How to build an online community
44 min read

There’s never been a more relevant time to learn how to build an online community. I’ve spent a lot of time building community over the last seven years. It started in 2012 when I began attending, organizing, and facilitating dozens of Startup Weekend events across the country.

People loved Startup Weekend – especially in the days before the Techstars acquisition. And yes, some notable companies like Zaarly, Beardbrand, and Zapier were started at a Startup Weekend…but people didn’t love Startup Weekend for the “companies” that were started there.

People loved Started Weekend for the community.

Startup Weekend Group Photo 2018

And I loved what it felt like to create that space for people. So I kept creating community: from organizing Startup Weekends in the early 2010s to throwing house concerts in 2014-2016.

Then in 2017, I started an online accelerator program, Unreal Collective. That program gave rise to its own online community and it’s my favorite place to spend time online.

And that all led to this year, when I was given the opportunity to work with Pat Flynn and the Smart Passive Income team to create their paid, online membership community, SPI Pro, using Circle (more about that on SPI episode 429).

I really studied how to build an online community with SPI Pro

This opportunity to build an online community from the ground up gave me the excuse to really study what it means to build community (both online and offline) and validate a lot of my own assumptions.

And tl;dr: I’m all in on Circle, and I’ll explain why below.

But before I can share all the lessons learned, we need to start from the beginning.

What is community?

Community means a lot of different things to different people. To me, community is a group of people with commonality – shared interests, values, or beliefs.

With Startup Weekend, we all shared an interest in technology, but we also shared values like ambition, kindness, and generosity too.

At any given Startup Weekend event, I knew I’d leave with some new, lifelong friendships. And the connection I felt with other people at a Startup Weekend is what made that community so special.

In fact, connection is what makes any community special.

I believe people are drawn to community for three core reasons:

  1. Human connection
  2. Transformation
  3. Finding a sense of identity

Let’s break each of those down.

Human connection

The experience of community goes back to the beginning of humans. We’re a social species and we relied on cooperation to survive.

Community was built into our lives when we lived in a tribal setting. Our community was the people we lived around day in and day out – the people we hunted and gathered with!

We felt that we belonged to that tribe. And there’s a lot of comfort in belonging.

As civilization evolved, humans became more socially isolated. Forget about living in tribes – we want to move out of our parents’ house and into our own studio apartments as quickly as we can!

But our brains haven’t actually evolved past that desire for close social connections – our lifestyle has. Our cultural expectations have.

And so we seek out that missing human, social connection elsewhere. We seek out that sense of belonging that we’re missing.

We seek out community.

Connection through shared experience

Often, one of the easiest ways to find connection is through shared experience. When we share an experience together, whether it’s a tailgate, an escape room, or starting at a new school, we start from a known commonality.

Commonalities give humans something to talk about and bond over. It’s that shared experience that starts conversation, creates a relationship, and ultimately makes us feel connected to one another.

Transformation

We also look to other humans to help us grow.

And when we’re looking to make a change, there are communities there to help.

A great example here is the Crossfit or any fitness-based community. When you join a fitness community, you’re seeking very tangible, physical transformation.

Physical transformations (gaining muscle, losing weight) are easy to recognize in ourselves. We seek out psychological and knowledge transformations too – though they may be a little little harder to recognize.

But when you join a coding bootcamp and leave being able to build a web app, you see the transformation.

Crossfit can teach us a lot about how to build an online community

A sense of identity

Most of us are in a constant battle to understand ourselves. With social media and comparison traps around us all the time, a lot of us have a hard time really knowing who we are and what we care about.

When you ask someone to introduce themselves, they’ll probably launch right into their work. “I’m [position] at [company].”

Our work shouldn’t define our identity – but it gives us something to tether ourselves to when we don’t have a better sense of who we are.

Community provides an alternative.

When someone joins a community, connects with others or experiences transformation, they learn something about themselves. They learn more about their own interests, and those interests may be stronger than their day-to-day work.

That’s why we see so many people identify with Crossfit or Yoga or even volunteering for a nonprofit.

Social movements like the Womens March can teach us a lot about how to build an online community

Finding identity in a movement

Sometimes, community offers us the opportunity to identify with an idea bigger than ourselves. These communities go beyond shared values and actually call their community members to action.

These communities become a movement. People join a movement because they want to see change, and every member of the community powering a movement has the same shared goal.

When we are part of a movement, we feel that same belonging and connection of other communities, but may even begin to identify with that movement.

And, of course, the best movements exist to create change (transformation) too.

So, any way you slice it, the most thriving communities help us find connection, facilitate transformation, or help us to better understand ourselves and our identity.

Building community in real life

We’ve been part of communities throughout our whole lives. Your graduating class, the clubs you joined in high school or college, your college dorm, local meetup groups…

Any group that you’ve belonged to through shared interests or shared experience is, on some level, a community.

