If you want to sell online courses, you’ll rarely convert cold visitors into customers in your first interaction.
Why? Because it takes 6-8 marketing touches just to generate a sales lead.
So, before you talk about sales, you need to build a relationship with your audience, share value to build authority, and create interest in your premium products.
This is where growing an online community can be a game-changer for your e-learning business and become your biggest source of qualified leads, referrals, and word-of-mouth marketing.
In this article, I’ll share the steps to starting and growing an online community and show you examples of different course creators successfully using online communities to fuel their businesses.
Let’s dive in.
An online community is a closed group of users with similar interests, goals, values, or needs. It is a platform where community members can exchange ideas, share problems, seek help, and build new relationships.
An online community can take many shapes and forms. For example, you can host a community in a closed invite-only Facebook Group or create a dedicated Slack channel for your members. You can even host a community on WhatsApp, Telegram, and other instant messaging apps.
However, most organized online communities usually exist on dedicated community hosting platforms with member management features and dedicated channels and threads to organize discussions.
Traffic Think Tank, a seven-figure online community for SEO professionals, is an excellent example of this business model.
Online communities are quite similar to membership sites in that they offer exclusive content usually available to members only.
However, a community’s main USP is its discussion threads, where members can communicate directly to exchange ideas and grow their network.
For example, here’s a screenshot from a premium email marketing community’s Slack channel.
Communities are a lot more engaging than membership sites. Not only do they provide member-only content but they also allow users to interact directly with experts and like-minded people.
Online communities are perfect launching pads for online course sellers because they help you position yourself as an expert, teacher, and trainer your community members can look up to.
As the community owner, you’re the one sharing original content and moderating the discussions in your community. As a result, your members automatically see you as an authority in the space.
This is why many online course sellers run free communities helping thousands of members with relevant day-to-day challenges.
For example, eCommerce by Enablers is a free Facebook Group of over 1.3 million members. Enablers, the training company behind this group, generates hundreds of leads from its free community every month.
Think of your community as a pool of prospects who’re convinced about the value of your content and are ready to buy whenever you have an offer.
They’re also your biggest supporters and advocates because they share your content on social media and attract new members by spreading the word about your community.
Besides this strategy, online course creators make their courses more valuable by adding premium community access to their offers. So, the students purchasing their courses also get access to an exclusive community.
CopyHackers 10x Freelancer is an excellent example of this approach.
It’s a 5-module online course and premium Slack community where seven and eight-figure copywriters help beginner freelancers reach the $100K/year milestone.
The course itself is full of actionable value. But the bigger selling point is its Slack community, where the students can seek help from some of the best copywriters in the business.
This approach has several benefits.
For example, it drastically increases the average customer lifetime value as students stay subscribed to your course because of the premium community group even after completing the main course content.
So, whatever way you look at it, online communities carry immense benefits and advantages for online course creators and digital product sellers.
Are you excited to start your online community? Before you get started let’s discuss the exact steps you must follow to achieve your goal.
Why do you want to start an online community? Where does it fit in your broader business strategy? What do you hope to achieve from your community? How do you plan to get a positive ROI from your community?
Answering these questions is critical to determining your online community type and content structure.
Here are a few possible goals for your online community.
- Generate revenue by selling community memberships as a standalone product.
- Build a course-specific premium community for your customers.
- Start a free community in your niche to create brand awareness and build niche authority. Then use this community to launch your future courses and drive traffic to your landing pages.
- Use your community to generate leads for your services.
- Start a community purely for market research, understand audience needs, and test new course ideas.
- Increase customer engagement for an existing course or digital product.
- Create high-quality user-generated content (UGC) and social proof for your digital products by encouraging your community members to share their experiences.
- Support a cause aligned with your business values.
A community may have one or more of these goals. But you must be clear about them from the start because each goal requires a different strategy.
Now that you’re clear about why you want to start a community, it’s time to understand who you’re creating it for.
Start by zooming into your audience demographics. For example, if you’re starting an SEO community, is it for a specific region like North America or Europe? There are numerous small state-level communities as well.
Narrowing down your audience creates a sense of belonging in your community and allows you to create more focused content.
Next, uncover the core needs of your target audience so that you can create relevant content.
