I’ve argued before that diversifying your income streams should be a top priority of every edupreneur. When you focus only on online courses, for example, you leave a lot of other opportunities for impact – and money – on the table. You also make your business riskier by being too dependent on a single type of revenue.
The solution is to look beyond online courses and one of the key places to look is to membership.
On the surface, the effort to build a membership site might seem like more trouble than it’s worth. You have to host and build the site, generate content, drive visitors to it, and encourage them to sign up. That requires a working knowledge of Web site development, SEO, and marketing, or paying someone else to manage and promote the site on your behalf.
Why bother when you can host a course on one of many online platforms and get by with the basic membership capabilities that many of those platforms offer?
The reason is that a well-designed, well-managed membership site can become the core of your community, your brand, and your business. Just think of the value of having a group of people who have self-identified as wanting access to you and your content, who are their waiting any time you have new offerings, and who add major value to your work through the relationships they build with each other and the experiences they share.
That’s powerful stuff.
And, while there are many good and valid reasons to start off using the capabilities of an online course platform, the fact is that most successful membership sites provide a much richer experience and greater rewards for users than most online course platforms are designed to support. They also go beyond being simply content subscription sites and support a sense of community that, in the most successful cases, becomes self-perpetuating.
Here are just a few of the benefits you will get when you build a membership site.
1. Increase Retention (Both Kinds)
Making and maintaining connections online is hard. When you have made a connection with a learner or online follower, your membership site can help make sure you keep it. It provides a place your learners can return to again and again, even when they are not participating in a specific course. Regular participants develop an affinity with each other, forming interpersonal relationships centered around their interest in your work and/or their connection to you.
Basically, they become a tribe.
A tribe is defined as a group of people who share a common idea, connected to one another under a central leader. In your tribe, you’re the leader, and the central idea(s) are the lessons you offer.
If that sounds a bit too New Age for you, consider it rather as a highly selective social network. By including a social element in your member site, such as a forum or comments area, you encourage your members to approach and interact with each other. Those interactions are invaluable to the growth and longevity of your site. Not only are members engaging with your material, they’re generating new content, and the social attachments they form will make it harder for them to leave your site in the future.
That means retaining them as customers, but it also means they are much more likely to retain the knowledge and skills you have shared with them because you are giving them an opportunity to revisit and engage with your content.
And guess what? That means your impact as a teacher increases, which then leads to greater customer retention.
That’s the virtuous circle of a successful learning community.
2. Leverage Social Learning
At the heart of that virtuous circle is the powerful force of social learning.
Really, when you think about it, just about all learning is social – we gain most of our knowledge and ideas by interacting with others, whether that means interacting with a teacher or just with the other people we encounter in our day-to-day lives.
In fact, most learning of any type doesn’t happen in a classroom or a course. As much as 80 percent of our learning happens informally (more by some estimates). By developing a community for your learners, you provide an informal space for your learners to learn with and from each other.
That doesn’t mean, though, that you are completely hands off.
Social learning very often needs some help both to get it started and to keep it going. As part of facilitating a learning community, you need to think strategically about the providing content that can help stimulate and focus conversation – what I call social learning objects. This may be material that comes directly from a course you offer, or it might be related material from other places – e.g., a YouTube video, a blog post, a quote from the news. The main thing is that you want to stay focused on the types of learning outcomes you want to help your learners achieve and provide related content.
And, you need to help forge connections among content and among your learners. When you or one of your learners posts about a topic on your discussion boards, for example, identify and link to other posts or content related to the topic. And, be sure to “tag” – and encourage your users to tag – members who you know might be interested in a particular post. This will alert them to the discussion and help to draw them in. (Most of the better membership platforms support this type of tagging – a feature that sets them apart from most online course platforms.)
3. Maximize Your Content
While interaction among you and your members is key to the success of a membership site, content – as you may be gathering by now – is a key driver of that interaction.
The great thing when you build a membership site is that it gives you a great way to recycle and get continuing value out of content you have already created. You can reuse old blog posts, newsletters, guest lectures and seminars, and any other content you’ve produced over your career, even if it doesn’t fit into an established course or lesson plan, rather than just giving away all that material as a loss-leader. (Or worse, leaving it buried and unused on your local hard drive!)
As you continue to produce regular content for your site, such as Webinars or videos, you build up a library that grows as the site ages, providing more incentive for future users to sign up, and adding additional value to your brand and membership. At my company, for example, we make the recordings from annual virtual conference and our ongoing Webinars part of our membership site. The membership site is the only place people can get access to this content once the live events are over.
