How to Create a Private Online Community
Have you ever wanted to create a private online community?
A private online community can be beneficial in many ways. It can help you grow your expertise. You can earn an income from your community. And you help resist the algorithms that work against you on social media with your own online community.
The difference between a public and a private community is that a private community is behind “closed doors” in a way. Its content and activity are typically gated and can only be accessed by members who are logged in. Public online communities like discussion forums and Reddit are usually open to guest and member views.
It’s also important to understand the difference between owned and rented platforms for creating your own private online community.
If you use software that allows you to access the database or all your members’ contact information, then you’re using an owned platform. This means you can change the platform and won’t lose your membership if the platform ceases to be supported.
A rented platform means you cannot access members’ contact information or a database. A good example of a rented platform is social media and Facebook Groups. You simply lose your community if you lose access to a rented platform.
Now that you understand the basics of how to create a private online community, you can move on to all the functions of what you need to do to get your community up and running.
Why Create a Private Online Community?
You would want to create a private online community for many reasons. It’s important to understand the benefits of a private community and the types of communities you may wish to create.
Benefits of a Private Online Community
There are many benefits to creating private online communities.
With a private online community, you can combat spam better than you would in a public community. This is especially true with communities that require admin approval or payment to access them. Spammers and spambots are typically not going to pay to join a community that they will likely not be able to spam.
A private online community is a perfect platform to start earning revenue. If you can offer enough value for people to want to pay to join your community, you can easily start earning an income with your community. There are many paid online communities on the internet, and most of them are about a very specific topic within a general niche.
With a private community, members’ security and privacy are better protected. Typically, a private community is set up where those who are not logged-in members cannot see any content or member information. Private communities help to ensure account security and member privacy for all users who use the platform.
An online community can help shape you as an expert in your niche. It is a platform that allows you to voice your opinions and statements at your own will. You can create articles, Q&As, and even webinars for your community to consume and get yourself out in the community more. It is a great way to build authority and reputation in your niche.
When you create a private online community, you gain a better chance of getting ambassadors for your brand. Ambassadors are organically occurring or invited super fans of your brand. These people will promote your brand without you even asking them to. They’ll support you in everything you do. They’re important people to have around. A community provides a wonderful platform for ambassadors to form within.
If you want to gain feedback from your customers or your audience to improve your brand, business, products, or services, an online community might be what you need. A community will give you an outlet to get direct customer and audience feedback. It is often difficult to get feedback from consumers, but a community makes the task simple.
One of the biggest benefits of a private online community is your ability to counter AI and algorithms. AI or artificial intelligence is a good thing. It will add value to productivity and research but can and will hurt some brands. Social media algorithms and even Google Search isn’t always favorable for our brands. A community prevents either of them from impacting our ability to reach our members, and that’s a good reason to create a community.
Types of Private Online Communities
There are many types of online communities that you could create.
You may want to create a private online community that is specific to you as a creator or influencer or specific to your brand. I have a local hiking brand that centers around me as the brand. I have an online community that focuses on me for membership.
You might create a community where you offer your coaching services for a specific niche or industry. A good example of this kind of community is the Copyblogger Academy. You join to get advice from the owner of Copyblogger. If you have advice and consulting to offer, a private community could be a way for you to offer that advice, whether free or through paid membership.
Many private communities are centered around learning and education. Members of the community join to learn how to do something. For example, many communities are available that teach you how to do online marketing. You would join and complete courses and leave with an understanding of how to market your websites online.
Some online communities are solely specific to companies. Instead of having a full employee intranet, you can use a community platform to create a centralized location for employees to communicate and collaborate. We see this a lot with Slack and Teams. Online communities are typically more user-friendly than traditional intranets.
Another great reason to create a private online community is to promote a cause or charity. For example, suppose you’re trying to keep a specific beach clean of debris and litter. In that case, you might create an online community of activists and volunteers to collaborate with one another to help keep the beach free of debris and litter.
There are also many online communities about specific niches. These communities allow fans and followers of a niche to collaborate with others that are a part of the niche. I have a community called Forum Admin Forum, where online community managers collaborate with each other on how to create and manage online communities.
Your local area might also be good for creating an online community. You could create a community based on the local area or a specific topic within the local area. I have a Facebook Group with around 27,000 members who specifically discuss and share information about hiking and outdoor recreation in southern Illinois. It’s a great example of a local community on a rented platform which is fine to use as long as you understand the risks.
Steps to Build a Private Online Community
You might think it is not easy to create a private online community. In all honestly, it isn’t that hard. You just need to make sure you define your community, choose the best platform for it, and go through the typical creation process.
Define Your Online Community
Defining the reason behind creating a community is important before you actually create it. This will help motivate you to keep it active and running for your objectives in having the community in the first place.
The first thing you want to do before defining your community is to research your niche market. Is there an audience for it? Is there a large enough audience that an online community will make sense? Are people in the audience already consuming communities? Make sure that your audience exists before dedicating a community to them.
Define and create your community’s purpose and goals. What is the reason that your community will exist? What will it do for a member? What will the community do for you? Create objectives that will realistically help you reach and complete your goals.
