How to build an online community

How to build an online community

It's true. You're getting less traffic from major search engines and social platforms. That's where online communities have really stepped up as game-changers, not just for catching up and socializing, but also for learning and building new business ventures. 

Think of them as virtual hangouts where we get to connect, foster a growth mindset, and build relationships that aren’t limited by where we live, or by search engine platforms.

Take a look at the numbers—they tell a compelling story. The global EdTech market, valued at $123.40 billion in 2022, just hit $142.37 billion this year. That’s a huge leap. It just goes to show how online communities are becoming a big deal, especially when it comes to education and professional growth.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at how to build an online community, both through real-life success stories and some useful tips.

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What is an online community?

So, what exactly is an online community? Picture a bunch of people with similar interests or goals, all getting together online to chat, share, and chase those goals. These communities come in all shapes and sizes.

You’ve got groups for just about everything—from hobby enthusiasts to professional networks and platforms like Teachable. The way these communities have evolved is pretty incredible. Remember the early days of the internet with Usenet groups and bare-bones HTML forums? 

Fast forward to now, and we’ve got sophisticated platforms loaded with features like webinars, live chats, and all sorts of collaborative projects. 

It’s not just about tech getting better; it’s also about how we’ve figured out that these online spaces can create a real sense of community and belonging, just like the real-world ones.

The power of online communities

Online communities have become more than just digital meeting spaces; they are dynamic environments where ideas flourish and relationships are nurtured. In these communities, participants from around the world come together, driven by shared interests or goals, to share valuable information and experiences. 

The evolution of online communities

The journey of online communities has been a fascinating one. From the early days of simple forums and chat rooms to today’s sophisticated platforms featuring multimedia content, live interactions, and AI-driven personalization, the transformation is striking. 

This evolution mirrors the changing needs and expectations of digital audiences. Platforms like Teachable have evolved to offer more than just course content; they provide a complete ecosystem supporting engagement, networking, and continuous learning.

Public vs private community building

When building an online community, one critical decision is whether to make it public or private. Public communities are open for anyone to join, offering greater exposure and the potential for larger membership. However, they often require more moderation and can be challenging to manage. 

On the other hand, private communities offer a controlled environment, which can foster a sense of exclusivity and safety. For course owners, the choice depends on their goals, audience size, and the nature of the content shared.

Benefits of building an online community for course owners

For course owners, building an online community brings several advantages. It establishes a loyal base of engaged learners who can provide real-time feedback, helping to refine and improve course content.

A vibrant community also encourages repeat enrollments and referrals, driving business growth. It offers an avenue for personal brand development and thought leadership, as course owners can showcase their expertise and connect with like-minded individuals. Finally, fostering engagement and participation will help generate valuable feedback.

11 steps to building an online community

Building an online community, as showcased by the experiences of Teachable creators like Jo Franco and Jay Clouse, is an art blended with strategic steps. Let’s walk through the journey they took, which can serve as a guiding path for anyone looking to build a thriving online community.

Step 1: Discover your niche

Jo Franco’s story began with her passion for journaling. Despite her busy life creating content for YouTube and a Netflix series, she always found solace in journaling. 

It was this personal interest, fueled by her audience’s encouragement, that led her to start a 30-day journaling challenge. This challenge, initially a month-long venture, surprisingly stretched into a 90-day journey.

Step 2: Bridge the virtual gap

Jo pondered, “What if I bring everyone together for a live, global conversation?” This question marked the birth of Jo Club. Here, members could sign up for a membership and engage in live journaling calls. 

It started small, with just 12 participants, but over three years, it grew to include not only individuals but also universities and corporate clients.

Step 3: Choose the right platform

Choosing the right platform is the biggest step in building an online community. It’s about finding a space that aligns with the needs of your audience and the nature of your content. Look for features that give community members a sense of camaraderie without overwhelming them. Keep in mind that the best platforms are easy to use and create a feeling of fellowship.

Step 4: Create value-driven content

Jo’s primary aim was to offer value—something that would genuinely make a difference in people’s lives. The content in Jo Club wasn’t just about journaling prompts; it was about creating a space where people could share their learnings and challenges. 

