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Heights Platform Creating a Free vs Paid Online Community: Should You Charge for Community Access?

Creating a Free vs Paid Online Community: Should You Charge for Community Access?

8 minute read

Studies conducted on businesses who decided to create a branded online community show that 72% of participants say that the community has led to an increase in website traffic and SEO. Online communities can also help organizations improve engagement by up to 21%.

So it doesn't come as a shock that businesses are turning to online communities to grow their brand engagement and expand their audiences.

Building an online community of engaged customers around your brand is definitely a good idea - but should you offer access to the community for free, or should you charge for it?

This is a question that a lot of creators struggle with at the beginning of building their new online community, so keep reading below to find out which pricing model better fits you and your business.

If you are completely new to the world of online communities, make sure to check out these articles from our blog:

Let's see what the differences are between free and paid online communities and which is better for your brand.

Free Online Community

Free online communities are one of the most common community spaces where members can join without paying an access fee. In free online communities, members can access content, share ideas, and connect with like-minded people without being charged to join the virtual space.

When Should You Build a Free Online Community?

There are many reasons why a creator decides to build a free online community: this decision ultimately depends on what your goals are with the online community. Are you starting an online community to promote your business? Educate your audience? Connect with like-minded people? Collect new leads?

Let's see the most common use case scenarios for building a free online community so you can understand if this strategy is the right one for your business:

If your goal is to collect leads: a great way to collect leads and boost interest in your business is to start a free online community around your brand or around your niche. For example, if you sell online courses related to fitness, you could create a free online community for people who are interested in learning more about working-out, weight-loss and fitness and use this as a way to introduce them to your business.

If your goal is to connect with like-minded people: making more sales or gathering leads is not the only reason why people decide to build a free online community. Maybe you want to connect with people who share the same passion, hobby, ideas, or background as you. If this is the case, then a free online community is the best way to achieve this.

If your goal is to attract a large number of members: free online communities have the potential to attract a higher number of members compared to paid ones.

If your goal is to offer multiple tiers of community access: some creators might decide to build multiple communities and offer both free and paid access to different groups or sections of the community.

If your goal is to promote your paid products: a free online community can help you to promote your business and spread the word about your services. If this is your goal, then our advice is to pay attention to the platform your choose for your online community, as social media platforms might not be the ideal choice due to the number of distractions members are exposed to (keep reading below to learn more about this)

If your goal is to offer a community area for your paying customers: if you want to provide more value to your existing customers, consider creating a free online community for them. Technically, this kind of community would not be 100% free, as members would have to purchase something from you in order to access it, but it can be a great way to grow your customers' loyalty and provide even more value.

Pros and Cons of Free Online Communities

Now that you know why you should build a free online community, let's see the benefits and drawbacks of creating a free online community for your members.

Let's start with the pros of offering a free online community:

  • Free online communities are easily accessible
  • They are easier to stumble upon and find - especially if hosted on social media
  • They can be a great tool to capture new leads and promote your paid products - especially if hosted on a dedicated community platform
  • You have the potential to attract a large number of people
  • Free communities can be a great way to offer more value to your existing customers and increase loyalty
  • They help you introduce your business to new customers and consolidate your personal brand

Now let's see the cons of offering a community for free:

  • More members mean more moderation and support efforts
  • You need to be on the lookout for spam, unsolicited content and self-promotion
  • The quality of content is generally lower compared to paid communities
  • If you host your community on social media, members are easily distracted, less prone to take action or convert into paying customers
  • It is harder to engage members in free online communities - especially if hosted on social media

Where Should You Host a Free Online Community?

Most free online communities are hosted on social media platforms that offer the opportunity to form online groups and forums, such as Facebook groups, LinkedIn, Reddit, Quora, and so on.

Online communities hosted on social media platforms are easier to find and more accessible for new members, so you have the potential to attract a large number of people. However - there are many downsides to hosting your online community on social media, including lack of engagement (fighting against algorithms), lots of distraction and a lower chance of converting your community members into paying customers.

A solution for this can be to host your free online community on a dedicated community platform. These platforms allow you to create a space where members can interact for free and be less prone to leave the community or be distracted by external notifications or ads. These can be platforms such as Discord, Slack, Microsoft Teams and so on.