Understand what value is. The only way you’ll get and retain membership in your community is to provide value to your members. If you don’t know how to provide value, your community will become a ghost town before you know it. Providing value is especially important when your community costs money to join.
A KPI is a Key Performance Indicator. They’re important to create for having a successful online community. A few examples of KPIs for your community are member engagement, membership growth, user satisfaction, etc. It is important to define your KPIs and create a system where they can be measured as your community functions.
Before launching your community, you need to know who your audience is. Choosing a generic or broad audience in a niche isn’t always the best selection. When you define your audience precisely, you’ll understand how to give them the best value possible. It’s also easier to market a community when you know who exactly the community is for.
Choose Your Online Community Platform
There are many types of online community platforms to choose from. In the list below, you’ll learn a little about the platform and its pros and cons.
Discourse is a popular community platform known for its modern and easy-to-use interface. Many brands and businesses use Discourse for an online community solution. Pros of using Discourse include its user-friendly interface, customization features, mobile responsiveness, powerful search feature, and open-source status. Cons include difficulty in learning the features, hosting the platform, resource-intensive platform, and limited themes and plugin options.
Circle is a platform that allows you to create a private online community and charge people to access it. The pros of using Circle include its user-friendly interface, integrated community features, robust member management, ability to integrate other useful services and tools, and community analytics. The cons of using Circle include limited customization features, limited features on the mobile app, the platform’s high pricing, and less customization flexibility.
Mighty Networks is a community platform used by many niche creators and brands. The pros of using Mighty Networks are its community-centric features, very featured mobile app, ability to customize and brand your community, community tools, monetization features, and integration abilities. The cons of using Mighty Networks include its pricing structure, as some plans are expensive, limited third-party integrations, and the platform’s learning process.
Discord is gaining popularity to be used as an online community for effective communication between members. The pros of using Discord as an online community option include real-time communication, the flexibility of customizations, the integration of bots and apps, and a large user base. The cons of using Discord include its learning curve, the fact that it’s mainly made for gamers, the platform outages, and limited analytics.
Slack is a modern online community platform that really got popular during the Coronavirus pandemic. The pros of using Slack as an online community include real-time communication, great collaboration tools, integration capabilities, and mobile accessibility. The cons of using Slack include the cost of using advanced features, a focus on professional settings geared at businesses, limited community management tools, and data ownership.
Forums are traditional platforms for online communities. There are many free and paid options available. The pros of using forums for your community are that many people are used to them, they have community-rich features, you typically have direct access to the database and member contact information, and forum software is affordable. The cons of using forums are that many don’t have great mobile app features, a lot of forum software is outdated, a forum typically is resource intensive, and the cost of forums could be a disadvantage.
WordPress is another common form of creating an online community using plugins. The pros of using WordPress are that you can keep your website, content, and community on one domain and platform, have many different themes and plugins to choose from, have mobile features, can integrate with other services, and can access the database. The cons of using WordPress include hosting the platform yourself, paying for better features, and limited customization of themes and plugins without programming knowledge.
Social media is a popular way to have your own online community. The pros of using social media are that it is usually free and remains free to create a community, there are many community tools and features, there is a wide audience on the social media platform, and the mobile feature is often very advanced. The cons of using social media are that the platform is rented space, you might lose features if the platform discontinues them, you can’t move to another platform, and you’re limited on the features the social media platform provides.
Membership Types for Your Community
You can offer many different types of membership plans to those who wish to join your online community.
Beta membership is best to give away to the first few members of the community. Whether your community is free or paid, you need beta members to help test its features out. Most community owners will give these memberships away for free so that beta testers provide valuable feedback about how the community could be improved.
Free membership is when you allow people to join for free. If your community is free, members can join for free and get full access. Some communities use a freemium structure where a person can become a member for free but will have limited access to content and features until they upgrade to a paid account.
Paid membership can occur in many different ways. You could require any membership in the community to be paid upfront before the member can access the community. You could also create a paid membership upgrade feature for members who join at no cost. Free members get limited features and content access, while paid members get everything. You could also create a paid membership where members have to earn credit to access the forum by performing different acts in the community, such as posting.
Admins and moderators are members who manage and moderate the community. You are typically the administrator, as you own the community. You might have additional staff members to help moderate and enforce the rules. It’s also ideal to have a dedicated community manager who helps keep the community active and engaging and welcomes new members who join.
Setting Up Your Online Community
After you decide what platform your community will use, it is time for you to set up the typical features that most community platforms will provide.
You should create the initial categories/boards of the community. These are the areas that members will post and chat in. Keeping them specific to your niche is best to avoid off-topic discussion. You should start with very few categories and increase as the community demands.
Reviewing the registration process for new members is always a good idea. Make sure that the process is simple and has few steps required. Many online communities lose new members because there are too many steps in the initial registration process.
Define your forum staff groups, roles, and members. This includes moderators and the community manager. You will often need to review the moderator permissions system and adjust what staff features moderators and admins can use. You should have the ability to use all features.
You should also define permissions for regular members. This is especially true if you provide free and paid membership options. Make sure you set the features for the free membership and the paid option.
