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Free vs. paid online communities: Which is right for my business?

Should your online community be free, paid, or a combination of both? Learn the pros and cons of each to decide which is best for your business.

TL;DR

Free vs. paid online community memberships

Free and paid online communities can be valuable assets for your business. What you build depends on your goals, creative bandwidth, and target audience.

  • Free communities work well for increasing brand awareness, capturing leads, serving existing customers, and networking with many people.
  • Paid communities are great for generating recurring income, sharing high-value content, running mastermind groups, and allowing fans to support your work.
  • Freemium communities combine elements of both and allow you to earn money while serving your entire audience in one place.

No matter what you choose, your online community is the perfect tool for connecting with followers and sharing your passions.

You’ve seen amazing online communities popping up everywhere, and you’re ready to launch your own. But you’re stuck on one of the most important details: Should the community be free, paid, or a combination of both?

In this article, we’ll explore the ins and outs of free, paid, and freemium communities. We’ll also cover specific ways to use each option so you can choose the right structure for your business.

What is a free online community?

A free online community is a virtual place where a group of people can connect at no cost. 76% of internet users participate in some form of online community, so it makes sense that brands are turning to communities to build relationships.

In free online communities, members can consume content, exchange knowledge, and collaborate with others without paying a dime.

Here are some advantages of starting a free community for your business:

Pros of free online communities

Free communities are a great way to build brand awareness as a creator. Your followers are likely interested in your niche already, and a brand community creates a space to share your expertise, learn from your audience, and market your products.

Since members don’t have to open their wallets, your group has the potential to grow quickly. More eyes on your work could mean more raving fans and customers.

Free communities also make it possible to bond with your audience without using social media. While social media platforms are great for getting your name out there, there are limitations.

On social media, algorithms determine which followers get notified when you share something new. You also have to compete with distractions like epic cake decorating videos, funny cat memes, and eye-catching ads for other products.

In an online community, you have control over what your viewers see. There’s less noise, so you can ensure that notifications and announcements reach your members without getting lost in the shuffle.

Finally, free communities can be an enlightening starting point before going all-in on a paid program. You can use your free group to learn how communities work while the stakes are relatively low.

While there’s a lot to love about free online communities, they aren’t right for everyone. Here are some free community downsides to consider.

Cons of free online communities

Communities are a lot of work, and if you run a free community, you won’t be compensated directly for your time.

That said, communities can serve many functions in your business, so this might not be an issue.

But if monetization is your objective, it’s a good idea to create a clear plan for introducing community members to your paid products.

Inevitably, free communities attract more people than paid ones. While getting more members is exciting, it could mean heftier moderation requirements.

To mediate this, consider including policies for handling spammers, unauthorized self-promoters, and people who don’t abide by group rules.

In our free Podia Creator Community , we outline our house rules in a pinned post under our announcements topic. When new members enter the community, they’re directed here first.

Finally, free communities run the risk of attracting less active members. We typically only purchase resources we’re highly interested in consuming, but we might sign up for things we’re lukewarm about if they’re free.

It’s better to have a few highly engaged members than many mildly-interested ones, so keep an eye on your engagement rates if you’re running a free community.

To keep things lively, check out our top tips for boosting community engagement.

If you go the free community route, here are some ways you can use your space to further your business and provide value to your members.

7 ways to use free communities

#1: Connect over common interests. Use your online community platform to chat with people who nerd out over the same topics as you.

When I have questions about caring for my woefully high-maintenance carnivorous houseplants, I head to an online community filled with other botany enthusiasts. The community is free, and I always walk away feeling inspired and more knowledgeable.

66% of people join online communities to connect with people who have similar interests. You have the potential to create one of your niche’s go-to hangout spots.

#2: Research your audience. What if there was a way to learn exactly what your audience wanted — without becoming a mindreader?

With an online community, you can ask questions, run surveys, and even create designated areas for your members to request new content.

Then when you create new products, you can address your audiences’ pain points in detail and give them exactly what they want. It’s no wonder that 59% of organizations use online communities for market research.

#3: Provide customer support for your courses and products. 59% of community professionals say that online communities are a great way to provide customer support, and we agree.

When you know your customers, you can create a better experience for them. Customers who feel emotionally connected to a brand stay with the brand longer and are more likely to recommend it to others.

