There are many reasons to have an open community where anyone with an internet connection can participate.
Why let in the masses? Opening your community can greatly increase your search engine optimization, bring in prospective members and show the world you’re transparent -- and how much your members love you.
If open communities are so good at promoting the community and bringing new people in, why keep a community private?
Yes, there’s a case to be made for private communities. Rarely are communities all or nothing -- open to the world at large or shut off to only a few elite members. So, even if most of your community is open, there are reasons to consider keeping a piece of it private, with content accessible for only certain members.
Just because you create an exclusive community doesn’t mean you shouldn’t consider diversity -- an important aspect for every group. Exclusivity doesn’t necessarily mean hegemony, which isn’t inherently good for community -- varying points of view, healthy tension and real conversation are what push communities forward, not unanimous agreement on everything.
Private communities -- or sections of your open community that are private -- create the lure of exclusivity. And exclusivity can be a powerful motivator for joining. What is it about exclusive communities that can be so enticing?
Exclusivity is similar to scarcity -- only certain people get something than many people don’t get. And, if something is scarce, like spots in a community or tickets to a Beyoncé concert, that something suddenly becomes way more desirable.
Take this study -- researchers placed two jars of cookies in front of students. Each jar had the same type of cookie, but one jar had more than the other. They asked the students which cookies looked more desirable. Consistently, students said that the cookies in the jar with fewer cookies looked more desirable. This study is a great example of the scarcity heuristic -- how our brains become unconsciously biased when we see something in short supply. And that unconscious bias leads us to think that the item in short supply -- the jar with fewer cookies -- is worth more.
Facebook's start is a great example of the power of exclusivity. Originally, the platform was only accessible to Ivy League students -- a very specific, elite group. As Facebook rapidly grew in popularity, Mark Zuckerberg opened up it to any college student -- all you needed was a .edu email address. Today it’s hard to know definitively if Facebook’s exclusivity fueled its growth at the beginning, but it wouldn’t be surprising to know it played an important part.
How can you harness the lure of exclusivity in your community?
This is a pretty straightforward way of creating an exclusive community. If you pay, you’re in. If you’re an association member or bought a product, you automatically gain access to that community. That exclusivity could even be a reason you’re paying in the first place.
Rather than closing the whole community to outsiders, you can leave it open, but only paying members have the privilege of commenting or downloading certain materials. That way you still get the benefit of increased SEO and transparency, but people have a compelling reason to pay to get in.
Our user’s group is like this -- HUG isn’t accessible to anyone, only people who use our product. Therefore, members are able to have candid, high quality conversations with each other, ranging from broad topics to very specific needs.
Even if your review process is lax, just going through an application process makes a community feel exclusive. It also weeds out people who aren’t committed -- if they’re not willing to fill out an application, how engaged do you think they’d actually be in the community?
Depending on the community, you may want to ensure that each member has certain credentials. For example, keep most of the community private, but open up a small part so that prospective members can converse with current members.
A great example of this is the eCommerce Fuel community, which holds its members to certain standards. Each member needs to meet one of these two requirements: own a store with $250,000 in annual revenue or be an employee with at least a year of experience in the field, working directly with an eCommerce business.
If you’re weary of making everyone go through an application process, you could instead reserve applications for certain community groups or roles. For example, if you want to recruit volunteer moderators, have each volunteer fill out a quick application detailing why they want to help with moderation. It elevates the position and makes it feel as if not just anyone can become a volunteer moderator.
You want your community to be a place for members to have real discussions and find helpful, accurate information. Depending on your industry or product, that means it could be worth assigning members with certain credentials. These could vary widely, and be anything from a job title or certification to a degree level (like Master’s or PhD).
Not only do credential requirements have the potential to create deep, specific conversations, but it elevates the community’s reputation. If only certain people, with a certain level of expertise or knowledge, are allowed in, suddenly the community is seen as the place where experts go to talk. Becoming a member of the community is a sign of one’s status in that field -- and will make potential members want to join the conversations.
Credentials are really important for some communities, especially ones that involve health care professionals. The American Nurses Association has a community, and only registered nurses are allowed in. This creates camaraderie and a unique, wide reaching support system for their association members. Without that exclusivity -- only allowing registered nurses -- do you think they could’ve launched such a successful mentoring program?
If your entire community doesn’t require credentials, you could have special sections just for certain people, like CEOs or managers. People in those communities can participate everywhere, but have a private, reserved place to have more specific conversations with similar people.
Sometimes your best members are the best at finding your next members. Create a referral program so that prospective members need an invitation. The invitation can be sent by the organization or by fellow members.
Invitation-only communities -- or parts of communities -- integrate well with ambassador programs. Although anyone can sign up for the newsletter, theSkimm, they credit their incredible growth to their structured referral program.
Invitations are also how the infamous, super secret Facebook group, Girls Night In operates -- although its name changes constantly to maintain secrecy, so that’s probably not its name anymore. In order to join this hyper-active group of thousands of LA women, you need to be recommended by at least three current members. If future members can only enter the community through recommendations, it means they’re already invested in the community -- they must be if they know someone in it.
As with anything in your community plan, when considering a new tactic, you need to think about how it serves the greater purpose of your community, both for members and for your organization. If you’re considering an exclusive aspect of your community, you need to be able to answer this question: how does this help the community, for both members and organization?
But if creating exclusive aspects of your community help -- by elevating conversations, creating a safe space for people to honestly talk, or instilling a tiny bit of FOMO -- then it can be helpful for your community’s health.