Online communities are becoming a main feature of the human experience, and the trend seems set to stay on the rise going forward. In fact, according to a recent survey, 77% of respondents agreed that some of the most important groups they had joined recently were based online.
With that said, online communities represent a real opportunity to earn an income for both brands and individuals. But it has to be more than just asking people to pay a fee to be a part of your virtual grouping. If you are only deciding to set one up because of the money-making potential, you might be in for a rude awakening. There are a few things to focus on for your online community monetization strategy to have a chance at being successful:
- Offering members something truly valuable in exchange for their time.
- Cultivating the right audience/niche.
- Picking a suitable platform that best maximizes your message and allows for easy navigation.
- Consistently engaging with community members and allowing them to play an active role.
- Continuously prioritizing the needs of members and adding value in order to boost loyalty.
As you can imagine, a useful online community worthy of monetization does take good planning and hard work. Before getting into all the possible ways you can earn from your internet-based community, let’s talk a little about what makes up these social groups and why people join them.
What is an online community?
The concept of the online community is not new, having been around since the internet became a thing. It is quite similar to physical communities in that they involve people grouping themselves together around common interests. The difference is that people in an online community use the internet and related tools to communicate with each other.
These communities can consist of people who actually live closely together in the real world or reside many miles away. They can be based on various human interests, including cultural similarities such as fashion and music choices, or business-related needs like customer support and product/service knowledge. In addition, online communities can be private or public, opened or closed, as well as free or paid.
Why people join online communities
People have always been social beings. The need for knowledge sharing, trading, and collaboration, among other things, have resulted in the formation of countless communities since time immemorial. The list includes every human interest imaginable (religious, cultural, educational, business, health, wellness, leisure, etc.).
The rise in digital technology in recent decades has seen people flocking to various platforms to seek similar connections, albeit virtually. It’s now possible for anyone, anywhere in the world to join communities that allow them to share views, get help, suggest ideas, or even build new relationships. In many cases, all someone needs to join an online community is a connection to the internet and a suitable device to access it.
Now that you have a basic understanding of what online communities are and their role in society, it is time to look at ways they can be monetized.
It’s now possible for anyone, anywhere in the world to join communities that allow them to share views, get help, suggest ideas, or even build new relationships.
1. Charge for membership
Asking group members to pay a fee to gain access to your offerings is one of the commonest monetization strategies for online communities. However, this is not something you can usually do right off the bat. At the outset of setting up your online community, people won’t readily pay for membership unless you already had a following or a notable brand prior to getting started. Most likely, you will have to begin by rolling out free content and other perks to attract people to your online community.
As time passes by, you can gauge how well people respond to your offerings to determine if there is high enough demand to charge a fee. If there is, you can implement a paywall that allows new or existing members to gain access to your community. Nowadays, implementing a payment system for your digital community is rather easy using platforms such as PayPal or Stripe.
Depending on how your community is set up, you can charge a single membership fee across the board or you can have several tiers that offer different perks. You can even sell exclusive access where people pay to access special or insider content, reserved archives, and other privileges not available to regular members.
Selling advertisement spots is another great way to monetize your online community, especially if you have managed to consistently grow the membership of your community. Companies looking to get their products and services in front of a targeted audience may be willing to pay you to promote their offerings. For example, if your online community is geared towards vintage footwear enthusiasts, it is possible that retro sneaker brands might be willing to pay for advertising spots in your community.
At the same time, community members who find your content valuable will most certainly be interested in offerings from brands that you present to them. With a loyal following, you can also approach brands proposing different advertising packages. Running ads can take on several different forms, including:
- Placing advertising banners on prominent pages/areas of your online community.
- Accepting sponsored blog posts, videos, threads, and other content.
- Promoting products and services in your newsletter, blog, threads, etc.
- Charging a fee for companies to add links to high-performing content.
3. Organize events
Many online communities provide opportunities for people to gain knowledge from experts. Many even look forward to meeting up with others in their professional and social networks. Depending on the main interests and needs of your community members, you could look into arranging events that would require people to pay for access and other benefits. If your online community is geared towards newbie stock market investors, for instance, you could arrange workshops or discussion panels where people pay a fee to learn from experienced investors. Such events could involve special guests and speakers who community members would be interested in learning from.
In addition, you could seek sponsorship from companies and brands who want to have their products and services placed front and center during the event.
It should be noted that hosting paid events does not necessarily mean face to face meetups or physical locations. In fact, the new normal created by the COVID-19 pandemic means most networking events are able to be organized and hosted using online tools. You can set up discussion panels or informational sessions via Zoom, for example, as well as use social platforms to create live events with assigned speakers. Twitter Spaces is one such tool that has been used for online community events, but there are many others to check out.