You can do this by setting up a support area within your online community. Offer helpful tips, answer FAQs, and give your audience additional ways to get in touch. Members can even share their own solutions and help each other troubleshoot, meaning less work for you.

At Podia, we have a topic in our Creator Community for members to share advice that complements our primary customer support channels.

#4: Create cohorts that correspond with your paid courses. If you run cohort-based courses, students can collaborate and get feedback within your community.

You can also share course announcements, bonus materials, and meeting links. While the community itself may be free, it could be a priceless resource for your participants.

To set up cohort areas in Podia, create a new topic for each group. Set the topic to private, and add students as they enroll in your course.

You can learn more about how to configure your topics in this support article .

#5: Use your free community as a lead magnet . Your community is a great way to introduce new followers to your brand. You can also use it to highlight your higher-ticket courses and products.

Show prospective customers how much value you can provide through your free content , and when appropriate, let members know about your paid offerings.

When it’s time to launch a new product or service, your community will already know how wonderful your work is. Your days of pitching to a cold audience are over.

#6: Announce brand updates and events. If you need to alert your members about important information, use your online brand community to share updates and announcements.

Emily Mills from Sketchnote Academy uses her free community to promote upcoming events and workshops. Her members can also network and get feedback on their art.

#7: Test out communities and see if they’re a good fit for your audience. Learn how communities work with a free offering before creating a paid one.

Discover what topics resonate with your audience and work out potential pitfalls before opening publically. You can even poll your free community members to find out what features they want in a paid membership.

When we launched our Podia Creator Community , we used a free community structure and incorporated several of these use cases.

Primarily, the community is a space where entrepreneurs and creators can mingle, collaborate, and help each other. We also use the community to announce product updates, events, and other Podia news.

To see this in action, sign up for a 14-day free trial of Podia .

You’ll get access to the Podia Creator Community and all the tools you need to build a community of your own.

Free communities are a great way to share your brand, connect with your audience, and enhance your product offerings.

Up next, we’ll look at how paid communities can play an important role in your business.

What is a paid online community?

Paid communities are discussion forums and chat spaces located behind a paywall. Unlike free communities, members must pay a monthly or annual subscription fee to participate.

Paid communities are great for generating recurring income as a creator, and they make it possible for your biggest fans to support your work.

Here are some highlights of paid communities:

Pros of paid online communities

In a paid online community, you can provide high-level interaction with your most engaged customers and supporters. Because followers have to pay to join, you know your members are especially interested in what you have to say.

Paid online communities enable you to earn ongoing income as a creator. Entrepreneur salaries can be inconsistent, but a recurring payment from your community adds stability.

All communities, free and paid, require work. But if you’re compensated directly, you might find you have more time and resources to invest back into your programs.

A paid community also offers a unique opportunity to serve more people and scale your income without dramatically increasing your workload.

As a bonus, naysayers and spammy bot accounts typically won’t pay for community access. You’ll have smaller numbers to manage, which could mean fewer moderation requirements.

Finally, paid communities allow loyal fans to support your work regularly. If followers enjoy your content and see value in the work you’re creating, they can express their gratitude regardless of what they get in return.

This is ideal for artists , musicians , filmmakers, and writers who want to monetize their following .

That said, there are a few downsides of paid communities to keep in mind:

Cons of paid online communities

Because customers are purchasing access, paid communities require more organization and structure. Expectations regarding your involvement and the amount of material in the membership may be higher, so keep this in mind as you build.

Also, it can be hard to attract members if you don’t have an existing audience. Paid communities are best for creators who already have a following through email, social media, or another platform.

If you want to get your name out there and reach the masses at the top of your sales funnel , a free community is a better choice.

Coming up, we’ll look at examples of how to use a paid community in your business.

4 ways to use paid communities

#1: Regularly offer in-depth and specific content. Simply put, a paid community is an opportunity for you to dive deep into a niche topic that people are especially interested in.

Paid communities are best if you have lots of high-value content like mini-courses, expert interviews, challenges, ask me anything sessions, masterminds, and live coaching calls.

Podia creator Justin Jackson uses his MegaMaker community to help creators connect, make better products, and earn more money online. Members pay once for a lifetime membership and get instant access to discussion forums about every detail of entrepreneurship.

In this type of paid community, consistently providing exclusive resources is key.

#2: Run group coaching and mastermind sessions. A paid community is a great way to stay organized if your business plan includes group coaching and mastermind sessions .