The third - and best - option, especially for business owners and online course creators, is to host an online community with a dedicated community platform that also lets you run your business and sell other digital products from the same space.

Heights Platform is an example of this all-in-one online community software, as in the addition to offering an online community feature, you get to build and sell online courses, membership sites, challenges, coaching programs, and digital products.

This way, even if you aren’t selling access to your community specifically, the members of your free community are exposed to your paid product offerings, and you get a high chance of converting them into lifelong paying customers. Plus, everything you need for your business is within one platform, so you don't have to juggle multiple log-ins and pay multiple subscription fees to all these different software.

Paid online communities are private virtual spaces that members can access only once they pay an entrance fee (usually a monthly subscription). As opposed to free online communities, paid communities are usually more restricted circles where members have to undergo some level of vetting in order to be accepted into the community.

When Should You Create a Paid Online Community?

Like free online communities, paid communities also have many different use case scenarios, so let's see if this approach can work well for your business and goals.

If the community is your main product offering: needless to say that if your goal is to make money with your online community, you should charge for members' access. This is a common use case scenario where creators might produce free content, sell digital products and create a community for those people in their audience who want to learn even more and get the full support of the creator and like-minded peers.

If you want to ensure high-quality content: paid online community ensures a higher quality in terms of content and interactions, both from the creator and from the members. So if you are struggling with this, a good solution can be to charge for community access and vet new members and what they are posting. Not to mention that most paid communities are hosted on dedicated platforms that offer features designed to help you moderate the community and approve or block content posted by the members.

If you want to keep your members engaged: people who pay in order to access an online community are more likely to be engaged in the discussion and make their money's worth by interacting with others and consuming the content. (You also don’t have to fight with social media algorithms to get members to see your content when using dedicated community software)

If you are running a coaching business: a paid online community could be a part of your coaching or mastermind business!

If you pair your community with other paid products: many creators offer an online community as part of a bundle that includes other products (online courses, digital products and so on...). The community here is technically free, but students have to pay the bundle or course price in order to access it.

Pros and Cons of Paid Online Communities

Now that you learned about the most common use case scenarios for paid online communities let's see the pros and cons of charging for community access so you can make an informed decision for your business!

Let's start with the pros of building a paid online community:

  • Members who pay to access a community will be more engaged
  • Charging a community fee ensures a higher content quality
  • You can better vet new members
  • Paid communities are less exposed to spam
  • You can create a recurring stream of revenue
  • Members who join your paid community are more likely to purchase from you again

Here are the cons of offering a paid online community:

  • You have put more effort into promoting the online community to gain new members
  • Be prepared to dedicate time and effort to growing and interacting with the community and providing the high-quality content that paying members expect
  • If you are starting from scratch and don't have a big audience, it can be challenging to get new members to sign up - especially if there is no one inside your community yet! In this case, you might want to consider starting with free access until your community grows in size

Where Should You Host a Paid Online Community?

The best match for a paid online community is a dedicated community platform.

While technically you could host a paid online community on social media, it is not recommended as there is a lot of manual work involved: since you cannot charge for community access in most social media platforms, you'd have to collect payments on a third-party checkout and manually check that all the new applicants are actually paying customers.

Not to mention that hosting a paid online community on social media does not look professional to the eyes of your members.

To host a paid online community you need a dedicated platform that lets you set a price for the community to collect payments, customize with your own branding, and host on your own domain. Check out this article from our blog to learn how to choose the best online community platform for your needs: How to Choose the Right Online Community Platform For Your Knowledge Business

When researching the best online community platform for your needs, look out for features such as moderation tools, flexibility in how you structure the community and - most importantly - the ability to run your whole online business on one platform!

This is what sets Heights Platform apart from the competition: Heights is the all-in-one solution for creators who want to start monetizing their knowledge and grow an online business.

Our built-in community feature is included in our Basic plan and above, so there is no need to purchase a separate subscription to dedicated online community software since Heights Platform offers it built-in! The community in Heights is a place where students can share their thoughts about your online course, ask questions, provide feedback and interact with you and each other.

So if you are looking for a platform where to build your online community space, sell online courses and digital products, and host and promote your site, then look no further!

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