There are many ways you can build a community. You can add discussion boards to your blog posts, interact on social media, or my favorite, walk into a crowded room and yell, “Pizza!”
Some are more effective than others.
So when we noticed that Nat Eliason and Justin Mares were set to make 48K* in their first fully launched month with their Teachable course Become a Technical Marketer, we knew they were doing something right.
*28K realized plus 20K expected in payment plans
If you’d like, check out Nat’s free email course Programming for Marketers. I’m a fan.
Rather than use the same old strategies to build a community, Nat and Justin used Slack to engage, support and sell to their online community.
We’re going to show you how. I’ve analyzed key points in this post to help you understand what Nat did, why he did it and if his techniques are right for your community.
I also included a transcription of this 6-minute section at the bottom of this post so you can read for yourself. Click here to jump to the transcript.
So what’s Slack?
Rather than spend time crafting emails and sifting through old threads to find information you need to do real work, Slack works like an instant messaging board for your company with “channels” on the left-hand side that categorize conversation by topic and everything is easily searchable. Jessica Malnik gives a great overview if you want details.
We use it at Teachable. I’ll show you.
This is me on our Teachable content channel:
Here are a few of our channels:
You can also direct message your coworkers. Trust me, this is faster than email.
We assume instant messages will be more casual, which saves time you might spend checking grammar, formatting and avoiding abbreviations in an email, not to mention time spent writing intros and signoffs (i.e. Do I sign off “best”, say “thanks”, or is “later” too informal?).
It also helps me have a quick quiet conversation while our developers work their magic.
You can see from Conrad’s trackr app below, email is taking a lot less time and he’s a co-founder managing our team who has to communicate with everyone in the company.
However, Slack isn’t just an email replacement. It can create community.
Slack works as a community whether you’re building a course, blog or any other online product.
In Nat’s case, he added all of his enrolled students from Become a Technical Marketer to one Slack team that included different discussion channels such as general chat, off-topic, technical marketing jobs, etc. This allowed all of the students in the class to speak with each other and with Nat and Justin.
In Nat’s own words, it’s worked out “amazingly.”
Why does this matter?
Besides internally, businesses are using community to engage customers, which was detailed by BizReport:
- 49% report online communities help them save money on support operations
- 60% say their community helped to create a more engaging website
- 74% say communities drive organic search traffic
- 50% say they’ll use a community to up-sell customers
Why not create a Facebook group to build community?
While Facebook is widely known and most people already know how to use it, building a social media community takes manpower, can be slow-growing, and doesn’t always have the features needed to promote an active community.
Especially for Nat, a Facebook group was a terrible way to communicate the information his community was discussing because:
- Facebook groups don’t work for people learning how to program since code formatting isn’t compatible with Facebook’s text editor.
- They don’t work when information needs to be easily searchable.
- They’re not entirely customizable with multimedia content.
- In my opinion, they don’t work for live conversation, but as an online announcement board meant for one way communication.
- Facebook also has an incentive to include ads (that might show competitors) within your group
That’s where Slack comes in. Slack allowed Nat to create a community that “was like no other out there.” He pitched this to students suggesting that they buy the whole package of his courses at once to gain access to this community, which was not part of the single course purchase.
Reminder: you can read a full transcript of the interview below. Click here to jump to it.
How exactly did this work for Nat? The pitch was this: Our Slack community offers…
- Direct access to both founders: This is a huge advantage for anyone seeking information and is rarely offered. Specifically for courses, this one-on-one time is generally used to upsell customers to more premium packages.
Community Conversation: Nat’s students are able to talk and joke with each other giving his product a sense of community. However, the dialogue also doubles as customer support. Huge win.
Knowing that anyone in the course’s Slack team could message Nat at anytime, we asked Nat if he was constantly being bombarded by requests for one-on-one time or if he was being overwhelmed by requests.
Frankly, this was a huge surprise to me and turned out to be a huge advantage to his Slack community.