Understanding your audience’s biggest problems is the key to building authority and brand awareness. You need to know what’s important to your audience, what problems they want to solve, what motivates them to take action, and what products they are willing to pay for.
Here are a few ways to get audience insights.
Audience Analytics: If you already have a website or social media profile, dive into your analytics to see who consumes your content the most. For example, you can go to Facebook Audience Insights and search for specific interests in your region to learn more about your potential audience.
Google SERP Analysis: Search your primary topic on Google and scroll down to the People Also Ask section (PAA) to find dozens of frequently searched questions.
For example, here’s a list of questions about the dropshipping business model.
Scrolling further down, you’ll find more keywords in the related searches section.
Click any keyword from this section to open a new search page with more PAA questions and related searches.
Competitor Analysis: Join the existing communities in your industry to find the topics your audience wants to discuss. You can easily find communities on Facebook, LinkedIn, or by searching Google for “[niche]+community”, “[niche]+forum”, and “[niche] vbulletin”.
Every niche already has thousands of online communities. What makes your community different? Why should anyone join your community? What’s your unique offer?
While you don’t need a revolutionary offer to start a successful community, there still needs to be a point of differentiation—something valuable that persuades people to join your community.
It must also be aligned with your audience’s goals because if they see value in what you offer and believe you’re the solution to their problems, they’ll happily become a part of your community.
For example, if you start a community of dropshippers looking to scale their businesses, you must be a successful dropshipper yourself with proven case studies and results people can see.
AliDropship’s forum is an excellent example.
It’s a company founded by successful dropshippers that offers development, marketing, and sourcing services to emerging dropshipping companies. It has a wildly successful forum where its founders interact with other dropshippers in discussions about all aspects of the dropshipping business model.
So, find your pitch and your unique selling proposition to attract members to your community.
The easiest way to find it is to think about what you’ve already achieved and then position yourself as an expert for those who want to emulate your success.
For example, if you make $5000/month as a freelance copywriter, your community will be a great place for anyone who wants to reach your level of success.
I briefly discussed community models earlier in the article. But let’s dive deeper.
There are three main community models for online course businesses.
Free Communities: You’ll use these communities to build your tribe, increase brand awareness, and position yourself as an expert. They’re free, so anyone can join them. But you must still have a minimum qualification criterion to ensure you grow a high-quality community.
You won’t directly earn from these communities, but they’ll be your biggest source of leads and customers when you launch an online course.
For example, Lets Upgrade, an e-learning company for programmers and developers, uses a free community to generate hundreds of leads every month.
Paid Communities: These are premium communities that only paid members can access. You earn directly by selling memberships and invest considerable time creating high-value content for your members.
You can use them in two different ways.
- As standalone products like Pencil Kings, a premium community for artists.
- As a part of your online course to make the overall package more valuable. The 10x Freelancer I mentioned earlier is the perfect example of this approach.
Hybrid Communities: These are free communities where the members have the option to upgrade to a premium subscription.
Peak Freelance is a great example of this community model.
It is a free community of freelance writers but also offers a premium community membership for a monthly fee. Its owners use the free community to create a bond with their members by offering immense value. This convinces them to upgrade to the premium community membership for greater access. Plus, it helps them sell more courses to their community members.
You need an online community platform to host your community, manage members, process payments, and share content.
You can choose a free or premium community platform, depending on your business goals. For example, if you’re looking to host a small free community, Facebook Groups or Slack could be great options.
However, if you want to manage your community better, integrate with different marketing apps, accept payments, and sell courses to your members, a dedicated premium online community platform is the way to go.
Let’s briefly discuss some of the best online community platforms you can try.
Mighty Networks is among the most popular online community platforms offering robust community management and e-learning features ideal for online course sellers.
Read our detailed Mighty Networks review to learn more.
Circle is among the most user-friendly and feature-rich community platforms and has gained a significant market chunk in a very short space of time. It is specifically designed for online course sellers allowing them to manage discussions, share multimedia content, and seamlessly integrate with dozens of marketing and business tools.
Read our detailed Circle review to learn more.
If you’re a WordPress enthusiast, BuddyBoss is the perfect tool to convert your website into a professional online community platform.
Read our detailed BuddyBoss review to learn more.
Out of these three, Circle is my personal favorite. But we’ve published an article on the top ten best online community platforms where we’ve discussed several other great tools you can try.
