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Whether you’re a niche expert, an online course creator, or a Fortune 500 company, the benefits of building an online community are undeniable.

Among many benefits, communities can turn your followers into engaged evangelists, drive traffic to your website, help you retain customers, and increase your revenue.

In this article, we’ll show you what it takes to build an online community, drawing on examples from entrepreneurs and online course creators who have built engaged communities around their business and brand.

You’ll learn:

Our community is a crucial part of our membership. It’s a well known saying that members will come for the content, but they’ll stay for the community. We use a traditional forum for ours, checking in twice a day to welcome new members, answer questions and take part in discussions. Our whole team has a presence there as they understand just how important it is to actually show up and interact with our members.Mike Morrison, The Membership Guys

What is an online community?

An online community can be defined as a group of individuals unified by common interests, opinions, and goals who meet in a virtual space. 

Depending on your business goals, this may look like a private group to share learnings and transformation stories from your fitness program. Or, it may look like an open forum where thousands gather to share resources and feedback on their photography.

Whatever your platform of choice, online communities are a great way to facilitate meaningful connections between your followers. They empower your audience to:

  • discuss topics that interest them 
  • engage with a brand, online course instructor, or other community figure
  • learn together
  • collaborate on projects
  • share advice and related news

Why build an online community?

Online communities can be a great way to bring your students together in one place where they can discuss course content, apply their learnings, and ask questions. This also helps you get a pulse check on what your audience wants to learn from you.

For brands like Thinkific, our online community is a way to bring our customers (and potential customers) together in one place to share ideas, discuss strategies, and get actionable feedback on our product.

Regardless of your team size, there are many common benefits to creating an online community:

  • Be seen as a leader in your space. Expand your sphere of influence by growing your network and audience.
  • Create brand ambassadors. Increase referrals to your business by way of brand evangelists.
  • Feedback from your audience. Having regular dialogue with your community helps you improve your products and services to serve them better.
  • Increase revenue. A community will help foster more engaged followers, increase retention, which can ultimately increase sales.
  • Respond to market shifts. Digital communities help you maintain touchpoints with your audience when being in the same physical space isn’t possible.
  • Online communities are a natural fit for digital entrepreneurs. Two of Thinkific’s most successful course creators didn’t actually start out with courses on day one. They started out creating niche professional learning communities with Facebook Groups, and were soon pulled into course creation by their communities by request.

Kate Baker created a group called The Veterinary Cytology Coffeehouse, for veterinary professionals who want to learn more about veterinary cytology and hematology.  In her first year, the group grew to 35,000 members without any advertising. But she didn’t start her group with the goal of commercialization – her group members began increasingly asking for courses and more information. 

Latrina Walden created her course after initially starting a very successful Facebook group for nurses to support them through their very stressful board exams. After overwhelming response to some of her live Q&As and calls in the comments for more materials, she began selling courses.

Both of these entrepreneurs ended up building learning communities that eventually gave them the push and the validation they needed to create online courses.

Whether you’re an independent course creator, an influencer, or a company looking to support its customers, the following tips and strategies will help you get your community started.

Common types of online communities

There are many types of online communities. Here are four common types, differentiated by the purpose that brings them together:

  1. Interest. A group brought together by a common interest or passion. Like Thinkific’s Facebook group for Online Course Creation.
  2. Action. Communities that come together to bring about change. For example, Black Lives Matter activists forming a group to plan rallies.
  3. Place. Communities within geographic boundaries. For example, your local neighborhood Facebook group that shares about the best eats in town.
  4. Practice or Profession. Members of a particular profession come together to share professional development tips and learn how to excel at their jobs. For example, veterinarians, or nurses forming a group to further their professional knowledge, or artist groups where members join to master their craft.

For the purposes of this article, we’ll focus on two types of communities we’ve seen be particularly useful for entrepreneurs: learning communities, where members are brought together around a course or membership site. And brand communities, where businesses bring people together around a common mission, goal, or lifestyle championed by the brand..

Let’s take a look at each:

  1. Learning Communities: These involve building a community around a course, or a membership site to enhance value and engagement. 
  2. Brand Communities: Businesses and their most engaged customers can form brand communities, where customers can go beyond a transactional relationship to form an emotional connection with the brand and other loyal fans.

