Why Entrepreneurs Are Doubling Down on Private Online Communities

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Noisy. Sketchy. Abusive. Dark. These are all apt descriptions for many public online spaces today. In fact, four out of 10 Americans report they’ve experienced abuse and harassment online. And for those who haven’t, even witnessing negative interactions in comments can cause distress (just look at the mass exodus off X after moderation changes increased the incidence of hate speech).

Despite all this, we’re still spending more time online than ever. And many of us, myself included, are looking for ways to connect safely and authentically with peers and trusted experts — especially when it comes to advancing our personal and professional learnings.

One of the best investments I’ve made in my own online learning is paid subscriptions to exclusive online communities. These are focused, curated spaces led by industry experts and creators who facilitate learning and connection among people with similar challenges and interests. For me, these communities have gone a step further than what I’d get by simply following an influencer I admire or a social account with great content. They have offered the safety of a vetted space where I can interact with others and ask questions without fear of judgment or junk content — and without leaving my desk. Those are privileges I’m happy to pay for.

As global policymakers grapple with rampant online safety issues, many creators and businesses are taking matters into their own hands, forging a path to safer, smaller and more private online learning experiences.

Here’s why I believe private communities are the most viable way forward.

Related: 5 Tips for Building an Online Community for Your Business

Private is the new public

Ever done a social media detox? It’s likely because you’ve experienced the downsides of being online. Beyond the terrifying hold of algorithms in keeping us addicted to doom-scrolling, the fact is, so many of the social spaces we’ve come to rely on for learning and community have turned into a source of angst — places we need to take breaks from for the sake of our mental health.

The same is true for creators, who often struggle to manage channels where negativity can quickly spiral, souring the experience for all. Moderating content and upholding community guidelines can quickly become a full-time job — one that simply isn’t optional, isn’t fun, or the best use of time.

According to my company’s research, 69% of respondents we surveyed believe social media has more negative content now than it did five years ago, while more than half of all respondents said they prefer private communities as a respite from social media fatigue. While growing follower counts have always been paramount to flourishing online, long-term success in business is also about fostering positive and genuine engagement. And more and more, private communities are where this is happening.

Exclusive communities add business value

Whether they’re run by creators or bigger brands, private communities provide an opportunity to connect deeply with followers on a more vulnerable and authentic level than public spaces allow for. This has been key to the success of creators like Amanda Wolfe, the self-taught financial educator behind SheWolfofWallStreet, who built a community of over 275,000 people devoted to increasing financial literacy, and creator coach Kristen Bousquet, who credits her private community, Soulcial Suite, for the success of both her company and her students’ businesses.

For entrepreneurs, the element of exclusivity has enabled them to take public conversations deeper and help people on a more personal level. It’s also added value to their sales funnels, giving students a reason to stay engaged beyond the purchase of their first course. It’s a strategy that’s worked for bigger brands as well, like Dr. Becky’s Good Inside community for parents, and Exit Five, a thriving private space for B2B marketers.

At my company, our private community has served both as a customer success forum and as a marketing tool, giving us the ability to get to know a smaller segment of our users and their needs by soliciting their feedback on new products and features. While we had previously experimented with public polls and surveys, we always felt limited by social algorithms. Privately, we can reach more of our members and spark conversations that benefit everyone — especially when the surrounding noise is filtered out.

Related: The Key Elements All Online Communities Should Have

So how do you launch your own private online community?

Creating engaged and authentic online communities is not a new concept. But as public spaces continue to deteriorate, finding new ways to build bridges back to customers is becoming more important than ever. Here’s how creators and brands can tap into the power of exclusive community spaces:

  1. First, build a following on a public channel: You can’t segment off part of your audience until you’ve built up a public following. But once you have that, you can invite those who are interested to move to a private space. Note: This doesn’t have to be a huge amount of people, but ideally, it’s enough to create a groundswell of activity and discussion for when you launch.

  2. Decide on your value proposition: Private community members naturally expect more value than public followers, especially if they’re paying to be there. So, you’ll need to determine how to make it worth their while and how much of yourself — and your time — you’re able to give. Don’t forget that your public channels will continue to need your content and attention, too.

  3. Choose a platform that matches your needs: A lot of business owners want a community they can brand as their own and moderate to their standards. That could mean a private offshoot of their public space or could require a platform they can tie to a course or website. However you create your private community, consider how the platform will allow you to optimize for functionality and brand authenticity.

  4. Commit the necessary resources: Going private will require additional time and resources, and the best way to prioritize this is to make it part of your business plan. Treat your private community like you would any other marketing channel or customer success initiative.

  5. Consider monetization: Charging a membership fee is a straightforward way to monetize your private community, but it’s not the only way. You could offer limited access to group sponsors or charge for aligned advertising. There are many ways to monetize and many good reasons to do so, just as long as you ensure the value you’re delivering matches the price you’re charging.

Private communities not only offer refuge from a lot of the bad stuff on the internet, but they’re also a great way to generate the kinds of business relationships we all want: respectful, productive, helpful and most of all, mutually beneficial. Here’s to a future where this becomes the norm across the board.

Related: 3 Lessons Subscription-Based Businesses Can Teach You About Building Connections and Fostering Community

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