How to find your course topic

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If you’re just starting out building courses, figuring out what to focus on can be quite a challenge.

You probably have multiple ideas of what you could teach, and it’s hard to choose because you’re not sure which idea would sell best and would be the most helpful.

But no worries, this chapter will help you choose the right course to build for your audience. It’s full of actionable tips that you can start implementing right away.

So let’s begin.

This is chapter 1 of the Online course creation guide

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1. Who are you going to help?

First, it’s important to choose who your future students will be and what their goals are so you can create a better course for them.

Having a more targeted approach is better because if your course target audience is too broad, it might end up not being relevant to anyone.

If you were an ecommerce site owner trying to improve your search engine rankings, what course would you rather buy:

  1. A course that helps anyone learn online marketing.
  2. A course that helps anyone learn SEO.
  3. A course that helps ecommerce site owners go from zero to 10 000 organic visitors per month.

It’s obviously the last one.

As a creator, you probably already have a few online course ideas thanks to people in your audience who ask you questions by email, in comments or DMs.

But before jumping into your notes app to write the outline of the course, you need to define for WHO your course is going to be as precisely as possible by creating an Ideal Student Persona.

<p class="tip">💡 What is an Ideal Student Persona?
An ISP is a fictional person representing a key segment of your audience which is more likely to buy a product from you.<p>

To create your ISP, you will have to write down a few things:

  1. Their current situation
  2. Their goal(s)
  3. The roadblocks that prevent them from achieving their goal

As you create your ISP, it’s important to keep in mind that you are going to create a specific course for ONE specific person.

It is now a cliché to say it, but if you create a product for everyone, it will truly satisfy no one.

Going too broad is a pitfall many course creators fall into. They try to include too much material in a course that covers too much area, like “I will teach you Online Marketing” and it ends up not really being useful to anyone.

<div class="warning">⚠️ What if my course idea is too niche?

You might be thinking that creating a course that is not perfect for everyone in your audience is a mistake, but what actually happens is more counterintuitive: no matter the course you make, the people who will buy your course will probably only be a minority within your audience, and it’s fine.

For example: Less than 1% of Ali Abdaal’s audience becomes customers for his course “The Part Time YouTuber Academy”, but it’s still enough to generate more than $2 million per year.</div>

You now have everything you need to start creating your Ideal Student Persona.

Copy and complete the Ideal Student Persona template that we created for you.

👆This is a Step, I added different types of steps throughout this guide like resources to use or complete, tasks, quizzes, and questions or things to write.

I added them so this guide can be as concrete and actionable as possible. You will have to complete each chapter's steps before moving on to the next one, and you can access all steps you have to complete in each chapter on the Guide Checklist page. You can access this page from anywhere on the guide by clicking on the "Guide Checklist" button.

Also, you can reset your tasks on the checklist page.

2. What problem will your course solve?

A problem worth solving is PURE:

PPainful, which makes the solution more valuable, and also encourages the student to put in the effort to solve it.

A painful problem is among the most important problems in their life. They complain about it all the time to their friends and family.

They might even wake up in the middle of the night thinking about it. It’s a “must have” and not a “nice to have”.

For example, ”It would be nice to have more money” is not a painful enough problem. But “I hate my job and I want to quit, so I really need to make money online” is a really painful problem.

UUrgent which makes people take action quicker because they want to solve this problem now, not in the future.

For example, “I want to lose weight” is not very urgent. “I want to be in shape for my wedding, which is in 4 months!” is more urgent.

RRecognized by people who want to buy your product online, which proves that enough people want to solve this problem.

To know if the problem is recognized, you can ask yourself if people will spend time and energy complaining about it. If they are already asking for advice, and are actively searching for solutions to it, then it’s a good sign!

EEasy to solve by you because you have specific knowledge or experience.

It’s much easier to create and sell a solution to a problem you managed to solve, and have insider information about. Also, it has the added benefit of giving you more credibility.

When a course is solving a PURE problem, students are generally more motivated because the stakes are higher, which leads them to take more action and be more engaged.

As you create your course, your goal will be to help your students get a tangible outcome from it, such as:

  • Understanding a concept and applying them like “Web design basics: learn how to create a beautiful landing page that converts”
  • Using a tool efficiently to do a specific thing like “Create wonderful movie posters with Photoshop”
  • Achieving a goal like “Grow your YouTube channel from 0 to 10 000 subscribers”
  • Building a new habit to improve their life like “Make your own Kombucha at home”

And you don’t need to be the best in the world at what you teach, you just need to be better than your students.

