How to Choose an ESL Teaching Niche

There is a saying in the marketing world that when you target “everybody” you are really targeting “nobody”. If you want your message to be heard, you need to have a specific audience in mind. When you decide to choose an ESL teaching niche, you can craft a message that specifically those people will want to hear. 

Just to give you an example of what I mean, let me tell you a story. Some years ago I strained my back while moving a wheelbarrow in my parent’s garden. The next day I was in a lot of agony, so I went to the pharmacy to buy some pain relief medicine. I found probably three shelves full of generic “pain relief” pills. But I also found one product that was labelled “for relief of back pain”. Which product do you think I bought? Of course, I bought the pills that spoke directly to my need. I bought the product that addressed my specific pain point (quite literally! 😫)

So, the same concept applies to your online teaching business. There are probably hundreds of online ESL companies that are offering generic English training. You can’t compete with them, and you shouldn’t want to. When you choose a specific niche and promote yourself as the expert for that field, you can start commanding premium prices relative to what the generic providers are asking.

Does This Niche Offering Meet a SPECIFIC Need?

So are you wondering how to choose an ESL teaching niche? If you are reading this, you’ve probably already got some teaching experience. Think about the kinds of students you’ve encountered. Do some of them fit into categories of need? For example, are some of them studying English because they need to pass a university entrance test? Are they taking lessons because they want to improve their employment prospects? Are they working on their fluency because they are about to go on a foreign business assignment? Try to mentally sort the students you’ve encountered into such groups.

Now think about how important English proficiency is to each of those groups. How urgent is their need? What potential benefits will your students enjoy if they can level up their English skills? This is how you can determine your “perceived value” to each group. When student needs are specific, the “perceived value” of your service will generally be higher. For example, somebody who wants to improve their English for job interviews in the Oil and Gas Industry is going to put a higher “perceived value” on your service than somebody who just wants to be better at English for a generic goal.

Do Your Target Clients Need Help URGENTLY?

Similarly, your perceived value will depend on the “urgency” of student needs. If parents of a high school student know that their daughter will need to use English for a foreign university entrance examination three months from now, they will have a higher perceived value of your time than parents who just have a vague idea about wanting their kids to improve their English for “their future”.

Try to use specificity and urgency in your marketing messages around your niche. For example, “English training for accountants who need to pass the United States CPA exam” is a specificity-based message. “Rapid English skill preparation for business trips to the UK this summer” is an urgency-based message. These kinds of approaches will help you to “own” your niche.

What Do You Enjoy Teaching?

Another equally important factor in choosing a niche is to be honest with yourself. What kind of students do you really enjoy teaching? Do you prefer teaching young kids, teenagers or adults? Do you like helping people to use English for business situations or would you rather assist English learners to pass ESL exams. Whichever niche you choose, you are going to be doing a lot of work in that space, so think carefully about it. It’s difficult to be productive and effective when you are doing something that doesn’t motivate you beyond the financial benefits.

Think about the kinds of classes you’ve taught in the past. Which ones engaged you and stimulated your enthusiasm? Which ones left you with a sense of accomplishment with having helped another person make an improvement? Those are probably a good place to look when it comes to deciding how to choose an ESL teaching niche.

What Qualifies You to Teach This Niche?

Also consider your own unique background. Do you have life experience, an educational background or a work resume that gives you a particular credibility with your target audience? For example, teaching civil engineers about how to use English for managing project teams might be a lucrative niche. But unfortunately, I know absolutely nothing about engineering. So, it’s probably not the best “fit” for me. I might struggle to understand the “context” of how and why those students need to improve their communication skills.

