Publishers have sat at the centre of communities of interest for as long as there has been a publishing industry. Print publications drew like-minded readers to their mastheads and now digital publishers gather their most loyal fans together behind paywalls. But how else can publishers monetise communities that grow up around their content?
What is community?
At its foundation, a community is a group of people that have something in common, this can be based on location, but more generally for digital publishers it is about shared interests. These can be personal, in the case of hobbies and pastimes, or professional around specific industries or commercial markets.
While publishers have always attracted and developed communities of interest, the twin forces of digital technology and the pandemic have supercharged the development of online communities over the last couple of years. Online publishers are now hosts for community discussions, product and service recommendations, and the sharing of ideas and opinions.
The benefits of community
Online communities allow publishers to host and facilitate peer-to-peer interaction, placing them at the centre of community activity. At a point in publishing’s development where direct relationships have become crucial, building online communities can bring publishers closer to their audiences and help build loyalty.
Ashley Friedlein, founder of community platform Guild says:
Communities are exceptionally good at building an emotional connection. They excel at building loyalty and advocacy among an influential group.
Finola McDonnell, chief communications and marketing officer at the Financial Times describes community as ‘the next phase’ of media. She told Press Gazette:
We think that audiences want to be more involved in communities – to be part of the community around a particular publication for instance, by joining in discussions and debate with fellow readers and journalists – and that is an interesting area where media companies can grow.
Community monetisation strategies
Relationship building is a powerful motivator for community building. But publishers who monetise their communities can cover the costs of infrastructure and support activities including content creation and moderation and, ultimately, develop a sustainable revenue stream.
Paywalls and subscriptions
The most common way to monitise communities is to charge for content. Publishers are erecting increasingly sophisticated paywalls to encourage audiences to pay for access. While this has become a major revenue stream for many publishers, it monetises a fraction of the audience base.
If a subscription is generally payment for access to content, membership delivers benefits beyond a straightforward cash-for-content transaction. Membership packages often include bonus content, access to events, discounts and a level of participation in content creation or commenting.
Events and education
Some online publishers charge community members to attend virtual events and educational sessions. These can be charged individually or bundled as part of an ongoing membership fee. In the consumer space, publishers create sessions around popular interests, while in professional communities, executive education, expert roundtables and networking events attract paying customers.
Much of the discussion around monetising communities has focused on payment directly from the audience. But advertising and sponsorship are still a real revenue opportunity around communities, where a limited number of premium positions can be sold inside a paid community and volume-based advertising against the content designed to serve and later convert the broader community.
James Briener, speaking at the Newsrewired conference, said that there is no single way to build community. But he had the following advice for media entrepreneurs looking to create a sustainable business model:
- Build a media community, not an audience
- Focus on relationships, not scale
- Measure engagement, not page views