A graduating class is a social cohort with a shared goal: complete your courses, graduate on time. You have the shared experience of joining that cohort at the same time, and you’re pursuing the same transformation: becoming a graduate.

Meetup groups are built around shared interests like painting, anime, yoga, or anything else. We go to these meetups because we feel like we belong there.

We’ve gotten really good at creating in person, analog communities – we’ve had all of evolutionary history to figure it out!

As long as we have a reason for gathering people into a common space, it’s easy to convey that reason and create a sense of belonging.

GiveBackHack Community

But analog community is much easier than digital community, because physical space creates discomfort. When we show up to a space and may not immediately recognize anyone, we’re filled with equal parts fear and excitement.

We’re afraid to be alone. We’re afraid that the group will decide that we don’t belong. But at the same time, we’re eager for connection.

And that discomfort creates a healthy tension that we often solve by walking up to someone, extending our hand, and saying, “Hi, I’m Jay.”

That’s the magic of physical space. If we show up, we will usually push through the discomfort of feeling like we don’t belong until we feel like we do.

After all, it’s equally embarrassing to walk right back out the door in front of everyone. People who we may see again in our local community!

And in great communities, existing members will notice anyone feeling that discomfort and welcome them in.

Why many online communities fail

On its face, it seems like it should be easy to translate analog communities into digital communities. And even better, because they’re digital, they can scale! You don’t need to be in the same city to connect over your shared love of Hamilton.

But, very quickly, most online communities fall flat.

The wrong motivation for building your online community

Many online communities are started purely for selfish reasons. The creator thinks of it as purely an effort to build their audience.

If I create a community, it will self-govern, people will invite others in, and my brand will be at the center of their universe.

When creators follow this logic – when the online community is built to serve the creator – it’s doomed from the start.

Community has to be about serving people. If you aren’t serving people – if people aren’t finding connection, transformation, or identity within the space – then it will fail.

And any community managers will tell you, fostering online community is a LOT of time and a LOT of work.

If you aren’t planning to dedicate a huge amount of time and resources from the beginning…if you believe that the community will be so emergent that it will self-govern and thrive from day one, you’re wasting your time.

Lack of intention in building your online community

In the analog world, if we have a reason for gathering and a space to gather in, the hardest part is just bringing people into that space.

Because as I shared before, the discomfort of feeling like an outsider in a physical space will propel us into connecting with people until we no longer feel like an outsider.

So in the world of online communities, we overestimate the power of the platform. Tools like Discord, Discourse, Slack, Mighty Networks, and Facebook Groups all promise to give you the ROOM to gather your online community.

So creators pick their favorite tool and create an account.

Sometimes the creators of these communities do a really good job of configuring that digital space with specific channels and spaces for specific causes too.

In theory, that’s great! Of course a thriving online community would utilize all of these specific spaces so that they could have even more confidence that this area is where they truly belong. This area is where they can find a specific transformation.

And then they send the email with an invitation: “Join our community!”

Poor onboarding for your online community

As invitations land in peoples’ inboxes, they begin joining.

To understand why this experience often falls flat, let’s go back to the real world for one second. Usually when we gather people into a physical space, it’s for a specific purpose and at a specific time.

Attendees arrived at a Startup Weekend between 5:00 and 6:00pm on Friday.

Yoga class starts at a specific time.

Meetups with speakers start at a designated time.

So when we plan to attend those events, we all show up around the same time. We literally begin those gatherings with the shared experience of arriving at the same time and then share the entire experience from beginning to end.

But most online communities are structured to be open and ongoing – and often with very little planned in terms of “experiences.” We think that the value of the online community is that it is asynchronous and 24/7.

Anyone can join at any time!

But without some element of timing, we take away a shared experience. And without shared experience, we take away one of our best methods for creating connection.

In the best cases, members find a conversation to add their voice to. When they do, they may even begin to feel comfortable with some of the names and faces they see within the space.

They might even feel brave enough to send a direct message!

If they make it through all those steps – steps they have to commit to and execute without any public pressure – they’ve gotten to the point of the first handshake within an in-person meetup.

Maybe.

But in most cases, we invite our audience to a room that either feels empty or overwhelming when they arrive. We invite them to a room where they feel that same fear and discomfort for being an outsider.

But in an online world, that tension doesn’t result in us extending our hand and saying, “Hi, I’m Jay.”

In an online world, that tension of feeling like an outsider results in exiting the window, probably to never return.

The wrong metrics

A lot of creators then worry about the wrong metrics for their online community. The number of members of a community is a total vanity metric.

If you’ve ever been part of a Slack channel with 20,000 members, you’ll realize how little member count has to do with a feeling of community.

But this is often the metric creators will hang their hat on: “Join our community of XX thousand members!”

Meanwhile, that community has about a dozen active members who are all sharing links to their own content.

