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How 3 successful brands run their online communities (Creator Corner recap)

We asked three successful brands to share their best tips for building an online community. Here’s what you need to know to start one of your own.

Online communities come in all shapes and sizes. They are an excellent way for creators to educate, connect, and even earn recurring income.

But what's involved in actually building an online community ?

We sat down with four thriving creators representing three brands that all run standout online communities to talk about the ins and outs — including how to create engaging content, attract new members, and make your community shine.

Want to watch for yourself? A replay of this interview is available in our free Podia Creator Community.

Without further adieu, it’s time to meet the creators.

Meet the creators

Casey Richardson is the founder of Blaze Knowledge Academy . She provides courses and resources to help Black female entrepreneurs build amazing online businesses, and she also runs a powerful online community where her audience can connect.

Emily Mills is the creator of Sketchnote Academy , where she offers online courses , coaching , and workshops for sketchnote artists. She recently launched an online community where her followers can learn, get feedback, and collaborate in real-time.

Jill and Jeffrey Dalton run the Whole Food Plant Based Cooking Show , a YouTube cooking channel featuring healthy plant-based recipes. The show is crowdfunded through their online community, and they also offer courses, meal plans, and cookbooks.

These creators all run unique businesses with successful online communities that serve their audience.

Let’s take a look at their best tips for how you can build a strong community too.

How did these creators’ communities get thousands of members?

Starting an online community can feel intimidating, but luckily, there are many ways to get off the ground.

Casey started her community, the Blaze Women’s Network , about a year ago. Since then, it has grown to over 1,000 members. Initially, she ran the group on Facebook , but she didn’t like how customers had to log in to different places to access their courses and products.

When Podia launched the community feature, she took the plunge and migrated her online community.

Now, it’s easier for Casey to promote her online courses and memberships all in one place.

“I use the community as a lead magnet into all of my courses,” Casey explains.

“People can join the Blaze Women’s Network absolutely free…. We do virtual coworking sessions, I host webinars , and then that funnels people into the paid courses which are live cohorts for about six weeks, as well as self-paced cohorts.”

In addition to introducing customers to helpful products, Casey’s community gives members a friendly and supportive place to connect with other founders.

When Emily launched the Sketchnote Academy Community a few months ago, her initial plan was to create a paid program. But when she launched to her email list, it didn’t stick. So she pivoted.

“[The paid launch] was kind of like a test, just to see if it resonated with people,” Emily shares.

“Ultimately, I decided that a paid community is not going to work for my people. I decided to just make it a hundred percent free, and the community has grown since then.… I want the community to be a place where you can ask for help, make a friend, share your work, and get feedback.”

Through her brand community , Emily offers personalized support. She also promotes upcoming workshops and events to an engaged audience.

Jill and Jeffrey started their YouTube channel seven years ago. It began as a passion project to share their healthy lifestyle with others.

According to Jeffrey, at that time, “There was just very little content around [whole food plant-based eating] online, so we were making content based on what we were actually cooking at home ourselves. For about three years, it was very small traffic.”

“We had some really positive feedback from people, but it was just a service project, and we were trying to share what we were learning.”

Over time, they realized that social media algorithms were limiting their reach, so they wanted a place where they could notify followers of new videos.

“With social media platforms, you can’t directly communicate with your audience,” Jeffrey explains.

“You put up a YouTube video, but it doesn’t necessarily go to everyone…. We’d have 10,000 subscribers, and we’d put up the video, and there’d be four or five hundred views…. Then we went to a YouTube seminar, and [we learned] that notifications go out in batches. They may only notify a few thousand people, no matter how many subscribers you have.

So we started looking for a platform. We tried Patreon , but they wouldn’t allow free members. And we wanted everyone in one place.”

Now Jill and Jeffrey use Podia to offer free and paid community plans and sell their digital products.

Their community has grown to over 15,000 members, and their paying members have allowed them to run their cooking show full time.

At the end of the day, online communities have countless origin stories. Next, we’ll look at how to fill them with exceptional content.

Summits? Webinars? Discussions? What’s the best content to engage a community?

After launching, you’ll need to create engaging community content to keep conversations moving.

Casey does this through event-driven prompts. Her brand runs virtual summits throughout the year, and participants are encouraged to discuss what they’ve learned within the community.

For example, one semi-annual summit brought in 900 registrants, and each person attended eight sessions on average. In her community, Casey scheduled daily reflection posts and prompts that corresponded with the summit sessions.

“[We] ask people what the most impactful session was and why. At the top of the day, [we asked] people to set their intentions and what they plan to gain,” Casey explains.

“Everyone gets an alert when other people post because I make a new membership for each big summit so that they’re in a huge cohort of their own.

It really sparks conversation without me having to do work. While I’m running the summit, I’ve already scheduled the posts, and people develop horizontal relationships because the space was curated.”

