Teachable's change of community strategy & platform with thousands of members
An interview with Noele Flowers, Community Manager at Teachable
👋 Community friends! We’re back with an amazing interview. It’s hands-down one of the better ones. Great insights to be discovered! 💎
We’ve been able to chat with Noele Flowers, currently running community at Teachable – and soon joining our friends at Commsor.
Noele shares how she approached switching strategy & platforms with a 40k+ member base, how she created clear boundaries to keep support out of the community, how a community can become an engine for content marketing, and a lot more! 🚀
Let’s dive in, and don’t forget to hit the subscribe button (if you haven’t) to follow along on the next issues! 👇
About Noele and Teachable
Noele is a former music teacher turned community manager. She’s grown, trimmed, and revamped the Teachable community in the past 4 years and on the side provides consultancy to help others with their strategic plan to start or refresh their community. This year she started blogging, and her articles are amongst our favorites, being accessible & clear even when you’re new to community management.
Teachable is a platform used by over 100,000 online entrepreneurs to create and sell online courses. Part of their membership is to get access to the community, where people share their experience on building their courses and coaching businesses.
Can you explain how you got into community management and why you like it?
There’s not always a direct career path to becoming a community manager. It's definitely not something that I ever thought I would be doing. I actually started off my career as a public school teacher: I taught high school choir in Queens and did that for a couple of years before realizing: This is really not for me. Being a teacher is a lot of work and it can be a pretty stressful job—I have a lot of respect for people who do it. I realized this wasn’t the lifestyle I want, waking up early, feeling like I'm performing all day, and then getting home and having a ton more work to do.
So then I basically started looking for jobs in startups. I did not know much about startups at all but browsed AngelList and looked for entry-level jobs to help me get my foot in the door. That led me to Teachable. Because of my background in education, the company mission was compelling to me. The job itself just sounded like something that I could do, and it ended up being a really good fit. Over the four years that I've been there, I've definitely become more invested in the field overall.
At what stage of the company did you start an online community for Teachable and why?
When I started at Teachable, they already had a community with about 8–9 thousand people in it. Teachable was only a couple of years old at that point, so I started in a WeWork with maybe 25, or 30 other employees. They had started the community as a way to get all of their early members in one room and be able to ask questions around the product.
The community was very product-oriented at the start, like, “oh, we're launching this new feature, what do you think?”, which is great. On the downside, when you start a community that way but don't set up guidelines and program, it also can potentially lead to some unhealthy stuff. People got used to dropping bugs there even after we had a formal reporting process. Or when there was some downtime, it would definitely show up in the community, even when we had a status page. So that's what I took over and was hired for, to wrangle that situation which started with good intentions and just became harder to manage at scale, as communities will if you don't put some guardrails and strategy in place.
That community was actually on Facebook Groups. I grew that to about 40,000 people over my first two and a half years and then ended up redoing the whole community strategy and migrating the community over to Circle, which we now use.
Moving away from Facebook Groups with 40,000 members is a bold decision, what was the reasoning there?
There's a lot of reasons., but one of the most important ones is knowing who your members are. When you use Facebook, you don't know even basic information about the people that are in your group. So you don't know: Are they actually users? Are they people who were users six years ago, churned, and are now using a competitor? Are they someone in the entrepreneur space who wants to sell to our members? You just have tons of different people in there and it makes it really hard to create relevant content and to get people matched up to relevant other people.
You just have tons of different people in there and it makes it really hard to create relevant content and to get people matched up to relevant other people.
We really wanted to move to a place where we would be able to make a connection between someone's account on Teachable and their account in the community. Now, all of our community members are Teachable customers, it's a feature of your membership to get access to the community. That really lets us cater their experience in the community so that it's well-matched to what they're actually working on.
What did the platform shift do to your member base, and how do you grow it today?
Not all of the members that were in the Facebook Group moved over to the new platform, and that was by design. We did not want to migrate over our existing group and just replace and replicate it. Our entire launch plan for that was really like: “We built a new experience for you, when you're ready to join, join”.
I actually think that's an important part of community building and it can be counter-intuitive; In startups, we have this mindset to grow as quickly as possible. But I think in communities that can actually undermine your mission.
I actually think that's an important part of community building and it can be counter-intuitive; In startups, we have this mindset to grow as quickly as possible. But I think in communities that can actually undermine your mission a little bit. To me, it was a good thing to let people join as they became interested to let us grow steadily as opposed to trying to get everyone from the Facebook Group over.
That said, our community is not small, it’s in the thousands. There are plenty of touchpoints within our experience where people find out about the community. If they're a member of Teachable they get emails, letting them know about it. It’s also in the product.
With so many members, how do you stay responsive to support questions?
When we were in the Facebook Group, we definitely took a more support-oriented approach to community. In the earlier stages, it made sense for us to try to provide some technical support in the community. But as the company grew, our support team grew, our support function grew. Then, when we switched over to Circle, we actually tried pretty hard to draw clear boundaries between Support and Community.
The reason for that is that I think community isn't always the best place for support. I think when you have a community that's mainly being used for support, you'll tend to see either the same types of conversations happening over and over again, or you'll see conversations that are only relevant to the poster because they're account specific.
Within our group, we're really focused on trying to start conversations that are stemming from things that only our members know.
Within our group, we're really focused on trying to start conversations that are stemming from things that only our members know. Basically trying to inspire people to share their special genius in the community versus something that anyone could be talking about. All of the people in Teachable are entrepreneurs that have a business. They have all this incredible domain knowledge about their particular niche, but also about how they actually built their business. So that is what we think is most valuable for them to share with each other.
On the flip side of that, our business has live chat, too. That’s a better way for us to quickly respond to people's support questions.