Why creators should build an online community

But online creators have a huge opportunity for building an online community. By virtue of creating something specific – whatever the creator has made – they’ve also built a curated audience of people who have a particular interest.

And, as we know, shared interests can easily create connection.

Creating connection for your audience

Our world is more lonely and isolated than ever – while creators are scaling 1:1 relationships with their audience, they often unintentionally keep their audience siloed from one another.

If people are already coming to you for something, they’d probably be interested in both deepening their 1:1 relationship with you while also creating new 1:1 relationships with other like-minded people in your audience.

Better outcomes and transformation from your products

The dirty little secret in online education is that people often don’t complete the courses they enroll in. The figure is often quoted as “less than 20%” but I’ve read as low as 4%.

If someone purchases a product and does not finish it, they will not experience the transformation they bought the product for in the first place.

If they do not experience the outcome that led them to buy a product, they won’t feel good about the product. They won’t feel good about the creator. And they certainly won’t become a source of referrals.

But when you can connect people together who are going through a course at the same time, when you show that they are having a shared experience, they are much more likely to finish the course.

Not only will the accountability push them to finish the course, but they’ll experience transformation. They’ll be glad they made the purchase – for the community and for the outcome.

And happy customers refer new customers.

Seth Godin's altMBA community

Building a successful online community

In studying some of the communities that I consistently heard great things about, I’ve identified some of the key ingredients that lead to a strong online community.

  • Purpose
  • Intention
  • Culture
  • Curation
  • Connection
  • Engagement
  • Collaboration
  • Network Effects
  • Useful Metrics

We’re still in early innings for online communities, and so even the strongest online communities have space to grow. But the most successful tend to have a blend of some or all of those pieces.

Purpose

Successful communities are built around a uniting purpose. A mission and clear reason for the existence of your community.

If it’s a selfish purpose to benefit your company, brand, or organization, then you should start over.

Remember the reasons we seek community:

  • Connection and belonging
  • Transformation
  • A sense of identity

It isn’t enough to say the community exists to connect people together. Yes, one of the core benefits of a community is connection – but why do we need to be connected?

Why is this the right place for people to connect with each other? Why do we need a new community for people to connect to one another?

This should be the easiest question to answer for your online community. It should be rooted in a shared interest, experience, belief, etc.

Take a moment to put yourself in the member’s shoes. What can’t they find right now that your community provides?

Your online community’s value needs to be unique.

Remember: connection is a necessary part of creating a good community, but it’s not the only part. Many communities are formed for the purpose of creating change or transformation.

What does your community provide?

Intention

Once you’ve identified your purpose, you need a plan for delivering on that purpose.

We all want our communities to be emergent and self-driven. But that doesn’t often happen by accident – it happens through intention.

So before you even begin bringing people into the community, you should have a plan for how your community will achieve one or more of those pillars.

  • Can you help members achieve your purpose?
  • How can you help people feel that they belong? 
  • Can you provide tangible transformation?
  • Why would someone identify with your community?
  • How will someone learn more about themselves?

Start by picking one (or more) of those outcomes. Then, map out the member journey from finding your community to realizing that outcome.

The Unreal Collective community started as five people – the first five members of the accelerator program. It was easy to make them feel like they belonged, because I could literally have them all on one call to introduce them.

As the community grew, it grew slowly. Again, it was easy to make people feel welcomed and that they belonged, because it was easy to ensure that everyone was connected to each other.

This gets a lot more challenging at scale. And if you leave it up to chance, then your members may never come back after their initial visit.

Culture

Great communities have a unifying culture just as great companies have a known culture. This is a concept I learned from an interview between Pat and Kevin Fremon.

It was one of those “oh, duh” moments of clarity that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t articulated before.

Culture is really hard to describe, but we all have an intuitive sense of a culture. BambooHR describes culture this way:

Culture is the collective knowledge and achievements of a group, expressed by things like customs of behavior, art, music, food, religion, and language…it is a shared set of beliefs, values, attitudes, standards, purposes, and behaviors.

I also like to juxtapose culture with brand. They are really similar – but while “brand” is mostly conveyed to people outside of a company, community, or organization, “culture” is what is experienced within that company, community, or organization.

Just like brand, you can try to define your own culture…but, ultimately, your culture is defined the people who act on behalf of that culture and the experiences other people have with them.

In the startup world, there’s a theory that culture really emerges from the founders and early employees. I buy into that, and think the same is true for communities: the culture is created and maintained by the creators and early members.

An online community’s culture then evolves through three different stages.

Code of conduct

A community’s culture is ultimately defined by the words and actions of its members, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t start from a place of intention.

Good communities have an explicit code of conduct. That code of conduct makes clear the type of values held by the community, the behavior that is expected, the behavior that will not be tolerated, and the consequences of intolerable behavior.