If this is one of your first courses, it doesn’t have to be huge. Even if it’s tempting to polish it up and be a perfectionist.

It’s OK if it doesn’t cover everything you want because the goal of a useful course should be to help your students solve a specific problem, not teach them absolutely everything you know about a topic.

By creating a smaller course:

  • You can go deeper when it comes to solving your student’s problem.
  • It will be of higher quality.
  • You will learn how to create courses without too many headaches.
On a piece of paper or in your notes app of choice, answer the following questions:

1. What does your ISP struggle with the most?
2. What do they fail to motivate themselves to do?
3. In what would an external opinion (yours) bring the most value?
4. What tangible outcomes can you help your target students to get to?
5. What things would you have loved someone to have taught you when you were starting out?

(This will help you find great course ideas easily)
Write down the list of problems you think you can solve and rank them using our "Choosing what problem to solve" template (columns A to G)

3. The 80/20 Market Research Approach

If you had unlimited time and resources, it would make sense to spend months getting people’s opinions, but it’s probably not your case. And this may actually be a good thing because you can go for a simpler and more effective approach to research your market.

To get results faster, it’s better to have quick feedback loops, so spending weeks or months on market research isn’t an optimal strategy. Spending this much time on it (especially if you’re building one of your first courses) can even become a form of procrastination.

It’s impossible to find the best course idea, but we can still get very close by doing some quick market research by focusing on 20% of the effort required to get the “perfect” course idea, to get 80% of the way there.

This approach will only a few hours of work, when going for an in-depth market research process could have taken weeks.

This allows you to save time and resources.

There are 2 steps to complete this market research approach:

  1. Identify popular content in your niche
  2. Run a survey to get feedback

By doing these things, you will be able to complete the rest of the “Choosing what problem to solve” template that you already started completing, which will help you choose the best problem to solve with your course.

Step 1: Identifying popular content in your niche

Doing this is important because it allows you to quickly estimate which ones of your ideas will resonate with your audience.

To do so, you can list the most popular content about your topic from yourself, other creators, or websites.

These pieces of content generally represent what your audience needs help or guidance with.

On a piece of paper or in your notes app of choice, make a list of:
The 5 most popular content that you’ve made
The 5 most popular content of at least 5 content creators or websites that create content around your topic

(This means that you should have at least 30 pieces of content listed in total)
Complete column H of the “Choosing what problem to solve” template by comparing your problem ideas in column A to the content you just listed.

The closer a problem is to the your list of popular content around your topic, their higher its score will be on column H.

This first step can also give you new ideas of problems you could solve for your audience, don’t hesitate to add more if needed!

Step 2: Running a survey and getting your first feedback

The earlier you confront your ideas to your potential customers, the better, because it will set you on the right track to choosing the best problem to solve for the right people and save you time.

With this first survey, your goal will be to better understand where your future students want to be at, and which one of your ideas is the best one to achieve their goals.

To create a survey that gets useful answers, you need to:

  • Keep it concise
    Your survey shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes to complete.
  • Ask about their situation
    This will help you better understand where their current situation.

    For example: You can ask them what their occupation is (student, freelancer, founder…) and in which field they work (marketing, development, HR…).

  • Ask a few open-ended questions
    This kind of question helps you get deeper answers and better understand your audience.
    For example: You can ask what their experience is in your topic, and what they want to achieve.

  • Ask closed-ended questions
    You can use this kind of question to have your audience rate your ideas and rank them based on data.

    For example: You can ask your audience to rank your 5 most promising ideas from 1 to 5.
‍Create the survey you are going to send to your community with the Google Forms template that we created for you.

Feel free to personalize it!
(You can copy it by right clicking on the file called "Market Research Survey" and then "create a copy")

When you’re done with the creation of your survey, you can start sending it to your community!

I recommend trying to get at least 50 answers from your community, so you have enough data and feedback to make to choose what problem you will solve.

If you have an existing audience:

If you can get at least 50 answers through the marketing channels you already have at your disposal, then you can just use them to promote your survey!

It shouldn't take more than an hour to do!

For example, you can send a email to your email list that looks like this:

📧 Subject: Quick Question about [Your Niche]

I’m currently working on an online course around [Your Niche] and I prepared a quick survey to better understand how to make it as useful as possible for you.

