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Building a successful online course starts at the beginning – with choosing a topic designed to sell.

Here at Thinkific, we’ve helped thousands of online course creators build, market, and sell their online classes. As a result, we’ve learned a few key activities that have resulted in success along the way, including our 5 easy steps to choosing a profitable online topic.

Here’s what we’ll be covering if you want to skip ahead: 

After reading through this article, don’t forget to download our complete guide on choosing an online course topic and start building a profitable online course today.

How do I generate profitable online course ideas?

Picking the topic of your first course is less about figuring out what you can teach, and more about what you should teach first. In fact, if you know a topic well, it’s likely that you have dozens of courses that you could start putting together today.

How To Choose A Course Topic Guide: Download Now

Therefore, the challenge becomes more about figuring out where you can have the biggest impact. This isn’t what would be the most fun or the easiest to put together, it’s how you can best solve the problems your audience has (while also creating something that excites you along the way)!

5 keys to choosing a profitable online course topic

The goal in creating any course should be to build the right course, at the right time, for the right people. So it’s important to identify a topic that your audience is motivated enough to pay money to change. These are 5 keys to choosing a profitable online course topic that sells; 

  1. Choose a topic that solves a problem

When choosing a topic, the secret to success is to remember that people won’t purchase your course because they like what you are selling. Instead, they’ll purchase your course because they have a specific problem that you’re able to solve.

And, in order to make it clear that you can solve their problem, you need to be VERY specific. Otherwise, you create a course that is written for anyone but appeals to no one.

Our advice is to start with a broader topic you will cover for example, mental health, interior design, data science, arts and crafts etc. Next, brainstorm what you will be teaching people within those broader niche topics. For example, how to stage a home, how to code, how to sew a specific t-shirt etc. 

Think of the steps they need to learn to get there and work your way to discovering what problem or hurdles you’ll help people solve along the way. For example, breathing tools to manage anxiety, how to choose a color palette for your home, writing java script etc.

  1. Know your audience

Knowing your audience is the first step towards developing a profitable online course business. With that in mind we’ll start with a few assumptions:

  1. You have expertise in one or more areas, and you want to create an online course related to your area of interest.
  2. You’ve already got some idea about the specific groups or types of people who can benefit from your knowledge.

The goal of this step is simply to brainstorm WHO you could serve.So, get out a pen and a piece of paper and start with the big groups, then break them down to more specific niches.

Once you have a decent-sized list of the types of groups you can serve, go ahead and pick 3 that stand out to you (you can always come back and do these steps over again, so don’t stress too much about which ones to choose!)

  1. Narrow down your niche

The ultimate goal in choosing a course topic is to find the Goldilocks of niches – not too big, but not too small. We need a group that’s specific enough that you are targeting a unique group of people, but not SO specific that you’ll never find them. Here are three important factors to consider when narrowing down your niche: 

  1. Consider markets you have a particular interest in, and that you’ve already started to think about the specific ways you can help. You’ve got to love what you’re teaching – avoid picking something because you think it’s better, but that you know you’re going to struggle to get excited about. 
  2. Consider markets for which you have an existing email list of potential customers (your list might include past customers, your own opt-in email list, industry contacts, LinkedIn connections focussed on an industry, etc. This can be a huge head start.)
  3. Consider markets you have an existing connection to. The easier you can relate to a particular group or have some inside knowledge, the faster the next steps will be. If I want to target pediatricians, that’s MUCH simpler if my sister is also a pediatrician and can explain how the industry works, than if I have no connection to the industry at all.

Armed with our most promising niches, this next step is where you hit the virtual pavement to answer the question, “Now that I know WHO I might want to get in front of, WHAT are the problems that they have, that I can help them solve?”

  1. Discover the (urgent!) pains your audience has today

One of the biggest pitfalls course creators make is to build a course teaching what they want to teach FIRST, then go hunting for people with the problem. You will have more success if, instead, you go looking for the PAINS your audience has relating to your area of expertise, and then put together the course that solves their specific problems (and not the other way around).

You’ve got multiple courses you could create – the goal here is to pick the one that is MOST needed by your audience (and that has an audience size that is just right).

There are three primary ways that you can find what pains your prospective students are experiencing today:

  1. You are a member of your market already. For example, I want to help accountants just like me…”
  2. Immerse yourself in communities and join them. For example, search forums for people asking for help. Look for blog posts about the issues. Or become a member of Facebook groups or other social communities. 
  3. You can ask & interview. This can take the form of surveys or interviews of folks who really know and understand this group. Get in front of members and experts of the market, and start by talking to them.

This step can take hours, days, or even longer – but the key is to ACT rather than get stuck here. A small, mini-course to get the ball rolling is the best bet for your first project (rather than diving in now to your monster-everything-you-can-teach one!), so don’t let yourself get stuck here!

The end result of this process will be a long list of specific groups you can assist, and what you can help them with.

Once you have some ideas about what you can (and want to) teach online, who you can teach it to, and what their specific pains are, it’s time to test your assumptions with evidence. The key? You’re looking for proof of a market, but not an over-saturated or overly broad one.

  1. Make an evidence-based decision

This is my favorite step, and it’s where we start making sense of the pages full of brainstorming you’ve now got in front of you! We need a way to evaluate ideas against each other. This is not an exact science, but this list can help tip the tables so you can make an evidence-based decision on which topic to choose (rather than simply an emotional one!)

Here are some things to consider when evaluating your options and looking at market needs:

Use the worksheet in our ultimate guide to choosing an online course topic to evaluate your potential topics against this list, and your ideal first topic will become apparent. Just as you’re looking for evidence that folks really do have this problem and are searching for and paying for solutions, this will also reveal markets that are REALLY over saturated – so the winner isn’t necessarily the one with the most points! Remember Goldilocks: not too big and not too small. Pick the one that is just right.

How To Choose A Course Topic Guide: Download Now

Once you’ve put in the work, pat yourself on the back!

You’ve now taken the steps to choose a course topic based in reality (and not just your gut!). Next, it’s time to start creating by designing your offer using an online course platform like Thinkific.

How To Choose A Course Topic Guide: Download Now

This blog was originally published in 2015, it has been updated with new information in January 2023.