That code of conduct is a signal. It is one of the first touch points of signaling to members whether or not this is a welcoming space for them.

The code of conduct is also a guide post – it should set the tone for the culture as well as a means for enforcing that culture.

Some communities really take this seriously – I’ve heard of a “heads on sticks” approach to breaking the rules within a community: if someone breaks a rule, they are removed and made a strong, public example of very quickly.

You can decide if that approach is right for your online community or not.

Indie Hackers Community Code of Conduct

Unspoken principles of behavior

When members opt into a community based on its purpose, principles, and the model set from early members, then emergent culture begins to form.

You should provide just enough structure to signal to your community that this is built for them, and create a space where the community can build upon the culture.

This can take a lot of forms, including the style of communication, the use of certain spaces, things that can and cannot be said…the community will begin to define for itself how to behave beyond the basic guidance of the code of conduct.

Some of these principles can be amended into the code of conduct itself, but often they’re learned through experience and knowledge transfer amongst the members.

Self-governance

Mature communities become so protective of their cultures that they begin to self-govern. There is always the need for the authority of an admin or moderator, but mature communities also create their own leaders.

Leaders don’t necessarily need to be named – in any context, a leader is someone that others follow. That means you can’t always appoint a leader, because ultimately the people decide who they follow.

In an online community, emergent leaders will often enforce both the spoken and unspoken principles of behavior. If and when necessary, they will escalate the need for action to administrators or community managers.

Curation

I am a very strong believer in creating welcome, inclusive spaces.

However, because communities are built around a specific, uniting purpose, each online community has a specific audience, too.

For communities that are built primarily around connection, their value is in their ability to attract a specific type of person.

So while we strive for welcome and inclusive spaces, strong communities are welcoming and inclusive for people who join for the same purpose.

This is one of the trickiest parts of running an online community, especially a community built primarily around connection. When members join because they are seeking exclusive access to a space, your value is dependent on delivering that exclusivity.

With more information and spaces available than ever before, there is value in curation. And a lot of strong communities are built on that (including the Dynamite Circle from Tropical MBA)

Tropical MBA Dynamite Circle Community

Connection

I’ve talked a lot at this point about online communities providing connection. But there are two forms of connection that can be equally important.

Direct connections between members

The biggest factor in creating a space where members feel connection lies in your ability to facilitate (and encourage) direct 1:1 connections.

Regardless of how big or small your online community is, if you cannot help members quickly create a 1:1 connection with another member quickly, they will not feel welcomed. They will not feel like they belong.

When a member feels connected to other members, they begin to feel at home in the space. They may even begin to feel some ownership and responsibility over the space.

If you want to really create a space people are excited to come back to time and time again, focus on creating 1:1 relationships within that space. When you are the bridge – the reason that a relationship exists – you’ll create a ton of affinity for your community.

Connection with the creator

While it’s important that creators don’t create community from a selfish place, creators with an existing audience can foster a feeling of connection to audience members directly.

In many communities, at least part of the draw is to deepen a relationship with the creator themselves. By providing more direct access to themselves, creators can create social connection and stronger affinity within their audience.

Engagement

Online communities are often referred to as “strong” online communities when there are high levels of engagement.

“Engagement” is becoming one of those buzzwords that lost its meaning from overuse. But generally, we’re looking for people taking action and using their voice.

One caveat: “engagement” will look different for different types of members. Within any online community, members may be looking for different things, and so they will engage differently.

Most engagement metrics are one-size-fits-all, and it’s difficult to tell if a user who isn’t “engaging” in the form of new posts is still finding value in the community.

But it’s very possible they are learning from the community or even building relationships outside of the public platform.

Let’s look at the forms of engagement that typically are available to measure.

Circle Community Engagement

Posts

One of the most common and obvious forms of engagement are new posts.

Depending on the platform you’re using, they may be referred to as “topics,” “messages,” or something else. But we’re talking about public ideas that other community members can see and interact with.

When you notice a regular stream of posts from members, it indicates a level of psychological safety they feel within the space. It also speaks to the culture being built by the community – if you create a culture of kindness and generosity in helping other members, you’ll see new posts pop up.

When the number of new posts is low, it may be because new members aren’t confident in using the tool, comfortable within the space, or optimistic they’ll find what they’re looking for.

Direct messaging

One of the best signals of engagement, which I believe is underrated, is direct messaging. Because we want to create spaces where 1:1 connections are created, the number of unique direct message conversations would be a fantastic metric to track.

This is one of my favorite parts about Slack, despite its massive flaws for supporting communities. Every week Slack tells the administrator the total number of messages in a space, and how many of them were direct messages.

In some spaces, the most impactful, in-depth conversations aren’t held in the comments sections of public topics, but in the privacy of direct messages.