Throughout this article, we’ll share specific examples across both types of communities.

What is a learning community?

A learning community is a group of people with similar learning goals who meet to discuss course topics and assignments. They allow students with common educational goals to collaborate on coursework, engage in peer-to-peer learning, and engage with their instructor.

They complement online courses because they enable social learning, peer-to-peer support, and student-to-instructor support. They also help with accountability, as students can be paired or placed in cohorts to hold each other accountable for learning goals.

Learning communities allow your students to connect with you as the instructor as well as other students, and can provide motivation and support to continue moving forward in your course.Kim Garnett, Thinkific Expert

For example, Tiffany Aliche has built a wildly successful online membership community teaching women about personal finance. Members of her community are often participants in her online program, and log on to discuss learnings and progress towards financial independence.

Other examples of learning communities include:

  • Kate Baker, an online community creator turned course creator after starting a Facebook group for veterinarians
  • Latrina Walden, a former nurse who created a community to help nurses with exam prep before expanding into online courses
  • Dana Malstaff, who created Boss Mom, and offers resources, community, and guidance to entrepreneurial moms.

Why build a learning community? 

Many of our top course creators can attest that learning communities improve student outcomes including retention, test scores, and completion rates. They also improve course creator outcomes, because happy and engaged students will stick around longer, refer their friends, and buy more courses. 

Key benefits of learning communities include:

  • Social learning: Communities allow students to learn from teaching others and asking questions.
  • Faster answers: Questions get answered faster in communities, without relying on a quick response from the instructor.
  • Course production ideas: Our top course creators are continuously listening to what’s happening in their community, what questions people are asking or challenges they have, and using this information to anticipate the needs of their students.

What is a brand community?

A brand community is a group of customers, partners, and employees – brought together in one place to support each other, provide input, and ultimately develop deeper emotional connections to a brand. 

It can be hosted by a company on their website, or in a group on Facebook, but isn’t limited to one or the other, since community strategies can be implemented across many channels.

Members of a brand’s community can be described as the company’s fans because communities allow customers to build deeper emotional connections with a brand and each other.

Our Brand Community was built to bring Thinkific, our customers, and experts that support our users together in one place – centered around our platform and the success of our users. We’ll share some key value points and examples from our group. In the next section, we’ll share some specific examples of how our community creates value for all stakeholders unsolved.

Another example of a brand community is  Brit + Co’s creative community – which complements their online classes and membership site built on Thinkific In their community, students can share inspiration, ideas, accomplishments, and their journeys in the creative space.

Why build a brand community?

Whether it’s supporting your customers, or testing product ideas, the concept of online communities has moved far beyond being a social media strategy since the benefits of community can be seen across the entire organization. 

Brand communities don’t just change the company’s marketing strategy. Companies report an overall deeper insight into customer needs and product designs.

Brand communities are beneficial to companies because brand-community members buy more, remain loyal, and reduce marketing costs through grassroots evangelism. Some of the many benefits brands are seeing from their communities include:

  • Direct communication customers – communities add another channel to communicate with customers for sales and customer service inquiries
  • Product feedback – brand communities create a forum to test ideas and get feedback from your core customers before making product decisions
  • Customer acquisition – communities can attract new customers, or help build trust to assist with conversion
  • Customers supporting customers – customers can answer questions by other customers, reducing the burden placed on your support staff
  • Loyalty – having a strong product or service will only get you so far, brand loyalty often comes from a strong community
  • Customer retention – better support and better customer experience will lead to better retention

To illustrate the value a brand community can create, we’ll share a few key benefits and examples from our brand community.

Motivation and reinforcement

Imagine how impactful it would be if your users could support other users, motivate each other, and share success stories.  

In our brand community, we celebrate wins and share best practices to ensure when one member of the group wins, we all win.

Thinkific Online Community Motivation and Reinforcement example

Product feedback and feature requests

It’s easy for brands to miss the mark on their communities by limiting their stakeholders to just Marketing or Support.

Thinkific’s brand community has been a significant source of product ideas and feedback, and a few of our integrations like our connection with Constantcontact can be attributed to insights pulled from our group.