Should you have multiple niches? Generally speaking, I would say “no”. There is a Confucian saying that “the man who chases two rabbits catches neither.” 🐇🐇 Partly that’s because if you have TWO niches you’ve immediately cut your most valuable resource (your time) in half for each of those targets. Also, your marketing message to each group becomes diluted. Think about it. Would you hire somebody who promotes themselves as both an electrician AND a veterinarian? Would you hire somebody who sold themselves as a furniture removalist AND a mobile hairdresser? Probably not. The authority of the vendor for one field becomes diluted when another field is promoted alongside it

If your niche has some synergy with a related niche, however, that’s a different situation. For example if your niche is in teaching “English for Sales and Marketing” it makes perfect sense to also teach “English for Negotiations”. You can offer each course as a “cross sell” program to increase your teaching revenue.

Is Your Niche Economically Viable?

So, deciding to choose an ESL teaching niche is a vital first step in establishing your business. “But how do I know if there are enough potential clients to make my business viable?” you might be asking. Well in truth, you don’t, which is why you need to conduct “concept validation” early on in the process.

Companies “validate” new products and ideas by testing and trialing them (often at attractive discounts) in order to get living, breathing customers using them. It’s a good idea for you to test your marketing message early before you invest much time or other resources. Hopefully, you’ll quickly get a few students. Ask them for feedback. What did they enjoy about your lesson offering? What do you need to improve? Use this feedback to make your service offer more appealing. 

Also, don’t be misled into thinking that a niche needs to have thousands of potential customers. You need to figure out what makes a minimum viable niche, FOR YOU. If you are a freelancer, start by determining how much money you’d realistically like to make in a year. Then calculate how many students you would like to work with during that year. Divide the first number by the second number. The result is how much money you need to make – per customer. If that sounds possible, congratulations. You’ve got a minimum viable niche. It could mean that you only need a niche market of a less than a hundred people. It’s a big world and with the magic of internet marketing it’s not that hard to find a hundred or so people willing to buy from you.

“General audiences attract general pay”

Mike Killen, Sell Your Service

And remember to be patient. You can’t decide in the space of three days whether your niche “has legs”. You need to give it a while and put in some consistent effort to get those first few students. Bouncing around from one niche idea this week to a new one next week isn’t going to get you anywhere.

Mike Killen, from Sell Your Service has some great advice about choosing a profitable niche. Please watch his video.

Really successful people say NO to almost everything

Warren Buffet, American business tycoon and philanthropist.

Don’t be afraid to say “no” when people who are NOT your target niche ask you for lessons. It’s very tempting to say “yes” every time somebody waves money in our direction. It feels good for our ego. But it’s ultimately self-defeating if those students are NOT part of your niche. It distracts you from building a business and becoming the authority in your domain. One of the world’s riches men, Warren Buffet, has said that really successful people say NO to almost everything”. Success is born from focus.

Do You Need a Detailed Lesson Curriculum?

When you are getting started in your niche you want to maximize feedback. So, start by creating a general framework that you can promote. For example, create a general curriculum outline of the lessons which comprise your “course offering” and describe what the lesson goal for each one will be. Once you get some takers, you can “build the plane on the fly” and develop each lesson plan as you get traction.

Choosing a niche specialization will have the added benefit of dramatically cutting down your lesson preparation time. You will come to understand the areas in which your particular niche of students will need the most help and support, which allows you to spend less time working outside the classroom.

Niche Experts Get Lots of Referrals

Imagine the situation. Your friend teaches English to a kindergarten aged girl online. Her mother happens to also need better English presentation skills for her work as a business professional. The problem is that your friend isn’t comfortable with (or just doesn’t enjoy) teaching business English. If helping business people make better presentations at work is your niche … bingo! It’s a win-win outcome for everyone. And it works both ways. You can repay the favor by referring out students who don’t match your ideal clientele.

A recent study of ESL teachers found that only one in ten enjoy teaching test preparation (IELTS, TOEFL, Cambridge etc) So if test prep is your “thing” that means potentially nine friends who would rather refer work your way than do those lessons themselves!

ESL teacher preferences

Are There Any Tools to Help Choose a Niche?

Google Trends is a handy free tool for getting insights into what key search terms are trending relative to other searches on their search engine.