4. Set up a trading station
More and more people are looking to trade physical and digital products, and even their skills online, as internet tools and software become more sophisticated. Coders, graphic designers, writers, and even musicians are among numerous professionals joining communities in order to find clients and collaborators.
In addition, people are becoming members of online interest groups and forums to trade vintage items, art, clothing, books, and other physical products. Most recently, the selling of different types of NFTs (non-fungible tokens) has resulted in interested parties setting up online spaces where people can share in related discussions and events.
These are just a few examples of how online communities can be used to facilitate trading among members. You can pull this off in several ways. One approach is to set up a different page or member’s area within your online community where people get to display their wares for free — whether it is a product, service or skill. With each confirmed sale, you get to earn a cut of the revenue.
Another approach is to make money by charging a membership fee to simply access the trading area, independent of any sales that might occur. You could also put a paywall on users’ ability to post their offerings in the community.
5. Online courses and e-books
E-learning is currently a fast-growing market, with estimations that the demand for online learning material could push the global market size beyond $370 billion by 2026. If you are an expert in your field or possess knowledge people would be willing to pay for, you could look into setting up an online course and selling it through your online community.
Creating an online course is not difficult, and you don’t need to have access to sophisticated video recording material nor have superior content editing skills. There are a number of course-building platforms around that make it possible for you to simply compile and upload your course material. What’s more, online courses are mostly low-maintenance, passive income earners that you can create once and keep earning from without doing much else going forward. The same can be said about e-books.
However, the key to making money from courses and e-books is to ensure their content provides tangible value for users. What are some of the pain points expressed by members of your online community? Which topics generate the most conversations within your community? How are competitors in your industry failing to satisfy consumers? Answering these questions is a start to determining whether you can create an online course or e-book that community members will likely want to pay for.
6. Affiliate marketing
One of the easiest monetizing strategies you can deploy within your online community is to become an affiliate marketer. There are numerous websites that offer affiliate marketing programs and which allow you to promote their products using various methods. In fact, more than 80% of known brands use affiliate marketing to attract buyers, so it is quite easy to find suitable items to promote.
Amazon Associates, for example, has one of the most vibrant affiliate programs that almost anyone can tap into due to the wide assortment of products that are sold through the Amazon network. Share-A-Sale, Clickbank, Rakuten, and Shopify are a few of the many other affiliate programs you can try.
Making money as an affiliate requires you to choose the best products that your community members care about, create content around them, and insert the relevant affiliate links. When someone ends up making a purchase after following an affiliate link, you will end up earning a percentage of the revenue. The amount you can earn varies considerably depending on the affiliate program you are using.
Affiliate marketing as an online community monetization strategy is also one of the top ways to earn passively because many programs require little maintenance and some allow your affiliate links to have relevance for months on end.
7. Coaching services
Many people join communities for personal development purposes, whether that means learning a new skill or enhancing their networking abilities. Some are willing to go a step further and pay for professional coaching so they can achieve their goals. If you have expertise in helping people fulfill their potential in a particular area, you could look into providing paid coaching services to members of your online community.
Even if you are not an expert, you could still use your online community as a hub for coaching services. This would work by connecting people with coaching expertise to those who need their services. Each time a connection is made, you would claim a percentage of the fees paid to the coach.
Another approach to consider, in cases where you may not be able to offer one-on-one coaching, is to develop and sell a coaching program. This is similar to creating a pre-made online course that you can sell over and over again. If packaged properly and relevant to the needs of users, interested community members would be willing to pay for your coaching program. A professional singer building a singing community, for instance, could develop a coaching program that helps amateur singers hone their vocal abilities.
Many people join communities for personal development purposes, whether that means learning a new skill or enhancing their networking abilities.
8. Branded merchandise
If your online community is based on a movement, viral product, or original idea that takes off, you could also look into creating branded merchandise that can be sold to members. If you come up with a catchy name for your online tribe, members may be willing to buy a t-shirt, armband, or even jackets emblazoned with the associated graphic.
If you don’t want to take that route, you could also approach known companies for partnerships that will allow them to offer branded products to members of your online community. When sales occur, you get a percentage of the revenues.
Not comfortable setting up a paywall or having your community members pay for stuff? Inviting donations may be a good idea. However, people have to see real value in your cause or business model before they will feel willing to donate.
It is no secret that online communities are here to stay. The COVID-19 pandemic, in particular, pushed people to join virtual communities in droves during the year 2020. It also resulted in more brands and individuals creating their own virtual communities around various goals and interests. By focusing on the core needs of people, it is possible you can create an online community that you will be able to monetize.