Comments

Strong online communities are a place of give and take. They become a safe place to ask questions, ask for help, or share ideas…

When someone creates a new post within a community, they are making themselves vulnerable. They are getting through at least a small amount of fear and self-doubt when they click “publish.”

And when someone does create a new topic, their hope is that it will create connection through response.

It’s also a generous act to respond to a new post. It takes time, attention, and emotional energy to reach out and try to help someone else.

The best communities are places where people want to pay that forward and help others – and you see it through comments.

Collaboration

Great online communities are collaborative. Because they create 1:1 relationships within members, you often see members collaborate on new projects or ideas that may actually extend beyond the community itself.

Members also collaborate within the space – in small ways like commenting and helping one another, but also in larger ways like coordinating digital meetups.

And as an online community matures, the creators collaborate with members both to help govern the community as well as grow and improve the community.

Network effects

Strong online communities don’t need to market themselves much, because passionate members market it more effectively than the creators ever could.

If your community is rooted in a strong purpose, and is succeeding in that purpose, then the members will tell others about it.

Remember, a community with a compelling purpose is providing an outcome that people are having a hard time finding it otherwise.

So if you’re able to deliver through your community, it will grow quickly.

Patrick Shuff community feedback

Useful metrics for your online community

Lastly, strong online communities measure their success through useful metrics. I say “useful” because while there are many common metrics, a lot of them I consider vanity.

Some of these are easy to measure and others are much harder. I don’t think online community tools have really honed in on some of the most useful metrics that could be tracked.

Easy to measure

  • Daily active users (DAU)
  • Monthly active users (MAU)
  • Ratio of DAU to Total Users
  • Ratio of MAU to Total Users
  • Number of new posts and comments
  • Number of direct messages
  • New user accounts
  • User retention
  • User churn

Difficult to measure

  • Number of 1:1 relationships created
  • Number of unique 1:1 direct message conversations
  • Percentage of users who have made 2 or more posts (many will create an “intro” post and never post again)
  • Percentage of users who have left a comments
  • Posts per user (average)
  • Comments per user (average)
  • Time spent per user per session (average)
  • Number of successful uses of the search feature
  • Number of unsuccessful uses of the search feature

I’m sure there are several that I’m omitting here (and I’d love to know what they are) but let me make one thing clear: the number of members in your online community does not have any real bearing on the health and value of the community.

It’s possible to have a very large, highly engaged online community – but having a very large community does not mean that it is highly engaged.

Tools for building an online community

Now that we’ve explored what makes an online community successful, it’s finally time to talk about the tools themselves.

Remember that any software tool is just that – a tool.

It’s a digital facilitator for the online community, but it does not make a community successful. The ingredients above are what truly make an online community successful or not, and you should pair your purpose and goals to the platform that facilitates them the best.

I’ve spent a lot of time looking at each of the platforms below. And there are a lot of resources that can really walk through each in depth, so for the purposes of brevity, I’m going to touch on some of the high-level differentiators.

Keep in mind, I’ve generally been looking at them through the lens of a professional community – so my thoughts are a little biased with that lens.

Community with Facebook Groups

Facebook Groups

Facebook Groups are pretty new to me. I was more involved with them in the past, but I only recently got reintroduced by creating a Facebook Group for listeners of my podcast, Creative Elements.

It’s free, fast to create, easy to setup, and of course it lives on one of the largest websites on the planet.

The admin tooling has gotten much stronger over the years, which seems necessary given all of the potential spam Facebook Groups are subject to.

Facebook Groups are known to grow organically due to the scale of the platform. And because so many people spend so much time on the platform already, it can have very high levels of engagement.

But, there’s no escaping the fact that you’re asking members to spend time on one of the biggest platforms in the world built to waste time.

See Facebook Groups in action

Unreal Collective Slack Community

Slack

Slack has been my online community platform of choice for more than three years now – which is really saying something, since the company’s stated mission is “where work happens.”

In fact, I think Slack goes out of its way to make it a difficult place for community.

But I’ve liked Slack because it is a platform that is already in-workflow for members of my community (similar to Facebook) but is closer to work than lifestyle (which aligns with the purpose of my community).

Because it’s in-workflow, and the bar to sharing a message feels very low, engagement is easy to keep high.

But Slack has some major downfalls for community management. The pricing model is built for companies, and charges a fee per account – not at all affordable for nearly all communities.

And to stay on the free plan means the destruction of historical data, which limits the value of the platform. There is very little institutional knowledge, and it’s getting replaced every day.

The nature of Slack is very synchronous or chat-based; so if you aren’t in Slack, it’s hard to keep up (or catch up). Because of that, there are real size limitations on how many members can truly feel connected to the space and the conversations happening within it.

Learn more about Slack

Discord for online community

Discord

Discord has become an increasingly popular community platform, especially within the gaming and tech communities.

