Forums are Dead. Are Paid Membership Chats the Next Big Thing?

Would you pay a membership fee to join a private online chatroom?

I wasn’t so sure until I noticed this recent trend of private membership-based online chatrooms. In these communities, members pay anywhere from $20 to $1,495 for membership into exclusive and private chat environments.

Most of these communities have a similar user on-boarding process:

  1. A beautifully designed landing page showcasing other influential members, premium content, and/or opportunity for networking
  2. Application form to screen prospective members (typically Typeform)
  3. Payment flow to collect membership fees (usually Stripe or PayPal)

Applicants who are accepted by an administrator into the community gain access to a private chat environment allowing them to freely interact with other members of the community.

I am seeing more and more of these paid, private, chat groups pop up lately. To date, Slack seems to be the primary “beneficiary” of this trend (in terms of users), although it is not a core area of focus for them.

An incomplete list compiled by SlackChats (3rd party aggregator unaffiliated with Slack) shows 675 communities already in their database chatting away. Chat groups are sprouting up for a diverse range of communities, including UI/UX designers; League of Legends fans; podcasters and their listeners; language exchange groups; venture capitalists, and so on.

Community sizes differ, ranging from a few people to thousands in a single community chat. Some exist to help with professional advancement, some are for content and knowledge sharing, while others are purely for fun and networking. There’s even a Slack chat group for people who just “love Bermuda.”

Once you join a community, it is clear to see the appeal — the simple interface of a chat platform is far less intimidating and much easier to use than the traditional vBulletin forums of past. By simplifying the UI/UX and lowering the expectations for input, it removes a key barrier to engagement and leads to more frequent commenting. The real-time nature of chat feels dynamic, making the chat room come alive with conversation.

In addition, it seems that the gating process has the added effect of filtering out trolls, creating a generally more positive atmosphere devoid of the typical spam on public forums. Furthermore, the added option for anonymity sets these communities apart from those on traditional social media (i.e., Facebook groups or Google+) in that it provides a layer of privacy that encourages members to turn from spectators into contributors.

Some communities are free to join while others charge membership dues. One community for example, called Digital Nomads, charges a one-time fee of $65 to join. Their website claims 4,898 people have already signed up so far on the Slack they have set up, which would translate to over $318k in revenues for setting up and managing the community. There are numerous other examples of similarly successful paid communities being established by hacking together a chatroom with an onboarding mechanism and payment flow.

There also seems to exist the potential to convert existing communities on more antiquated software to a more modern and private chat environment. We did a brief search, and found sites like Community Roundtable (which is a private forum / network that charges $1,495 per member and puts community managers in touch with other community management professionals) and eCommerceFuel (which charges $49/month for store owners of businesses who make a minimum of $250K revenue) that have communities still on forum software.

How big is this opportunity? We’re still not entirely sure. However, there seems to be the demand for a new approach to online communities; and enterprising community managers, content creators, and influencers are beginning to turn this into serious business.

Nan is a co-founder of Space, a messenger App for private online communities.


Twitter: @spacechatapp