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How I boost course engagement with an integrated online community

There is no one-size-fits-all tool that works for every business. For most of us — especially the micro-businesses of 1-5 team members — both our time & our budgets limit our ability to build customized tools to do everything we want.

Thankfully, software teams are getting savvy to the solopreneur & small business market, and they’re starting to not only develop software for us little guys, but also to make sure that that software will play well with other software in our ecosystem.

How to build community around shared goals

Online courses are a huge economy: the e-learning industry made more than $200B in sales in 2019, and that’s before the COVID pandemic drove everybody online.

But as the industry has ballooned in size, student engagement is dropping: blame Zoom fatigue or market saturation for the ~7% completion rate average of online courses.

But studies also show that helping your students engage with the material, and providing accountability support, can help increase completion rates and outcomes, so many course creators also include a community component for their trainings. This is a great way for the teacher to regularly engage with the students, answer their questions, give feedback and share upcoming events.

Typically, this comes in the form of a student Facebook group — after all, Facebook groups are free to set up and run, and also most students are already on Facebook and have a habit of checking regularly (this study says 13x/day, but it’s from 2013 so I’m guessing that number has only increased since then).

But there are also drawbacks to a course community living in Facebook — people get distracted when they log in, notifications crowd each other out, and many people are actively trying to get off the platform.

Plus, there’s no direct connection between the course materials and the feedback community … you have to leave the course in order to ask questions about the course! Not ideal.

Which is why I set things up differently:

Circle integrations with course platforms

I’ve already told you about how I use MemberVault for my online course platform and Circle for my online community; now I’m going to share how I set them up to work together for maximum engagement.

Circle is a platform that is built specifically for the purpose of creating a customizable, versatile online community space. For that reason, it was built with the course software integrations in mind. (The founders met when they were working at Teachable, so it was originally built as a supplement to that tool, but they expanded to make it work well with any course software.)

There are two ways to integrate Circle into your course software: as a community widget or a topic/space widget.

Circle community widget pop-up

You know how websites often have a live chat box in the lower right hand corner of the screen? That’s basically what the community widget is, except that instead of asking a question when you click, it opens up the Circle community. The little Circle icon will show up in your brand color, and you can even choose which Circle topic or space is the default for new visitors.

If you only have paid products in your course platform, or if your Circle community has a free option, then the “community widget” would great for you.

I personally don’t use this within my course software because it is a site-wide widget, so it would show up on every product I offer … but I only use Circle with my highest tier membership, and don’t want people in my lower-cost courses getting access to this space at this time, so I ahve to use the other option …

Circle topic widget embed

I’ve created a Circle Space for people to ask specific questions about a course module; so if my students have question in a module about keyword research, they’re directed to a forum specifically for questions about keyword research. This is also great for people to submit their homework and get feedback not only from me, but from other community members … and if they get stuck, they can review previous answers & other student’s homework to help make these theoretical topics have a practical application:

Then I create specific prompts — whether that’s a place to ask questions or to upload homework for feedback — and embed that Circle space directly into the course.

How do I integrate Circle & MemberVault?

Among the myriad reason I think MemberVault is the best online course tool is it’s versatility. The software doesn’t tell you how things should be set up; instead, it gives you plenty of opportunities to customize your user’s experience.

So when students are going through my online course, they don’t have to toggle back & forth between the actual trainings and the community resources; the community is embedded in the training:

You can see here that Module 2 has a video with transcription, a gif for fun, and a place on the same page to ask questions about that specific module and share homework; if they want to click into other people’s questions or answers, they’ll go directly to the resources about that section of the training.

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