Communities normally monetize in two ways: access and status.
Many communities exist “after” knowledge. They are an incentive for getting through the course, project, guide, or certification. They allow access to people who did the same. Once you gained the knowledge (and often paid for it), then you get access to the community. This is the way communities have made money for thousands of years, paying to access or stay in a community.
Communities also monetize by selling status. Status exists naturally in communities. In a community, it shows who is active, cares, and is knowledgeable. It tells us where to look. Status comes from signaling you have knowledge or are important.
Communities monetize status by allowing members to show they care about a community and to stand out from the crowd. Often, the platform the community lives on monetizes through status. Special benefits, roles, badges, and display features are all ways of charging to signal status. Selling status is appealing because it allows people to stand out without hurting other members’ experiences.
But there is a third way to monetize few communities take advantage of, knowledge.
Communities are built on knowledge. They build collective knowledge of top posts, guides, tools, norms, and best practices. This collective knowledge is loose. Often community members don’t add to it or formalizing it. It grows slowly. The content is temporary, hard to maintain, and often lost. Paid content incentivizes improvements to collective knowledge and allows communities to monetize in a better way.
Others Do It, Why Can’t Communities?
Lots of places sell knowledge, there is no reason communities can’t be one of them. Communities have a supply of, and demand for, knowledge. Many community members pay for similar knowledge elsewhere.
There is a stigma around paid content in communities. Because nearly all content is free, paid content is looked down upon or banned. Although no one is certain, this often prevents important work. Developing high-quality content may require paying people. Since there are few mechanisms for paid content in communities, it doesn’t get created.
There is a growing amount of tools and products to monetize knowledge. Paid newsletters, courses, and guides are growing in number and relevance. The internet allows people to sell specific pieces of knowledge to specific audiences.
People already sell within communities. Lots of people use communities to promote in a roundabout way. I’m sure you’ve seen a community post with a call-to-action like “if you liked this post, check out my blog.” On their blog, they have an email funnel that leads to a paid course, guide, or product. They created content that appeals to a community but monetize away from it.
Advertisements are another example of selling on the community without the benefits going back to the community. Often ads have nothing to do with the community itself. Replacing ads with content crafted for a community is an improvement.
Communities should take control of their monetization.
How They Do It
Paid content starts with buy-in from the platforms and moderation team. None of this happens if paid content is banned or the community doesn’t want it. Paid content also requires tools to promote it and ways to communicate it. It is more work to get someone to buy content than it is to get them to read it.
Creating paid content is more work than the average post. The content must be valuable to the community; to do that, it must be developed by some subset of the community. If it is truly community content, it may involve many community members. Paid content requires more effort and coordination, but money provides a good incentive to coordinate.
Areas members should focus on to provide the most value:
- Formalizing basic collective knowledge.
- Expanding collective knowledge.
Formalizing Collective Knowledge
When I enter a community, I look for the most important information first.
- Top posts of all time.
- Content from most active and highest status members.
- Member wiki, introductory guide, recommended readings.
Paid content can improve on these formats. Paid introduction guides, paid content written by high-status members, a curated collection of top posts (with permission and revenue-sharing) are all options. If I am interested in a community, I want to dive down a rabbit hole. Often communities set up a wiki and forget it for years, links are dead, quality is poor. I may churn out before I understand and interact with the community.
Imagine a year in review or year ahead guide created by key members of a community. For it, you pay $5-20. Although basic, it can be valuable to new and existing members. They get high-quality knowledge and support the creation of content they like.
A brilliant example I saw (and bought) while writing this piece is the collected essays of LessWrong. They are charging $29 for a set of books containing the best writing from the community. It monetizes a free community by benefiting members of the community.
High-quality introductory content makes all members better members. It gives them the context they need to understand and participate in the community. It also encourages new members to stay longer. It is a valuable shortcut to knowledge communities don’t do well enough.
Expanding Collective Knowledge
Everyone wants to learn something new. New knowledge is knowledge at the boundaries of what the community covers. This is research into specific topics, experiments, or in-depth analysis.
The problem is innovative content is less rewarded than basic content in communities. The overall appeal of innovative content is lower than basic content. If a member is looking to maximize their status with the community as a whole, creating good content that appeals to all of them is better than creating excellent, innovative content that appeals to a minority.
Creating content that expands collective knowledge is a risk. By paying for it, communities can incentivize its creation. Without this content, a community can stagnate. The content within the community becomes a repetition of existing ideas. Old members lose interest.
Spend enough time in a community and you want to move beyond the basics. Members should push into uncharted territory. They should innovate and be rewarded. A boost in status often isn’t enough encouragement. Paid content can fill in.
Will It Happen?
As mentioned, paid content requires buy-in from both the platform or the moderations. As it stands, few platforms provide the tools and culture needed for paid content to thrive. Communities must communicate with their members on why paid content exists. It must be understood that paid content benefits the community. If members can be convinced, it can bring value to a community.
People complain that creating paid content within a community prevents free content. The balance is saying most of it exists already, and free content isn’t going away. Paid content is extra. It helps communities develop better, more specific content that will benefit the community into the future.
A future where communities create paid content is a future with better communities.
Let me know what you think on Twitter.