It only takes 3 minutes to complete!

You can click here to complete the survey. [👈 Your survey link here]

[Your Name]

But you can also create a story on Instagram and ask people to swipe up to your Google Form, or you could create a post in the community tab of your YouTube channel to redirect people to your survey.

Or you could even adapt some of the questions in the survey by creating polls on twitter or instagram that ask your audience to rank your 5 most promising ideas for example.

Share your survey with your audience on your own marketing channels.

(The goal is to get at least 50 answers)

If you can’t get 50 answers with your existing audience, no worries! Choose the “Help! I have a small audience” tab, I prepared a few tips to help you get more answers to your survey.

If you have a smaller audience:

Getting 50 people to complete your survey might be a bit harder, so here's what you can do to get more responses in addition to sharing your survey with your existing audience:

On a piece of paper or in your notes app of choice, write down a list of places where you can find potential students online (groups on Slack, Discord or Facebook, which forums, Quora Spaces, websites, communities...).

(The more you write the better, but try to find at least 5)

With your fresh list of places on the internet where you can find future students, you can now do the following:

Try to contact get to at least 50 responses to your survey by reaching out to people you found out in these places online.

You can use this template for inspiration!

Once you have collected 50 responses, it will be time to finish completing the "Choosing what problem to solve" template!

Complete column I of the “Choosing what problem to solve” template.

The better score a problem got on your surveys, the higher their score on column I.

You can give 5 points to the first, 4 to the second, 3 to the third, etc.

You can also start taking a few notes on feedback you got from the open-ended questions or feedback that you got in your survey.

With your list of ideas and your quick market research, you can now make a choice that is actually based on data from potential customers rather than from gut-feeling only.

4. What unique value will you deliver?

Once you have chosen what problem to solve, you can focus on 3 final elements for your course:

  1. Choosing its name
  2. Defining its Unique Selling Proposition (USP)
  3. Pricing your solution

Here are a few examples of good course titles:

The Part-Time YouTuber Academy, by Ali Abdaal

Which is interesting because it:
→ Focuses on a specific goal
: Become a YouTuber.
→ Adds a unique twist: Do YouTube “part-time”, so you don’t have to quit your job.
→ Targets a specific audience: People who already have a day job or are students.
Addresses the main objection: “I don’t have time!”.
→ Is authentic: It fits with its creator, Ali Abdaal, who started his YouTube channel while in medical school.

SEO for Solopreneurs, by Nat Eliason

Which is interesting because it:
→ Targets a specific audience: Solopreneurs who want to learn SEO, but without all the complexity.
Addresses the main objection: “I don’t have a team that can handle my marketing!”.
Is short: It is only 3 words long.

Building a Second Brain, by Tiago Forte

Which is interesting because it:
→ Focuses on a specific goal
: Building a second brain.
→ Is unique and memorable: You don’t really expect a productivity course to teach you how to build a “second brain”. It’s interesting because it introduces a new way of doing creative work.
→ Targets a specific audience: Knowledge workers who need a system for their creative work.

Sketch Like an Architect, by David Drazil

Which is interesting because it:
→ Focuses on a specific goal: Learning how to sketch like a professional.
→ Unique and memorable: Because of the comparison “like an architect”.

Defining an impactful Unique Selling Proposition (USP)

The difference between a product title and a USP is that:

  • A title is a memorable shortcut, and it can be vague and abstract like “Building a Second Brain”. Its 2 main purposes are to be a hook to your USP, and to be memorable.
  • A USP is a complete and impactful sentence that promises the main outcome of your product to your potential customers.

For your USP to be truly impactful, it needs to include:

  1. The concrete result your students are going to get by the end of the course
  2. A twist, or a memorable element
  3. A counter-argument to your student’s main objection
  4. Addressing the fears of your potential customers

(You can also try to include some of these elements in the title if it fits, like The Part-Time YouTuber Academy, which addresses the objection of not having enough time)

Here are few good examples of USPs:

The Part-Time YouTuber Academy ↓

Learn how to grow your YouTube channel from 0 to 100,000+ subscribers and transform it into a sustainable, income-generating machine. Without quitting your day job 😉

→ Focus on the main outcome: Grow your YouTube channel into a sustainable, income-generating machine. It gives an even more tangible by being specific with “from 0 to 100,00+ subscribers”.
→ Unique and memorable: The part-time aspect is reassuring and memorable.
Addresses the main fear: “What if I fail?” which the part-time aspect solves because with this course, people don’t have to give up everything to grow their channel.

