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Lessons on growing communities and validating to commercialisation.

I’ve grown many communities before, continuously learning more and refining the process.

I have created a successful business model from some of them; others have been challenging to commercialise. Communities and commercial businesses are different beasts, yet they both need each other.

Businesses often need a community for relevance in their marketing and purpose in customer engagement. Good marketing departments realise that highly engaged customers evolve into great communities and will give back to the brand 10 x as advocates if they feel seen, heard, supported and valued as customers. The organic beginnings of a community usually trace back to a few highly engaged and dynamic customers.

Communities that start as communities first (as opposed to a business where the community is a byproduct) usually hit a tricky point in growth where the question becomes - when do we begin asking people to pay?

Will the community who came for the people see enough value to keep the good thing and pay to stay?

I’ve seen this play out multiple times. People come for the program, but once the program ( paid engagement ends), they stay for the community, which is a great outcome. It proves the right people are in the room; they have chosen to be there, and better still - they decided to stay.

What tends to go unnoticed is the following on community engagement still requires resources, facilitation, curation, management, moderation, platform maintenance, subscription fees, and ongoing data management. Community management and curation accrue continuing costs, even if it’s ‘just people chatting online’.

So when and how do you respectfully introduce fees into communities without members feeling they’re being taken advantage of?

After all, you want people to stay.

Do you introduce a fee to stay once they are already there? It feels like changing the rules halfway through the game. It can be presented as a tier of membership or subscription fees; they enable them to stay in the cohort/platform for a price.

I've introduced this before, and three things have happened.

  1. Members leave as they feel like the game has changed ( fees introduced for something they once got for free), and they don’t like it.

  2. Members splinter off and form a sub/side community with a few other members - for free. Often only face the same realisation that costs/time/effort is required and will eventually meet similar challenges.

  3. Members pay and stay, yet the dynamic has changed as a program cohort's original ‘clique’ has changed.

There are a few ways to navigate through this community growth challenge.

Invite the first few cohorts ( if it's a program) of early adopters / first customers to become ‘foundation customers’. Bring them in, draw them close and get them to give you feedback on the experience to help develop a member-based product/subscription with a financial model.

Another thing to avoid is offering lifetime access to a ‘community’ on the back of an event or a program paid to play. There will always be an end date, and introducing that concept early allows you to change the rules of engagement at the end of the original term.

Some benefits of engaging early adopters to become foundation customers are:

  • Continued Validation

  • Ongoing Testing

  • Increased listening power from users

Ability to swap out [feedback as criticism] to [feedback for improvement].

A continuous flow of new ideas direct from your customers will drive development

Embedding transparency by establishing an open feedback loop

increased ability to develop diverse solutions if the foundation customers offer different perspectives than your team

In validation mode, there is an opportunity to introduce paid models inside the community with varying offers based on feedback from the foundation customer group.

If they feel the financial model isn't worth it, it is a perfect opportunity to work with them to seek to add value to ensure the paid membership presents a valid offer.

Building and monetising membership-based businesses and communities involve ongoing validation, lean learning loops, and continuous iteration based on direct feedback.

Some well-known movement/impact communities have monetised their PAY TO STAY model instead of PAY TO PLAY.

Their programs are free, but their curated communities and memberships are paid. They drive outcomes from volume and significantly impact communities, like reducing the need for health insurance claims and other healthcare services; governments love wellness-positive programs based on delivering value to the community and shifting a collective mindset. Most monetise their online traffic and social influence via advertising, social reach, product endorsements, sponsorships and partnerships. The last step (as opposed to the first) is to introduce paid memberships to their communities from free programs.

Some great examples are:

Park Run - “Free for everyone forever” They have paid products and are funded based on their impact on the mental and physical health of the communities they build.

75 Hard - Free program. Paid merch and community.

FWFG - Yoga With Adrienne

Free yoga videos on Youtube for five years before they introduced a paid community membership model.

The question remains: what is your business model, pay to play or pay to stay?

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