Create a paid plan for your group to give participants access to discussion boards and topic forums. You can post assignments, share call reminders, and give your participants an easy place to collaborate outside group sessions.

#3: Create large product bundles that grow over time. If you sell many different products, a paid community membership is an excellent way to bundle them together.

Rather than purchasing each item individually, your customers can enjoy all of your creative goodness in one place. They get a valuable deal, and you earn recurring income. You can even add new resources each month to keep members around for the long haul.

Talk about a win-win.

For example, Tara from The Happy Artist Studio sells dozens of individual art courses. Aspiring artists can also join her membership community to access all of her courses for a flat monthly rate. This allows her customers to explore her products on their own time.

Need a platform to sell your products? Sign up for a Podia demo to learn about our all-in-one features for creators.

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#4: Let your fans support your creative work. You can configure your paid membership community so fans get behind-the-scenes updates and fun interactions with you in exchange for their monthly subscription.

This is best for content creators who produce free entertainment (like YouTubers , podcasters , and influencers) and have large, unmonetized followings.

For example, Tiny Shiny Home offers membership tiers so fans can support their creative journey. Follower contributions allow them to keep producing fun, free content.

If you depend on outside funding and supporters to fuel your work, a paid community gives fans a way to show their appreciation.

Last but not least, we’ll look at how to combine free and paid communities into a freemium structure.

What is a freemium community? (Free + paid)

A freemium community has an area that’s open to all free and paid members, as well as private areas for paying customers only. Freemium gives creators the best of both worlds.

Freemium communities remove the barrier to entry while still allowing interested followers to purchase upgrades and show their support.

How to structure a community with free and paid tiers

There are endless options for how you can structure your freemium online community, so it’s helpful to look at some examples.

Let’s say you have an online business where you create ebooks and blog posts about home decoration. You create a freemium community with two tiers: a free plan and a $25 per month premium plan.

Free community participants get brand updates and can vote on upcoming ebook topics. They also get one behind-the-scenes article or video per month.

Premium participants get an additional monthly live group call where you discuss industry trends. They also get access to a special “Ask me anything about home decor” thread where you answer their burning questions.

Podia creators Jill and Jeffrey Dalton from the Whole Food Plant Based Cooking Show use a freemium model to run their thriving online community. As YouTubers, they knew they needed an extra stream of revenue if they were going to take their channel full-time.

They tried Patreon but switched to Podia so they could create a free tier and keep all their followers in one place.

Now, they have a free membership where followers receive new video updates and vote on product designs and upcoming recipes.

They also offer two paid membership tiers that include perks like free ebooks, course access, product giveaways, and discounts.

With freemium, you can communicate with your entire audience under one roof while still earning revenue from your premium membership plans.

Should I make my online community free or paid?

Free, paid, and freemium online communities can all work wonders for your business. To decide what’s best for you, take a look at your goals, audience, and bandwidth as the community leader.

Consider your business goals. What should this community accomplish for you?

A free community might be the best choice if your goal is to offer customer support, add value to your courses and products, or serve your target audience so they might buy from you in the future.

A paid community works well if you hope to provide insider tips to a smaller group of people, offer product bundles , run group coaching sessions, or give fans a way to support you.

Consider your audience. Who do you serve with your work, and how big is your current following?

If you have a small audience and are still getting your name out there, free communities can build brand awareness and help you demonstrate your expertise.

If you already have an engaged audience interested in your niche, a paid community can be a way to offer more value and build an additional income stream.

Consider your bandwidth: How much time do you have to spend on this community?

While both free and paid communities require time, paid communities are a good choice if you’re confident you can consistently deliver the content included in your membership tiers.

If you’re not sure how much time you’ll be able to devote to the community, starting with a free option can mean less pressure while you figure out your workflow.

Still unsure? Try both!

Podia makes it easy to set up free and paid plans for your online community so you can build a system that works for your goals, audience, and capabilities.

We’re all about trying new things, whether that be a free community where your audience can connect, a small paid group where you share your best advice, or a combination of both.

No matter what you decide, we can’t wait to see how your online community grows.

Ready to get started? Click here for a 14-day free trial of Podia and build your online community today.

About the author

Nicola is a content marketer for Podia, an all-in-one platform where online courses, digital downloads, and communities scale with their creators. She lives for lizards, loves to travel, and can often be found cooking up new recipes in the kitchen.