We need to get more innovative about monetizing online communities.
Both professionals and amateurs can do better here.
Relying on adveritsing and sponsorship is a dubious approach. It detracts from the community experience. If you gave your members a choice, they would choose to remove all ads.
I would broadly advocate three approaches:
1) Paid/premium memberships. Narrow down the number of members in exchange for paying members. Let the first members in for free and gradually increase the fee newcomers pay. The WELL has 2,693 members paying $100 – $150 per year. This equates to $269,300 – $403,950 per year in revenue. That might not be enough for an organization, but certainly enough for an entrepreneur.
Paid members are a terrific model. They require you to focus not upon recruitment, but upon retention. They force you to provide real value within the community. I don't think we've even begun to explore the possibilities here.
Alternatively, create extra value members will pay a premium amount for. This might be a package that includes customization, unique access to host/run their own areas of the community, ability to organize events/create content etc…
2) Products and services. The best method to monetize a community is to develop products and services the community wants to buy. These add value to the community. You can use the knowledge you gain from the community to sell products/services your audience want.
There are also the things that help the most people. The Pillar Summit course came from people wanting a structured way to learn community management. Education is just one option. You can ask members what their dream products/services look like and work with others to create them.
3) Opt-in opportunities. A relatively unexplored approach is opt-in opportunities. Here members opt-in to receive offers and opportunities on behalf of organizations. A common example is a focus group. Some communities of doctors generate revenue of $100k+ for each focus group they run. Sometimes you can have members tell you which brands they want to hear from. The brand gets to reach the people that like them and you get the benefits without the interruption.
The goal of monetization isn't to figure out how we can make money from what the audience is doing. It's to figure out what we can do that the audience would want to pay for.
p.p.s. If you're looking for more ideas, try here.