I spent years looking for a community platform that made sense to me. Every time I discovered a solution it was too disconnected, didn't have the features I wanted, wasn't easy for my community to adopt, and wasn't built to last.

My course and membership business is built in WordPress. Thrive Apprentice and the Thrive Suite ecosystem power most of my platform. I sell my products through ThriveCart, and users get access immediately to my platform. When people join, they're added to FluentCRM by Thrive Automator (see how) which I use for email marketing. 

This part of my business is silky smooth. It's beautiful. It just works. Flawlessly.

I wanted my course platform to seamlessly integrate with the rest of my setup just as smooth, just as flawless, and just as easily as everything else. 

Well, I've done it.

My Recommendation for a Community Platform: Circle

I'm not going to bury the lead. I use Circle for my Convology Pro community and I have for some time.

I've used Circle now for the past 12 months. I put the platform through its paces before recommending it to you because I've been burned by community platforms in the past. Before I gave you yet another "here's how you escape Facebook" recommendation, I wanted to be sure this was the one.

Circle has really taken off this past year. They have a lot of backing from the overall community of community creators, and they've exploded in their growth and adoption across some pretty big names.

You can check them out for yourself and see what the fuss is about. What I want to do next is dive in and tell you how I've implemented Circle into my setup.

Single Sign-On with WordPress: One Login to Access All

When a user joins Convology Pro, their login works automatically for the community. Right on my member dashboard I give them a link to go to the community, or they can visit it by manually typing in the link (https://pro.convology.com). 

It's that simple. They don't have to do anything else. They're in.

To make that happen, I use Circle's single sign-on (SSO) integration with WordPress.

Circle has a very easy-to-follow guide for setting up SSO. You install a plugin, copy an API key, and you're done.

All-Access vs. Split Access

I keep my community available only to my Convology Pro members. When members join Convology Pro, they are given access to my entire community immediately.

You can make it as complex as you'd like by allowing only certain people access to specific spaces in the community. I do not recommend this for beginners, but I'll tell you how I do it. The easiest way (perhaps the only way) is Zapier because Circle has a very tight integration with Zapier and hasn't opened up to any other platforms.

My example uses ThriveCart as the trigger. When someone purchases a specific course, Zapier tells Circle what spaces to add them to or what groups. In Circle you can combine spaces into groups which makes it convenient to give people access to areas in bulk.

If you wished to grant someone access only to the space for Course X, you would choose that space. The SSO integration would give them access to your community and a login, but they would receive your custom error message if they attempted to access an area of the community they haven't purchased.

Fully White-Labeled

Members access my community by visiting pro.convology.com, which I link through my member dashboard. The entire experience via the web is entirely white labeled. It looks like it's my platform.

However, I've never hidden the fact that I use Circle. This isn't one of those cases where I feel the need to 'wow' my audience with some hidden fact that I didn't create the community platform.

Mobile App

The app itself is not white-labeled. Your members will need to download the Circle app from the app store, but once they've logged in the entire in-app experience is as white-labeled at the rest of your community.

What I really like about the app are the push notifications. If someone posts something in the community, I get a notification. This allows me to tap the notification and respond immediately. I can be engaged anywhere I go.

How my community looks in the Circle App

How my community looked about six months ago

Utilizing the Community Spaces

There's no right way to use Circle for your course or membership community. I'll share how I use mine, which will hopefully give you some ideas for how you can implement yours.

Spaces for Courses

Each of my courses has their own space. I did this with the hope that members will seek out these spaces to talk about the different topics, get support for those topics, and created little hubs of clustered content. So far it's working great!

Spaces for Support

While 'support' can be sought in any space, I created a specific "tech stack support" space for help that might not be associated with a particular course topic. Members are using it for the more obscure questions.

Spaces for Office Hours

This is still a work in progress, but I'm using a space for my office hours, Q&A's, live streams, and masterclasses. As my community grows, I'm letting the members decide how they want me to serve them. My community likes pre-recorded content more than live content, so we'll see how this section pans out.

Spaces for Announcements

I really like having a space where I can make 'official' announcements to the entire community. I add banners to the posts and I use it to do more of a one-way broadcast to everyone that something new is coming or arrived. These always get the most engagement.