There are obviously no cut and dry rules to this. There are definitely very successful support-oriented communities. It just really depends on what the opportunities are for your business. For us, we felt like we had a bigger opportunity for community than Support.
How do you keep your community lively and positive?
It happens over time and has actually been quite interesting for me. Our community is split out into three different groups. You're in a different community depending on where you are as an entrepreneur with Teachable. If you have just gotten started and haven't built a school or launched your business, you're in a separate space versus our creators who have an established business and it's their full-time job. It's been interesting because those communities have taken off at different speeds due to the particular cocktail of personalities that you have in either community. I’m the same community manager, it’s the same platform, I take a similar approach to each of the groups. But they all have their unique character.
In the beginning, it's all about the conversations that I have one-on-one, figuring out who are these people, what do they know, what do they have to offer, why are they here? As you build up that knowledge, you become more able to tag people into relevant conversations
One of the things that I do is take a very relationship-first approach. In the beginning, it's all about the conversations that I have one-on-one, figuring out who are these people, what do they know, what do they have to offer, why are they here? As you build up that knowledge, you become more able to tag people into relevant conversations, or even tap someone on the shoulder and say: “Are you willing to start a conversation about some topics that you have expertise in?”
There are many other parts to it as well, like, content cadence. There are posts that I publish in the community pretty much every day. There are pieces, kind of more codified or high-value content that we give out in the community, that spark conversations. So there's different layers to how it happens.
You wrote about community as a content marketing pipeline. Can you elaborate on that and do you have any practical tips for community managers that want to start with that?
I actually worked on a content marketing team, which is why this is very top of mind for me. So the community is two things:
When it comes to content marketing, it's a really powerful sourcing tool. My colleagues might reach out to me and say: “Hey, I'm looking to do some writing about someone who has a membership business in the crafting space”. Then I would pull from the community and the relationships that I have there to make a connection.
The other side of it is just thinking about how community actually fits into the content packages that you do throughout the year. Your community already has all this content in it from people that are sharing their expertise, like strategies that they've used that have worked. I think that it was John from yen.io that said: “It's not just low hanging fruit, it's fruit that's already on the ground”. There's absolutely no reason that you shouldn't take those things, and turn it into something that you use in your content marketing. For instance, taking a little blurb from something someone said in the community, and designing it onto a carousel for social media. Or contacting the person to have an interview about it, or even just turning it into a blog post or a case study.
If we're releasing something big to our audience, we usually try to have a component of it that is special for just the community.
If we're releasing something big to our audience, we usually try to have a component of it that is special for just the community. For example, a big blog series on a particular topic we would release to the community early and get their feedback. Or we would bring in the person that was interviewed and do a webinar as a way to tighten the connection.
One piece of advice you would give to anyone that is building out an early community around a software startup
For people that are starting a community and don't have a community manager yet, my advice is to think about what the community program is going to look like in five years. Don't just think, “I need to get everybody in a chat room now so that I can fulfill the need that I have while building my product”. I think a lot of people that build software think that it'd be convenient if they can tap people on the shoulder to get their feedback. And that's absolutely true. But you can get yourself into a position where you actually alienate those early people if you don't make sure that the community experience stays good over time. So don't start without a strategy and think a few steps down the road. What's going to work at five people is not going to work at 100 people or 1000 people.
What advice do you have around showing the business impact of community to other stakeholders?
The first thing is that you can only get compelling information about how effective a community is if you have data on the members. That's why something like Facebook Groups can be so challenging.
It's all about making a hypothesis such as: “We think it's good if people use the community a lot, because people who use it stay customers for longer”, and then try to track that
You need to take a step back first. A lot of community managers measure for example how many posts there are in a day. If you're measuring something like that, and 30 people posted in the community today, that’s great, but then what? It's all about making a hypothesis such as: “We think it's good if people use the community a lot because people who use it stay customers for longer”, and then try to track that. If you can track your cohort of community members against non-community members, and suppose you can say they stay customers 10% longer, that's the metric people care about. They don't care that people are posting 30 times a day. But you can use that to inform yourself of course.
For any community managers that don't have that data yet: Don't be discouraged! It can take time for you to get that information—it took me years. Oftentimes it has to be custom-built. But try to focus on the impact on other teams if you can't focus on the business metric. So one thing for me at Teachable for instance is that all of our product managers are constantly trying to look for people to have user interviews with about different features and products that they're working on. If I can say I sourced 25 user interviews from the community this month and that their response rates were X percent higher than when the product managers were reaching out cold over email, then you've framed the impact as well by comparing workflows.
Your favorite article or book as a community enthusiast?
For me, the biggest things I learn are from talking to other community managers. I talked to people that work at other companies on the phone a lot, just to get a sense of what they’re doing and what's working for them.
Beyond that, I really like Carter Gibson. He takes this really interesting kind of anthropological lens to community where he'll talk about the history of the field, where it comes from, why are we called Community Managers.
What are your plans for the future, personally and with the Teachable community?
This is obviously the biggest year for community I have ever experienced. It's like, all of a sudden, everyone's talking about it. It’s exciting to me personally to kind of play a role in by sharing my thoughts about what I've learned at Teachable and forming some of those best practices alongside a lot of really smart people. That’s exciting and not something I thought I would ever get to do.
At Teachable, I am working on some parts of our onboarding experience, and the user experience of the community in general, before I’m actually moving on to join Commsor! (check Noele’s LinkedIn post if you’re looking for a new opportunity as a CM, as Teachable’s looking for someone to follow in Noele’s footsteps)
Where can people find out more about you?
You can read my blog at https://www.noeleflowers.com where I try to put out a post every couple of weeks. I also do some coaching for community builders and have a particular interest in founders that want to start a community but aren’t ready to have a full-time staff yet.
You can also find me on Twitter.
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