When we see pain points and feature requests, we’re able to hear their side of the story, and see how their idea is received by the community. If dozens of people are commenting in favor, that’s a pretty telling sign. And since all the content is archived, we can get even more context by using the group search feature to look back and see how many times that feature has been requested.
Product feedback and feature requests inside Thinkific's brand community

Announcements

An online community is an incredibly effective way to make product announcements because it allows you to generate discussion and engagement in ways not possible with email.

Thinkific Branded Community Announcement Example

Content ideas

Another benefit of our community is our ability to scan the discussion to understand knowledge gaps and opportunities to fill them. 

If many people are asking the same questions, we need to do a better job of educating them through our content.

In fact, you may soon see a comparison between all the email platforms that Thinkific integrates with because of many posts like this in our community.

Content ideas from Thinkific's brand community


7 steps to building an online community

Now that we understand the difference between learning communities and brand communities and their benefits, let’s walk through the 7 essential steps to building a successful online community:

1. Define your community purpose and goals

While a community can have multiple goals, it’s best to focus on a small number of goals that represent value created for you and your community, and can be tied to specific behaviors and outcomes. 

You’ll also want some tangible metrics, called Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) to measure how successful you are at reaching your goals.

Understanding the value of community

To understand how to build a community, it’s important to understand what actually creates a sense of community, and how members of a community get value.

Long before online communities existed, community psychologists described four key factors that define a sense of community that are timeless:

    1. Membership: A sense of belonging and identification, alignment with other community members with similar goals and interests.
    2. Influence: Members of a community should feel empowered to have influence over what a group does (otherwise there’s no motivation to participate), and group cohesiveness depends on the group having some influence over its members. 
    3. Integration and fulfillment of needs: Beyond the status of being a member, members should feel rewarded for their participation, and get value from being part of the group.
    4. Shared emotional connection: Quoted as the definitive element for true community, a shared emotional connection comes from quality interactions and bonds that are created. Your emotional connection to a community can be elevated by receiving credit from within the community, and is diminished if you’re embarrassed in front of the community.

This is helpful to understand because these are the boxes you need to tick in order to create a community that people get value from.

Aligning value with behavior

A community-based brand builds loyalty not by driving sales transactions but by helping people meet their needs.

So, next you’ll need to find ways to turn that community value into specific behaviors that create this value.

Here’s an example of key values and corresponding behaviors for learning communities and brand communities:

ValueHow value is createdBehavior that creates value
Learning Community(1) Connection & discussion with peers and instructors that supports learning(1) Asking questions, and getting answers from students and the instructor
(2) Students analyze scenarios and apply knowledge(2) Debating on solutions to questions posed by instructors and peers
Brand Community(1) Enhanced customer support and customer retention(1) Customers can share questions and success stories, with feedback from other customers and the brand.
(2) Product Innovation(2) Product stakeholders engage with a beta testing community to get valuable feedback that guides product design
(3) Brand Loyalty(3) Brand community members accumulate points for creating community value that unlocks bonuses & discounts.

 

Community Key Performance Indicators (KPI)

Key performance indicators are used to measure your progress against a goal. They should be SMART: Specific, Measurable, Realistic, and Time-bound.

While your KPIs will vary depending on your communities purpose, and the platform you’re using, a few KPIs are universal.

KPIs to consider

User Growth
  • Total number of users
  • New users in the past month
  • Churned (lost) users in the past month
  • New user growth (Month over month, Quarter over Quarter, Year over Year)
User Engagement
  • How many total engagements (likes / comments)
    • How many members posted comments?
    • How many likes were there?
  • What % of total users liked or commented in a month?
  • What % of total users were inactive?

 

You’ll want to keep track of these KPIs and review them regularly. The best insights will come from comparing these metrics against the previous time period, for example:

  • year over year user growth
  • new users in the last month vs the previous month

While user engagement and growth are great, you’ll need some KPIs that are aligned with your business goals.

If you’re an online course creator, you’re more interested in how many courses people buy, or what happens to your student completion rates, or quiz scores.

If you’re a membership site owner, your community is a big part of the product you’re selling, and will help you gain and retain members.