From a UI perspective, it has a similar look and feel to Slack. It’s chat-based, which brings up the same pros and cons to Slack as well.

Because the platform has such a history in the gaming community, it can be a great option if that matches your community. If it doesn’t, it may be hard to get people to download and use for the first time.

Discord profiles may also be anonymous, which can present its own challenges of creating personal connection on the platform.

I’m genuinely curious to learn more and hear how others use Discord, so if you use it and love it, please comment below.

Learn more about Discord

Telegram for online community

Telegram

Telegram has been a recent trend for some communities, but they are generally very small. It’s a messaging app with security and privacy at its core, but it has real scale issues if your community has any size at all.

If you’ve used WeChat, WhatsApp, or GroupMe, or even an iOS group message, you can already see the drawbacks of trying to build community into Telegram.

It supports up to 200K members, but with one channel of chat-based communication, it can quickly become a nuisance or impossible to catch up.

Learn more about Telegram

Mighty Networks

Mighty Networks has a really compelling value proposition. It was built specifically for communities (finally!), but has since transitioned to marketing itself as a “website builder.”

In any case, it has a ton of functionality that you’d want as a creator, including:

  • Website builder
  • Online courses
  • Memberships
  • Subscriptions
  • Community

…all accessible online and through a mobile app. They have a free plan, a community plan for $28/mo, and a Business plan for $98/mo.

If you’re willing to pay for their Pro plan (which doesn’t have public pricing), you can even have the app white-labeled to your brand.

I have a lot of respect for this product and think it can be a really powerful all-in-one tool for creators. But as I’ll share in a minute, I just haven’t found a Mighty Networks community that has been sticky for me.

With so much functionality under the hood, it’s important to really help users get the hang of how to use it, so they don’t feel overwhelmed.

See Mighty Networks in action

Reddit for online community

Reddit

This list wouldn’t be complete without Reddit, another free option using one of the largest social platforms on the planet. Subreddits are famous for being great communities that people love, and culture is one of the big reasons why.

Each individual subreddit has its own culture and feel, and redditors are notorious for being strong enforcers of that culture.

But Reddit is anonymous, and it’s difficult to build a branded community on the platform. It also really only has one feed for sharing new topics, which makes it a little more difficult to create a community that may span multiple interests.

But, in full disclosure, I don’t spend much time on Reddit. So I may be missing some of the opportunity here.

See Reddit in action

Seth Godin's Forward Link Online Community

Discourse

Discourse is one of the most popular discussion forums on the internet today. It’s highly functional, and can be a really great tool for managing a large online community (or knowledge base).

The information within Discourse is pretty easy to navigate, and it’s built for communities, so it is intended to be searchable, too. One of my favorite parts of Discourse is that it will suggest existing topics when you’re making a new post, in case that conversation is already happening (or happened).

I’m part of Seth Godin’s Forward Link community (alumni of his programs), which really stretches Discourse to its limits. I’ve seen what Discourse can do.

But Discourse isn’t the most modern or native-feeling experience. It’s out of workflow, so it really requires you to remember to jump back in to stay involved. It feels dated, it’s not very engaging, but it’s a great place to have and organize conversations.

Discourse has a free trial, but their lowest membership tier comes in at $100/mo.

See Discourse in action

Tribe online communities

Tribe

I was really excited about Tribe when I first found it. It’s another forum tool (shown above used by ConvertKit), and it seemed to have much of the benefits of Discourse, but in a more modern and engaging design.

Even better, the platform has a really generous free plan. So you can get started for free and even customize the space to be in your brand on your domain.

I used Tribe for the first version of the Freelancing School community.

But I quickly realized that a key part of that community was going to be onboarding, and that I wanted to use email to do it. And while Tribe provides access to the email addresses of members through a .csv export, it doesn’t have a built in integration with email service providers.

This wouldn’t be an issue if you use their Zapier integration, but it was considered a Premium App. And to use a Premium App, you must be on the Premium pricing plan ($249/mo).

Since I left the platform, they’ve launched a new Plus pricing membership at $99/mo which includes access to Zapier.

See Tribe in action

Creating online community with Circle

Circle

Just as I was considering moving my communities over to Mighty Networks, Circle came into my life.

Circle immediately caught my attention from their positioning statement:

The modern community platform for creators.

And lower down on the page:

It all started with creators. We spoke to dozens of bloggers, podcasters, indie app makers, course creators, and more, who gave us insights into the DNA of creator communities. ‍ What we learned was that communities were at the heart of most creators, but they lacked the right tools to take them to the next level. So, we built Circle — a community platform that integrates with your existing creator stack and helps you create super fans for life. 

It was obvious that this platform was speaking my language.

So I signed up for a demo and beta access to the product. Andy Guttormsen, the co-founder, walked me through the product and I was immediately bought in.

Seriously, I signed up on the spot.

