How the Best Ed-Tech Companies are Building Community
Why you should invest in building a strong community now, if you haven’t already
For better or worse, the Covid-19 pandemic has been a boon for many of the ed-tech companies I work with. We have had to figure out how to rapidly scale their services without sacrificing quality users had come to expect.
It’s been a bumpy road, with many lessons learned, but one thing stood out as being critical to success: having a strong community.
Two of my favourite clients of the past year, Level and Transcend Network, have activated their communities to refine their offerings, increase their revenue, and expand their reach, without spending a dime on customer acquisition.
The companies that have succeeded in building a vibrant and engaged community have created tremendous leverage for their businesses.
If you are a leader in the education space, creating an engaged community should be one of your top priorities. Having one will help you improve both your product and your impact. If your community is thriving, they will naturally market and sell your company on your behalf.
Having an engaged and cohesive community of users, members, customers, and/or followers is no easy feat, though the best companies almost make it seem as if it can happen organically.
I’ve worked with dozens of online learning platforms, from Pre-Seed to Series D, over the past year as they start, pivot, adapt, iterate, restart, and/or scale their communities. Here’s what the best ones are doing to build and nurture their communities:
1. Investing in a Community Architect
The best companies have at least one person whose sole responsibility is to think about their user/member/customer/follower community. This person is in charge of ensuring everyone at the company is thinking intentionally about “community.”
A great Community Architect knows that their community doesn’t start and end with a Slack channel, focus group, or quarterly newsletter. Because community overlaps with every facet of the business, from who is hired on the engineering team to how the company is marketed, they ensure that all teams, systems, and processes are centered around user experience.
Some of the tasks a Community Architect can tackle for your company include:
- setting and tracking community related goals (engagement metrics, desired impact) and connecting these goals to business goals
- creating boundaries (who should/shouldn’t the community be for? what are expectations? what are violations of community norms? how will violations be handled?)
- determining which tools and platforms to leverage to support the community (e.g. CRM, communications software, virtual event software etc)
- running focus groups with current members to surface ideas that will help improve not just engagement and impact metrics but also the overall product/service and user experience
- planning “encounters” and “experiences” to spark meaningful connections (I’ve heard this described as “engineered serendipity”)
- thoughtfully designing creative ways to incorporate company values and culture into community strategy
- advocating for members of community
- creating a welcoming and supportive space for members who
2. Centering the Individual
Your community will only feel like a community if members feel understood and are treated with respect. Whatever you do, you should stop seeing your customers as dollar signs, and start seeing your customers as unique individuals and treating them as equals.
Some tips to get you started:
- First and foremost, greet people by their name, whether that’s in your live trainings or asynchronous communication channels.
- Reply to individuals who take the time to participate in any of your company’s communication channels (you’d be amazed how many companies just send large email blasts or have auto-replies to deal with customer feedback).
- Have a CRM that enables and encourages anyone at your company take notes on the individual as you learn more about them — the feedback they’ve shared, their background, even their other interests.
- Be deliberate about how new members are onboarded to the community so that they feel special and welcomed.
Note: if these tactics are implemented with the intention of increasing revenue, they will start to feel creepy. If they’re implemented because your company actually cares about the individual and the individual’s experience, it’s game changing.
3. Amplifying Voices, Work, & Ideas of Community Members
Take every opportunity you can to lift up members of your community. For example:
- share their ideas (social media posts, resources, etc) in external facing newsletters or social media channels (with permission and credit given of course)
- let them know if you incorporate their feedback into the product roadmap and what impact that will have on so many others
- introduce them to other community members or external members of the company’s network who they may find interesting/helpful
- share job opportunities, exciting news, and company information with the community before sharing externally
- feature community members in your marketing materials, whether that’s testimonials, case studies, or pictures of your product in action
- curate events, perks, and experiences that demonstrate your understanding of their unique needs and challenges
4. Personalizing the Community’s Experience
It is especially tempting in the tech world, especially for venture-backed, for-profit companies, to want to build the biggest community possible, but it’s important to differentiate between growing your user and follower base with creating a community. Some ideas:
- Create a weekly open “office hour” for community members to drop in to meet each other, get support, chat about the product roadmap, share ideas, or whatever else you think would be valuable for the community. Report back to the larger community what happened in the last office hour as a way of encouraging others to join future office hours
- Set up 1:1s with your earliest and most vocal supporters. Start with getting to know the ~20 most active members of your community on a personal basis, if you don’t already know them well. From there, someone (either the Community Architect or the Founders) should aim to get to know 10–20 additional community members on a personal basis every month. These gestures help personalize even the largest of communities
- Introduce a “cohort” system to maintain intimacy as the community grows. These cohorts should be ~5–20 members in size (no larger), and centered around a specific topic/theme. These could be designed as masterminds (e.g. “Sales Mastermind” or “Telling Your Founder Story” are recent masterminds I’ve helped curate) or accountability groups (e.g. “Career Transitioners” or “Writing Support Group” are small accountability groups I’ve started recently).
- Create opportunities for members meet each other and find their tribe within your community. You could host speed networking events before or after a larger community event such as a panel or webinar, leverage apps like Donut to automate introductions, or simply set an internal goal of making xx community introductions/month (this is where having a robust CRM helps).
5. Adding Value
It’s one thing to start a community, it’s another to nurture it so that it continues to be a valuable place for members to come to.
- Create as many moments for micro-connections to occur as possible (e.g. adding short and small breakouts to the agenda if planning a large virtual events). Ideally design these micro-connections as opportunities for members to learn from each other (e.g. an icebreaker could be to have members share their favourite podcast/book of the last year and what they learned from it that might have value for others)
- Model and encourage the sharing of resources that align with the purpose of the community and are within its boundaries. The best communities in this space are ones where members think of going first to share resources, ideas, and inspiration.
- Ensure the community is a safe space for members by modeling vulnerability and support, moderating discussions, replying positively to posts, and explicitly maintaining boundaries, norms, and expectations. There must be a clear outline of norms and expected behaviour, which includes a process for how to swiftly address any violations.
6. Having Clear Goal
Last but not least, your community cannot be for everyone. No matter what the goal of your community is, it is important that there is one. Even if it limits the potential size of your community, a clear goal gives the community purpose, helps define who should be in the community (and who shouldn’t).
A community without some barrier to entry, that is completely open to the public, will not feel like a community.
Members need to feel some commonality for the community to have any value. Whether that is a love for fitness (Peleton), being a new parent (Park Slope Parents), or a desire to start a new business (OnDeck), the best communities know they can’t be everything for everyone, and that’s ok!
You can still create a ton of value for both the members community and your business by having barriers to entry to your community.
Brooklyn based Start-Up Advisor, Impact Investor, Filmmaker, Writer, and Leadership Coach. I focus my time on the future of learning and the future of work.