A brand, like a software company, may have completely different objectives for their communities like customer retention, new sales, and actionable product feedback.

Here are some KPI ideas for both:

Learning Community KPIs

Brand Community KPIs

  • Student completion rates
  • Student test scores
  • Student retention
  • Student lifetime value
  • Customer retention & activation rates
  • Churn (lost users)
  • New and upgraded users
  • Number of actionable product suggestions

 


2. Create community guidelines and rules

It’s important to have rules and a moderation strategy to keep your community free from trolls, spam, and abuse.

Community rules and guidelines make it clear what kind of behavior is appropriate for the community. 

Facebook highlighted a few key tips for writing great group rules, but to sum it up, community guidelines will typically cover the following areas:

  • Member behavior (and what constitutes “being a jerk”) – what is expected of members, and what line is drawn between passionate debate and simply being a jerk
  • Moderator behavior – what moderators can and can’t do
  • Topical focus – what topics are in scope for the community? What topics are irrelevant?
  • Complaint and resolution process – how can people flag complaints, and how do you handle them? 
  • Zero tolerance for discrimination and harassment – it’s a no-brainer that everyone should feel welcome and not alienated by your community

Here are the group rules we use for our brand community for course creators:

Community Rules and Guidelines Example


3. Select a community hosting platform

When most people think of online communities, they think of social networks like Facebook or LinkedIn which allow users to create groups and pages to engage their following. 

Having a social media community doesn’t necessarily mean that you have a community strategy. So we’ll compare and contrast, then tell you how to use both in the next steps.

  • Free Social Community
  • Branded or Owned Community
  • A case for using both platforms

Free Social Community Platform

Facebook, LinkedIn, and Reddit are great examples of free platforms that you can build a community on.

The benefits of using social media platforms: First, they’re free. The other major benefit of building community on a social platform is that your community can be discovered by users searching for communities like yours or engaged with similar communities, and from sharing content posted on your community.

On the other hand, there are a few drawbacks to using free community platforms:

  • No real ownership and control. While you’re free to make the rules within your group, add and remove members, and delete content, you don’t actually have ownership over the platform.
  • Distractions. Since social networks are designed to generate advertising revenue, it’s difficult to create an experience that is free from distractions.

Branded Community Platforms

Branded Community platforms (aka Owned Communities) are run by community owners from their own platform, under their own URL.

A branded community could be as simple as a comment section on your blog or a private forum. But with Thinkific and other platforms, you can build your own community where users can log in, post content, and engage with other community members.

The major advantage of branded communities is that you’re in full control of the content, the branding, and the experience. 

Since you control the content on your own platform, your users can enjoy your community free from distractions, like ads and other content. 

The other major advantage of owning your community is that you can charge people for access to it, like subscription membership sites, for example.

One of the drawbacks is the learning curve for members to learn how to create their profiles, log in, and start posting on a new platform. Discoverability is another consideration – if you’re hosting your community exclusively within your own platform, you’ll need to find other ways to promote your community.

Here is a screenshot of how a branded community built on Thinkific works:

A case for using both free social communities and branded communities

You can think of social networks as an extension of your overall community strategy, but they’re not the be-all-end-all because community elements can be hosted on your website. 

There are benefits to running your community strategy through a combination of both Free and Owned communities.

Here’s an example of how a brand might approach their community strategy including both platforms:

Example TacticPlatform ValueStakeholders
Free Social Media CommunitiesWebinars and PromotionsVisibility, discoverability, reach, easy onboarding.Sales & Marketing
Branded Community PlatformProduct FeedbackControl, exclusivity, tighter audience, gatedProduct & Support

 

Sales and Marketing may want an outlet to engage with their prospects and customers. 

A Facebook group would be a great place to post new deals, or webinars, and your community would be discoverable to new potential members. Success stories posted within the group can help reassure or motivate your customers, or even inspire new prospects to convert.

But let’s say you wanted to give your best customers a sneak peek at a new product you’re working on without tipping off your competitors or sharing with the masses. Or maybe you want full control over building and customizing your community, or even charging for it! That’s when a branded community could come in handy.

 


4. Identify community stakeholders

If you’re a solopreneur, congratulations – you are the only stakeholder to consider. As a small team, you likely have many hats to wear when it comes to managing your community.