In general, a membership site showcases all of your content by keeping it in one place, rather than having different content on different platforms across the web. New members can view and benefit from your entire body of work, instead of only seeing part of the information you’ve made available.
4. Boost Your Credibility and Brand
There’s no denying that developing a successful membership site takes time and effort, but over the long run, it can become one of your most valuable business assets both because of the people in the community and because of its ability to attract more people.
Let’s face it, success tends to lead to more success when you develop a community. When you have a following people want to follow you.
There are few types of “social proof” as powerful as having your own established social network of people who have made it clear they value your expertise by joining.
Of course, that raises the question: what does joining involve?
My bias is that you want people to demonstrate that they value the community before you let them in. Usually – but not always – that means paying to join.
It’s just a basic human truth that people prioritize what they pay for. A learner who gets access to your course for free will likely be less engaged than one who paid $100 for it, for example. The same is true of membership: the act of spending money to access your site will actively encourage members to return to it again and again.
That said, payment is not the only way to get commitment from your prospective community members.
Another is to make them apply to join the community. The application process doesn’t have to be lengthy or complex. It may involve just a few questions to clarify what the applicant hopes to get out of the community and what she can contribute. This simple step can go a long way toward weeding out people who would otherwise not be engaged community members. And, while this approach does not result in direct monetization of the community, it does result in a highly qualified group of prospects for courses, coaching, events and other learning products you offer.
Whether you charge, use an application, or (best of all) both it pays to cultivate a sense of scarcity and exclusivity [Link] when it comes to your community. You want it to feel like a special place, one that’s not available to just anybody. Indeed, if you do charge, aim for a top-tier membership price that is just above what your average member will comfortably pay. Finding that price point might take some experimentation, but the result will be members who value your content, interact with it frequently, and feel privileged to do so.
5. Stabilize your income
The first challenge of a new edupreneur is to earn any income from their learning products. The second is to convert their revenue into a stable income. Obviously, with regular monthly or annual membership fees you can predict your income more reliably than by depending on variable revenue from large, one-off course subscriptions, speaking fees, or seminars. And, even if you decide not to charge for membership, you’ll know you have a pool of qualified prospects in place, greatly increasing your ability to sell your related offerings.
A membership site doesn’t provide truly passive income, but it should provide consistent income.
The difference is the amount of work required from you to maintain that income level. Passive income has become the goal of many entrepreneurs and online businesses, but it’s rarely achieved. You will spend time working on your membership site on a regular basis, improving the site itself, adding new content, and interacting with members through forums and comments. Remember your members are your tribe, and they need you to lead them. Engaging with your members is a crucial part of maintaining and growing your site.
With the right pricing structure and content, there’s no limit on how big your membership site can become. In the beginning, losing a top-tier member will have a dramatic effect on your predicted income from the site, but as it grows you should be able to rely more upon a regular level of income. Membership sites can provide the steady revenue that allows edupreneurs the time to write additional courses, go on speaking tours or host seminars, and take more control over their income, planning their careers months or years in advance rather than scrambling to come up with the next paycheck.
Bonus: Benefit from User-Generated Content
User-generated content comprises all the posts and comments your members leave on your site, and it’s valuable to you for a number of reasons.
Firstly, user-generated content allows you to see how your learners are engaging with your material. Whether they don’t understand something, or are particularly enthusiastic, knowing their reactions will help you tailor future content to ensure you continue delivering lessons that are engaging and informative for your learners. Equally, a lack of response also tells you something important. If a new post or lesson generates less interest or discussion than usual, it’s an early sign you’ve lost your learners’ attention.
The second benefit to user-generated content is that it tells you what your learners want. Do they mention a particular format they’d like to see, or a topic they’d enjoy studying in more depth? By following conversations between your members, you can generate new ideas for future lessons and courses, teaching methods, and more.
Finally, the content your members create helps them build relationships and engage in social learning, as well as adds to the body of information contained within your site. Even after conversations have moved on, archived comments and forum discussions provide valuable insight for new users that helps them to learn more and better understand the community your members have created around your lessons.
There are countless ways you can tailor a membership site to fit your subject area and teaching style. While other platforms exist that offer similar services, consolidating your learners in a single place where they can access all your content is a smart way of keeping them engaged and improving your edupreneurial prospects.