While Circle may appear to be a forum like Discourse or Tribe, it goes much further than that.

See Circle in action

Why I’m all in on Circle for online community

Before I was an independent creator, I worked at startups. I built a digital ticket marketplace that was acquired in 2015, and then spent time as a product manager.

I took Seth Godin’s altMBA, which combined the use of Slack, WordPress, Zoom, and Discourse. Putting those platforms together served all the needs of the program…but it was a really fragile and challenging user experience.

But people still rave about altMBA, and specifically about the community aspects of the program. It was obvious to me that the future of online education will incorporate elements of community, and that there would need to be a new tool to facilitate it.

I called other creators to ask if they were aware of better platforms and was pointed towards platforms like Spectrum and Mighty Networks. As a user, I tried Spectrum, I tried Mighty Networks, and despite seemingly having all of the functionality I would want, I didn’t like using them.

In hindsight, I realize that I didn’t feel like I was connected to other members of any of the spaces that I tried. And so I didn’t feel any belonging.

I was so frustrated with the community platforms available in 2017, that I pulled together a couple of the smartest engineers and product designers that I knew to spend the day trying to nail down what would take to make a better community platform than Slack, Facebook Groups, and all of the above.

Tribes notes for online community

But I couldn’t think of a better solution – it felt like we had to choose between being forum-first, or chat-first. Ultimately, I tabled the project.

When Andy showed me a demo of Circle, I knew they were cracking the code.

First and foremost, Circle is built to be a community tool for creators.

At the core of what I love about Circle is fantastic product design. It’s beautiful and simple, combining the familiarity of a Facebook Group feed with the functionality of a Discourse forum.

It wasn’t overwhelming, but it was also highly configurable.

Before I dive into the features I love about Circle, I want to talk quickly about the team.

The Circle team

One of the biggest reasons I believe in Circle is the team behind it. The three cofounders, Sid Yadav, Andrew Guttormsen, and Rudy Santino are an excellent crew.

Sid, the CEO, was the third hire at Teachable and served as VP of Product before he left to start Circle.

Andy led Growth at Teachable as well. All three of them understand what creators need – they’d been serving creators for years already. And they realized that creators needed a modern tool to create community for their customers and audience.

Not only do they know what creators need, but they constantly welcome and act on feedback from their customers. Over the last few months when I’ve been helping with SPI Pro and my own Circle community, Freelancing School, the team has taken several pieces of my feedback and updated the platform to support it.

They use their own product as a place for sharing updates on the product and collecting feedback. They made their upcoming product roadmap public and they move very quickly through that roadmap.

Their support team (shoutout to Keisha) has been superb. And their team of advisors including Pat Flynn and Matt Gartland from the SPI team are phenomenal.

Circle early adopters

If you’re building a modern community platform for creators, you’d be hard pressed to find more modern creators than some of the early customers of Circle.

Before their public launch, Circle got creators on their beta platform including:

…and a lot more.

If these creators, who are each putting their own reputation at risk with their audience, are willing to join a beta platform and speak very highly of it…that says a lot about product-market fit.

Create an online community with Circle

Circle fits a ton of use cases

We know that Circle is built for creators, but “creator” is a very flexible term. Creators are inherently, well, creative. And creative people want to do things their way (which is often very different from the way other people do it).

Circle communities can be free, paid, or even a blend of both.

The SPI Pro community is a totally paid community that’s application-only. The Makerpad community is free with private spaces for paid members.

My Freelancing School community is free with private spaces for course students.

But Circle can even be embedded within your own web pages. You can use Circle as an embedded forum within your own infrastructure.

So the way you can use Circle is intentionally flexible and can fit a lot of use cases. But there are a few obvious ones worth highlighting.

Membership sites

This is the core of what you can do with Circle. It’s built for online community, but that can be translated very easily into membership sites as well.

Circle is perfect for coaching clients, group coaching, mentorship, and masterminds.

Course creators

Circle is an incredible tool for helping course creators support their students. Remember, a good course creator wants the student to finish the course and be successful.

Through public accountability and a scalable means of asking questions, Circle stands out as a fantastic addition (even premium selling point) to a course creator’s strategy.

Creators with audiences

For creators who already have an audience, whether it’s a newsletter, blog, podcast, or YouTube channel, Circle is a plug and play solution for creating a structured space for your audience to connect more personally with you and with each other.

Customers or product users

For years we’ve seen companies and organizations use forum tools as a means for collecting user feedback and providing support.

Not only does Circle fit that use case really well, but because of the design and native feel of the platform, it can also be a great way to build an online community amongst your customers or users at the same time.

Circle basics

If you really want to dive into Circle, you can sign up for a demo here. But while you’re here, I’ll cover some of the basics.

White-labeling and customization

Two of the best aspects of Circle are the level of customization possible all while being white-labeled to YOUR brand.

