The biggest challenge many new entrepreneurs face is coming up with an idea. Ironically, the best startup opportunity many have available to them is staring them right in the face: themselves.
Every person has their own unique set of experiences, skills, and personality traits that make them a differentiated offer in and of themselves. By leveraging your unique expertise in whatever area you’ve mastered (or are in the process of mastering), you can easily launch a business that would resonate with hundreds if not thousands of people.
The business model that I’m talking about is building an online community to help others reach their goals in your domain of expertise using your own unique blend of skills and experience.
It does not matter if you are a niche restaurant junkie, an artist crafting masterpieces out of paper plates, or have a small ecommerce company. The long tail has made it possible to connect with hundreds if not thousands, of others who would find you and your approach to solving their challenges very appealing. And, creating an online community around your unique skills and experiences is often the best way to capitalize on this opportunity.
What Is An Online Community?
An online community is a place where individuals can gather in a virtual environment. Usually, when creating or joining these communities, members have shared interests, goals, or values and are keen to collaborate and engage.
But often people join communities to follow one individual person or thought leader. The idea of togetherness, collaboration, and belonging are also important elements of an online community.
Online communities can take millions of forms, and there’s a demand for tall types. But all will have the following characteristics…
Online communities bring together people with a shared interest – and this is really a necessary characteristic. Common interests could include any niche technical skill, subject, or passion. As a founder, it’s your job to bring these people together by offering your unique take on the niche or solution to their challenges.
All online communities engage with each other… online. You can’t have an online community without the online part. Yes, you can meet in person over a pint, but that’s either a neat additional benefit from being a part of an online community, or another sort of business entirely. The communities we’re discussing here are online communities.
Whether they are hosted on a website, utilize an app, or are formed on a social media platform, this is where the majority of your information gathering and content sharing will be conducted.
With any community, there’s a need for members to participate. When creating an online community, ensure you share ideas, insights, and experiences in the field.
It’s great if members engage with each other, but it’s critically important that they engage with you. As community founder, they expect you to lead, and that means often leading the conversation and interacting with them.
For any online community to thrive, someone must moderate the conversations so they don’t veer off track or become offensive. All communities have to have boundaries and standards for behavior.
No matter whether you decide to do it yourself, or hire a VA to monitor the posts, it’s important to keep an eye on the content to ensure that members keep the rules you’ve laid out and your community does not unravel into chaos.
Aren’t These Just Social Media Groups?
No, not really.
Online communities can exist on many different platforms, including social media sites such as Facebook.
It’s in your own best interest to craft one on your own website with you and your experience at the helm, though.
How Are Online Communities Different from Meta or LinkedIn Groups?
On the surface, it looks like social media would be a perfect place to host an online community, but there are critical differences between hosting your community on social vs your own website. Those differences will play a big role in your ability to run a successful community and maximize revenue.
You Don’t Own Your Community
The biggest difference between hosting your community on social rather than your own site is that you don’t own your community because you don’t own the platform.
Any social site can choose to shut down your group or get rid of groups altogether any time they want because, again, it’s their platform, not yours. You’re just a free user.
You also have to adhere to their terms of service when it comes to messaging, marketing, group topics, etc. In short, you have to follow their rules to play.
As a business owner, you want to own the assets you’re building, and the community where interactions take place is a big part of that.
Limitations With Organization
On your own site, you can organize your community section any way you want. You can have a forum section for dogs, another for dog treats, and a video course about dog training in a different part of the members’ area.
On social, things are a lot more restrictive. Basically, you are stuck with a big “recent posts” page, and you can pin things to the top of the page, but that’s about it.
I found in the sites that I’ve run that the body of knowledge you build in your forum is a huge source of value for members willing to learn – but accessing it requires the ability to partition content, search through member posts, etc. You don’t get this with social sites.
Limitations With Marketing
Hosting your community on your own website makes a lot of sense from a revenue maximization perspective as well.
If you are working on your own site, you can easily add different pages, optin boxes on pages, downloads in key spots in the members’ section, track user behavior, and offer up sells or cross sells at opportune times.
You can’t do any of this if you host your community on a social media site.
But competitors can also advertise inside your community with a social media’s native ad program. This is typically not something you want if you plan to run a successful business.
Online communities can be created around any topic or interest. Most importantly, online communities can serve multiple purposes.
While you can create niche groups on Meta platforms, these groups are an extension of the larger platform. Meta groups were not developed with a single purpose but take a one-size-fits-all approach. For individuals looking for niche content, this will dilute their experience.
LinkedIn Groups are designed for professional networking and discussions, but again, it is a more prominent platform created for all industry sectors.