As Nat took time early in the launch to troubleshoot issues with individuals, the people he helped would pass on their information to others asking the same questions, which has a twofold benefit of solving customer support issues and strengthening the community bond within Slack.
“People have gotten really good about helping each other out and that’s great,” Nat said.
Job postings, additional hacks and information: While this isn’t inherently an advantage to Slack, Slack easily facilitated the dissemination of wanted information by various topics.
Compare this to Facebook where you’d have to scroll through old posts to find a job offer someone posted a week ago. With Slack, all the job offers are in one channel and it’s easily searchable.
- This community was unique: Nat described this community as no other out there. He was adding value to his course by providing easily accessible job offers, additional hacks and direct access to himself and a new community using new technology.
I don’t want to extrapolate and say that a Slack community made Nat and Justin more money, but it certainly provided advantages not seen in other community forums and seemed to help convince students purchasing one course to purchase two.
Slack has been used to monetize communities before. According to The Next Web, Startup Foundation created a Slack team, #startup, that includes 27 channels on relevant topics for founders to discuss. Trying to limit the number of half-interested users, or “wantrepreneurs” from joining a high-quality discussion, they started to charge a one-time $20 fee for entrance.
This fee has raised enough money that Startup Foundation could consider turning down investment money since they raised enough themselves. This highlights the importance of community and how it can be leveraged to earn money.
WARNING: Building your initial community on Slack involves a risk. You’re allowing everyone using your product to talk to each other in one place. If your product isn’t up to par, this forum provides the potential for angry users to feed off of each other. Keep this in mind and evaluate the pros and cons.
Nat knew this, but decided to go ahead with a Slack forum. Just one month after launching his course, he checks discussion channels about twice a day and notes that his community has been great about answering their own questions and helping each other.
“It’s a fun community,” Nat said.
Nat isn’t the only one using Slack to host an online community.
Slack is currently used by everyone from NASA to BuzzFeed, and, for the time being, the WeWork Lab here in Chelsea NYC where our Teachable office is located.
If there’s anyone who knows the importance of community, it’s WeWork.
In their highly curated Labs, they hope to bring people together so “the person across from you could change your business” said Daniel O'Duffy, Labs Manager of the Chelsea office.
In Chelsea, Slack works as a temporary forum for communication between Labs members. It allowed someone like Daniel to quickly implement a functional community discussion board that includes topics from “general” to “ping pong”.
It’s easy to create new channels and members are using the direct message feature. In essence, Slack was a quick fix to get people talking to each other.
This is something to think about if you need to quickly create a community discussion board for your new product, course or team. Personally, I’m going to use it to chat my massive family :-)
Slack is also used by Meshal Lakhani, founder of Future Investor Angel, who invites select members of his course to a Slack team.
Worried he’d spend too much time answering support questions or turning down request for one-on-one advice, Meshal’s invitation to the channel specifies that it’s meant for community discussion. Expectations set.
If you want to check it out, there are highly active community threads you can subscribe to if you’re looking to be part of a Slack community and not start one.
Confession: before joining Teachable, I had never heard of Slack. Are you using it? Are you subscribed to a Slack thread? Is there one you’d like to see? Let me know in the discussion board below.
For a full recording of the interview between Ankur and Nat that details why Nat used Teachable , how he priced his product and key learnings from his paid online course community, click the download button below.
If you’d like a transcript of the conversation Ankur had with Nat about running an online community on Slack here it is:
Ankur: One of the things that you mentioned to me that I found super interesting is you guys created a community of all your students and added them on a common shared Slack channel. How’s that been working out?
Nat: That’s been working out amazingly. It’s a little bit of a risk. If you have a shitty course, everyone’s going to get on your Slack channel and criticize you.
Ankur: Is it its own Slack or a single channel?
Nat: It’s it’s own Slack team. I never know what to call it with Slack. Is the whole thing a team?
Ankur: Yeah, the whole thing is a team.
Nat: Yeah, it’s it’s own Slack team and within the team we have a general chat, an off-topic, and one specifically for email lessons that we’re sending out, one for our courses themselves, and one for technical marketing jobs and like other hacks.
