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We built a free online community. How do we now ask members to pay?

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So you’ve spent your time building a community based on sharing knowledge. But the larger it gets, the more it costs to run. Do you shut down your network or do you get creative about how to offer a service and be paid at the same time? Angelina Russo poses the question.

It’s taken us over two and a half years and our social network www.museum30.ning.com is finally an established online community in the cultural sector.

It’s a network for museum and library professionals who, in the past, had few ways of sharing knowledge between themselves. We now have over 2,400 members.

This figure might not be a large in comparison to established commercial sites but, in a setting where no product or service is being sold, it’s not bad!

So what’s the problem?

The platform we’ve been using (Ning) is now offering greater functionality at a price. While we already pay for its premium services, its new product range offers us greater flexibility to build and grow the network to include services that would be of interest to our network.

If we go down this path and decide to use these services to grow the community, we’ll need to ask our members to pay.

In true online form, we asked the community by conducting a survey. Responses ranged from “won’t be paying” to “why not charge xxx thousands for membership?”

So how do you take a free service, which functions because of the goodwill of its members and community managers, and create a paid service?

Here are some of the thoughts that are likely to guide our organisation:

1. Consider establishing your network as a not for profit organisation.

This offers your membership the certainty that you are not “selling out” and gives you a basis (and all the legal stuff you need) to establish new paid services

2. Establish a board.

Consider your most active contributors as potential board members. They’ve helped you grow, have a vested interest in you continuing to succeed and are most likely the ones who will continue to offer their thoughts on future developments. Not only can they help guide the future of the network, their regular contributions ensure that the content remains diverse and entertaining.

3. Consider a mix of free and paid services.

In our case, we built traction by running “offline” conferences. In the future, we’re looking to develop an online webinar series, podcasts and training modules. These will be a mixture of free and paid services so that our membership can participate as best suits them.

4. Schedule your time.

We started our network by being willing and able to devote whatever time it took to thank members for joining, answer all queries, contribute to stories, opinion and events. Over time and as membership grew, it became more difficult to maintain this level of commitment. We now have to be realistic about whether we continue offering a service that we can’t support with the time and dedication it truly takes, or risk undoing everything we’ve established in the past two and a half years.

5. Distribute on multiple platforms.

If your network has been successful for a particular sector, is there content in there that would be of interest to a broader audience? If so, consider which platforms best suit potential new audiences and promote your content there. In our case, radio interviews on the national broadcaster have brought new audiences to our site. This suggests that we could potentially offer podcasts of content with similar themes on ITunes, thus broadening our reach and bringing new members to the wealth of information within our network.

6. Respect your members.

You’re only here because they chose to be! When developing new services, consider how best they suit the needs of your membership. Survey them! Get their feedback on what works and what doesn’t and ensure you offer services that are in keeping with the ethos of the network (that goes for advertising too!)

These are just some of our thoughts starting out.

Over the next six months, we’ll be tracking the evolution of our network from a free to paid service. It would be great to hear your thoughts and gain your feedback!

Angelina Russo, PhD is an Associate Professor in the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University in Melbourne. She researches the connections between technology and communication from a design perspective. She is co-conveynor of the Museum 3.0 network and has recently established a new network for sharing stories of handmade design.

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