An online community created separately from these platforms is more able to hyper-focus on delivering bespoke, actionable content. The focus of any site you make can be razor sharp, and users will not be as distracted by other things happening on the social media platform and navigate away.
Membership Payments and Onboarding
Facebook and LinkedIn are open to the general public and free to use. While this accessibility is excellent, it can quickly dilute the integrity of the group’s professional insights.
Online communities can also be open to the general public, but they can also include a paywall or more stringent group admission requirements.
Yes, technically you can have an invite only system for your social communities, but this would necessitate you to build a site – at least a sales and checkout page – to ensure payment. Granting access to the community would be done manually, the onboarding clunky, and the whole process just far more cumbersome and satisfying to the new member.
Compare that to your own site where you can set up automations to take care of everything. You end up with less work and a far better member experience.
Now that we understand the differences between social networks and hosting your own online community on your own site, where should you start looking for inspiration when creating your own online community?
What Are Examples of Online Communities?
Remember that when it comes to building an online community, the most overlooked offering is you – your skill and experience in your particular niche.
What it comes down to is understanding what are you’re really good in, seeing if there’s a market of buyers in that particular area, and then offering a unique angle to help those buyers.
Again, you don’t have to be helping others build skills. A community focused around some activity or cause is just as viable.
There have been some great niche communities built over the years. Here’s some for inspiration…
BiggerPockets is a thriving community for realtors, real estate investors, and professionals. With forums, articles, and many accessible resources, it’s perfect for anyone in the industry.
Similarly, if you’re in the mortgage broker space, you could start a community to help those new to the industry find clients, navigate the rules, and shorten the learning curve.
Net Net Hunter
There are a lot of stock websites out there, but there’s also an ocean of nuance between strategies and how to help those following any particular strategy.
Net Net Hunter is a niche stock investing community that focuses on dramatically shortening the time and effort it takes to put together a high quality net net stock portfolio. They offer bulk lists of stocks that meet the criteria, a shortlist of net net stocks that passed through a rigorous filter, stock analysis, learning resources, and a forum.
Other sites just offer analysis or a bulk screener, and leave the individual investor to do a lot of the work on their own.
This PE teacher saw a big opportunity offering lesson plans, downloads, and a community with helpful support for other PE teachers around Australia.
Is there a site like this where you live? If not, maybe one focused on American schools would be more appealing and provide a differentiated offering from one focused on Australia.
If you’re looking for a new product to boost your company’s offerings, Product Hunt offers entrepreneurs and tech professionals a space to discuss and showcase products. The two parties then strike a deal, providing the retailer with new merchandise they think will be appealing to their shoppers, and the developer gets paid for his or her innovation.
Now that we’ve highlighted some great online communities for inspiration, what are the benefits for ambitious entrepreneurs?
Benefits of Online Communities: Are They Good For You?
Building an online community requires time and constant monitoring. But for an ambitious entrepreneur, few other avenues of connecting can come close to forming such a healthy community.
There are four significant benefits of building an online community.
Building Brand Awareness
Building brand awareness is critical to success regardless of your niche industry. When creating a community, it is vital to make sure that you provide insights and content that is shareable and actionable.
In an online world with millions of sources, make sure yours speaks directly to your members about their interests, who will share this with others. There’s no better promotion than positive word of mouth.
Creating Special Bonds
You are guaranteed to make concrete connections in a community designed for a unique crowd. As a dynamic entrepreneur, you can pick up on these new relationships and use them on your journey towards success.
By creating a high-quality space, you’re also establishing loyalty amongst like-minded peers. This means that when others seek assistance with larger jobs, they will come to you for additional help.
When you build an online community, you automatically have an avenue to seek support, even as you give it. No matter what the task is, you can ask your community for help.
Now that we’ve clarified the benefits of creating an online community, what types of online communities are there? And what kinds of online communities will best suit your needs?
Types of Online Communities: Which One’s Right Up Your Alley?
As we’ve mentioned, there are millions of genres of online communities. While many will not be suited for you, there are plenty of general categories that will fit your needs.
Indie Hackers and Hacker News are great examples of communities geared toward entrepreneurs and startups.
Developing an online community like the ones mentioned above gives you and your members a space to share insights, seek advice, and connect with other business founders.
E-commerce and Dropshipping Groups
Many niche sectors need to utilize e-commerce tools. Building a digital storefront opens a new world of possibilities.
However, venturing into this world can become overwhelming, especially when using these e-commerce or dropshipping platform tools for the first time. An online community can help overcome these challenges.
On the other hand, if you are an expert in the field, this could be your opportunity to connect with potential clients.
Marketing and Digital Marketing Communities
For some business owners, marketing is a difficult skill to master. A community that provides marketing tips could connect you directly to potential clients.
