Building a paid membership element into your digital business has a lot of advantages.
A monthly or yearly subscription means ongoing revenue. Do well with your membership model, and the steady cash flow can make it easier to try other things, and to take risks on product launches and advanced marketing strategies.
If you have a big enough audience to attract a decent-sized subscriber base, you don’t have to charge a lot to succeed. Think about how many monthly newsletters there are in the financial industry that charge anywhere from $129 to $499 a year.
If one of those newsletters attracts a modest subscriber base of 2,000 people, the annual subscription fees come in around a quarter of a million dollars (and that’s for a low-end fee). A membership site works the same way, bringing in regular income every month or year depending on how you structure your pricing.
Sidenote: If you’re wondering about the difference between a membership and a subscription model, they are basically interchangeable. A “paid newsletter” offers premium content that is usually protected by a membership log in gateway. A “virtual community” is a membership site that emphasizes interaction among members in addition to training and content.
A well-done membership site will also help you further build your audience. When you create great content that gets people talking, you’ll draw more people to you through word of mouth, your own affiliate program, and ROI advertising.
Plus, interacting with your paid members is invaluable. You can ask questions, listen to feedback, watch comments, and see what kinds of things get the most engagement. All of that information can help you plan and launch additional products that you know for a fact your audience is interested in.
And if they like you and trust you, a lot of your audience will buy those products simply because you’re the one providing them.
In short, membership sites are a great revenue model. But, like anything, this model does have a couple of caveats.
A Membership Site is an Ongoing Commitment
Obviously, any business is going to require your regular attention.
But when you launch a membership site, you’re almost always making the promise to create and provide great stuff on an ongoing basis. Now, that great stuff can take on a lot of different forms, but creating something new for your members to look forward to isn’t something you can phone in.
The other commitment you’ll need to make to keep your membership model humming along is acquisition. It would be nice if people subscribed to your site for ever, happily paying their monthly or annual fees (and some of them will), but you will have churn. (In case you’re curious, according to The Membership Guys, people keep their site memberships for 12 to 18 months on average.)
Churn means you’ll need to bring new people in if you want to maintain or grow your revenues.
With all that in mind, if you’re still thinking, “Yes, a membership model sounds pretty darn good,” then let’s dig a little deeper into what you’ll need.
Now keep in mind, entire very expensive programs have been created to train people to implement this kind of business model, and this is just one lesson. But by the time you’re done here, you should have a good idea of what you’ll need to research further, what the next steps are, and how to avoid some key missteps.
A Great Idea + Your Sparkling Personality
Unless you’re selling software-as-a-service or a monthly sampler product, the reasons people will take an interest in your membership site are because you are able to offer them good, reliable information, you’re able to do it with authority, and because on some level they resonate with you.
In other words, you need to take a great idea and combine it with your own personality. Maybe with the volume turned up a little bit.
So, how do you come up with a great idea? There are a few different methods.
1. Pursue your own interests
The first is to choose something you’re passionate about, experienced with, or excited to learn more about.
When taking this approach, it’s helpful if you’re able to put in some time building your audience and your expertise before launching the membership side of things. That’s why the topic you choose for attracting your free audience has to have profit potential and fulfill a sense of purpose in you.
2. Listen to the market
A faster path to success (at least of the monetary variety) is to pay attention to the market, to study what is already available and in-demand, and to identify gaps.
This is faster because you’re pursuing a topic you know people want and value. They are asking for it. And you’re giving it to them.
When looking for a gap, it doesn’t have to be something huge. It could be that you take a topic that is handled in a very technical way everywhere else and make it accessible to laypeople.
Or it could be that you take a topic that is usually dry and dull, and you make it interesting and fun. The Motley Fool (an investment advisory service) is a great example of this approach.
3. Niche Down
Another way to approach your membership site is to pick a big, broadly popular topic, and then niche it down, so that you’ll have a narrower, but keenly interested audience.
A membership site on parenting, for example, is so broad as to be unmanageable. But building a site for homeschooling parents or for parents who want to use only organic products or for parents who want to travel with their kids or for parents of teenagers.
Dig into those narrower niches and you’ll be able to target your audience’s needs better and you’ll be able to build a stronger community because your members will resonate not just with you, but with each other.
Making a Bare Bones Start
Once you have your idea, the next step is to think about how you’ll deliver on it.
Important Warning: You can plan yourself to death with a membership site. Don’t do that.
It’s easy to keep coming up with things to add, things that will be of great benefit to your members, things that you’re excited to deliver. Believe me, I know. I run a membership site, and I have seen how easy it is to get carried away.
If you try to do too much at the outset, you’ll run the risk of overwhelming yourself, and that can result in a failure to launch.
To prevent that from happening, start with a minimum viable plan. The barest bones of what you need for lift off.
If you offer a comprehensive, easy-to-apply report on a topic once a month, that’s valuable enough to charge for. Or you might offer an in-depth article once a week, or even twice a month.
