This post is part of a series, based on the ebook 'Top 21 marketing channels for membership sites', written by The Subscription Coach Amanda Northcutt.
Over time, creating a free yet robust online community can have the potential to bring in all the top of funnel leads you'll ever need. Sound too good to be true? It might be. This is a tricky one, as you don't want so much value in the free community that your non-paying participants have no incentive to join your paid membership community.
And if there is already a thriving, free community in your industry, do you have the unique value proposition to draw people away from the place they're already comfortable participating in – where they know people and have a reputation – to join yours?
If so, power to ya. If not, think about how you can come alongside that existing thriving community and become a valued participant. More on that in a moment. Two common platforms for creating a free community are Facebook Groups and discussion forums. If you go with Facebook, we recommend a closed Facebook Group where non participants can see that the group exists, but can't participate without being approved by the group's organizer. If you have a completely open group, the discussions that happen often revolve around the lowest common denominator and devolve quickly. You want to create a welcoming, friendly environment so people actually participate, just like within your paid membership. Facebook also offers completely hidden “secret”, invite only groups, but you don't want this as you're using it for a top of funnel source and absolutely need to be discoverable.
The biggest pitfall with Facebook is that you're essentially playing in someone else's sandbox. If they change the rules, as they've done in the past, your community can vanish overnight. Having more control and assuming less risk is important, considering the time and effort it requires to build such a community. A free to join discussion forum is also a viable community option. See if the forum software you're using within your membership allows you to create a spin-off community in front of the paywall.
Either way, clearly post community rules and be prepared to moderate discussion as needed. If you have moderators within your paid community, expand their territory to include patrolling the free community as well.
Once again, I strongly recommend creating a formalized free vs. paid content strategy. Once you have one, you can seed discussion in your free community with your free content and thereby promote your paid membership in a non-pushy way.
Regardless of where you host a free community, you're going to need to put a lot of time into participating there, especially in the beginning. You need to establish yourself as the leader of the group and the industry expert. Provide a lot of value up front and answer questions thoroughly and promptly. However, as time goes on, assuming you have a critical mass of participants, you should pull your participation in the free group back. For instance, let your group know you'll be around on Tuesdays and Fridays to answer questions and participate. If they want to talk to you sooner, you're available every day in your paid membership community forum.
You also need to leave less detailed answers to questions as time goes on. Provide answers, by all means, but don't give away the full answer as you would to a paying member. Give a taste and then point the free community member toward your paid membership where they can get the entire answer to that question and many more. It's also helpful if you can point to content within your membership that answers specific questions posed in your free group. As with any acquisition channel, you need a way to capture leads and get prospects into your marketing funnel, aka download your lead magnet and start receiving your email nurture sequence. Don't skip this step.
Also make sure you're regularly promoting your paid membership within your free community. Don't be pushy, obnoxious, or in-your-face about it, but putting links to all of your free content (which of course have lead magnet opt-ins scattered throughout the piece), podcast episodes, announcements of additions to your paid membership, and special promotions to help drive conversions.
Only create a free community after very careful consideration on your part. It's a long term play, much like hosting your own podcast, but if you can get momentum, it's off to the races toward your paid membership!
Become a leader in existing communities
If there are one or more free online communities dedicated to your area of expertise, you could join there and regularly contribute, help others, and provide value, rather than reinventing the wheel by starting your own competing community.
This could be thought of as an extension of your social strategy and participation should be included as part of your weekly process. In other words, you should have a checklist of social media interactions you aim to have over the course of a week. Make participating in these free communities one of the line items on that list. Get it on your calendar and stick with it, because if your participation is spotty, you're wasting your time as you won't get noticed or stand out in a meaningful way.
Over time if you're consistent with this, you can build up a reputation as an expert who people will pay attention to and seek out within those free communities. Don't hear me say that you should go and bombard someone else's community with spammy, salesy junk. That will get you a one-way ticket to the exit courtesy of the group's organizer. Follow their rules, only promote your membership as allowed, and as with your organic influencer strategy, goal #1 is to be a helpful person who provides a lot of value to the community.
Reddit and Quora
Reddit and Quora are two often overlooked gems that serve as a catch-all for anyone looking for anything online. I'd be flabbergasted if you searched those two sites and found nothing relating to your membership topic.
Answering questions on Quora and Reddit that pertain to your membership space creates the gift that keeps on giving. If you are a helpful resource on those sites, people will find your responses over and over again.
You can add participation on these sites to your social media strategy checklist as well. Even if you only check these sites once per month or once per quarter, establish some amount of presence if your industry topic is discussed on either site. Spend an hour searching those sites for questions you can answer or threads you can add something of value to. If you can write up a dozen replies in that hour, you've planted little seeds that will eventually produce fruit as those questions and threads get referenced time and time again in the future.
When you're on these sites, remember one of my golden rules of marketing: first be helpful, then be even more helpful, then be so unbelievably helpful by providing so much value that there's no other option but for your target audience to pay you money for more of that sweet, sweet value.