At a macro level you might want to compare different national markets across metrics like existing average English proficiency, average national income, and level of internet penetration. EF.com have a handy, free tool available for such analysis.

Another approach is to simply type the name of your niche market into the Google search screen and see what it returns (tip: pay attention to the autocomplete suggestions. Google is telling you what a lot of people are searching for). If you see a lot of paid ads (Google puts the word “Ad” in a box next to the listing) then it’s a good sign that there is a viable market because at least some companies are investing resources to target it. Check out the links. Do the website landing pages look professional? Do they seem well focused on your niche? Decide whether you can make a better offer to your target market niche than these companies. (Hint: yes, you probably can because you are going to be hyper-focused and offer program personalization whereas most of your competitors are not!)

Social media is a treasure trove of information about what English communication problems people are trying to solve. Join Facebook groups and LinkedIn groups. Ask people what kind of benefits they would see in their lives if they were more proficient with using English. Drill down and find out what are the specific situations where they need to use English to communicate. Ask people how much improvement they would see in their lives if they (or their children) could communicate in English more fluently. 

How to Choose an ESL Teaching Niche with Kids and Beginners

If you are targeting beginners or young children, those are student groups that are going to require a bit more imagination in terms of identifying your niche. Most young kids need the same kind of language education (vocabulary, phonetics, letter identification, simple phrases etc). So, you’ll need to customize your niche around a specific approach to teaching. For example, maybe you have a skill for drawing? In that case why not incorporate live illustration into your lesson (“what am I drawing?”). Or maybe you have a particular “high energy learning” style that you can promote. Look for ways to stand out from a crowded marketplace.

If you are teaching beginner adults, they also have common language skill needs, (grammar, pronunciation, vocabulary) so you might want to use a particular topic as a vehicle for your teaching program e.g. “In this course we are going to talk about Hawaiian vacations. Every lesson will be about things you can do in Hawaii”. Or perhaps you can try a different teaching approach, like using online virtual world environments to help teach a new language. Again, it’s all about making your offer unique from the thousands of other teachers offering general “beginner” lessons.

Make Your Niche “Dynamic”

When you are settling on a niche, try to avoid “static” niche descriptions like “I teach grammar”. Or I “teach high school kids”. Those aren’t really niches because they aren’t specific enough. A good way to choose an ESL niche is by completing the following sentence:

I help ________ (who) that want to _______ (a dynamic goal) through _________ (your instructional approach).

e.g.
I help Japanese business professionals who want to get a promotion by helping them to rapidly improve their TOEIC test results.
OR
I help Chinese students who want to make friends while studying abroad by improving their English conversational confidence.

Dynamic goals are better for helping you focus on motivated learners who will place a high value on your services.

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has got you thinking about how to choose an ESL teaching niche, how to craft a message to match your target market, and how to differentiate your service offer from the competition. Use specificity and urgency in your marketing messages. Build up your expertise and dominate your patch of the online ESL market.

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2 thoughts on “How to Choose an ESL Teaching Niche”

  1. Hello and thank you for the article. I have a clearly defined niche and lots of experience and credibility in that area. What I don’t have is a way of becoming visible to potential students and even knowing where they would be looking (Chinese adult students, for example). If you are thinking about writing on that topic I would love to read it!

    1. Hi Richard! Thanks for leaving a comment. Yeah, I definitely will be writing a blog article specifically about China in the near future. It’s a big lucrative market. But it’s also a tough nut to crack for anyone based outside the Great Firewall. The whole China mainland internet environment is completely alien to what non-Chinese would be familiar with. I think to get any traction in China for online ESL lessons you need to try to get on WeChat. Easier said than done maybe. If I understand correctly, it requires somebody with an existing WeChat account to approve YOUR account. BUT one potential avenue you should look into is LinkedIn. It’s not blocked by the GFW and has quite a few users within China. It’s a great opportunity if your target is Chinese adults.

      I wrote a blog article about LinkedIn if you want to learn more:
      https://www.babelteq.com/how-to-get-esl-students-on-linkedin/

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