General Chat

I wanted a catch-all where people could post something like a "hey did you see this was recently released" or ask general questions that weren't necessarily support. I also wanted a place for people to introduce themselves, share projects, get feedback, etc.

The 'Home' Screen

I think of the home section like a feed. I set mine up so that it has posts from everything, and it acts almost like a FB wall where people can post and engage right on it, or they can dive into the different spaces to see only threads about that topic. The home screen tends to be what I leave up on my second monitor.

Direct Messaging

A feature that might get overlooked is the direct messaging feature. This is very similar to messages on Facebook, or even text messaging on a phone. 

Many of my community members reach out to me directly via the private message feature in the app. I think a lot of people are shy and don't want to post for all to see, but a quick direct note is a great way to start a dialog. 

When I receive a message, I get a notice on my phone as well which makes jumping in to answer questions very easy.

Embed Video

There are many ways to embed video into Circle. You can use Youtube, Vimeo, Loom, etc. I love using Loom to render asynchronous video support to members struggling with understanding a particular topic. I use Vimeo to host event videos and masterclasses.

Creating a media-rich community without hurdles to jump through or barriers makes the entire process extremely easy to integrate into my workflow.

Live Stream to Your Community

Coming soon to Circle is the ability to live stream directly to your community. 

I'm extremely excited for this feature because I'll host all of my Q&A's and office hours directly to the community space rather than to another platform that then has to be embedded.

This further encourages people to go into the platform which creates buy-in, improves the experience they have with you, and gets people who have gone astray back into the mix where you can continue to serve them.

Built-In Paywall Options for Additional Paid Access

In my setup, members get access when they buy it through ThriveCart. which is what gives access to Thrive Apprentice courses. However, not every setup is the same. In some cases, you might 

Circle lets you charge for access via their built-in payment processing. This paywall feature is perfect for a business like my wife runs where she doesn't use Thrive Apprentice or ThriveCart. She just wants a community, and she posts literally everything inside of it (including courses, which we'll explore in a post I'll link here). 

You can use Circle to charge annual or one-time payments to your members. You can even offer them trial memberships. I have some ideas for how I might work this into my offering.

I'm kicking around the idea of a monthly "Lite" version of my membership that doesn't give access to courses, just the community. It would be priced high enough so that the full membership was always the better value (even annually) but low enough that someone could jump in. 

You Get What You Pay for and It Pays You Back

Circle is a SaaS platform that costs a monthly fee. This isn't a gimmicky LTD or freemium software. It's for serious community builders  (note: that doesn't mean you have a MASSIVE community either) who want to offer a premium experience and use the right tool to get the job done once, the right way.

Here's a link to Circle's pricing.

I'm on their $79/month plan which you need to be on to get their SSO integration working with WordPress. That sounds pricey, and trust me I didn't readily jump into it at that price. But I had to think it through rationally.

Given everything Circle provides, and the interface/experience to go along with it, that's a cost of doing business that I'm happy to pay. 

Having a community-driven membership, or a community to support your courses and students, should pay for itself. Unless you've unlocked the mysteries of the universe and found a way to get people to keep paying you to take the same course over and over, you're a one-and-done operation.

It's the community that keeps people coming back, engaging with you, getting served and finding value, and continuing to give you value ($$) back.

It's Okay to Start a Community from Nothing

I want to wrap up this post by saying something I really don't see addressed often enough.

It's okay to start a community without an audience. 

You don't need to be a youtuber with 10,000 subscribers or have a blog with thousands of monthly readers. You also don't need an email list. 

I didn't have those things.

I started Convology Pro with no members and only a small "audience". I don't get tons of traffic. I don't have a huge channel. I actually don't even have an email list for this business (I need to). 

What I think matters and contributed to the growth of my community is that the messaging matched throughout. There was a single purpose that flowed through it all. 

I help people on my blog.
I help people on Youtube.
I help people with my flexible coaching.
I help people with my tech stack services.

What does my community do? It helps people with all the same things those things help them with, but it gives THEM a voice to participate.

The only thing I regret is allowing the fear of an empty community stop me from getting one started two years sooner. Be sincere, serve your audience, deliver value that delights, and people won't care of they're member #1, 2, or 10,000.

  • Great post Doug. Circle has been great. I’ve been with them since they first started in beta and it’s amazing to see how they’ve grown and adapted based on customer feedback. They are the modern community for creators who genuinely care about their audience.

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