Once your community grows to the point where you’re spending more time working in the community than on your business, a community manager would make a great addition to your team. If you don’t have the budget to hire someone, consider reaching out to active members of your community to explore whether they’d be open to helping you moderate the group.

Larger brands like Google and Facebook, and mid-market brands, like Thinkific, and Brit + Co will have multiple stakeholders across the organization who should be involved, and their community may spill over into multiple platforms.

The following table maps out a list of common stakeholders, their strategic value, and the types of tactics they might implement with your community.

StakeholderStrategic ValueTactics
MarketingNewsletter subscribersAsk for emails in the membership questions that members answer before joining your group
SalesSales promotionsAnnouncing sales promotions within the group
SupportLeveraging your community to answer support questionsCreate a support community forum, where customers can ask/answer questions
ProductProduct feedback

User pain points, motivations

Product Suggestions

Share new product updates, and ask for feedback

 


5. Set up your community

Now that we’ve covered the options for where to build your community, we’ll cover the steps involved in setting up your community. 

Thinkific Expert, Kim Garnett offered some tips for implementing learning communities with Thinkific:

Firstly, make sure you invite your students/learners! Add a lesson to your welcome chapter, and the welcome email, with a link to join the group and a summary of what they can expect by joining. It will certainly take more work on your part at the start of building your online community. Posting prompts and encouraging interaction will land on you, at least until the community begins to grow and co-create more group content.Kim Garnett

Another Thinkific Expert, and recent co-host of our annual Think in Color series, XayLi Barclay created an excellent step-by-step guide to creating a community on Thinkific:

Your options may differ depending on what platform you’re on, but this is the general flow of steps you’ll need to take when setting up your community:

1. Customize your community

If you’re hosting your community on your own platform, you can customize things like fonts, colors, and key imagery, without the noise and distractions that come with social community platforms.

Whether you’re building your community on social media, or your own platform, make sure to update your group description, profile photo, and cover photos.

  • Community Description

The community description is like your elevator pitch – it should capture the essence of your community in one quick read. 

Brit + Co’s description communicates who the community is for, and what people can do in the community, along with a friendly reminder that they are a positive, encouraging, and accepting community:

An example facebook community description

  • Cover Photo

Your cover photo is the most visible thing when users first click into your community, making it the perfect piece of digital real estate to brand your community and your business.

Dana Malstaff, an online course creator and successful community builder is the founder of Boss-Moms® – a community for entrepreneurial moms. She created a group cover photo that accomplishes a few things:

  • It creates personal branding
  • It tells you what the community is about with a tagline
  • It has a call-to action for free training

Bossmom Facebook Community Cover Photo Example

  • Membership questions

You may also want to add membership questions that people answer when they’re requesting to join the group. 

Thinkific’s brand community asks for emails and permission to add you to our mailing list – this has been a great way to build our marketing funnel. In your membership questions, you can offer something like a guide in exchange for their email address if you want to soften your ask.

  • Linking your group to your business page

If you’re using Facebook Groups, It’s a good idea to link your group to your business page. This helps ensure a follower in the group can be a follower of your page.

Here’s what that looks like on Latrina Walden’s facebook group:

Example of Facebook Group Linked to Business Page

2. Define the roles and responsibilities of your team

If you’re a solopreneur, you’re on the hook for just about everything. But if you’re anything like finance educator Tiffany Aliche, with thousands of community members, you’ll likely need help.

Your strategy will dictate who you’ll need, but generally here’s what your team could look like:

  • Daily administration: Many companies are hiring community managers, but it’s also common for customer support, or a social media manager to manage the community when it’s starting out. 
  • Webinars: If you’re going to do webinars for your community, who’s hosting them? Who’s helping with the audio and video?
  • Support: Who will be responsible for responding to “how to” requests, and other support issues?
  • Sales: Who will be responsible for responding to questions about pricing and packages?
  • Product: Who will be tapping the community for product ideas and responding to feature requests?

3. Create tags and sections

Tags and sections make it easier to find exactly what you’re looking for. In our group, we tag popular topics to help our members find the information they’re looking for.

