udemy course is like an annuity. While the monthly payments might not shock you (sometimes they do), they do typically last a long time, if they’re well made. I continue to get small drips of $200-$500 a month from courses I made 5+ years ago. When you add up the total per hour of work you put in, the return is almost always fantastic.

With your goal in hand, you can now look critically at the demand for your topic and make a decision of “worth it” or “meh, not so much”

What if my course idea doesn’t have a perfect comparable topic?

This is actually a fairly common situation we see. For example, what if you wanted to do a course on ‘Wedding Videography“ but there are only topics on ”Videography“ and ”Wedding Photography“? Try doing one of these:

• If you’re sandwiched between 2 topics, try to average the two out. If one of the topics has strong demand, but the other has little demand then you getting the rough average means your course could attract attention from both topic seekers.

• If your idea is too narrow for a topic, then just use the broader topic data as your reference. For example, if you wanted to teach “How to pick the right colors for your home” then use the broader topic of “Interior Design” as your reference

• If your course idea has absolutely no similar topics to compare against, try your best to pick the broadest topic that could conceivably hold your topic. If you wanted to teach “How to negotiate your phone bill”, then you could conceivably put this inside of “Personal Finance” or “Debt”, since those topics also deal with saving money and managing costs.

Last up, rank your ideas by “Credentials”.

What do we mean? Well, imagine you were a student looking to buy a course. Would you buy a yoga course from someone who spent their entire life in Investment Banking and had no certifications, teaching experience, or demonstrated interest in yoga? Probably not.

When we think about credentials, just ask yourself “Have I done anything that would signal to my students that I care about this topic?”

The bar for credentials in online courses is surprisingly low, so don’t worry if its not immediately obvious. Do you fit any of these criteria?

Have you had a job in the past that used this skill / topic?
Have you ever taught this topic before?
Have you ever written a long blog post on your topic?
Do you have any certifications for this topic?

For most people, it’s hard to find SOME way of matching their credentials to their topic. The better the fit, the higher the score. A course taught by someone who works in the field with certifications and recognitions to match will get more student attention than someone who just dabbles in the topic as a hobby.

Is this already a little too confusing for you? Take our quiz and just follow the prompts. It’ll auto rank your topics for you with the added plus of using market data.

Step #4
Plant your flag
Optional step that I think is worth adding

Now that you have your topics listed out and ranked, we have one last (optional) step that we recommend. Before you go full force into making your course on the topic you ranked as number 1, take a second and ask yourself “is this a course topic you waent to ”pkant your flag“ on, so to speak.

If you make a successful Udemy, you’ll inevitably have several things happen:

1- You’ll build an audience. Specifically an audience that sees you as an expert in this subject. They will follow you on social media, they’ll subscribe to your email lists, they’ll watch any interviews or podcasts you go on. You will in their eyes always be known as an expert in that first topic you select.

2. You will get inquiries for interviews. Podcasts and blogs are always looking for people to share some wisdom on some in demand topic

3. People will start to associate you with your course (if it’s popular). This may or may not be a bad thing.

You might think this is all well and good, but you might not actually WANT to have these 3 things happen for this one topic.

One thing worth being aware of on Udemy is what we call the “portfolio effect”. The more courses you make, the stronger each of your courses will perform. This happens because with multiple courses, you start to accrue advantages that single course instructors don’t get. More people see your face and start to recognize you. You can increase your revenue by promoting your courses internally to your existing student base. You can launch new courses more easily by promoting them right after launch to your existing students on the platform.

Even if you’re not interested in making multiple courses, we think its worth at least planning for the eventuality, because hey you never really know.

So, ask yourself can you “plant your flag on this topic”? If you want multiple courses to be successful, it’s generally a good idea to make them around similar topics or at least in a way that appeals to the same audience. If yo do it this way, each subsequent course will build your brand in that to[pic and can be solfd to your previous students.

Step #5
Decide on your strategy
You can charge in head-first or sidestep your competition entirely

Once you’ve picked the topic (or topics) you want to create your course on, take a second and do some basic market research.

Luckily with Udemy, we don’t have to do much in the way of extensive market research. We don’t need to do search trends tests, set up customer interviews, or spend hours wading through online content to determine our competitive landscape. Udemy is effectively it’s own little island, so we only need to concern ourselves with what competition exists on their website already.

Go to Udemy, and search for the name of your topic. Look at the list of courses that pop-up.

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If you can, see if these courses have a “topic page” that you can click on. You can usually find these in the top left corner of a course landing page

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Make a note of the most popular courses you think your course is going to be compared against. You can also use our revenue tool or Udemy’s marketplace insights tool to do this as well.

