If you’ve dipped your toe in the proverbial pool of online courses—building them, teaching them, or selling them—you know that they can be a powerful tool. But did you know that they can be even more powerful when you run one alongside a dynamic community?
It’s true! Whether you’re offering a group of self-paced lessons or creating a cohort-based course, community is important. Not only for your course members, but for you and your digital business, too.
Ahead, we’re exploring the importance of community; what “network effect” has to do with it; how a sense of community can boost and benefit your online course; and finally, how to build a course alongside a community.
Shall we begin?
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1. Why is community important?
The importance of community lies in its ability to connect people with each other who would otherwise never meet. That’s true now, especially, more than ever: Our lives are increasingly digital, and today we have ways of creating relationships and bonds with people hundreds of thousands of miles away. People that we never actually meet IRL.
Those connections can be made even more powerful when there’s a purpose behind them.
Why? Because communities enable a group of people to master something interesting together. Within a community, members come together, build relationships with each other, navigate challenges together, and get that much closer to their goals.
Because of that dynamic, community members end up sticking around. They want to keep up with their relationships with each other, explore and build things together, and otherwise connect with people who have the same motivations, interests, and goals as them.
And that, my friends, is what we call a network effect.
2. The power of the network effect
Network effect describes a situation where the value of a network increases with every person who joins and contributes. While community is important itself, network effects are the distinguishing factor between thriving communities that essentially run themselves, and communities that, well, don’t.
Let’s break that down a little. Say you create a community for houseplant aficionados (congrats, on that beautiful hoya obovata splash, btw!). As your community grows, and new indoor plant lovers come in, they bring in additional knowledge, insight, expertise, and experiences. In other words, they offer added value—to you, to your members, and to the overall community itself.
From there, a sort of cycle is created: Members come in, adding value. Then the value they add attracts more members, who add even more value. This cycle continues, on and on, and before you know it, you have a thriving community of plant lovers, trading tips, tricks, and plant cuttings.
As you can see, network effects can be super powerful. For creators, network effects are valuable because they enable them to focus less on constantly producing content, and more on tending to the seeds of community. For members, they get to learn and collaborate with each other, and accomplish things that they couldn’t otherwise achieve on their own.
That last dynamic is exactly why an online course can benefit from a community component. After all, courses, like communities, bring together a group of people to master something interesting alongside each other. In fact, because online courses are more structured, they are one of the best ways to focus a community that has come together to reach a goal or learn more deeply about a topic.
This is especially true when you’re building a community from scratch: Adding a course into your community structure is often the key to getting your members the results and transformation they’re looking for, faster.
TLDR: Community is important, network effect is important, and they both have their own roles to play in a successful online course.
3. When to create an online course
Let’s take a step back and think about why you would want to create an online course in the first place.
More often than not, we see creators build out courses for three different reasons.
When you want to get people results faster.
We touched on this above, and for good reason: Online courses are structured and finite. That means course members are more likely to give it their full attention, and in turn, they’ll master that interesting thing together faster than they would without the course.
When you want an opportunity to focus.
As you build your digital business—whether it’s a community, membership, or whatever else you dream up—the structure that a course gives you will offer you a sense of focus, structure, and direction. So both you and your members can get your desired results.
You’re want confidence in charging a premium.
For a lot of people, adding an online course makes their community feel worth it. If you think about it, that makes a lot of sense: People pay attention to what they pay for, and it’s becoming more and more common for people to pay for online courses and programs that promise results.
Ditto when you’re charging a premium: People tend to be more invested in higher-paid programs. And because you’ve charged a $199 one-time fee (or more!) you have the resources and motivation to make it better and more valuable.
Now that we’ve covered why online courses are a robust tool, let’s look more at the importance of online community in a digital course.
4. How do I run a community alongside a course?
We’ve talked a lot about the importance of community, and how network effects can spur growth within a community—both for the creator, and for the members themselves.
