All too often learning businesses focus solely on traditional educational offerings. But, by narrowly focusing on courses and conferences, learning businesses miss an opportunity to better understand their learners’ needs and to deliver more value.
One of the best ways to understand those needs and to provide additional value is through a learning community.
In this episode, we explore the concept of community, including what one is (and isn’t), the value one can offer, how to create or reinvigorate one, and approaches to pricing.
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[00:00] – Intro
[00:48] – It can be easy for learning businesses to focus on traditional offerings like courses and conferences. But there problems with that narrow focus:
- There’s more competition than ever on the content side. Learners have more choices than ever about where to go to find information and a course.
- People don’t always know what they don’t know, so sometimes they can’t identify appropriate content. But if they can see that your learning business focuses on their field, profession, or industry and that you can connect them with others, that signals that you can help them get savvier and smarter even if they don’t yet know what specific topics and knowledge they need.
- They’re likely to move on after completing a course if you don’t have a way to provide ongoing connection and value. A learning community can be a way to provide that continued connection and value.
[02:19] – To define community, we’ll start with what it isn’t.
Community isn’t simply having members.
Community isn’t just having discussion forums or listservs.
Community isn’t having followers on social media.
Community isn’t having a good e-mail list, even one with a great open rate and great click rates.
All of these can be part of what goes into building a vibrant community, but they, in and of themselves, are not community.
Community isn’t usually centralized, not even a two-way street. It’s really all sorts of one-to-one connections…different learners going to different learners, and it’s much more of a network rather than that broadcast and central hub sort of design.Celisa Steele
To talk about what community is, let’s use a definition from Merriam-Webster, which describes community as being a “unified body of individuals.” There are multiple sub-definitions, which get into what it is that unifies that body of individuals. It could be shared geography, shared identity, shared interest, or a shared profession.
Communities need a unifying element, a thing that everybody is focused on.
A community needs to be more than transactional. Membership organizations sometimes talk about people who are “checkbook members,” people who write a check every year so they can be on the membership roster. But these people aren’t actually participating in a community.
In a real community, people feel it and know they’re a part. There’s an emotional connection and a sense of fellowship.
We want to focus on one specific kind of community: a learning community. In a learning community, one of the things that unite the individuals in that community is the desire to learn and to help others learn.
Why Learning Communities Are Valuable to Learning Businesses
[06:38] – There are multiple reasons learning businesses should try to build and grow a vibrant community. Here are a few of the ways they can provide high value:
- Communities are hard to replicate. If you have a strong community with a unifying principle, people feel an emotional attachment to it. It’s gone way beyond the transactional to being about relationships in that community, which is very hard for anybody else to replicate. So a community can be a huge strategic differentiator.
- Learning communities tap into the human need for connection and interaction with others. We’ve talked recent on the podcast about the fact that the pandemic heightened our desire for social connection. But this hunger for social connection has been since before COVID. If you can provide a learning community, that’s going to help satisfy an innate desire that all humans have.
- If you’re leveraging community effectively, you’re tapping into an effective way to support learning. We talk a lot about learning not being an event.
In a community, you can put mechanisms in place that support accountability. Sometimes community members will do this for themselves, but a learning business can also build it into a community. Accountability can be a significant help in making sure that learners apply what they’ve learned to life or work.
Community is also a cheap form of personalization. You don’t have to have artificial intelligence because you have people supporting each other and getting and giving feedback through the interaction that naturally occurs in human community.
Learning is a process. It happens over time. It requires engagement and reengagement, repeatedly. And if you have a community where people can come in and get the support that they need at the times that they need it, where they’re going to be reminded of what their goals were and what they were trying to achieve, where they’re going to be able to get answers to questions, that’s going to support that learning on an ongoing basis and support learning as a process.Jeff Cobb
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- A community can fit nicely with the demands and realities of modern life and work. Again, COVID ramped up the upheaval, but we’ve been in a time of upheaval even before the pandemic. We’re living longer and changing jobs and careers more often. That means it’s much harder to know what we need to know. Even if we can figure out what we need to know, it can still be hard to find very specific content.
This brings to mind our recent conversation with Jen Lewi of School Nutrition Association (SNA). During COVID, SNAD had to stop what they’d been doing and pivot. SNA turned to its community and listened to their members to learn what was most important and helpful to them.
- A community can provide invaluable market insight. You can use that insight to improve existing courses, events, and other products and to create new products and services. You can also use the insight to help improve the community itself.
Jeff’s book Leading the Learning Revolution mentions the example of Ned Campbell (at the Florida Institute of CPAs at that time), who had success by tuning into what getting traction and interest on the listservs.