Circle lets you choose your colors, add your logo, and use your own custom subdomain so that the experience on the platform feels native to your brand and your products.

Customize your account with Circle

User Accounts

User accounts live within Circle. If you make the community public, anyone can create an account with your community and get started right away. If your online community is private, you can either invite members in personally or use an integration.

It’s important to note that Circle does not collect payments for your memberships. If you are using a private or paid membership, Circle supports the community aspect, but you’ll need to process user payments on your own.

But it’s easy to integrate with tools like Zapier to automatically invite users in once they’ve completed whatever criteria you have for membership. Circle even supports SSO.

Once they join or are invited to create an account, they can add a photo, headline, bio, social links, and email address to their overall profile.

You can create specific Tags for members too to organize or recognize them in certain ways. Freelancing School course students get a special “Student” tag that is visible on their public profile.

Circle user accounts

Spaces

Conversations happen within “Spaces” in Circle. Think of these like “channels” if you’re accustomed to Slack. Posts within these spaces are called “Topics.” These spaces are some of the most customizable parts of the platform.

You can decide if:

  • The space is public or private
  • New topics should have a title or not
  • Members can create new topics
  • Members can comment or even like on topics
  • Topics are displayed in “Post,” “List,” or “Card” view
  • The way topics are ordered
  • You’d like to pin topics to the top or to the sidebar

…and that’s just a start. You can use the same settings for all spaces, or create unique rules for unique spaces – an “Announcement” space may not allow the creation of member topics. A Resources space may use Card view.

It’s all really up to you.

Creating spaces in Circle

Space Groups

A Space Group is a named group of spaces. Obvious, right?

But Space Groups have their own rules for configuration too – you may want members to be able to create spaces themselves. You may want that Space Group visible to some members, but not others.

You can even assign moderators to Space Groups.

Notifications and their settings

For each space, you can define what type of notifications members receive, both over email and in-app. It’s highly configurable, but also easier to change than Slack.

Members can easily configure their notification settings too in one simple place within their profile.

Besides email notifications of activity, Circle also creates a weekly email digest of activity that is sent to members on your behalf. It includes new topics, new members, popular comments, and more.

And it too is easily turned on and off for members if they’d like.

Notifications within Circle

Searchability

I’m very bullish on the search functionality of Circle. As communities grow and mature, questions get asked that have already been answered.

Circle has a search function right at the top of the page that can quickly match keywords in past topics or comments.

Real time messaging

Circle allows for direct messaging on the platform, which is truly a core feature in my opinion. With so much forum-like functionality, it’s important that members feel as if they can connect to one another in real time on the platform, and Direct Messaging makes that possible.

It’s easy to initiate a message from someone’s profile, but right now, Direct Messaging lives on sort of an isolated page. It also only currently supports 1:1 messaging.

But I’m optimistic that this experience will feel more fluid and accessible in the future, as well as support group messaging.

Direct Messaging with Circle

Take a tour yourself

I wanted to make it easy for new members to get to know how to use Circle, so I created a short virtual tour. Watch for yourself and see how Circle works for members.

How I use Circle

I was so proud of and happy with the work we did to build a stellar online community for SPI Pro that I needed to start using Circle for my own communities, too.

So I created an online community for Freelancing School, my platform for helping people earn an income as a freelancer.

I built the Freelancing School community to be a free resource for freelancers to find real-time support, guidance, and job opportunities.

Providing free support

I want to make as much of my content and information free as possible. So I looked at the community as a tool that I could offer my audience for free too.

By making the community free, I can support more freelancers over time while I write articles and create larger pieces of content. It lives on the Freelancing School domain, so it builds brand affinity and creates more content to be indexed by search engines.

Supporting freelancers with Circle

Top of the funnel

With membership to the community being free, it exposes more of my target audience to the brand and introduces them to the different content and products that I offer.

The community may serve as the first touch point someone has on their way to becoming a customer one day.

Knowledge base

It’s very early days, but the questions asked within the community become a growing resource and knowledge base for freelancers in the future. It also gives me a direct line of communication into my audience’s core needs and pain points.

Get started with Circle

Remember that Circle is a brand new platform. Like any new platform, it has a learning curve – especially given the intentional amount of customization possible.

But having tried so many platforms like Slack, Facebook Groups, Discourse, and Mighty Networks, I couldn’t be more confident in saying that Circle is the community platform I’m going all in on.

Spend some time implementing it for your community using the guidance of this article – remember that building an online community is about MUCH MORE than just the tool you use.

Circle is a tool – the tool alone won’t make your online community successful. But it’s the best tool that I’ve found.

Click here to get started with Circle. That’s an affiliate link, so if this article was helpful, that’s the best way to say thank you!

Thanks for reading! Share this article with someone you think needs to read it, and let me know on Twitter @jayclouse.