If you are starting a course with a community component, especially one that primarily follows the Evergreen model, you might feel preemptively anxious about how you’ll manage the community once it grows beyond the early stages.
Am I setting up a system that’s unsustainable in the long term? If I’m successful, will I have to hire a whole team to support students? How will I maintain the intimacy of the community? Will students actually be able to learn and feel supported at scale?
If you aspire to have hundreds or thousands of students in a learning community, it can be hard to imagine how it’ll all work.
Notion Mastery is a great example of a wildly successful course and community that has scaled to over 2500 students while keeping a great community feel and producing great student outcomes.
I’ve been a member of their community for over a year and a big fan of Marie Poulin, Ben Borowski, Georgia Cyr and the team for a long time.
If you’re building a course community, this is what you can learn from them.
1. Build great evergreen content.
Notion Mastery has built a curriculum that is as modular and ever-changing as Notion itself. They start with a clear point of view: “templates ≠ a system” and build on it in a linear, but flexible journey. You can choose to go through the content in order, or skip around based on the areas you want to focus on.
In the lessons, there’s a great balance between showing you all that’s possible, while not making it super prescriptive. The result is that you don’t just build a fancy new productivity system that you’ll never use. You learn the core principles you can use to build something that uniquely works for you.
What you can learn as you build your own course:
- Choose the right format for your unique type of content, and your students’ learning journeys. For NM it’s a combination of written and video lessons hosted right within Notion. Students interact with the tool as they learn about it.
- Separate curriculum into just a handful of areas so that students can visualize what they’ll learn. In NM they are:
- Self Development
- Personal Productivity
- Knowledge Management
- Business Operations
- Build a student journey that addresses the levels of the learners you serve, starting with just one, specific one, and later building out from there. In NM the clear paths make it easier for students to navigate the content and revisit lessons.
- Build a modular system that can be updated as needed. Your course may not need as many updates as NM does, but little changes are inevitable. It’s ideal if you build a structure within which you can gradually add, remove and update lessons.
2. Make coaching public.
Notion Mastery is a great example of the Evergreen model of community businesses (you can compare the 4 types here). An important feature of this model is that it combines evergreen recorded content with asynchronous and live support that students of all levels can participate in. Most of the teaching is pre-recorded and can be accessed at any time, while troubleshooting and questions are addressed regularly and in real time.
In a community of 2500+ students, how do they handle everyone’s specific questions about a complex tool?
- Host office hours where the community is able to submit specific questions to be answered live.
- Host Hot Seats, a dedicated time to go deeper on fewer students’ questions. Students are able to get unstuck on a bigger issue.
- Manage a community platform where no matter their timezone, students are able to submit questions for the instructors and more advanced members to help with.
The result of learning collectively is that you don’t get as many individual questions as you’d expect in such a large community. People are constantly learning from each other’s questions, which doesn’t overburden the instructors.
By making all teaching and coaching public, students don’t just learning from asking, but also from the questions being asked by others.
3. Program events like a TV channel
A common problem for successful education products, is that their success is often linked to a single instructor. Students join because they are a fan of the creator and want their help, specifically. When this happens it’s a problem for a few reasons. One, wanting the approval of one person is not the best way to learn. The learnings are much more likely to stick if they have their own motivations. And secondly, it’s impossible for that level of support to scale to thousands of students with just one instructor/coach/community manager.
Most of the students joining Notion Mastery, find the program via Marie’s YouTube channel. They’re familiar with her calm and open teaching style and want to learn Notion from her specifically.
How does NM scale beyond Marie?
- They grew the number of people that can help within the community. They maintain a small full-time team, while leveraging help from contractors, event hosts, Notion super users, and more advanced community members.
- Team members and guest instructors host their own events in the community. The Office Hours events with Marie are probably still their ‘primetime’ monthly events. Then, there are both more advanced, and more beginner-specific Office Hours hosted by team members, as well as workshops and more specialized content that supplement the core course content, like Formula Fundamentals, an advanced mini-course taught by Ben.