Add a theme and logo to your community. You should also take the time to add any customizations, integration with other third-party services, and the installation of any plugins you wish to use. Most community platforms offer different themes and plugins to enhance your online community.
Set up any spam controls to help block unwanted members from joining. These may include captcha anti-spam tools and features, membership approval, posting permissions, link posting ability, and pay gates.
Set up your outgoing email settings. This may require contacting your email service provider for more information or support. You want to ensure your community members can get any emails or newsletters you send them.
Test your community before you launch it. Make sure everything works properly before you open your community to the public. Create a test member account and log in with it to see if all features work properly. Make sure free members and paid members have the correct permissions set. Optimize your community and its settings as needed.
Launch and Promote Your Community
After you create a private online community, it’s time to launch it. But people will probably not start flocking to join. You need to promote your community, too.
Invite people to join your new community. Go through your contacts and social media DMs to see a good candidate to join your new community. Make sure you don’t spam people when asking them to join. It’s ideal to ask before giving them a link. But you do need to sell your community to them.
Tell everyone. Don’t just select a few contacts to tell. Tell everyone about your new community and how they can join. Be sure to use good copy in your message to everyone, especially if the community is for paid members only.
Enlist new members to help out. Consider adding a few members (free if the community is for paid members) to help get everything started. This could be for creating content and inviting others to join or even moderators.
Collaborate with social influencers. Reach out to some influencers in your niche and form a collaborative effort to help you promote your new online community. This might require cross-promotion, or you might be able to pay the influencer or provide free membership.
Create a blog post about your new community. Create a blog post with great copywriting in it. It’s a blog post, but it’s a sales post more than anything else. Even if your community is free to join, you must use copy to persuade people to join.
Link to your community. Be sure to add your new community links to your blog page, website, social media bios, and anywhere else you can link to. If you have a YouTube channel, be sure to add links to each video or Shorts description.
Send out a newsletter. Send a newsletter to all your subscribers about your new online community. You can create a newsletter that’s just about joining the community. Using copywriting techniques in this kind of email is a good idea.
Use social media to promote your online community. Use social media to promote your community. Consider paying for social media ads if your community is a paid community, and you can gain your money back. Otherwise, promote your community on your social pages and groups.
Ask members to invite others. Sometimes the best way to market a new online community is through your current membership. Ask your members to invite other people that would be interested in joining. Try to reward members who refer others to join, especially for a paid community.
Engagement Ideas for Your Private Online Community
Launching your community and getting new members is important. But ensuring engagement occurs throughout the life of the community is essential. The only way to retain members is to keep them engaged and constantly give them value.
Many different types of content will keep members engaged with one another.
Create themes for each day of the week. This is popular on social media but is proven to create engagement among members. Create a different theme for each day of the week. For example, Monday Money could be all about how members can make or save money. It’s a good idea to stick with a weekly theme and not change it as much.
Ask great questions. If you want to engage with members and get them talking, create posts asking them great questions. The questions need to be the best questions to ask. They can be controversial in nature or the type that will get many answers. Just ensure you’re asking questions you’d want to answer.
Participate in discussions. As the community owner, you should participate in all discussions. Answer the posts you’ve created so your members can see your thoughts. They likely joined because they wanted to engage with you. Engage with them or risk losing them as a member and a follower.
Share content daily. At least share something really interesting once a day. You don’t have to live in your community daily, but you should at least make an appearance each day. If you plan to be away for a while, be sure to let your community know of your absence. Keep your members informed so they don’t miss you.
Network members. Try to connect members with other members. Pay close attention to member introductions and questions. When other members join who relate to another member, try to connect the two together so that they might be able to network with one another.
Foster member engagement in your community. You should always encourage members to engage with one another. Try to create challenges and interactive actions that encourage engagement. Do what you can to get members engaging with one another and not being lurkers on the sidelines.
Offer exclusive benefits and features to members. Keep members active and engaging by offering them features and benefits they can’t find outside your community. It’s a good idea to market your online community to offer these things so that other people outside the community want to join, too.
Ask for feedback. Your community members should be how you share your community to better serve them. Ask for feedback from members and see what you can do to make the community better for them. Make sure you take their feedback and do as they suggest if appropriate.
Keep your community having fun. Make sure you keep the community atmosphere fun for everyone. You should also make sure you enforce your guidelines and community policies to ensure the community is safe for everyone. Stop problems before they turn your community into a toxic environment.
Measure success and failures. Always measure success and failures to see what you can change to keep good things good and turn bad things into better opportunities. I typically use a SWOT analysis to see how my community works. That’s where you measure the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats of a community or a feature.
And that sums up how you can create a private online community of your own. If you use the advice above, your community will be successful. But it will definitely take you being involved in the community to make it work. If you’ve enjoyed this article and want more online community tips, follow me on Twitter today.
About the Author
Shawn Gossman has created content, blogged, ran online communities, and shared a passion for digital marketing for over twenty years. Shawn believes the best way to help content creators, businesses, brands, and marketers is to give away more than you sell. The same advice is recommended for the readers that follow this blog. Shawn also offers a variety of services for extra help in the area of content creation, blogging, forums, and digital marketing. Learn more about Shawn Gossman by clicking here.
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