Companies have long valued the customer insights that online communities can provide, and some, such as Harley-Davidson, have even turned them into a revenue source by charging membership fees. But it’s not just companies that are tapping into this business model.
More and more individuals are launching their own membership communities, aiming to bring people together around a shared interest. These aren’t just hobbyists. By charging fees, typically $20–$100 per month, founders have created six-figure businesses around topics as varied as growing succulents, memory improvement techniques, guitar instruction, and food blogging.
But ensuring the success of online membership communities can be a challenge. You have to attract enough participants to create a dynamic community and, far more challenging, create a high-quality user experience that keeps your participants engaged — and willing to keep paying — overtime.
Since 2016 I’ve run an online community for members of my Recognized Expert course, and I’ve written extensively about building online revenue streams. If you or your company is considering launching an online membership site, here are six principles I’ve identified to maximize the benefit to your members and ensure they view your site as something worth paying for.
First, you need to launch with a sufficient user base. If people go to your site and see that there’s no activity, they won’t be inclined to join or remain a member. Make sure you have a critical mass of at least 50 participants before you go live. One way to do this is to create a waiting list, and launch your site when you’ve hit the right number. To identify your earliest participants, you can reach out to your email list, use social media to identify prospects, or try the old-fashioned approach of personally calling and emailing relevant contacts to see if they’d like to join. Another model for reaching critical mass, one that I’ve followed, is to bundle a membership in your online community with the purchase of a course or product.
Second, focus your messaging around your site’s content. It may seem self-evident that an online community’s value is the community itself. But unless people have experienced it firsthand, it’s hard for them to imagine what the interactions will be like or why they’ll be valuable. Instead, what almost always drives participants to join in the first place is the promise of interesting educational content, so emphasize that in your messaging, and let them discover the value of community interactions on their own, over time.
As I describe in my book Entrepreneurial You, spouses Bjork and Lindsay Ostrom created Food Blogger Pro, an online community for food bloggers. They feature hundreds of videos on the site, ranging from photography tips to technical advice about running a blog. The content draws participants in, Bjork says, but “in the long term, people stay because we have this forum of other people that are helping each other.”
Third, be heavily involved early on. It’s easy to underestimate the amount of time you’ll need to invest up front to create a robust community. But active participation by the site creator is essential in the early days for two reasons: (1) The community members have a connection to you but not to one another, so you need to spark conversations to foster those relationships and get participants in the habit of engaging. (2) An involved moderator sets the tenor of discussions and makes sure they’re both civil and useful.
Many professionals shy away from creating an online community because they fear it will devolve into yet another forum for ad hominem insults and rancor. But in three years of running my online community, there has been only one flare-up (someone asked for advice, and then got defensive when it came). A private conversation took care of the issue, and we’ve never had another problem — because I set a clear tone from the beginning about what type of behavior is expected in the group and the importance of supporting and encouraging other members.
Fourth, don’t let your site become a clique. One of the best parts of an online community is the feeling of connection that members develop. But cohesion can turn cliquish if not handled properly. For example, longtime members might be dismissive toward newcomers with “rookie” questions, or those who know each other “in real life” might respond warmly to their friends’ posts while ignoring others’. It’s essential to create a culture in which every participant feels welcome — a process that author Ryan Levesque thought about carefully as his online community grew from 100 participants to more than 2,000 in the span of two years.
He decided to hire one paid “community advocate” for every 400 participants, in order to initiate discussions, monitor the tenor of interactions, and provide general assistance and support. Levesque has developed a sequence of private messages for new members, encouraging them to take one specific step with the community each day, such as reading a certain blog post. The goal is to get them acclimated to the group and in the habit of participating, while ensuring newcomers don’t overwhelm the site all at once or spark an “us versus them” reaction in longtime members. Private, offline conversations usually take care of any problems that arise, but his systematic approach to onboarding aims to prevent them from arising at all.
Fifth, help relationships flourish offline. Online communities are terrific but fundamentally limited. If you’d really like to encourage group cohesion, encouraging real-world meetups is a powerful way to do it. They can be officially organized events; for example, I’m holding a one-day conference for my community members this fall in New York City. Or they can be informal, such as when my community members post pictures of themselves connecting with other members. The more that participants connect with one another, the more likely they are to stay involved over time, and to purchase other products and services. For instance, community members may sign up for one of my in-person workshops because they believe it will accelerate their business success, but they might be more encouraged to attend when they know their friends will be there too.
Sixth, get the sales balance right. Having an active online community gives you the ability to survey your customers every day. You can ask them directly about the struggles they’re facing and the products or services they feel would be most helpful. If you’re running a site for plant lovers, for instance, you may discover they’re desperate for an in-person training on growing roses, or an online course on soil enrichment techniques.
But as business professors Debi Kleiman and Anat Keinan have pointed out, it’s important to recognize the difference between an online community and yet another sales channel. People aren’t investing their time to be pitched relentlessly, so be careful to avoid selling too hard.
However, you shouldn’t miss the lessons that close contact with your best clients can teach you. Deep customer intelligence enables you to know that they’ll want a new product or service you might create — and when you do create something relevant, it’s not “salesy” to make participants aware of it. It’s part of the two-way relationship you’ve worked hard to build.
In a world where we’re deluged with opportunities to interact online, it’s not easy to convince people to make the effort to engage in yet another community, much less pay for the privilege. By following these six principles, you’re much more likely to create a resource that is truly meaningful to participants and adds real value to their lives, while creating a robust business model for yourself.