Businesses often need to recruit additional help with specific projects. By creating a community for freelancers, you could pool millions of professional skills in one place.
Connecting businesses with the correct investor is a problem many enterprises will encounter over their operational lifespan.
By creating communities, such as AngelList or SeedInvest, you’re positioning yourself in the position of knowing where to invest your capital.
These are just a few examples of communities you could create, but what makes a great online community?
What Makes A Great Online Community?
Firstly, for any online community to achieve greatness, the members must be constantly active. Without contributions and engaging conversations, the community will lose interest and go elsewhere for information.
Secondly, this idea of a healthy environment, where people freely exchange ideas, means the community needs to be inclusive and respectful. No one will share content if their input is unduly criticized and they are not accepted. And hate comments are a no-no.
Thirdly, inclusivity and respectfulness can only be achieved if your community has a great moderation system. Too strict, and nothing will be shared. Too lenient, and you’ll be fighting off offensive contributors or trolls.
Fourthly, an essential element for any community is that it is one that’s evolving. A community that does not grow with the times will be irrelevant very quickly.
And finally, the last criterion is transparency. A group that prevents members from accessing information creates an environment where suspicion will build.
Now that we’ve discussed what makes an online community great, we must understand a significant distinction. What is the difference between an online community and an audience?
Online Community Vs. Audience: What’s The Difference?
We’ve spoken at length about what an online community is, but how is it different from an audience?
An online community is a group of engaged individuals who share common interests and passions and a common goal, which an audience simply does not do. As someone looking to build a community, having an audience is not worth your time.
An audience is a passive group of individuals who consume content and information created by a content creator or company. Audiences will not interact with each other and might not share similar interests.
Audiences are typically one-way by their nature. Unlike communities where discussions would be encouraged, audiences are only gathered to receive information from a content creator – without buy-in or input.
So, now that we understand the crucial difference. But why does your business need an online community?
Why Do You or Your Business Need an Online Community?
Launching an online niche community has clear benefits for both individual entrepreneurs just starting out or established companies looking to grow their brand. The benefits for either group are quite appealing.
How Individual Entrepreneurs Benefit From Building Niche Online Communities
Budding online entrepreneurs have a golden opportunity to capitalize on their particular skillset and niche knowledge by offering a membership community to would-be eager fans.
Forget struggling to find a business idea, or trying to understand a target market’s problems to build an effective solution. As someone with a good depth of experience in your niche, you understand the problems that new entrants face, the paths to overcome those hurdles, and can make good use of the skills you have developed over time.
Even if you are just starting out in some area of interest, documenting your journey in blog form can grow your following and paint you as an expert over time, allowing you to launch a community site and help others in their own journey.
Online communities can be highly profitable and provide a work-life balance unheard of in most of the business world. It’s not uncommon to find community founders making over 7 figures per year – $100k per month – if their online group is buzzing.
Even if it’s not, and you find that you’re just making a good professional salary from your site, the work life balance can be amazing. With proper systems in place, it’s possible to work as little as 10 hours per week… nearly achieving that mythical passive income status.
If you’re unhitched to a family (or if you can take your family with you), living and working in a large number of other countries becomes a great choice to maximize the value you get from every last dollar.
It also just makes for a more enriching life. Over the last 10 years, I’ve lived in 4 different countries (South Korea, Australia, Taiwan, Thailand) and traveled to many more. This is a much better lifestyle than working at a desk job back in Canada.
And, unlike other businesses, community based businesses are much less likely to be disrupted by AI because people will always crave that human connection.
Benefits Established Business Get From Launching An Online Community
Building a strong, healthy online community can grow your business by providing more leads, improving your reputation and brand image, and giving you access to a pool of knowledge you might not otherwise find.
Leads – As your community fills up with your best customers, community involvement increases a sense of belonging and affinity for you and what you offer. You’re then more likely to get brand ambassadors, who work to promote your business for you.
Reputation and brand image – Since this pool of customers has self selected as very interested in your brand, you have the ability to connect with them more often, and through different channels, increasing your ability to provide positive emotional experiences and increase affinity towards you and your company. As these people spread the word about you through discussions with friends or online reviews, your brand value grows and your reputation strengthens.
Knowledge – Frequently connecting with your best customers allows you to dig deeper into how they think and see the world, so you can better refine your marketing message, and craft offerings that are far more appealing. Since they like you, they’re probably happy to give you this insight.
Increased revenue – It should be no surprise that you can make more offers to your best customers without pissing them off. They’ve self-selected as liking you and your company, after all. More offers means more upsell and cross selling opportunities, increasing revenue and customer lifetime value.