'I’m Moving the Superpath Community from Free to Paid — Here’s How (and Why)'
Jimmy Daly gets candid about turning his 16k-member community into a paid one.
I created the Superpath Slack group in the spring of 2019 with low expectations.
I’d wanted to be part of a community of Content Marketers but hadn’t found one. So I spent (literally) two minutes spinning up a Slack instance and sent invites around to a dozen or so industry friends. My expectations were so low, in fact, that I was a bit nervous my invites would be politely rejected, if not ignored altogether.
This was pre-Covid and there were plenty of conferences and meetups to go along with the numerous Facebook Groups and subreddits for content marketers. But sure enough, a few folks signed up for my fledgling community.
Slack turned out to be the perfect medium for us content folks. We were all using it anyway, and the tool's lack of social media dynamics — no algorithmic post filtering, likes, follows, etc. — made it a calm, ego-less environment. There was no incentive to build a following or gain likes, so people acted like regular people. They asked good questions, shared helpful answers, cheered on their peers and generally contributed to the same optimistic, upbeat environment that I'd found in nearly all my interactions with other content marketers over the years.
Superpath turned into my full-time job, and as of mid-2023 counts 16,000 members among its ranks. A lot has happened between then and now, nearly all of it wonderful. It turned out that people really do care about online communities.
The community has been free since its inception. I've monetized with some ads and events, but never charged members directly. I'm in the process of changing that. For the first time, I'm going to charge for access to the group, changing its dynamics dramatically and possibly changing the business in the process. In this post, I'll explain why it's time to do it, and how I'm going about it.
Becoming a victim of our own success
The truth is that the move from free to paid was initially borne from frustration. Superpath had been adding about 500 new members each month for several years. That's a lot of people, and once the group exceeded about 5,000 members, I struggled to onboard them and create a good experience.
I did all the rights things to manage the group. I hired a Community Manager, created a community wiki, enforced the guidelines, regularly updated onboarding messages, moderated each and every day, ran events, curated the best threads, solicited blog contributions and more. It helped, but it wasn't enough. The group kept growing and that growth kept revealing new growing pains.
There were three key trends that emerged as part this growth that led me the conclusion that it was time to shrink the group via a paywall:
- Members asked for it. I started hearing from members that they used to like the group, but it had gotten too noisy. They had questions, but didn't really want to share them in front of 16,000 people. There was so much discussion that they lost interest in sorting through it to find things they were interested in.
- Engagement was dropping. Despite adding 500+ new members/month, overall engagement started dropping a few months ago. There was a clear trend of fewer conversations and fewer active members. Members were losing interest.
- The average member persona had changed. As the community grow, it attracted senior content marketers as well as freelancers, folks new to the industry, general marketers, SEO practitioners, founders and a few other personas. I embraced it, but soon realized that each group had slightly different needs and as a one-person team, there was no way I could satisfy them all. It watered down what had been a focused experience.
Still, I felt conflicted. I knew that paywalling the group would alienate some members. In search of some clarity, I asked the group for feedback. I got about 150 messages, and read each carefully. I was overwhelmed by how impassioned with the responses were — people really cared about this community. Among the advocates for paywalling, members said they:
- Wanted a smaller, more intimate community
- Preferred that it was tightly focused on content marketers
Among those who felt it should be free, the main concerns were:
- Keeping the group accessible to people who might not be able to afford a membership fee
- Welcoming in freelancers, junior content marketers, and anyone else interested in the industry
To me, this touched on an existential question: who was Superpath for? Was it the senior-level content marketers we started building the group around? Or was it for anyone interested in the craft?
After much debate, discussion and journaling, it became very clear to me that I could create the best, most valuable and focused experience for B2B SaaS content marketers by charging members a small fee. Additionally, I felt that on the current trajectory, the group risked becoming a victim of its own success. I was not going to let that happen.
Creating a new experience
Decision in hand, I started to sketch out what the new experience would look like — and I was reinvigorated. I haven't felt this much excitement for the community in a long time, and I'm energized by the potential of the new model, not to mention a funding mechanism that will allow me to invest more in the community than ever.
I ultimately decided to paywall most channels, but to keep a few free as well. The #freelance channel, in particular, is very active and I felt should remain free. It's not our target demographic, but it's a group that frequently transacts with our in-house members. The two groups have a mutually beneficial relationship. The other free channels will serve as a kind of free trial for the new paid membership.
We already had a paid membership focused on exclusive content, courses and 1:1 calls. I slotted the new community membership in between that and a free experience. The price point is $20/month or $220/year. We're hoping to appeal to wide swath of content marketers, and to upsell some into our higher-tier membership. Existing Pro members will automatically get access to the Slack group as well.
The execution has been somewhat challenging, partially because of Slack's limited community management features and partially because I'm a one-person team doing this for the first time. I'm rolling it out slowly, doing my best to communicate to the whole membership along the way.
The first step was deciding which channels to lock and which to leave free. Next, I found a developer to write a script using the Slack API to remove all members from those channels. Amazingly, this takes about 10 hours per channel. With 10 channels, it’s basically a week-long process. Once done, I can manually add back in paying members. I'll be able to automate this going forward.
I'm not a Product Manager, but I'm essentially PM'ing a product with two distinct experiences. I started using a tool called Linear to organize the project, categorize tasks as product, bugs, or growth. I'm simultaneously grateful for no-code tools like Zapier and Airtable, and overwhelmed by all the workflows I need to create — and ensuing bugs I need to fix.
Addressing members' concerns
Communities can be businesses, but members have skin in the game and their opinions deserve to be heard. I feel a strong conviction that this is the right move for the community, but not everyone agrees. I've gotten messages from a few frustrated members. I really appreciate the fact that these members care about this group, and I'm working on a few ways to address their concerns.
- The first thing, as I mentioned, is keeping a few channels free. It will be a limited experience, but still a valuable one.
- The next will be developing a corporate sponsorship program where businesses can cover the membership fee for some users and get some ad space in return.
- I'm also looking into ways to offer purchase power parity (PPP), which means that we'd adjust pricing based on income levels and cost of living in the geography where each member lives. This is mostly a technical challenge, but I feel confident that I can come up with a solution.
A new path forward
I've never shied away from the fact that Superpath is a business. In order for the group to exist today and hopefully for many years to come, it needs to generate revenue and profit. Additionally, our commercial interests should always benefit members — i.e. the revenue should fund a better community. It's a win-win model.
Superpath now has five lines of revenue: the Slack community, the Pro membership, a partner program, a job board and a marketplace. I also run a site called Help a B2B Writer that I plan to monetize eventually.
I don't expect the Slack community revenue to move the needle in the short term. Most members joined with the expectation that it would remain free and won't be interested in paying. I can understand that and I expect that it will take some time to finish the transition, prove the experience is great and then start attracting more members. I'll be thrilled with a few hundred paying members from the launch, then it's off to the races.
If I'm being honest, this has been a trying process. But at the same time, I feel tons of energy and momentum about the group. Stress and frustration had crept into my day-to-day, and that's been replaced by excitement and optimism. I think Superpath can offer the single best community experience for content marketers and I'm pumped to bring that vision to life.