6-min read
Mar 1, 2023

The Give and Take of Monetizing a Free Community

Jimmy Daly

Monetization is the perfect incentive to keep free communities growing and thriving.

Free communities  — those not tied to an organization to help fund them — have to monetize to stay free. 

As communities grow, the admin’s workload grows too. This comes in two forms:

  1. Maintenance: Administrative work like moderating, member support, announcements, etc. 
  2. Improvement: Creating events, bringing in guest speakers, adding/pruning channels, etc.

And that’s just the basics. It’s easy for a 100-member community, but it’s a full-time job for a 10,000-member community. And this is why I’m so strongly in favor of monetization.

The reality is that without it, most communities will become too much (and maybe too much money) to be worth running. In fact, I believe that monetization is the perfect incentive to keep communities growing and thriving. 

I’ve been monetizing the Superpath community, a 12,000+ member group for content marketers, for nearly three years. I’ve learned a lot along the way, and I’ll share all of it in this post.

How free communities generate revenue

I vividly remember the first dollar we made. I created a simple job board in Notion and sold one job ad to my friend Len Markidan. He paid us $300 to help him hire a Content Marketer. We found someone, and we were off to the races.

Three years later, we have four (and soon five) lines of business. We offer:

  • a paid membership option for members who want more
  • a job board to help companies hire content marketers
  • a talent marketplace where we oversee the production of content
  • a partner program to help SaaS companies and agencies reach our audience
  • (soon) a paid version of Help a B2B Writer, which is a marketplace we acquired last year

The decision to run a free or paid community is an important one, because the path to grow each is wildly different. Free communities grow mostly with ads and media, while paid communities grow with subscription memberships. Your member expectations and business models could not be more different.

I chose to create a free community (with a small, premium subscription offering) because I wanted to roll out multiple lines of business. I felt that it was more important to grow a large community and then see what members wanted, rather than commit to a smaller paid community, which would almost certainly have tied me to a single line of revenue (membership subscriptions).

Multiple lines of business create a few important opportunities for us:

  • We can try things for free in the group, and turn them into paid activities later on if they work. 
  • We can create tons of value for people for free, which helps us build a reputation as a great destination for content marketers.
  • We can weather a storm. If one line of business suffers, we have others to see us through.

Other free communities monetize with courses, affiliates, events, coaching, workshops, and digital downloads. We may test some of those things in the future, but four (and almost five!) lines of business are keeping us plenty busy.

Scaling up, and scaling down

Honestly, I wasn’t sure if a free community could be the foundation of a sustainable business when I started out. But I was eager to try, and it’s turned out better than I ever thought. 

With that said, there is such a thing as too much monetization, and we hit that point in mid-2022. Demand from potential partners was hot and by August, we’d run out of ad inventory for the year. I didn’t want to say no to any potential business, so I came up with a few new ways we could work with partners. One of those ideas was webinars — a partner could pay us to host a webinar for them. We’d promote the event and they’d deliver the content.

So we booked a bunch of webinars. It was great at first. Our partners were delivering great info and members seemed genuinely happy to participate. But we overbooked ourselves, and we could sense fatigue from members. After running these in three or four consecutive weeks, we say registration numbers drop and then plummet. We had worn people out.

This was a painful lesson. Our partners were unhappy with the poor attendance and members were tuning us out. Our eagerness to expand our partner program had failed and all three parties — us, the partners, and our members — were unhappy with it.

We’ve scaled events back and while we still offer them, we limit ourselves to one per month. We’ve also added new ad inventory in the form of sponsored content and a podcast. 

Interestingly, this has sparked a lot of internal conversation about the future of Superpath. Are we slowly becoming a media company? I’m not convinced it’s the right route for us, but when this new ad inventory fills up, we’ll need to decide whether we create more or shift our focus to other lines of business. 

My main takeaway from this is that you can only promote so much. We are already trying to keep members up-to-date on our content, events, job listings, salary report, podcast, and more. People will tune you out, and when they do, you have to earn their trust back. 

Our 2023 GTM strategy includes a renewed emphasis on the free community. We’re curating the best threads each week, giving awards to the ‘member of the month’, running AMAs that feature community members, opening up our blog for members to tell their own career stories, and sending out a lot of swag.

My original hypothesis — that a thriving free community makes the business tick — turned out to be right. The happier our members, the faster we add new folks and the more interesting our community is to job posters, advertisers and marketplace prospects.

My best advice: look beyond sponsorships

Selling access to your members via ads is an obvious (and frankly, not that difficult) way to generate revenue. As I explained above, however, it’s easy to go too far. 

Today, we monetize in a few other ways that don’t have a ceiling. Our talent marketplace starts at $5,000/month and is interesting to about 0.01% (seriously) of our members. We use the community to source writers — I consider this a win for everyone — but other than that, the average member is never bothered by it. Same for our paid membership. We can grow it all day long without adding noise to the free group.

I highly recommend that you build out a partner program, but I also recommend balancing it out with products or services that don’t rely on eyeballs and clicks to make money. It’ll keep you laser focused on creating a great experience for your members, and it reduces the temptation to keep piling on more ads. 

This looks a little different for every community, but the basics are the same. Give yourself an incentive to keep going — in the end, your free members and your paying customers both win.

Related content

All resources
No items found.