The ultimate guide to monetizing your online community
Are you a blogger, video creator, podcaster or a jack-of-all-trades hustler searching for ways how to monetize your online community? Stress no more, we’ve got your back.
When we speak to online entrepreneurs about their monetization strategies, we almost always hear the same answers, no matter their industry. How do these people make money?
- They sell their own products or services;
- They accept advertising;
- They maximize brand deals and sponsorships.
Let’s get one thing straight — making money from a personal blog or website isn’t reserved for a special kind of entrepreneurs. With the right tools and tactics at hand, anyone can do it.
We have collected a bunch of effective online community monetization strategies and real-life examples for you. Learn from those who’ve emerged from the community monetization struggle with a fat paycheck in their hand.
Before reading further, take our quick four-question quiz to determine potential earnings you can achieve by monetizing your online community.
Consider paid posts
Have you ever heard about native advertising? While it is still a slightly fuzzy concept, most marketers agree that it must be interesting, useful and highly targeted content that brands pay to have published on relevant sites. It won’t be your typical promotional stuff; it is carefully constructed to grab the attention of a specific audience. Accepting a paid post is nothing shameful as long as it creates value for your online community.
It is an easy way to monetize your online community if you partner with brands that put creativity and authenticity before self-promotion. Be careful with accepting poor quality paid content because it can erode your members’ goodwill and hurt your reputation. But say yes to content that delights your members and tops up your bank account.
One of the all-time best examples of winning paid content is this paid post in The New York Times.
Staying true to its readership, the publication teamed up with Netflix to publish an in-depth article discussing the many problems women face in prison, the effect of incarceration on their family, and the prison reform — issues that are explored in the Netflix series “Orange is the New Black.” As a paid piece of content designed to promote the new season of the series and entice The New York Times readers to tune in, it is still an incredibly interesting and valuable read for the publication’s audience.
Introduce print on demand branded merchandise
Have you ever proudly wore a custom t-shirt bearing a community’s name or logo? Unlike the branded swag merchandise and products that are handed out for free at trade shows, tube stations and conferences, community merchandise is actually loved and appreciated by its devoted fans. For people to buy your branded products, they must feel like they’re part of an exclusive club, a community of people bound by certain values or interests, not just some fans blindly following a trendy brand.
CouchSurfing Store is a great example of community monetization. Stacked with custom mugs, t-shirts, journals and other products that are useful for its travellers community, CouchSurfing Store is hitting two nails with the same hammer. First of all, it offers its community an avenue to express their appreciation and loyalty, a way to identify themselves as “couchsurfers” and something to bond over with fellow adventurers — in other words, it is delighting its community.
Secondly, it is successfully turning a profit on branded merchandise that further promotes its brand and creates more fans. However, it must be pointed out that this monetization strategy is best suited for strong, ideologic communities that are bigger than the brands themselves. If you decide to go down this route, spend some time choosing the most relevant products that can create value for your community.
WaitButWhy is another classic example of a popular blog successfully monetizing its online community. Thanks to Tim Urban’s (he’s the founder and main writer) unique (and often hilarious) style of writing, the blog enjoys a strong following. Tim and his team have created a brand that’s more of a wholesome experience than just a series of blog posts. Tim’s iconic stickman illustrations have been transferred onto t-shirts, hats, calendars, plush toys, posters and a bunch of other merch products.
Create a membership site
Running a private membership site is probably one of the best known ways how to monetize an online community. Putting up a paywall gives zealous entrepreneurs the opportunity to deep-dive into their passions, focus on creating powerful content and providing value to their subscribers, and all while getting paid for it! Many have successfully transformed their communities into membership sites by following a few simple rules.
If it’s your debut project, the most important thing to do is to learn from other successful membership sites. If you haven’t yet, do your research by getting some first-hand experience of how successful membership sites are run and structured and build on that. It’s okay to steal and borrow as long as you add your own unique twist.
Harley Owners Group is an excellent example of a paid membership site.
As an iconic brand, it enjoys a global community and can, therefore, charge and offer more. H.O.G. has a three-tier membership tailored to three distinctive segments of their community: exclusive membership for motorcycle owners, associate membership for those in the passenger seat and a membership for life for die-hard fans.
The takeaway from this example is that understanding and segmenting your community into clearly defined clusters is critical to launching a successful membership scheme. Knowing what your customers value and understanding their pain points and aspirations will help you develop an appealing offer that converts them into paying members. Kicking off with the right pricing structure in place is key and that’s only possible if you know what potential members are prepared to pay for.
Create a rewards scheme for your patrons
Lately, creators community online has been abuzz about this new membership site Patreon that helps creators get paid for what they’re doing already. If you’re creating videos, comics, songs, high-quality blogs or other similar types of content, check out how you can get your online community to pay a monthly subscription fee or make a per creation payment every time you release something new. If you have a vibrant online community excited about and waiting for your next piece of content, this might be just the way for you to monetize your digital products.