So we’ve had people, including us, post job opportunities for people with these skills and then people in the course can get connected to these people and apply like that. So it’s a job lead opportunity for them too.
If people have any issues, run into bugs. This is the one thing we didn’t totally anticipate, we anticipated a little bit, but not to this extent; programming is tricky, right? If you have an errant semicolon or whatever, everything breaks. I know that because I’ve been doing this hacky stuff for awhile, but to someone who has never done it before, when you get those error messages in Terminal it’s like, “Holy shit. What did I do? I don’t want to touch anything because I might blow up my computer.” So we’ve been trying to find that balance between being helpful, but also encouraging people to solve their own problems.
Ankur: Especially because that’s what programming comes down to, right? It’s how fast can you fix the broken shit. No one writes flawless code.
Nat: Yeah, 100%.
Ankur: So my one concern that I would have thinking that I’m a teacher setting up my Slack channel. My concern would be, I’d be hit up for personal one-on-one help. How do you set expectations there. What prevents all of your students from IMing you all the time personally?
Nat: We were worried about that too. They’ve actually been really good about it.
Nat: For the most part, they post any issues that they have in the general channels. In the beginning there was a lot of us troubleshooting stuff, but people have pretty much the same errors or similar errors.
Someone will post something like, “I tried running this code and it said I don’t have permission.” and someone will hop in and be like, “Just add "sudo” before it". And the person who hopped in didn’t know that 2 weeks ago, but we troubleshooted it for them, and now they’re paying it forward. People have gotten really good about helping each other out and that’s great.
Ankur: Is the Slack channel something that you’re monitoring all the time every single day? Or something you check a few times a week? How engaged are you with the community?
Nat: I’ll check it a few times a day. I’ve got a regular job I need to focus on too. I’ll check in morning and nights and if people have problems I’ll send back solutions or try to point them in the right direction. It doesn’t take that much time, really. A lot of the problems are stuff I’ve had too. So if someone posts their error, 99% of the time I immediately know what’s going wrong and can help out. And for the most part, one, people are helping eachother and two, a good number of people are realizing that with programming it’s their job to figure this out; the number of silly error postings have gone down dramatically.
Ankur: How much activity do you have on a daily basis?
Nat: It’s pretty active, which is nice. The other cool thing about it is that people are using it for other things too. They’ll promote their startups when they get posted on Hacker News and Product Hunt and everyone will go on and upvote them and will argue about how do you game Hacker News and stuff. So it’s actually kind of a fun community.
Ankur: That’s kind of the big difference. People, when they’re deciding to start a community with their course, think of Facebook groups and now Slack has become a viable alternative. With Slack, you build more of a community. Facebook groups are great as an in between step, but people will never interact as much on a Facebook group as they might on a Slack team.
Nat: Definitely. Especially in a situation like this where people are posting their solutions to stuff. In a Facebook group, it’s hard to search through and code formatting…good luck. Slack makes all that stuff so easy. We had this one thing early where we were trying to find what the API limit for Buffer was and how many things you can submit at once, and we were sending Python files back and forth in a private chat and trying to hit the limit and figure out what it was. You can’t do that in a Facebook group.
Ankur: I think you guys made a great decision to go with Slack, and we’re hoping more people do. The one thing I found interesting about how you did it: A lot of people do community as an upsell and they have multiple tiers of the course with community being available at a more expensive pricing tier. I gather you gave community to everyone.
Nat: Yup. It was on the landing page. One, you can buy the courses individually, but the only way you get community is to buy all of them at once, and two, we said look one, you can message Nat and Justin, which is useful, and everyone in the course, and we’ll be posting other hacks, other jobs all this other stuff, all this extra value and there’s no other community like this out there.
Ankur: I bet it helps that there’s still money coming in with payment plans. And I don’t have data on this, but I bet this helps with compliance and seeing that people fully end up paying through a lot more.
Nat: Oh yeah, I image it will do that as well.