Seth Godin says, “It’s harder to find people for your products than products for your people.” You don’t want to build it and hope learners come. It’s much better if they’ve come first, you hear what they have to say, and then you build something for them. And communities can be very powerful for the kind of market insight that will tell you what to build.
How to Create or Reinvigorate a Learning Community
[17:50] – Many learning businesses, especially those embedded in trade and professional associations, have discussion forums already. Your organization may think it already has a learning community. But do you really? Again, having members, listservs, or discussion forums alone are not going to make a community.
One of the key characteristics of a true community is intentionality. You, as a learning business, need to be clear internally and with those in the community about why this community exists. That is you need to be clear on the community’s identity.
You’ll need to balance being broad enough to appeal to a critical mass with being specific enough for individuals to believe that your community offers something unique and valuable. Your intentionality will be reflected in the community’s identity.
The tension between being broad enough to reach a critical volume of people to participate in a community and being specific enough to get them engaged lies at the heart of many of the challenges that people creating communities face.
Think about the segments in your community, the sub-communities, that you may need. Consider a few things:
- Where is the specificity that’s going to drive demand and pull people deeper into the community?
- What can you reasonably support?
- What can you provide value around?
All of this boils down to relevance. How are you being as relevant as possible for your community members?
We know that relevance is just fundamental. It’s so important for adult learners in general. It’s one of those core principles of andragogy that Malcolm Knowles pointed to. And that relevance applies to communities in spades.Jeff Cobb
It can require a certain amount of trial and error to learn what’s truly relevant to your audience broadly and what’s going to be relevant more narrowly with specific sub-groups of your audience.
Relevance is not one-and-done—it takes repetition. You have to continually engage, listen, watch, and respond. It takes repeated exposure for the people in the community to realize that you have relevant content and resources. You need to continually put what you have in front of them.
[22:28] – Facilitation is another important aspect of community. You can’t simply put content out and expect people to come. You have to highlight different pieces of content and the value that you’re providing in the community.
On top of that, you also need to connect specific people with specific content.
Hopefully, you have facilitators who know something about the people who in the community and can help point them to what they’re going to value and what they need that exists in the community. Also, hopefully, you’re going to connect individuals with one another.
Facilitation is not one-and-done. You can’t do it once and have it too rote. We’re going to post a question every day and just expect that to suffice as facilitation. It really is going to have to be much more natural and customized and personalized to that community, so that you really are helping people to notice and take advantage of the value that exists in the community and then to add to that value that exists in the community.Celisa Steele
In The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes about different types of people, connectors being one type. You need good connectors in your community who help individuals develop relationships that are deeper than what they had when they entered the community.
Also keep in mind that you’ll usually find relevant, valuable content that you highlight for the community in the community itself. You can highlight individuals’ successes and point out questions they’re asking. In general, content about the community is valuable content.
Check out our related episode “The Indispensable Community with Richard Millington.”
Facilitators should reward the behavior that you want. When individuals in your community post and share and connect with others, use your spotlight to point out those behaviors so that you can get others in the community to act similarly.
The goal is an organic community. Up front, you’ll probably have to provide a lot of facilitation and content. But you want to get to a self-sustaining community where most of the resources to keep it going exist in the community.
The Revenue Question and Business Models
[25:32] – A natural question is whether you should charge for your community.
It depends on your mission as an organization and what your goals are for the learning community itself. There are multiple ways to charge:
- Bake the cost of the community into something you already offer. In the case of membership organizations, access to the community could be part of what membership gets you.
- Bundle access to the community with some another product. For example, learners might purchase a three-month-long course and, with it, get access to a community of peers.
- Charge directly and separately. Being in the community costs individuals a certain amount for a certain period of time.
The “bundling with a course” option points out that a community doesn’t necessarily have to last forever. There can be short-term communities that are powerful and serve a time-limited purpose. Everything we’ve mentioned about relevance, connection, facilitation, and identity still applies.
The community could be a free offering that you treat as part of your content marketing. You let anyone into the community who fits whatever criteria you establish. Hopefully, they’ll see the value and expertise that you and others in the community have and, when they need education, they’ll look to you.
It may be that you start the community as a free offering and then convert into a paid community. If you already have a community now and don’t charge directly for it, that’s something you may want to consider. It can be a difficult transition to make, but we’ve seen groups make it.
When people pay something to be a part of a community, they tend to be more invested and engaged.
We believe in charging appropriately for the value you create. If you create a significant amount of value through your community, make sure that’s showing up somewhere in the streams of revenue for your learning business.
[29:44] – Wrap-up
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