Now that you’ve chosen a platform for your online community, it’s time to start populating it with valuable content before you can open the doors to your members.
What content should you create?
Start by addressing the fundamentals of your niche and covering your audience’s basic questions.
In addition, create the initial discussion threads or channels (depending on what your platform calls them) where your audience can talk about specific topics.
For example, if you’re building an SEO community, you could have dedicated threads or channels about the following topics.
– Keywords research
– Niche research and niche ideas
– Content creation
– Site speed and performance
– Google algorithm updates
– Google penalties
– Google AdSense
You can create an initial content piece (a video, an article, or a text block) for each thread/channel to give your members a starting point. This would ensure that anyone joining the discussion knows its fundamentals and will make informed comments.
This is also the stage where you’ll lay down your community rules and your expectations for the members. Give your members free space to exchange ideas, and don’t try to control everything that happens inside. However, define your community’s boundaries to avoid conflicts. For example, you could disallow political discussions, bullying, or hate comments.
If you have valuable content resources like PDFs, presentations, courses, videos, or any other resources to benefit your members, now’s the time to upload them to your community.
In short, your goal is to get your community ready before your members arrive.
Your community’s website or landing page is where you describe its benefits, attract visitors from search engines, social media, and other sources, and convert them into members.
For example, here’s the homepage of WealthBuilders, a premium online community powered by Mighty Networks.
Scrolling down this page, you’ll find various sections describing the main benefits members get from joining this community. In addition, it includes social proof like testimonials and member case studies, along with the community’s pricing plans and subscription options.
Some communities rely on landing pages to drive conversions, while others use full websites with the conventional About, Contact, Community, and Blog sections.
You need a community website for several reasons.
- Outsiders can’t see the value of your closed community. So, you must spell it out for them on your website or landing page and convince them to sign up.
- Search engines can’t index closed community content. So, you need an SEO-optimized website, landing page, and blog to drive organic traffic to your website and convert it into members and customers.
- With a website, you can turn your community into a full-scale e-learning business by attracting organic traffic, growing your email list, and turning your site into a brand offering courses and digital info products.
Thankfully, most online community platforms have landing page features that allow you to market your community, collect emails, and drive conversions. However, you can also use third-party landing page builders for this purpose.
Your community is ready to welcome members. But there’s one more step before you start publicly inviting members.
Let’s call it a soft launch.
Here’s what we want to do.
Instead of opening the community to everyone, invite a small group of founding members or beta testers to join your community, kick off discussions, and provide feedback.
This would help you populate the community with valuable content and improve its structure before opening the doors to everyone.
Ideally, you should have a few content creators from your industry in this group, even if you have to hire their services for a while.
Why? Because they can create a lot more content compared to a regular community member. In addition, you can make affiliate partnerships and incentivize other content creators to spread the word about your community.
How do you find beta testers for your community? If you already have an email list or a social media following, announce limited community spots at a hugely discounted price (if it’s a paid community). For free communities, you could offer lead magnets, discount coupons, or any other incentive to attract members.
If you don’t have a following yet, you can use Facebook and YouTube ads to spread the word and recruit beta testers for your community.
Once you have your small group, ask them to play around your community, start discussions, and share feedback about any improvement areas they can identify.
A few weeks after recruiting beta testers, your community should have a reasonable amount of content, new threads, and lots of discussion threads.
This is the time to open it to the public.
Whether your community is paid or free, here are the best ways to promote it.
- In the first few months, dedicate most of your time to creating content and participating in community discussions.
- Share screenshots of your community discussions on social media to show everyone what they are missing out on.
- Recruit affiliates and partner with other content creators to promote your community.
- Sponsor the email newsletters of established content creators to reach new audiences.
- Run Facebook Ads to drive traffic to your landing pages.
Once you go live, the growth of your community largely depends on the quality of your content and the value it offers to your members.
With rising competition in the e-learning space, an online community can be the driving force behind your business and help you build a genuine connection with your audience.
But starting an online community is just the first step. You’ll need to dedicate a lot of time to get it going and to build a closely-knit group that regularly shares ideas, solves problems, and grows together.
But if it works out (and it surely will if you’re consistent), it’ll be worth the effort.
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