Launching your first cohort-based course online

Launching your first cohort-based course online

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GrowthCourses
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Since March 2021, I’ve been running Soapbox Project’s membership community. People come to us, overwhelmed by the climate crisis, and we support each other so we can know how to take meaningful action. I’ve seen people transform into local leaders, forge deep connections with community groups, and be the go-to person in their networks when someone has a “what can I do?!” moment.

However, the journey to create these transformations hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been applicable to everyone who joins our community. Most times, people get involved based on their own willingness and motivation, and I’ve realized I can do a better job providing structure and guidance for members who join.

So, in April 2022, a year after starting the Soapbox community, we launched our first cohort based course!

(Note: from July to August, I ran our second cohort-based course, and the steps I laid out below really helped.)

This article will help you understand what a cohort-based course is and how to launch one. This will not include picking a platform, but I’ve written about

here, and I’ll also note that Circle (the platform I use and love) just rolled out a course feature in September 2022, and I’m really excited about that. Check it out here.

Today, we’ll go over:

This post has affiliate links. Well, just one, really, and it’s the link to Circle above. You should defs use it.

What is a cohort-based course and should you launch one?

Here’s a definition of cohort-based course from Mighty Networks, an online community platform.

A cohort-based course is a program of learning that’s organized according to a syllabus (usually in sections) and is taken by a group of students (a cohort) at the same time. Cohort-based courses can take place online, in a virtual space, or in a physical classroom.

Cohort-based courses are familiar to many people as it is often the way traditional education, from elementary school to college or university, is structured: a group of students enters a class or course together, and over a specific period of time they go through the syllabus, together.

Below, I’m laying out the steps of launching an online cohort-based course. ⏭️ This icon is a flag for my takeaways and lessons learned from each step.

Let’s go to school!

Step 1: Set the scope

To me, this is the hardest part. “Set the scope” basically means “figure out what the heck your curriculum will be” and if we haven’t figured this out in centuries of education, it means the good news is it’s always going to be a lifelong learning journey.

So how much of the lifelong learning can we condense into X?

Math lesson: the first step is to solve for X.

In my case, here was the scope of my first course. When you solve for X, you get:

  • 6 weeks
  • 1 hour / week live lesson
  • Guest speakers every session
  • Budget (set an actual budget either as a flat number or a % of revenue)

⏭️ Now, our courses are going to feature 6 weeks of content with two hours a week of live lessons (over two days a week). It was too small of a scope to achieve anything meaningful; the reason participants did achieve a bunch of meaningful outcomes is because many of them stayed after the lessons were done and participated in the optional activities and discussions.

‼️Major takeaway: I procrastinated publishing this blog article and at the time of writing, I am now done with my second course. The two hours a week went GREAT and this is informing our community relaunch strategy, which I’m sure will be a separate article.

Step 2: Define objectives

For my first course, I had this punny headline called “make your mark on sustainable fashion” and then got a bunch of feedback that people thought the purpose of the course was to launch your own brand.

So defining objectives is a key step before any sort of marketing can happen.

I’m learning that for the first few courses, you kinda make this up as you go along, but now that I’m almost done running my second course, the objectives truly come from the feedback participants are giving.

Here are some examples that have really resonated. I find out what “clicks” when I have 1:1 calls with potential/current course members. 3 is generally a magic number, so here:

  1. Learn habits to develop an easy path to a more sustainable wardrobe
  2. Make friends who care about sustainability and gain accountability for your new habits
  3. Understand human rights issues within textile manufacturing and take action to support garment workers

Tatiana talks a lot about your objectives showcasing the transformation that participants will make when they join your community in her Build a Community Business course (you can see how she does this on her landing page).

I’m still figuring this out, as with all things but…

⏭️ In my next courses, I really want to drill into this whole transformation thing and get REALLY clear on the course objectives. I’ll go through course comments, reviews, testimonials, and perhaps even set up conversations with previous learners to understand the transformation that’s happened in their life. For example, one of the sustainable fashion participants says, “I’ll never look at a piece of clothing the same way”, and now it’s up to me to distill this life-changing info into a course objective.

Step 3: Come up with a launch plan

Full disclosure. I am NOT the right person to ask about a launch plan. This is because I am ✨no goals just vibes✨ and end up just winging it.

Don’t do this!

Again, DON’T DO THIS!

(This is very much a message to my future self. Nivi, MAKE A LAUNCH PLAN!)

Coming up with a launch plan is very straightforward. It’s simple but it’s not easy. (Well, the plan is easy enough. Execution, on the other hand…)

  1. Decide on a launch timeframe. Work backwards from your launch date and decide how much time you need. 6 weeks? 8 weeks?
  2. Map out key channels. For example, Instagram Live was a big one for us (unexpectedly lol — I did not map this one). Other channels can be communities you participate in (without being obnoxious), Twitter, your email list, etc.
    1. This step includes getting guest speakers if you need them, although if you’re getting guest speakers less than 6 weeks out, you should already have an established network. I’m able to conjure up some really awesome people on short notice because I’ve been chatting with them for years but if this isn’t the case for you, I’d make this the step before step 1.
  3. PICK 1-2 CHANNELS. Another note to self: stop trying to do everything at once.
  4. Get the right partnerships. Are you going to guest on someone’s podcast or vice versa? Find overlapping audiences so you’re not marketing to randoms.
  5. Run your campaign. Do it. Whether that’s paid ads or a bunch of partnerships or both, it’s time to actually follow that launch plan!

