In response to my request for reader suggestions, Kal was kind enough to outline the following scenario:

“I run a very small online games community that has around 500 [daily active users]. … The community and games are free but there is also the possibility to subscribe which gives access to additional features such as new games to play and being able to change colours and styles of the website – things like that.”

Some subscribers still break the more extreme site policies such as consistently verbally abusing each other or spamming the chat,” he continues. “What courses of action would you recommend for such community members, considering that they are also subscribers – should they still be banned without refund, for example? Thank you very much!”

Thank you for sharing this with me and for reading, Kal. I don’t know if I’d call that “very small!” Congratulations on your success.

Premium memberships are a great opportunity, especially for established communities, to generate revenue in a way that also adds value for members by enhancing their use of the community, providing them with extra benefits and giving them another means to directly support the community that they enjoy.

But, nothing is without downsides. Unfortunately, some members may feel more entitled on your community if they are paying for a membership – they may also be less receptive to guidance from staff regarding the types of behavior that are not acceptable. If you are dealing with this issue, I think that it is helpful break it down to the essence and ask yourself a simple question.

Can people pay for the “right” to treat your guidelines, your staff and your community with a lack of respect?

The answer should be no. For your guidelines or policies to have meaning, they have to apply to all, including premium members. There may be cases where people are allowed to do more or have more space if they are a premium member – a longer signature, more private message space, what have you. But, the guidelines pertaining to respect and how members treat one another should apply to all.

Why? Well, what’s the opposite? That people can pay you and that makes it OK for them to treat others poorly? And speak in a way that other, non-paying members can’t speak? How does that look? It looks bad.

Should you ban them? You want to treat them like you would treat any other member with a similar number of contributions and history within your community. If you’d give the non-paying member a chance, give a paying member the same chance. If they reach a point of abuse where you’d ban a non-paying member, you should also be able to ban the paying member.

As far as refunds go, whatever you decide, make sure that it is posted in a very visible way and repeated as they sign up for a premium membership. Some people offer no refunds – in their view, if you were banned, it is because you did something to earn it and it isn’t the community owner’s fault. Others provide refunds.

My general recommendation is to provide prorated refunds. If you ban someone, give them the money back for the time they haven’t used. I understand why some say “no refunds,” but to me, it isn’t worth the extra work, angry emails, complaints online, chargebacks and paper work for forcing people to pay for something they are not going to be able to use, even if they agreed to, even if it is their own fault.

In the end, one of the trickiest things about launching a paid membership program is working to ensure that people who don’t pay don’t feel like second class citizens. That will likely determine how successful your program is.