Map your content out, based on your minimum viable plan, for three to six months. Get your membership site off the ground doing that much first, then you can look at adding new features.
The other advantage of taking this approach is that it will give you time to build the community. You’ll be able to respond to emails and comments, and you might even be able to surprise your members with a few extras they weren’t expecting.
During your initial six months to a year, in addition to doing an excellent job at fulfilling your membership promises, make sure you’re paying close attention to your audience’s feedback. What do they comment on? What do they share? Which links do they click on? What questions do they ask? When you ask questions, what answers do you get?
All of this information can inform your future content and your future product development.
On the Tech Side of Things
I’m a big believer in hiring professionals to handle the technical side of things. (I’d personally rather watch clothes tumble around in a dryer than try to build a website.)
But, even if you’re not intending to get your hands dirty with the coding side of things, it still helps to know a little bit about what you’ll need.
You’ll need a website platform. And if you’re hiring someone to set up your site for you, it’s hard to beat WordPress. Future Freedom is a simple WordPress membership site, and we’ll spell out the components used to put it together in a future lesson.
WordPress offers a lot of flexibility, and its content management system is easy to learn, so you won’t have to rely on your tech team to add new content to the site. You’ll be able to handle that part yourself.
You’ll need a membership module that integrates with your site. This is what hides your content from people who aren’t logged in. Again, WordPress has many options here, some better than others.
You’ll need a system for collecting payment. Brian uses Stripe for his three membership sites, and it’s a good place to start with your research as an industry-leading payment processing solution. Depending on your niche, you may want to offer PayPal as well.
And you’ll need an email service provider, because a big part of building a membership site is building your list with the audience-first approach. Check out ConvertKit if you haven’t settled on an ESP yet.
These are the basics. Oh, and they all need to integrate with each other. At least, they do if you want to avoid a lot of extra headaches and hair pulling. Fortunately, all the components we’ll recommend play nicely together by design.
So, when you talk to your tech team, these are things you’ll need to make sure they’re considering.
It’s helpful to write out, step-by-step, the experience you’d like your users to have. That way, your tech team can see how you envision everything coming together for your members before they subscribe, as they subscribe, and after they subscribe. Doing this will help ensure you don’t overlook any key bits of tech or crucial integrations.
Launch, Deliver, Over-Deliver, and Grow
Planning out your membership site and getting it built are obviously key steps. But make sure you plan something special for your launch. Launching is an exciting moment, not just for you, but for your audience too — or at least it can be if you take the time to make it exciting.
You can do a lot of different things to launch your site with a bang, but here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Create a free course to build your list in advance of the launch (sound familiar?). The course can help you attract people to your list, demonstrate your authority on the topic, share useful, relevant information with your subscribers, establish the value of your membership site, and create buzz around the launch.
- Host a live webinar in advance of your launch. The webinar should be very valuable (obviously) and should offer attendees something special if they join your membership – may a discounted rate that’s guaranteed to never go up or one-on-one coaching session with you. Again, there’s serves to build your list and create buzz for your launch.
- Promote yourself like a celebrity. Well in advance of your launch, begin seeking out blogs, podcasts, social media influencers, and YouTube channels that serve your target audience. Line yourself up to guest on podcasts, contribute to blogs, and be interviewed by video personalities. Always provide value and then tease to the great value that’s coming with your membership site.
Launching a membership site is a topic on it’s own. We’ll cover various strategies in future lessons.
Need a Little Inspiration?
If your head is spinning with possibilities, good! A well done membership site can provide a valuable service to a lot of people while earning you a really good living.
The next step would be to spend some time exploring different membership sites out there to get even more inspired about what’s possible. This can help you pick the topic for your audience-building newsletter, blog, or podcast.
Pay particular attention to
- Their acquisition model: what do they offer you for joining their free list and then how do they guide you toward becoming a member?
- Their fulfillment model: what are they offering their members in terms of content, access, community, and extras.
- Their free-versus-paid balance: how much of their content is available to everyone and how much is behind a member paywall.
Start by exploring this site a little more. Future Freedom is a great example of a value-added membership site that transcends a simple paid newsletter subscription.
I mentioned that I manage a membership site. You can check that one out if you like, at Wealthy Web Writer.
Another good one (if you don’t mind profanity) is Mark Manson’s site. Give his sign-up page a read; it’s a great example of weaving personality into your membership site.
Most news sites these days use a pretty standard subscription model — you pay for access to their content. But they don’t have a lot in the way of membership features. National Review shows how you can take reporting and commentary and turn it into more of a membership than a subscription.
On the subscription side — which is a similar model to membership, just with less in the way of community and personality — look at the sales funnels used by smartphone apps and software-as-a-service sites. There’s a lot you can learn and adapt from how they structure things.
People are hungry for a sense of connection with other likeminded people. Membership sites that figure out how to offer that connection in addition to valuable information, entertainment, useful products, convenience, or some combination of all those things can be wildly successful.