⏭️ My next steps / learnings are to… make a launch plan and stick to it. One huge reason this is important is I haven’t been great about building momentum around a launch — I just start promoting / sharing and not really partnering with others who would be down to support me.

Update after launching my second course: the launch plan was a 💯 idea, and as I mentioned earlier, it’s inspiring a full-scale community relaunch. Stay tuned. Also, Tatiana just came out with this community launch guide and I am holding onto it for dear life.

Step 4: Create your onboarding

Now it’s time to shift back to learner experience. What are all the steps in the process from learning about the course, to being interested (maybe signing up for a free webinar or attending an IG live), to actually signing up, to starting?

This step is a whole nother article so I’m not going into detail, but find a thoughtful onboarding example — a time when you really loved your experience starting a new program or joining a community — and emulate that in a way that’s authentic to the journey you’re creating.

I highly suggest 1:1 onboarding calls if your course size is <30.

⏭️ TEST YOUR ONBOARDING! I got lazy / winged it too much. Nothing terrible happened, but definitely be more rigorous especially when you’re trying to do fancy stuff with integrations etc.

In my second course on climate-friendly food, onboarding was much smoother and it was a lot more clear what the course is, what the overall community is, what’s going on, and what can happen afterwards.

Step 5: Start your course!

I learned a LOT from running my first course. Facilitation is no joke.

Here are some things that stood out:

  1. Separate lecture-style content from discussion-style content. Kind of a hot take since everyone wants their events to be ✨engaging✨ but it was a lot of context switching within an hour.
  2. Over-set expectations on Day 1. Not everyone reads the pre-course emails or totally knows what they're signing up for. More communication is better on the first day to ground everyone.
  3. Do cute stuff. We celebrate with certificates when someone completes a course and people love sharing these on LinkedIn even though they’re informal/kinda silly.
  4. Host afterparties. More on that in a separate article, but it’s basically just unstructured time post-course session where I turn off the recording. Thanks Tatiana for this!
  5. Have more regular feedback mechanisms. We used Luma and it was a great call. The other thing was, during our afterparties, collecting feedback live. I want to do more of this via Zoom polls etc. for our next course(s).

THE COOLEST thing that came out of our second course on climate-friendly food was more participant-led initiatives. During our discussion sections, I spat out a capstone idea on the fly that people could opt into. These “Soapstones” (since the community I lead is called Soapbox Project) led to some incredible follow-up projects, like this member-led study power hour session as an 8-week follow-up to our course!

Alt: Sophia Gonzalez (she/her) Soapbox member posting a Zoom screenshot with her holding up food-related books with another member also holding up food-related books with the post text reading: “tackling our climate action to-dos 1 week at a time. join us for food + climate fun. tuesdays are study halls and thursdays are discussions. 8-9 AM weekly. comment for a follow up email reminder + calendar invite.”
Alt: Sophia Gonzalez (she/her) Soapbox member posting a Zoom screenshot with her holding up food-related books with another member also holding up food-related books with the post text reading: “tackling our climate action to-dos 1 week at a time. join us for food + climate fun. tuesdays are study halls and thursdays are discussions. 8-9 AM weekly. comment for a follow up email reminder + calendar invite.”

So yes, the learnings above are working. We love to see it!

Step 6: Rinse and repeat, or don’t (thoughts on scale)

As Katy Perry said, 🎵 do it aaaaallllll again 🎵

…or don’t!

After wrapping up our second cohort-based course, I realized that there are aspects of courses I want to keep and things I want to ditch, and that community structures are far more important to me than “traditional” courses.

So, we’re planning a significant redesign of Soapbox Project for January 2023. Here are some rough thoughts:

  • I loved the cohort-style onboarding. The guest lectures were amazing but our goal is always to curate and not create new content, and running traditional courses distracts from our mission
  • At Soapbox, we make climate action easy for busy people, and in these courses (especially the first one) we focused a lot on learning vs. action. The second course was a much stronger reflection of the types of action I want to see through running these digital experiences
  • 3-4 cohorted experiences per year makes way more sense to me as a business leader than letting people enroll on an ongoing basis
  • The prices of the 6-week courses ($250-$450) conveyed the investment and effort I’m putting in, vs. our standard membership of less than $10/mo ($100 MAX if you’re on an annual plan).
  • We won’t keep doing traditional courses since Soapbox is such an upstream organization. Instead, we’ll shift to a cohort model with an intense community learning focus. Stay tuned — no more spoilers for now!

Figuring out whether or not courses should be part of your business model is a big step (at least it was for me) and it took me 9 months of 2022 to understand what this should look like. This experimentation was SO worth it, and it was also an interesting journey into how much my own bandwidth can be stretched between writing the weekly newsletter, running day-to-day community operations, consulting on the side, and running a course while figuring out how to scale everything.

This is quite a difficult article to end since I feel like there’s SOOOO much more to go into about courses in the context of online communities, but I’ll stop here. My parting thoughts are:

Follow your instincts, experiment a lot, talk to participants, trust participants, and take care of yourself. That last one — take care of yourself — is so important. Courses are hectic. And fun! And a buttload of work!

I hope you take this as a sign to Do The Thing and launch whatever’s been hovering in your mind — whether that’s a course, a new onboarding strategy, or something else.