Example tags in facebook group

4. Review and test member account creation and sign-in process

To ensure a smooth launch, you’ll want to jump into your customer’s shoes to make sure there are no speed bumps.

It’s a good idea to go through the account creation and sign-in process from scratch to make sure they can get in, and access the content they’re approved to access. 

5. Set up welcome messages and onboarding content

Stepping into your customers shoes again, you can ask yourself the following questions:

  • What is the first thing they see when they join the community?
  • Do they know how to use the community? What to post? Where to post?

A welcome message, or a readme pinned to the top of your group will help set your new community members up for success. 

Another great way to welcome new community members is to tag all your new members for the week in a post to encourage the community to say hi.

 


6. Building engagement in your community

The more engaged your community is, the better your results will be. You’ll need to set the tone of your community early on and spark opportunities for members to engage within your community.

Here are a few best practices spark engagement within your community:

  1. Create a theme for each day of the week

Creating a theme for each day of the week is a fun way to keep your community focused on the topics they came for. It’s also a great way to give your members ideas for what to post.

Here’s an example of our community themes:

examples to create a theme for each day of the week in your community to boost engagement

Our favorite theme day is Flaunt-It-Fridays, where our customers share their wins,  milestones, or courses they launched during the week.

Example post for Thinkific Community's "Flaunt it Friday"

2. Ask questions

This is a great way to spark discussions and create engagement within your group.

Asking questions is a great way to build engagement in your community

3. Create an adjective for your community members

An adjective for your members creates a sense of identity, making your group members feel like they’re part of something.

Tiffany Aliche’s group members are called the Dream Catchers. 

“DREAM CATCHER: A legacy builder, success seeker, action taker; a sisterhood of women exercising their power to LIVE RICHER.”Tiffany Aliche, THE BUDGETNISTA

4. Participate in discussions and respond to questions

It’s important for you to join in, be responsive, and be visible within the community.

While successful communities tend to run themselves, and shouldn’t rely on any one individual, you’re the one they came for.

If someone suggests a topic for your next course, jump in with some feedback or clarifying questions.

If someone suggests a new feature, dig deeper into the use case, and ask others if they feel the same.

5. Share content that lives exclusively in your community

If special content is posted regularly in the group that they can’t get anywhere else – It could be a guide, video content, or live webinars. This creates an incentive to join and come back to the group.

6. Accountability partners

It’s easy to procrastinate when you’re by yourself, but if you have an accountability partner, you’re motivating each other to stay on track. 

Especially in the case of learning communities, such as an online course or a membership site, accountability partners connect members in the group to motivate each other and hold each other accountable.

 


7. Grow Your Online Community

Marketing your community

If you build it market it, they will come. When the time comes for your community to launch, your community isn’t going to grow itself from scratch. You may have the best community in the world, but none of that matters if your customers, students, or prospects don’t know about it.

Here are a few ways to promote your community once you launch:

  1. Send an email to your newsletter subscribers or existing customers – We have a call-out to join our group on our onboarding emails.
  2. Add a link on your website
  3. Promote on social media
  4. Get members to invite others

Tracking your results

Make sure to stay on top of your analytics, whether you’re using facebook group insights, or analytics from your platform of choice. You should be able to explain any sudden spikes or growth trends.

Here’s a year to date snapshot of Thinkific’s brand community growth:

Thinkific Community Analytics Examples

We weren’t surprised to see our group pick up pace starting in march, when COVID-19 hit. But if your growth can’t be explained by economic trends, look for where that spike came from. Your group may have been shared, or referrals from members who added their friends. 

When you figure it out, try to reverse engineer it, and see if it can be repeated!

Conclusion

Building an online community is hard work, but it’s not an impossible feat.  There are many free options available to start your community, like Facebook. But if you want ownership and control, or the ability to add a paywall to your community, Thinkific is here to help!

If you’re passionate about what you know, or you want to create a social ecosystem for your most engaged followers. There’s no better time than now to start your online community. We’ve been growing our Facebook community since 2014, but since COVID-19 we’ve seen an uptick in growth due to the sudden surge in demand for online education.

Want build a community around your content to build more loyal customers? Build one with Thinkific. Engage your students in meaningful conversations and add even more value to your online courses.