Leverage user data
The idea of monetizing your online community isn’t about manipulating your subscribers into buying something they don’t want or need, although it may sometimes have that negative connotation. When done right, it’s about turning a profit by delighting your customers. Think about it this way — an online community is bound together by something much bigger than just a wishlist. Communities share the same values, aspirations, tastes and passions. If you want to profit from fans, you should focus on giving them more of what they love and helping them get closer to their version of happiness.
Made Unboxed is how one of the trendiest and most desired furniture brands harnesses their community’s passion for design and style. Instead of shoving their marketing newsletters down their customer’s throats, they rely on user-generated content to inspire, intrigue and convert other prospects.
To put it simply, they leverage everything they know about their customers to sell, upsell and cross-sell more. User-generated content gives Made.com a unique insight into how their customers live, how they furnish their homes and what they love. Knowing so much about their customers, the brand can add more new products that match their customers’ taste, collaborate with other brands that their customers would love, and develop truly personalised offers that customers simply cannot resist.
To successfully monetize your online community, collect and leverage user data to create more personalised, tailored experiences and irresistible offers.
Start coaching and selling your expertise
Lifelong learning and self-development are significant, juicy topics right now. Chances are, many of your community members have personal goals and would not mind paying for high-quality, specialised training if that helped them achieve what they’re striving for. So why not use your expertise and coaching opportunities as a way of monetizing your online community?
The one thing you need to absolutely nail to make the best out of this tactic is building a strong personal brand. Establishing yourself as a thought leader and an expert in your field will not only give your coaching program more credibility, but will also help you ensure your community members associate your name with the forum, blog or membership site that you’re running. This, in turn, will boost your brand and spark many more monetization opportunities in the future.
To give you an example of how profitable coaching can be, let’s look at the well-known copywriting community at CopyHackers. Since kicking off the blog and building a strong community, the duo of Joanna Wieber and Lance Jones have launched a number of copywriting courses, workshops, tutorials and even a specialised writing software. They are truly going for it.
If you have valuable lessons to share and people who are willing to listen to you, then coaching is a surefire way how to monetize your online community.
Ask for donations
Value for value is a perfectly good way of monetizing an online community. For this tactic to be effective though, you first need to deliver your part of the deal by creating some truly valuable content or experience and giving it away for free. Understandably, it can seem like a daunting exercise. Free access to incredible resources online has spoilt us to the extent where we feel everything has to be free. It’s normal to stress about your community turning a blind eye to your plea for support. But many blogs and online communities have proven this to be an empty worry by succeeding to operate exclusively on a donation basis.
For instance, Brainpickings, a personal blog (and newsletter) that features the author’s writing on culture, books, philosophy and eclectic subjects on and off the Internet, is relying entirely on its readers’ patronage. As of December 2012, the blog was receiving 1.2 million visitors a month. Obviously, not all readers will donate, but if you have an engaged readership and some groundbreaking content, the opportunity is ripe. You can start off by setting up one-off donations via PayPal and later create a monthly subscription scheme to secure recurring revenue or add all donation options from the beginning and let your community choose how they want to reciprocate.
Host events, workshops or conferences
Organising a meetup, workshop or conference is a lot of work but it also represents an immense opportunity to make money. The moment you start charging an entry fee, people’s expectations soar, so it’s critical for your reputation and future success to deliver above standard. There are several avenues how to monetize offline events, such as finding sponsors, selling your products, branded merchandise or training. It also gives you the opportunity to expand your community and raise brand awareness of what and why you do.
One of the world’s best known events brand, TED Conferences, is the ultimate example of how an engaged community can influence a brand’s growth and success. It took six years for the co-founders to take TED from a one-off conference to an annual global event and a video phenomenon. TED Talks have now become the symbol of world-changing ideas, innovation and visionary thinking and has an engaged global community that happily watches, attends, and buys TED products — either physical or digital.
Whatever format you choose for your first event, start small and obsess about details. You will learn from your mistakes and find new ideas how to monetize your online community by experimenting and collaborating with speakers, mentors, sponsors, members of your community and other like-minded people. Focus on quality!
Start selling ebooks
Selling directly to your online community has numerous benefits. The most obvious advantage is receiving much higher royalties. When you sell through third-party websites, such as Amazon, for example, you typically get no more than 70% of your royalties. This is a big profit cut on such a labour-intensive product as an ebook.
The added benefit of offering your ebooks directly to your readers is the opportunity to engage them even further, build on that loyalty and develop new monetization strategies when the time is right. For instance, the world authority on leadership psychology, Tony Robbins, is successfully capitalising on his global following by keeping his community engaged and entertained through a variety of free and paid products and content.