But what does running a community alongside a course actually look like?
Spoiler alert: It’s pretty simple. There are two ways of running a course alongside a community (or vice versa).
Option #1: Run a course within a larger community space
This is when you focus first on a dedicated community space, and offer a course within that community. This is a great option if you want to offer multiple courses for your community members—maybe they’re at different starting points, or would like to focus on different concentrations of the same interest.
At Mighty Networks, running a course within a larger community space is super easy. You put your activity feed front and center (because, after all, that’s where the magic happens). Then, you can run course content live in your courses tab, building out your material as you go.
Option #2: Build out course material with a dedicated community
With this option, you build out a specific course community for your course. It’s a method we see a lot with cohort-based courses: A group of people who are learning together for a specific time-period get to be hyper focused as they learn together, collaborate, and troubleshoot with each other.
On a Mighty Network, this method is pretty straightforward. Instead of having your course members navigating a community space that’s open to both people who are and aren’t in a course, you let them hash it out in the dedicated activity feed within their course.
5. Some examples of courses with a strong community
We’ve been talking about the importance of community in online courses in fairly intangible terms here. So below, we’re offering a few examples of communities with courses and dedicated course communities—all powered by Mighty Networks.
Let’s take a look.
Topstitch Makers is a paid membership community that connects garment sewers with courses, resources, and live sewalongs.
Within Topstitch Makers, Host Leigh Metcalf runs courses—both pre-recorded courses and live intensives—within her larger community. That way, she can service a wide range of garment sewers with different levels of experience, whether they’re starting to learn the basics, or they’re expert sewers.
Indie Birth Association
Indie Birth Association is a paid community bringing together doulas, midwives, and pregnant and birthing women with resources and support around autonomous birth.
Because Host Margo Blackstone understood the importance of community for birth workers and pregnant and birthing women, access to the overall network is free. Within, Margo and her co-Host Maryn Green offer free and paid course content.
Said course content ranges from the short-form—mini-courses for the pregnancy blues—to long-form—structured, foundational material for aspiring midwives. And depending on the course, Margo and Maryn combine course and community in both ways: Some courses have a dedicated activity feed, while others rely on the connections members make and the questions they ask in the community’s main activity feed.
The eXd Community
The eXd Community is a membership that empowers educators to create transformative, equity centered schools and organizations.
Host Caroline Hill utilizes cohort-based courses within her community to expand her reach and get that much closer to equity in education. In other words, she runs the same course to different groups of people (btw, it’s exactly how we run our flagship course, the Community Design™ Accelerator. In the eXd Community, each course has a dedicated course community, where members can collaborate, share, and learn, together.
Verbal to Visual
Verbal to Visual is a membership that brings together and educators aspiring sketchnoters.
A monthly subscription to Verbal to Visual gives members access to the overall community and Host Doug Neill’s library of courses. As such, members are pretty much active everywhere: When a member joins a course, they can be a part of the dedicated course community. But if they have broader questions or thoughts, they can share that with the overall community at large.
Ready to build community + course together?
Community is important, now more than ever, because it connects people and gives them a chance to master something interesting together. This is especially true when you can create a network effect, where every new person brings added value to your community. And it’s even more true when you add an online course in the mix.
That being said, a lot of community platforms don’t offer the software for you to build a robust online course. And a lot of online course platforms don’t give you the features you need to build a thriving community.
But Mighty Networks does both.
With Mighty, you can bring together your courses, content, community, and commerce on a powerful cultural software platform. And it's all under your brand, instantly available on the web, iOS and Android. Plus, you can run your courses in a variety of ways, whether it’s live, cohort-based, or with a dedicated course community.
We understand the importance of online community. And we’ve seen creators build networks that are so needed in the world today—and absolutely kill it thanks to that community component. We’re talking to the point where these communities, filled with dynamic members who are curious, connected, and invested, basically run themselves. And that’s the dream, right?
Now, the only question is this: What will your course community look like?