Online communities supporting businesses are hardly new. Teachable itself has had an online community for more than seven years—and established companies like Atlassian, Salesforce, and ConvertKit have long invested in different types of online communities, too.

But, in recent years, factors like cultural fatigue from traditional broadcast marketing, more businesses focussed on mirco-niches, and yes, a global pandemic, have ushered in a renewed focus in building online communities for brands big and small. Especially in the creator economy space, communities have gone from a nice-to-have add on to a central part of many businesses.

Because of the potential size and breadth of a new community project, for creators considering starting one, it’s helpful to choose a specific strategy you can rely on to maintain focus and optimize your results. Here, we’ll be walking you through four different types of online communities that are effective for business owners operating in the creator economy space.

From buzz-word to big reward

Before we dive into strategies, let’s establish some common language. Community can mean a lot of things. We can use it to talk about our neighborhood, our hobbies, and our identities. Brands use this word in multiple ways, too—especially lately, as it’s become a buzzier topic.

Sometimes when brands talk about “their community,” they’re talking about something concrete (like the Teachable community), and sometimes they’re referring to their audience more broadly. Neither is exactly right nor wrong (and there’s a lot that’s already been said on this topic), but for now, let’s just say: When we talk about communities, we’re talking about a concrete space you create for your members to interact with each other. (If you’re interested in digging deeper into this topic, The Community Club’s Capital C Framework for communities is helpful).

Getting specific about language is important not because it draws lines around what is and isn’t a “real” community, but because it lets us choose the right strategies to suit our use case. But, getting tactical enables us to measure things. Measuring things allows us to optimize our efforts. And optimizing our efforts is what ultimately yields rewards.

Four approaches

In the community world, experts break down different community types in a couple of ways. First, they look at if a community enhances a product (i.e., community members get access by being a customer or audience member) or if a community is the product (i.e., customers pay to access the community, and it’s where the core value lives).

Next, they often look at purpose. A popular way to break this down is to compare a support or product community (i.e., a place where members can ask questions to an expert) to a community of practice (i.e., a place where members build skills together).

For the creator economy space, most communities are going to be a variation on the community as product model. They’ll become a part of your core offering—a part of the value you charge for when you sell information. Similarly, most creator economy communities will also be communities of practice. We’ll dive a bit deeper into the different types of online communities than these two dichotomies to give you examples of some of the most popular community types within the space.

Communities that let students practice skills and get feedback

Many creators report that while students join their courses with the best of intentions to learn a new skill, it can be challenging to maintain the dedication to actually practice. What’s more, even with the best instructional content, students can sometimes get stuck and need personalized feedback to progress.

This poses a couple of challenges for course creators. First, because feedback requires personalized attention to a unique problem versus broad advice on common problems, it’s really hard to scale. This type of community structure—one that’s optimized to allow students to practice skills and get feedback from one another—can address this challenge.

Second, many business owners find they’re able to build a more sustainable business when they build multiple things for the same small group of people (like an introductory course and then a more advanced course) versus relying on bringing in new customers in order to grow.

With a community of feedback and practice, you can ensure that your students are successful enough that they’re primed to continue learning. Try bringing in other experts in your focus area for feedback residencies or set up a mentorship program to connect advanced students with beginners.

Who it’s for: 

  • Creators who teach physical or creative skills (like art, music, or writing) that are usually developed through practice in social settings
  • Those who want to create and sell multiple “levels” of courses to a small audience
  • Creators who want to scale “feedback” as they grow

Who’s doing it well: 

  • Tomlin Leckie of tomlinharmonicalessons.com
  • No-code product development community Makerpad (This is an example of community as standalone product—they were recently acquired by automations tool Zapier.)

What to measure: Look for increased course completions and repeat purchases from the same customers at multiple levels

Communities that give real-time structure to a self-paced experience

Suppose you have a really awesome, evergreen course. But, you find students simply have a better experience going through it (and are more likely to finish) when you help hold them accountable.

Building a community element into your course is a great way to instantly transform it from a self-paced, evergreen course to a cohort-based-course.

Try simple things like posting progress checks-in the community, doing an end-of-week live Q&A, or starting feedback threads for independent work to add a sense of structure to an otherwise pre-recorded course.

As a bonus: Cohort-based courses have a higher perceived price point than do self-paced courses, so this is a great opportunity to update your prices accordingly.

Who it’s for: 

  • Creators who want to raise the value of an existing evergreen course
  • Creators who want to increase the likelihood their students will finish courses

Who’s doing it well: 

What to measure: Increased course completions; the ability to charge at a higher price point. Note: We recommend doing some user research before launching your new price to hone in on perceived value by adding a community.

Communities that let you access an expert

While some of the previous community examples we looked at may be beneficial for a creator’s entire student base, some creators also use communities as a way to create exclusive, “inner circle” access to a specific expert. This is especially true for businesses that center around a specific person more than a specific subject matter.

In these scenarios, creators may be looking to scale their ability to have close relationships with students, while still maintaining community as a top tier, exclusive offering that expands possible price points above and beyond what’s possible for a single, standalone course purchase. Try running mastermind calls or other real-time offerings that expand access to the expert.

Who it’s for: 

  • Consultants or any creators whose main value prop is direct access to their expertise
  • Creators who are interested in offering multiple access tiers or adding community as a private, exclusive-access add-on to a course

Who’s doing it well: 

What to measure: Conversions to a higher access tier; monthly recurring revenue between stand-alone course purchases (if using a subscription model)

Communities that add value between launches

There’s no feeling like running a successful launch for a new course or product. Especially for full-time creators relying on course sales as a stable course of income, the launch paradigm can make it hard to predict your income between launches. But, that doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer your students in between major new course launches.

Some creators use an additional subscription to their community to continuously provide value to their students in between major drops of new content—and to provide themselves with a steadier source of income.

Try using your community as a testing ground for new content as you develop your next big product. Monthly workshops, exclusive guides, or challenges are great content styles to test out.

Who it’s for: 

  • Those looking to create a more stable source of income in between major launches
  • Creators who are trying to transition from just one or two courses to a membership or marketplace model with lots of courses
  • Creators who want a place to test and validate content before devoting time to developing a whole course

Who’s doing it well: 

What to measure: Monthly recurring revenue, the effectiveness and popularity of content you launch in community as you develop new courses

And as always remember: A strong community strategy can help take your online course business to new heights.

Want more on community? Whatever model you do choose, if you’re looking to create a customized community launch framework (everything from choosing software to activating your members), Noele has got you covered there, too. Her lean community launch framework is a great way to strategize for a new community, even if you have a small team—or even a team of one.