Create symbiosis between your learning experiences and community experiences, create super-users, and monetize your online community.
Anyone who has been following my blog knows that my entire career has deeply intertwined education and community. From starting my career off in public education (shoutout to all my other teachers-turned-tech workers!) to working at ed-tech company Teachable to working at community-tech company Commsor to build their educational arm of the business, C School, I’ve had a lot of time to think about the overlaps and symbiosis between community and education.
In my time working in this overlap, I’ve become a big believer in the natural symbiosis between communities and education, specifically cohort-based-courses (or “CBCs,” as we’ll call them in this article). If you’ve never heard of CBCs before, they’re not as complicated as they may seem. While in the world of online education when we say “course” we’re usually talking about a static, self-paced education product that learners can buy and take on their own time, CBCs are actually more similar to what you would encounter as a “course” in the offline world. CBCs usually have some kind of live (even if virtual) component, are led by a real instructor in real time, and function by having the same group of people go through the course synchronously. In this article, I’ll share a few reasons why I think cohort-based-courses and communities should hold hands and skip off into the sunset together—and some practical thoughts on getting started if you have one, but not the other.
1. CBCs help you create structured, quality content plans for your community.
Many community builders fail to foster engagement in their communities because they either try to stoke chatter that community members don’t find valuable ("engagement for engagement’s sake"), or else they don’t attempt to start conversations in their communities at all. I find this latter subset surprising, but relatively common—I’ve heard from a lot of community builders that they fear they’ll create an inauthentic space by trying to structure conversations in their communities. In contrast to this, I’m a big proponent of community builders regularly and intentionally fanning the flames of engagement with content and conversation starters—you’ll never find me managing a community without a content calendar in hand.
One of the things that I like the most about running CBCs alongside community programs is that they often provide a fantastic structure for proactive community engagement, because the synced curriculum not only gives members a shared vocabulary with one another, it also gives the community builder content themes off of which to build authentic engagement plans. CBCs naturally yield phenomenal engagement opportunities, like:
Logistical discussions around a course taking place in a community—while “where’s the link to class” shouldn’t be the only thing members discuss in a CBC community, having logistical discussion in the community can be beneficial in giving members a reason to open the community, and helping them build the habit of using it.
Follow-up discussion questions based on what happened in class—when delivering CBC classes, you’ll often have questions and discussion items you don’t have time to get to—these can be easily transplanted or started up in the community immediately after, and allow you to have richer conversations that build on existing knowledge.
Comprehension checks & exercises in the community
Homework share-outs & feedback
And much, much more!
2. CBCs help you establish feedback and collaboration rituals.
One of the most challenging dynamics to establish within an online community is members collaborating and providing feedback to one another. That’s because establishing this culture in a community requires you to not only create a space where members feel safe sharing work and ideas that are “unfinished,” but to teach your members how to ask for and provide feedback in a way that’s beneficial and healthy. This is surprisingly hard—there are a lot of pitfalls when feedback is shared in an environment without mutual trust and cultural norms. And yet, feedback and collaboration are often identified by community members as some of the most valuable forms of connection that can happen within a community of practice.
Because CBCs often have a live element where you have the chance to explain and model behavior in real time, they give you a great shortcut to establish and practice feedback rituals week over week. Live sessions also provide a shortcut for community members to build trust and relationships with one another that facilitate quality feedback. Because CBCs also often provide assignments that everyone is doing at the same time, they can also lessen the vulnerability of sharing and asking for feedback because they establish “unfinished work” as the norm, not an exception. Even better, when some community members are engaged in a CBC and others are not, the feedback culture will be modeled and often adopted across the entire community, not just those who are actively in class.
3. CBCs naturally create superusers.
When I think about the process of taking someone from brand-new-community-member to super-user, there are two ingredients: 1) a high level of investment from the community member themself and 2) a long, purposeful journey that the community manager creates to help the user slowly escalate their participation in the community. In a community that doesn’t have an educational component to it, I might accomplish that by using a tool like the engagement ladder, or through an extended onboarding sequence.
But, if I were running a community that had an educational component, where some or all members were participating in a CBC, those two ingredients would already be naturally present. Community members who go above and beyond to engage in, and likely pay for, a CBC are self-selecting as highly invested in the subject matter of the community. And, the week-over-week structure of a CBC gives you the ability as the instructor to teach your cohort-members how to be super users as you teach them the subject matter of the course. Maybe that looks like focussing in the first couple weeks on habituating them within the community, teaching them to solicit and give phenomenal feedback within the community, or even ritualizing their participation in the community as a part of success in the course (i.e. having them “submit” homework in the community environment). Regardless of how you utilize the close relationship you build with them through recurring meetings, at the very least, CBCs create members with a much higher level of knowledge than your typical community member, which can ripple out and create value for other members in turn.
4. Offering a CBC can help you monetize a free community.
Lastly, one of the things that makes CBCs such a natural partner to community programs is the opportunity they present for monetization. For a variety of reasons, many communities of practice struggle to monetize their programs, especially if the program doesn’t have a lot of formal content programs that members perceive as valuable. And yet, communities do take time, resources, and money to run.
Launching a CBC to your community is a great way to subsidize the cost of running a community for free even if only some members participate in the CBC. Because CBCs tend to be premium priced offerings, only a relatively small percentage of your community would need to take part in your CBC offering to make up the equivalent of putting a small price tag on your community to begin with. What’s more, CBCs tend to be a very well-suited product to upsell to a community of practice, because they build naturally on the baseline educational structure of communities of practice—what’s being monetized is the structure and guidance of the information, but the interest in the subject matter is already validated by the community.
What do you do if you have a community but no CBC (or the other way around)?
If your’e reading this article and you have a community but not a CBC, or the other way around, you may be wondering how to establish the symbiotic relationship I described here. To help with that, I’m going to offer a tip for the former and a next step.
First: if you’re in the boat of having a community and wondering whether launching a CBC product to them could be a good fit, a great test case to validate this is running a synchronized free challenge within your community. This is an awesome opportunity to test out how your community responds to structure, what types of more structured content and outcomes they might be interested in, and even your appetite as a creator or business to build educational products.
What’s more, I coach clients 1:1 to help with community strategy—stuff like how to establish a community offering alongside your CBC, or the other way around, are smack dab in the center of my wheelhouse. I’ve worked with clients in your shoes to help them choose the right technology, create impactful engagement, and learn to report on ROI. If your team is working on a community project that you could use a hand on, check out ways we can work together here. I’d love to hear from you.
For folks who want to deepen their community work but don't have the budget to work with me 1:1, I also offer an online program called the On-Demand Coaching Core Bundle—it distills the most common topics I work with my 1:1 clients on into a self-paced format with videos, my most in-depth templates, coaching scenarios, and a client community with bi-weekly group coaching. All of that comes for a one-time purchase of $500 USD, less than the cost of 2 1:1 coaching sessions with me. You can learn more about that here or enroll now below:
Lastly, you can get free resources on community building straight to your inbox —like a templatized guide to a community launch, a cheat sheet for community management job postings, and more—by clicking below:
Thank you for reading!