Casey also has an active introductions thread.

“People come back even after they introduce themselves just to figure out who else might be in their niche or their industry. I serve founders … and [the introductions section] helps them to expand their network.”

In the Podia Creator Community, we also have a lively introduction thread. Creating one for your own community could be a great place to encourage engagement.

Additionally, Casey offers live office hours once a week for anyone who has bought a product. She uses this time to get feedback and provide customer support.

“It’s a great opportunity to just hear how things are going and learn what [your audience] wants. They appreciate it a lot,” Casey elaborates.

Likewise, Jill and Jeffrey use their community to get feedback on upcoming projects.

They have a space where members can vote on the design of their next cookbook and decide what content they should create next.

“I have an idea wall where I keep everything I’m working on … and recipes I’m interested in,” Jill elaborates. “I take a picture, and I [ask members] to vote. What do you want me to work on next?”

Jill and Jeffrey also increase engagement through community-exclusive contests and giveaways.

In Emily’s community, sketchnote students can share work, get advice, and ask for help. Emily also runs group courses through her community.

“I have cohort-based programs,” she shares, “and I have a private topic for those cohort groups so that they can get to know each other and feel like they’re going to a private class together.”

Like Casey, Emily includes real-time collaboration through live monthly hangouts. People can come and go as they please, ask questions, and draw together.

Emily also has a section dedicated to brand announcements.

“If people aren’t subscribing to my email, at least they can get the updates in the Podia community. What’s launching soon? What workshops are coming up? … The information’s out there in a really accessible place where they already are,” Emily explains.

Finally, Emily uses her community to get input from her audience. Members can vote on upcoming workshop topics and activities through surveys and discussion threads.

Across the board, creating interactive experiences for your members makes your space memorable and exciting.

How did each creator attract new members? These are their top tips

So you’ve got a fun content plan for your online community, but how do you attract new members ?

Casey uses links on her social media channels and a unique method called shortcode funneling.

If she meets someone who wants to join the community, they can simply text a code to a special phone number and automatically receive the link to sign up.

Whether she’s at a speaking engagement, on a podcast, or interacting with her target audience in person, Casey can bring people together through this streamlined signup process.

If you’re interested in trying this for your community, the tool she uses is called Twilio .

Emily used her email list to encourage new signups.

“I did a private launch to my email list first because I consider email subscribers to be my biggest fans. They put skin in the game by giving me their email address and trusting me … so I wanted to launch to them first,” Emily elaborates.

For Emily, email was the best fit for her audience since she wanted her initial member pool to contain her most interested audience members.

Jill and Jeffrey use their large YouTube following to reach new members. At the time they launched their community, they had around 100,000 subscribers.

On their channel, they created a dedicated video announcing their new community.

“We made a video and were very transparent,” they explained.

“We did a bunch of research and showed [how much money] YouTubers make. We talked about what we made from the show. We showed that it’s not sustainable for most creators, especially on platforms like YouTube.”

They told their followers they were at a turning point. They set up the community so subscribers could support their work and get updated directly when new videos were released. Many supporters joined.

Today, they highlight their community in each new YouTube video.

“We made a commercial [that we put in our videos], and it talks about our community and how our show is crowdfunded. That has been tremendous. That’s probably the biggest driver.”

Simply put, the best way to attract new members is to think about where your ideal community members spend time and meet them there.

The 5 most important elements of a good community

When asked what elements make communities great, our guests agreed that authenticity, consistency, content quality, safety, and audience feedback are non-negotiable.

1. Authenticity

Authenticity is at the heart of every successful online community.

“If you’re not going to be authentic [in your online community], that probably won’t work out for you because people can sense if you’re not being real with them,” Emily explains.

The focus of your community should always be helping people and providing value first and foremost.

2. Consistency

A regular posting schedule shows your members what to expect. It keeps your community active and prevents people from losing interest.

Jill uses a great system for staying consistent.

“I put out the vote during the first week of the month, and the giveaway is always on the third week of the month. Then our posts are every Saturday. So when [members] see a notification that there’s something new … they pretty much know what it’s going to be.”

Our advice? Create a calendar of post ideas to keep things fresh. If you build your community with Podia, post scheduling is built-in, making it a breeze to plan your content.

3. Content quality

While you don’t need a professional setup from day one, it’s important to produce the best quality content you can.

“We got into a rhythm of one show a week and then some supporting stuff around it, but we really put everything into it,” Jeffrey explains.

“We consider it our art project, and it’s polished. It’s the best that we’re capable of … I feel like people really respond to something well-made, even if it’s homemade. It’s just us. It’s not produced. But I think people definitely get a sense that we’re really working at this. We’re trying to make something.”

Putting genuine effort into your community won’t go unnoticed.