SEO for Solopreneurs ↓

The minimum maintenance, maximum results guide to putting your traffic & sales on autopilot.

→ Focus on the main outcome: Putting traffic & sales on autopilot.
→ Unique and memorable: Memorable oxymoron of "minimum" and "maximum".
Addresses the main objection: "I don’t have the time or team to grow with SEO!" with “minimum maintenance, maximum results”.

Building a Second Brain ↓

A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential

→ Focus on the main outcome: “Organize Your Digital Life and Unlock Your Creative Potential”.
Addresses the main fear: “Will it work for me?” with “A Proven Method” it will.

Sketch Like an Architect ↓

Your Go-To Resource for Mastering Architectural Sketching. You don't need talent to learn how to draw.

→ Focus on the main outcome: “Mastering Architectural Sketching”.
Addresses the main fear: The author of this course also has an interesting slogan on his website that addresses the fear of not being talented enough: “You don’t need talent to learn how to draw”.

<p class="warning">⚠️ 4 common mistakes to avoid when creating your USP

1. Features vs. Benefits, when writing your USP, it’s better to focus on the benefits rather than on the features of your course.

For example, for the SEO for Solopreneurs course, the author wrote “The minimum maintenance, maximum results guide to putting your traffic & sales on autopilot.”, here, there are mostly benefits which can be summarized as “making more money with your business without much effort”.This USP would have been way less impactful if it were “32 videos to help you learn SEO for your business.”

2. A USP is not a slogan, it is not just a memorable motto or phrase but an impactful sentence that focuses on the outcomes and benefits that the person will get out of your course.For example, “You don’t need talent to learn how to draw” is great as it answers an objection potential customers may have, but the author could also have combined them in an even stronger USP: “Your Go-To Resource for Mastering Architectural Sketching, No Talent Required”.

3. Your USP is not a shopping list, you don’t need to list absolutely everything that your course provides and write a huge sentence with many adjectives and benefits. Just focus on the essentials and don’t list more than 2 benefits.

For example, Building a Second Brain’s USP would have been less convincing if it were “A Proven Method to Organize Your Digital Life, Become Insanely Productive, Make More Money, and Unlock Your Creative Potential” because it’s listing too many things.

4. Not being specific enough can cause your USP to not be impactful to your Ideal Student Persona, and will make it harder to sell your product.

For example, “Lose weight quickly” is too broad, whereas "Lose 5 kilos in one month" is more specific and concrete.</p>

Choose a course name and a USP for the problem you chose to solve with your course.

You can check this website if you need some inspiration! 😉

How to find the right price for your course

The price of your course will not depend on the complexity of what you are teaching, but on your course’s perceived value in the eyes of your future students.

<p class="tip">💡 What is Perceived Value?

Perceived value is how much potential customers value your solution.

For example, in the photography niche, people are willing to pay thousands of dollars on a camera, so a course that is a few hundred dollars is not shocking when compared to the price of the equipment. With the same logic, $600 would be way too much for a course about drawing for beginners.

Also, the more PURE a problem is (Painful, Urgent, Recognized by your clients, and Easy to solve for you), the more expensive the solution will be perceived as.</p>

There are 3 things you can look at to decide what price to begin with:

  1. What are the prices like in your niche?
    For example, business-oriented courses are generally more expensive than technical or creative courses because you can sell them as a program on which the student would have a return on their investment.
  2. How much do alternative solutions cost?
    For example, if you are doing a fitness course, what would be the price of a coach + a gym membership?
  3. What are your competitors’ prices?
    There are other courses about the same topic as you want to teach; what are their prices?
Find the right price for your course by using these 3 strategies.

If you have a very hard time choosing the price of your course, just choose a price between $100 and $300.

This price is not final, and you can increase it after finishing the guide, as you make your product better!

Congratulations, you finished the first chapter! 🎉

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In the next chapter, you will learn how to improve your course before you even start filming it.
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Created by

Alexandru Golovatenco

Alex has enrolled in dozens of courses on marketing, development and design. He ended up with varied skills — and also a collection of best practices for teaching online.
He wrote the guide you’re reading.
Produced by

Stan Leloup

Stan has been creating courses for a decade. He built a 7-figure online course business called Marketing Mania.
He is also the founder of the website you’re on: SchoolMaker.