This approach is similar to how programming happens for a TV channel. The result of bringing in help is a well-balanced schedule of programming that leverages the instructor in the right way, while making space for other voices. In the process, this makes the community more of a circle where people are learning from multiple teachers and from other members, and less of a triangle, where all the learning comes from one source.
If you’re just getting started, I don’t recommend bringing in new instructors right away, but it is important to start making a plan for scaling leadership beyond just you either via the community itself or a small team.
4. Build operations systems that scale.
Without tight operations systems for course communities, it is very hard to scale in a way that doesn’t compromise student satisfaction and results.
I’ve learned a lot from the team at Notion Mastery about how to start these systems early so that as you grow you’re ready to welcome in more people, more customer service requests, and more platform complexity.
Here’s what I’ve learned from them about the backend of running a course and community:
- Start writing your SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) as soon as you can. These can be loom videos where you talk to yourself as you complete an action. A helpful little boost to future you across time! Georgia Cyr, Notion Mastery’s ops lead has written a helpful guide here.
- Create one source of truth for your member data. If you’re using an email platform, a community platform, course platform, and other tools, your member data is spread across lots of places. Find ways to bring it together in one place. NM does this in Notion but you can use whatever tool you’re already familiar with.
- Automate student check-ins. Periodically, as a student of Notion Mastery, I get a kind email asking me how things are going. These emails, I’ve learned, are automated to go out at certain points in a student journey (ie. 1 month in, 3 months in, etc). This is a great way to identify any issues that might be coming up and gather feedback to improve the course and community.
- Start a database of commonly asked questions and their answers. Use those to make it faster answering customer service emails. NM adds the most popular ones to a public FAQ space and keeps others as internal documentation to use in customer service.
5. Design for different preferences, styles, and needs.
Everyone learns and interacts in community differently. This is something we should expect and celebrate within learning communities, not look at as an issue to solve.
Notion Mastery does a great job designing their content and community to appeal to different levels, interests and learning abilities.
If you’re just starting, it’s best to start small and stay focused, but it’s never too early to start observing the different paths students are naturally taking through the course and community.
Here’s how you can do that:
- Map out detailed student journeys that include every piece of logistical information they receive to ensure that before they get started with the course, they are onboarded and have the content they need. Over-explain everything!
- Assume different levels of engagement. When you’re selling a course that includes community, some of your students will take full advantage of the community support, while others prefer to learn on their own. This is expected and not necessarily a problem! Find ways to keep everyone in the loop occasionally, while giving your super members ways to contribute more regularly.
- Don’t guilt people into participating if it’s not their thing. In an Evergreen community business model, the community is secondary to the content. If you’re teaching a course, your students are coming to you for a specific outcome. Showing up and participating in the community can enhance that journey, but it may not be for everyone. Don’t force it!
- Design course content to work for neuro-diverse learners. Notion Mastery does this by separating ideas into shorter lessons, colorcoding, including summaries, always giving students a clear path, and likely many other ways I’m not consciously aware of. This is the equitable way to design your program and helps all brains.
Whether or not you’re at 2500 students, I hope that learning about successful course communities is more inspiring than overwhelming. Though the success of Notion Mastery happened relatively fast (1-2 years), as Marie Poulin has shared so generously in many places over the years, it was the result of the learning she accumulated after years of building businesses online.
As always, take the learnings that you’re ready for and save the rest for a future version of you.
If you want to learn Notion from a super thoughtful group of instructors, I highly recommend Notion Mastery! Here's where you can learn more and here’s an affiliate link when you're ready to join*
*A note that all of our affiliate revenue goes to fund our scholarship program and to nonprofits picked by our community members. The tools we use to run our community business and our affiliate strategy for those tools is the topic of next week’s post! Subscribe below to receive it in your inbox.