Forget freemium. Upsell to Community.

Okay I admit, freemium and community are tools used for totally different business models but I liked the title. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about community and how it makes for a very sticky, and thus more successful product.

I remember when I was 13, sitting in my closet (that we turned into an office because it was the only place we could keep our large monitor and tower) and I would get so excited to come home from school just so I could log on to AOL. I would turn on the computer, which of course took a full three minutes, then trade my phone line in for a dial-up connection. I remember the screeching sound of dial up, “eeeeee yoooo eeee yo e yo,” which took another two minutes. Then I would wait for the friendly, “You’ve got mail” voice to greet me. I went through all this trouble because I wanted to use the chat rooms. My 13 year old self desperately wanted to connect with people outside of my neighborhood. I would search for the topic of the chat room and dive in. A few A/S/L’s* later and I made some virtual friends. This was my very first sense of an online community.

Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about community and how it has the power to create stickiness. There are quite a few successful products where I notice this pattern: create a tool, then create a community, get the community to use more of the tool.

A classic example is Pinterest. We created a tool called the board. This tool could be used by anyone to save images, videos, articles, and more. You could follow your friend’s boards or you could create a shared board. This created a small community of DIY enthusiasts, photographers, fashionistas, and more. The more traditional examples of successful forums and community are: Quora, Reddit, and Nextdoor.

But I wanted to highlight a few non-traditional examples. My hypothesis is that community contributes greatly to their success. By taking a niche tool, these companies have been able to create a niche community.

#1 Glow

Glow is a period tracking app. To be clear, there are many period tracking apps because the value is simple: the more dates you track in a calendar, the more accurate your ovulation predictions will be. It also helps you plan for trips or any situation where you need to plan for your period. Sounds simple and mundane right?

Well, there’s more. I couldn’t understand why I would need to switch my period tracking app to Glow — they both do the same thing. But when I started Glow there was one thing I kept coming back to: the forums.

There are forums on just about every subject. Beauty, relationships, fitness, religion, you name it. And none of this has to do with your period. It’s just a place for other women to connect with each other. I found this feature very addictive. When your favorite TV show is on, you can gossip along with others. When you’re going through a tough time in a relationship, you can ask for advice. And when you’re having a tough skin problem, you can ask the community what worked for them. Glow up-sold me to the community and I never looked back.

I’m also really surprised at the amount of personal detail people will share:

#2 RealSelf

The next example is a venture backed company that’s making a pretty penny serving as the yelp-for-plastic-surgery. Say what?

RealSelf is a company that prides itself on providing the best information on pricing, procedures, and practitioners. They first started with a research tool: list of doctors and blog-like reviews and commentary on plastic surgery procedure. This is genius because it’s a taboo subject that’s hard to research. These are also big ticket procedures that need money saved up and time for diligence. At first glance, RealSelf seems almost trashy with naked raw pictures of plastic surgery procedures:

But there’s a reason that Rich Barton (co-founder of Expedia, Zillow, and Glassdoor) invests his time and money and sits on the board of this product. It’s an incredibly sticky product. This is a place where people come to talk about their insecurities and how to change them. Many of these people will never get plastic surgery but they may try something smaller like botox. Either way, there’s this amazing community they have built to keep you coming back. If you ask a question, you can be sure another member, if not a doctor, will answer your question. You can feel like you’re heard.

RealSelf now has 10million monthly visits, where users spend over 30 minutes on the site. These are high intent users.

#3 The Purse Forum

Many of you probably do not know about TPF, as it is lovingly known among the community, but I was a very active user. I started buying and selling handbags when I was in high school and the purse forum allowed me to connect with other women who shared the same level of knowledge and interest in this accessory.

TPF wasn’t always a forum. It started out as a blog called “The Purse Blog,” which still exists as a method of marketing. People still come across the forum via the blog and then once they’re part of the forum, they are hooked. This small husband and wife business makes money off ads and most of the traffic now comes from the forum.

#4 BabyCenter

BabyCenter was founded in 1997 as a destination that offered “medically reviewed information and guidance to new and expectant parents on such topics as fertility, labor, and childcare.” This website that initially began as a reference tool and quickly added a community portion as well as a weekly informational email tailored to expectant moms based on the week of their pregnancy.

Apparently all of my mom friends are told to join this community and use the tools they have on site to plan for the pregnancy.

This combination of tool + community proved to be lucrative as “the site grew quickly, and by early 1999 had 175 employees and an annual revenue of $35 million”, according to Wikipedia.

Today, BabyCenter has over 58 million monthly visitors according to SimilarWeb.

In conclusion, adding forums to your website increases stickiness.

But how do you even get started? Some of the tactics I’ve noticed from these businesses include:

  • Start with a tool or seed content. Either way it’s something that people are looking for or need. If you provide value in some way, people will come.
  • Allow people to see a snippet of content. Make people sign up / create an account to see more or contribute. Sign up should be easy and fast. It should feel like an after-thought. See Reddit’s signup for example.
  • Upsell to the community: Start threads / forums about topics you think your audience would be interested in. Hire a community manager to monitor to encourage people to post. Great communities have great moderators. If you don’t have someone facilitating the party, the party can get stale. So make sure the community is vibrant and active.

These are just my observations and thoughts. If this post was helpful to you, please let me know by commenting below.

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*A/S/L: Age/Sex/Location. This was a common term to introduce yourself when you met a new person in an AOL chat.