Monetizing Micro-Communities

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Micro-communities are —ironically— becoming a big thing. How big? Life-changing amounts of money big. And it starts with the virtual world.

The internet changed my life, in so many ways. And not just when I sold a software business. I remember from my childhood, the late 90s and early 2000s, just how paradigm-shifting it was to realize that I could easily find people just like me on the web, whereas in real life, I struggled so hard to find my fellow nerds. The first communities that I ever truly felt understood in were virtual.

That was then.

Today, it’s gotten even easier, and stable communities have formed for every possible niche interest out there. And riches do indeed lie in these niches.

I believe there is something incredibly valuable in these micro-communities for creators, both for distributing and monetizing their work. So, let’s talk about the income-generating potential of being part of, or even starting, micro-communities.

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Let’s define what a micro-community is because it’s important to understand the difference between general online communities and these niche-focused micro-communities. The key distinction lies in their scope. While there are many software development communities, for example, they tend to be quite general. Even if they focus on a specific programming language, they are easy to access, volunteer-driven, and their themes change frequently. Even the makeup of their member base fluctuates a lot.

Micro-communities, on the other hand, are often harder to access, with membership either being invite-only or requiring a purchase. The themes and topics discussed within these communities are typically focused on successful outcomes. Unlike general communities, which often serve as a place for people to hang out, learn, or just be entertained, micro-communities are more results-oriented, with monetized ones especially focused on helping members achieve specific goals.

These communities also foster networks of relationships, where people engage, support, and motivate one another. Examples of such micro-communities include the Small Bets Community by Daniel Vassallo and the First-Gen Entrepreneur Community by Andrew McIntosh, which helps first-generation entrepreneurs navigate the challenges of starting a business. Both of these have a strong network of current members and alumni, creating opportunities and results beyond and outside of the content shared within the groups.

This deep engagement is an essential aspect of micro-communities. With a well-defined scope, it is easier to truly connect deeply with each member and help them achieve specific goals. This specificity then leads to more noticeable outcomes, which in turn strengthen the bond between you, the person you helped, and everyone else in the community.

Micro-communities prioritize depth over breadth, which leads to more meaningful exchanges and interactions between members. Progress is much more visible, which both inspires and educates new members of these communities more quickly.

You have a stronger loyalty and trust among members because everybody is in the same boat. If I join the Small Bets community, I know that I want to build a portfolio of projects. I also know that everyone in there wants that too, and may be further along. I trust that these people share my dream, and I know they can help me. And that mutual trust and loyalty to each other creates stronger bonds between people.

This is a benefit for the creator, because, in terms of a community’s retention, it is much easier to retain an audience of people who are highly motivated and trust each other. And community managers, which in most communities started by a single creator is that initial creator, can also eventually be recruited from within this community. The people who are trusted the most often tend to be the first non-founder community managers, which, if it’s a monetized community, can also be a paid occupation. So it turns out that many community-builders don’t just start a community, but actually turn it into a business by virtue of setting up internal structures to grow and maintain the community.

There’s also the flipside to this: some micro-communities begin as cohort courses and then evolve into long-term communities with additional benefits and strong ties amongst their members. There are many ways to combine community with business.

The monetization opportunities within these communities are what I admire the most, because they aren’t limited to the person who kickstarted the community. I personally have been part of several communities that asked me to teach a particular niche-specific topic for a fee. And as a creator, I think that is something that I never had anywhere on my radar, that I could teach the specific thing that I know a lot about through the perspective and specific angle of that community.

Let’s take both examples of the communities that I mentioned earlier. In the Small Bets community, I taught about monetizing the many different ways of being a creator. In the First-Gen entrepreneurial community, I would probably teach this from the perspective of someone who, as a first-gen entrepreneur myself, has had limited access to “advanced entrepreneurial topics”, such as ways you can approach sponsors, or advertisers, partners, bigger businesses, people that I’ve never spoken to in my life before. That’s what I would focus on there.

So the angle of the community, the specificity of its scope allows me, as a creator, to take my content, my value that I already know I can provide, and specifically shape it to fit into and appeal to those communities. That’s something really new — and surprisingly accessible. The fact that this mostly is a virtual activity allows the knowledge that I give in a workshop to be infinitely available within these communities. If people record it and make it accessible to any new members of the community, my one-hour workshop becomes something that can be watched thousands of times. And I know that most micro-communities do exactly that. Any live lecture is recorded and made accessible as a video for people who could make it or people who joined the community after that happened.

And a lot of the creators that teach their specific insights within these communities, a lot of them become regular guests, teaching more topics or teaching the same topic differently to make the community even more accessible to a diverse range of people.

Community access can be monetized in several ways. If the focus is on a long-term goal, subscription models can work. If it’s a community not of continuous practice, but of reaching a particular goal, then a sizable one-time fee with unlimited access to certain content and features can work, because eventually, people reach that goal and then themselves become teachers to the new members. And you can also have freemium here: different kinds of content might be gated and is purchasable from within a free community.

But even just as a participating creator in these communities, you can monetize, which is wonderful and quite empowering.

There are risks here in these communities, of course. Micro-communities can turn into echo chambers and lack diversity, particularly as they have entry requirements that might exclude certain demographics or certain kinds of people who couldn’t afford it. It’s a good idea to implement some kind of purchasing power parity pricing and to actively seek diversity in inviting people into the group that are adding to the multitude of perspectives.

Micro-communities can also have a mob effect. They often shift the discussion in forums or in the public space because the strong bonds and active participation of members mean that often, they are an amplification mechanism for one particular kind of opinion. You have this a lot in the software development space where certain loud vocal minorities are drowning the diversity of other opinions just because they’re well organized and micro-communities can help rally the troops, so to speak. But in the end, that just shows the strength of the theme and topic that these communities are formed around, which is not necessarily a drawback.

One of the biggest issues with communities like this is that there tends to exist a kind of hierarchy that cements itself in these communities, especially if they have a benevolent dictator like many influencer-centric communities have. The influencer has a say in everything, and the community has to either agree or is disbanded or is dissolved or members are excluded. So there’s a risk of tyranny in these communities, as they are not democratically structured but often very authoritarian in structure. If not counterbalanced, this tends to exclude certain people who do not like this kind of structure and, therefore can’t participate in an otherwise very useful community.

So what does the future hold for micro-communities? I think we will see much more tooling around influencer-centric communities that make it easier for somebody to spin up a community and retain people over time. We will see a lot of experimentation with subscription payments, one-time fees, and lifetime deals — just as we’ve seen in the software as a service space over the last decade or so; we will see how communities deal with this.

We will see how communities deal with diversity, inclusion, and alignment. We will probably have some kind of influence from the Web3 space there, where voting or participation in communities gets integrated into the tech stack of the community itself. And we will likely also see collaborations and mergers of larger communities or the bundling of smaller communities into larger ones, such as we see in the world of business.

We’re also going to see communities of similar or supporting topics merge with each other into bigger, more generalized ones. And we will see a media explosion within communities. It’s already starting with video recordings of live events, but we’ll see things like internal community podcasts become commonplace.

The future of niche micro-communities looks bright, and I’m really looking forward to seeing it.

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