Don’t be intimidated by the popularity and reach of figures like Tony Robbins. Anyone can write and successfully sell books or ebooks as long as they have something exceptionally interesting and valuable to share. Leading an online community gives you a unique opportunity to peak into your potential readers’ mind, figure out what type of content they want, and get writing.
Run an online course
Similar to online training and coaching opportunities, running an online course represents a simple yet effective way of monetizing your online community. While there are many high-level online courses available for free, your advantage rests on the personal relationship you have with your members as well as your personal brand. You should start by finding and clearly defining a profitable niche idea that has true potential. With direct access to an engaged community, you can even run a poll or an email survey to learn more about the topics and skills your members are interested in.
Let’s take, for example, the HatAcademy. Created to bring together passionate millinery enthusiasts, this hat making academy ticks many boxes. First of all, it targets a niche market of hobbyists and professional hat makers. It has an online store stocked with millinery materials, feathers and embellishments to keep the members coming back for essentials. And on top of that, it offers a full range of professional online courses to help hobbyists master the art of millinery.
Work on creating a flawless experience for your community members, offering everything from free valuable resources, to physical products they may need, to value-packed online courses. Once you become the go-to place, your monetization opportunities are limitless.
Explore affiliate programs
Signing up for an affiliate program is probably one of the easiest and quickest ways to make money from your online community. While you do need to be transparent and inform your members that you get paid for promoting certain brands or products, people are so used to this way of monetizing a blog or a website that usually rarely anyone complains. Curious to learn how to earn money with affiliate programs? The key is to find products that you and (hopefully) your community likes. If you feel that you can genuinely recommend something, it won’t be as difficult to endorse it and promote it on your website.
The commission can range from 30% to 70%, depending on the product and the program. It’s best, of course, to go for higher priced products to secure a better pay, but don’t get caught in the money-only game because it can hurt your community’s engagement.
There are many affiliate programs out there, but some of the most popular ones include:
Take on speaking gigs
Getting paid to speak almost always comes down to having a solid online presence. Depending on the type of speaking engagements you’re after, leveraging your online community could turn out to be a secret weapon. Let’s say you specialise in motivational talks or life coaching. As an entrepreneur with a strong following and established online community, you already have an open communication avenue to put yourself out there.
First of all, you should publish your ideas on your own site and get your community involved in online conversations. Ask them to share your articles to gain brand awareness and build your authority. Utilise videos to showcase your personality and speaking style and don’t shy away from unpaid speaking opportunities if they align with your values and strengths — word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tactic out there.
Gary Vaynerchuk, or simply Gary Vee, is a perfect example of a high-profile entrepreneur with a huge following who’s made the best out of video content and the tight-knit community benefits. Besides accepting sponsorships for his custom #ASKGARYVEE videos, he also puts himself forward for speaking opportunities and engages in various speaking formats from honest Q&A’s to keynote speaking.
If public speaking doesn’t make you sweat, harness your online community to build your credibility, be seen and take over the world stage.
Think about advertising & sponsorships
Probably the best known website monetization strategy out there. Running an online community allows you to get to know your members, their needs and preferences, which means you’re much better equipped for filtering and targeting ads than some algorithm. Many brands would happily pay you to get direct access to your engaged audience either through sponsored content or through ad banners and special offers. Not only are you in the position where you can choose which brands and products to promote to your readership, but you can also charge a premium price for the latest market research insights you provide.
There are many ways how to make money from your website using advertising — from giving brands space in your regular newsletters to allowing them to start new discussion threads on the forum. BabyCentre, an online community for new parents, for example, sells banner space in their newsletter as well as runs sponsored email campaigns. They only allow highly targeted, relevant advertising that adds value to the readers, so there’s never any risk of upsetting the community with hard-selling. In fact, many community members appreciate the exclusive discounts and offers they get without having to move a finger.
If you’re already trying some monetization tactics, cross-selling is a gem to consider. In the ecommerce world, cross-selling stands for a sales technique used to get customers to spend more on purchasing a product that’s related to what’s being bought already. On top of the methods you’re currently using to monetize your online community, consider adding recommendations or other clever call-to-actions to prompt your members to purchase additional products. This is often done through CTA’s, such as “popular options”, “most viewed”, “if you like this then…”, “based on your searches”, “community picks”, etc. When done right, cross-selling benefits both the seller and the buyer, so it’s in everyone’s benefit that the strategy is executed correctly.
The author of “Start with why”, speaker and visionary thinker Simon Sinek has successfully amassed a cult following of believers in meaningful work. His products span various formats, including books, workshops, courses, and even optimism candles. By exposing his online community to a full range of coaching experiences and branded merchandise, products that compliment each other nicely, Sinek improves the overall browsing and shopping experience on his site as well as maximises his chances of selling more to the engaged community of buyers. If there’s one question you should be asking yourself, it’s why haven’t you done this earlier?