4. Safety

The internet is chaotic, but you can control what happens in your online community. Curate a space that feels safe and peaceful for members.

When comparing online communities to social media platforms, Jill emphasizes that social media can get noisy.

“There’s a lot of distraction [on social media]. Now we can just send [our audience] to Podia and do our important things there.… We control who’s in there. We control how the commenting happens and how the interactions happen. And I feel like that’s just a nicer experience.”

Keeping your community on track is easy with Podia’s built-in moderation tools.

Ultimately, ensuring your audience has a safe place to interact can feel like a breath of fresh air.

5. Audience feedback

Within your online community, you have an amazing opportunity to learn from your biggest fans. Use this insider intel to improve your business.

For Casey, it’s essential to build a creator-audience feedback loop.

“It’s not about what we want [our audience] to have or what we think they should have. It’s about what they want.… Find ways to source feedback, thank the people that have given it, and try different things. If something doesn’t work, switch and pivot.”

Casey explains that she does this in her courses.

“I have a midpoint survey where [students] complete a form, rate things, and give me verbatim feedback on what they want. Then at the end, I have an exit survey where they give me even more feedback. Every single time someone has given me an idea, I implement it.

It doesn’t always stick. But a lot of the time it does because similar people are a part of my community. They’re my target audience. It makes it easier for me to give people the content that they want.”

Bottom line:

  • Be yourself.

  • Post consistently.

  • Create the best content you can.

  • Monitor your space to keep it safe.

  • Listen to your audience.

By including these elements, you’ll be on your way to a community that members rave about.

Advice for new communities: “When you’re first trying to figure stuff out, you need your biggest fans to come alongside you”

We asked our creators what kind of advice they would give to someone who wanted to start a new community from scratch.

Jill and Jeffrey encourage new creators not to reinvent the wheel when choosing their technology.

There’s no need to shell out money to hire web designers or build custom tools right out of the gate. Instead, find fully supported tools that connect to each other.

“We’re all entrepreneurs, and we’re doing this by ourselves.… Having tech support from all sides when you don’t know what you’re doing makes it so much more functional and easy,” Jill notes.

They also remind new creators to think about the bottom line when deciding what course platform to use. Platforms like Podia offer fixed-rate pricing with no transaction fees , which can make a big difference as your community grows.

“Most of the platforms we looked at charge a percentage,” Jeffrey explains.

“You’re almost penalized as you grow, and it can become outrageous. If you actually grow a large community, you pay a huge percentage to the platform. Having a fixed fee has allowed us to price our [products] very affordably.”

Once you’ve got the right technology, it’s time to think about how you’ll launch.

Emily recommends starting with a smaller group of members for a limited time.

“When you’re first trying to figure stuff out, you need your biggest fans to come alongside you…. If you can do a time-based group, like a three-month challenge, that’s how you build your community.

That way, there’s an end date. If it doesn’t work out, [you’re] off the hook after three months, and you can reinvent yourself. And once you do figure out what you want, you can open a hundred percent to the public … and there’s less pressure.”

By using this method, you’ll gain valuable insights about what works and what doesn’t before opening your program to the masses.

Finally, Casey offers words of wisdom to any aspiring entrepreneur who feels hesitant to get started.

“Go for it. A lot of times we overthink things, and we talk ourselves out of ideas. Start small…. It takes time to build credibility and trust. But if you keep showing up, like everyone on this panel has been saying, the community will grow.

Reach out to the close communities you already have on Instagram, YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, email, etc. Invite them in and serve them genuinely, passionately, with quality.

And it will inevitably grow.”

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Your own online community might be closer than you think

There’s no one-size-fits-all template for online communities, and we like it that way! You can build whatever makes sense for you, your business, and your audience.

Use these creators as inspiration. We certainly have.

Here are the big takeaways:

  • Host your community on an all-in-one platform like Podia so your products and online courses live in the same place. Avoid social media algorithms to ensure members actually see your posts.

  • Create a plan to post content consistently. Consider adding a live element like office hours or monthly hangouts to build connections.

  • Use audience feedback to pivot, improve, and adjust.

  • Learn the ropes by launching to a smaller seed group first. This is a great way to test your community and work out the kinks before going public.

  • Don’t reinvent the wheel. There is no need to build everything from scratch when starting.

  • Authenticity is key. It’s not about getting your members to do what you want. It’s about providing them with the resources and connections they need to achieve their goals.

Have questions for the creators featured in this article? Join the Podia Creator Community to participate in the “Ask me anything” thread.

Ready to create your own community? Start your 14-day free trial of Podia here.

About the author

Nicola is a content marketer for Podia, an all-in-one platform where online courses, digital downloads, and communities scale with their creators. She lives for lizards, loves to travel, and can often be found cooking up new recipes in the kitchen.