She methodically worked on perfecting the format of her live journaling calls before bringing her 21-day challenges to Teachable.

Step 5: Foster community engagement

From Jo Club’s inception, Jo’s motto was clear: “You are building this with me. I build things for you.” This approach wasn’t about selling a course; it was about selling transformation. Her team worked on identifying member archetypes to better serve the diverse needs and experiences within the community.

Meanwhile, Jay Clouse’s journey in community building started in 2017, initially focusing on a membership product and group coaching. His approach to course creation on Teachable was informed by his experiences with coaching and understanding the value of transformation he could offer.

Step 6: Leverage expertise in course creation

Jay’s journey into course creation began with offering coaching services to creative freelancers. He developed three courses simultaneously—a challenging endeavor he admits was not the most effective strategy initially.

However, his persistence and refinement of the courses led to an evergreen offering on Teachable, which he calls the “Freelancing Masterclass.”

Step 7: Understand the value of community

Jay realized early on the importance of continuous interaction in online learning. He created a private Slack channel for his students where they could build relationships and share insights beyond the weekly group coaching sessions.

This understanding of the community’s value played a crucial role in his approach to online education.

Step 8: Offer exclusive benefits

Offering exclusive benefits can significantly enhance the appeal of your community. This could include unique content, special experiences, or personalized interactions catering to specific behaviors of your students. If you’re just starting out, simple perks and gifts will do just fine. 

But as your online community grows and your course becomes more successful, you’ll have to think about making the funnel a bit more elaborate. 

This involves going the extra mile in terms of both presentation and delivery—you can generate documents from templates automatically through your website, use retargeting emails, and even introduce random draws for discounts and other goodies. 

Step 9: Emphasize clear purpose and onboarding

For a community to succeed, Jay highlights the importance of having a clear purpose and a well-structured onboarding experience. Reducing the pressure to create perfect content, these communities allow for a more authentic and unpolished access to the creator. Likewise, it’s also important to organize the attendees into groups, as a means of better focusing on each community member. 

Step 10: Gather and implement feedback

The role of constructive feedback in community development cannot be overstated. It’s the cornerstone of continuous improvement and adaptation. Doing so regularly ensures that your community remains relevant, engaging, and valuable to its members. 

Not too long ago, this would’ve required an entire team of community managers and moderators. However, the advent of widely available AI models changed everything. 

Research indicates that 35% of businesses were already leveraging AI in 2022, but that’s no excuse for splurging on useless software that promises everything and the kitchen sink. Be careful when reviewing different platforms and ensure they fit your particular use cases.  

Step 11: Evolve into cohort-based courses

Once a creator has established value through a community or membership, Jay recommends moving towards a cohort-based course model. This approach is similar to group coaching with a curriculum—a stepping stone before diving into pre-recorded courses.

Jo and Jay’s journeys in building their online communities reflect a blend of personal passion, strategic planning, and a deep understanding of their audience’s needs. Their stories are testaments to the power and potential of well-crafted online communities in the realm of digital education.

How Teachable can help you build an online community

Teachable is a valuable resource for anyone looking to build an online community, especially in the educational sector. It provides a user-friendly platform that simplifies course creation and management, allowing creators to focus on what they do best—accomplishing their goals and engaging with their community.

Teachable’s customizable course options, integrated payment systems, and insightful analytics make it a top choice for creators seeking to foster interactive and thriving online communities.

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What’s next: Actions steps to take today

To begin your journey of building an online community, start by crystallizing your vision. What do you want your community to achieve? Next, get acquainted with our community platform and start thinking of ways to attract and retain new learners. 

Finally, craft a content strategy, mix it up with offline marketing, and ensure it resonates with your audience. Because, at the end of the day, it’s not enough to just publish lessons and the occasional social media post. Consistency is the key, and with it, growing your online community is much more straightforward. 

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Nahla Davies

Nahla Davies, Nahla Davies is a software developer and tech writer. Before devoting her work full time to technical writing, she managed—among other intriguing things—to serve as a lead programmer at an Inc. 5,000 experiential branding organization whose clients include Samsung, Time Warner, Netflix, and Sony.

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