Specifically, make note of the ratings & length of each of these courses.

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If you want a quick reference, these are the relative meanings behind each rating:

Most courses will have a rating between 4.0 and 4.8

4.0 & below: This course is really bad
4.0 – 4.2: This course is pretty bad. It might be outdated or just not do a good job meeting student expectations
4.2 – 4.4: This course is ok. Students find value in it, but there are probably several things wrong with the content
4.4 – 4.5: This is a decent course. No glaring problems, but also not blowing the student’s mind
4.5 – 4.7: This is a good course, and it pleases the vast majority of it’s students
4.7 – 4.8: This is the “god tier” of ratings. This is a really good course

Note: Since can be wildly all over the place, you can’t really trust the average review rating unless the course has at least 200 reviews. The more reviews, the more you can trust the rating.

When reviewing the LENGTH of each course, remember this rule of thumb from earlier:

1 hour of video content takes between 15-25 hours of effort

Once you’ve taken a long, tall drink of your competitive landscape, ask yourself:

• Can I make a course thats better than my competing courses?

Keep in mind: A better course means better content, happier students, and a length thats comparable (if not longer) than your competitors.

If you think you CAN make a better course, then you know exactly the bar you need your course to get over.

If you DON’T think you can make a better course, then the best thing to do is “niche down” your course, so that it targets a different sub-topic or segment of students where there’s weaker competition.

There are two effective ways of “niche-ing down” your course topic: 1) narrow your topic coverage or 2) focus on 1 segment of potential customers.

1) instead of focusing on broad coverage of your topic, pick a sub-topic within your topic and make your course on that instead.

For example, instead of creating a broad course on “iOS development” (where the competitors are 80 hours long with 4.8 ratings), focus on a sub-topic within it. For example:

  • XCode for iOS Programming
  • Swift Programming language
  • API & Cloud Service integration for iOS Developers
  • Apple App Store Submission and Compliance
  • <Insert new framework or tool> for iOS programming

While the bigger courses might cover these sub-topics, they can rarely go into any real depth. You can focus your course by going into greater detail on this sub-topic. You can also cater to the students that simply don’t want content on every other thing covered in the big course, but instead want a smaller, more focused course on the topic they are currently struggling with.

2) instead of trying to teach your topic to EVERYONE, teach it to one group of people. If your course calls out a specific audiece, people in that group will be more likely to buy from you because your course speaks directly to them. This is a disadvantage most big courses have, and you can capitalize on it. It’s impossible to make a course that pleases EVERYONE.

Lets use the same example of iOS programming. Here are ways you could segment your audience:

iOS Programming for new developers
iOS Programming for absolute beginners
iOS Programming for Game Developers
iOS Programming for the Overwhelmed
iOS Programming for Non-programmers
iOS Programming for Designers

There are always easy ways to segment your potential audience, and the better you know your topic the more insight you’ll have into how to do this.

Here are some generic segmentations that work 90% of the time:

“Busy People” (for people that don’t have the time to take a longer course)
“Absolute Beginners” (for people that know literally nothing on the subject)

Think about your topic and then think about the common groups that need this information. You could segment by geography (where they live), age, profession, amount of free time, or any specific use case you can think of.

The biggest benefit of using this strategy is fairly obvious: you can tailor your content much better if you know you’re only teaching 1 specific group of people. Relevancy is a big factor in course quality, and if the content speaks specifically to the student then you’ll rate you higher on average.

EXAMPLE

I made a series of small courses on Leadership, Communications, and Marketing. These are 3 very competitive and saturated topics on their own. Instead of making courses generically on these topics, I taught them to a group that I knew needed this information but wasn’t alrewady being addressed by other courses: Product Managers. Product Managers are a relatively new job with job requirements that fringe on several different disciplines. Can a Product Manager take a course on Marketing and enjoy it? Sure. Will they be happier taking a course called “Marketing for Product Managers”? Absolutely. Different groups of people need to know different information, and adding that extra context of “for Product Managers” allowed me to tailor the content perfectly to my audience.

That’s it. You’ve now run through the ringer of picking a winning Udemy topic.

To recap:

  • Put together a list of possible topics you could teach by answering a series of easy rhetorical questions
  • Rank the ideas by 3 dimensions: demand, passionate, and credentials
  • If you want to see demand for a topic, use our free tool (or use Udemy’s internal marketplace insights tool instead)
  • Once you’ve settled on a topic, do some basic competitive research on what’s already available
  • Decide if you’re going to compete directly with other courses, or “niche down” your topic to avoid direct competition

 

 

 

 

 

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