I’ve written before about why an edupreneur might want to create a membership website. A membership site can help to stabilize your income and boost your credibility as an online teacher, while improving learner retention and supporting the learning process.
But membership sites aren’t right for every edupreneur at every point in their career. In this post I’ll review how to assess if membership is the right business model for you, and how to build your own membership site without having to learn a line of code.
Who are membership sites right for?
Not every edupreneur should build a membership website right out the gate. First and foremost, you need to have an established audience. Membership sites work by gating your learners away from general forums such as social media, and that reduces your reach, making it harder for learners to find out about you or your business. If you’re just starting out as an online educator and nobody knows who you are, your membership site isn’t going to attract any members.
The second consideration is content. Do you have material created that you can use for your membership site? If not, how quickly can you create it?
While members joining at startup will expect the site to be a little sparse at first, you should offer value for money from Day One. Repurposing materials you’ve already created — blog posts, audio and video lessons, handouts and digital downloads — can help your site hit the ground running. And don’t forget that you will need to continue to add content to the site every month, so you should have a realistic idea of how much quality content you can create on a regular basis.
Finally, the most successful membership sites are usually community based, rather than transactional. That might not seem like a big distinction, but what will attract members (and keep them coming back!) is strong community engagement. Your site should be built with member forums, posting abilities, or a way for members to comment on your content and talk to each other.
If the only draw for members is your content, you’ve created a subscription site, not a membership site. While both models can work for online educators, churn rates are typically higher for subscription sites, and subscribers are less loyal to you or your brand.
Why create a membership website?
There are many advantages to building membership sites, but these are my top reasons why it’s a business venture you should consider if you have the followers to do it.
Membership sites boost your earning potential
How does your online teaching business make money? Most edupreneurs either sell products (online courses, books, pay-per-view seminars) or sell their time (facilitated teaching, speaking engagements, coaching). But what happens when you don’t have a new product available, or you run out of working hours in a day?
Membership sites can provide a third revenue stream that’s built around access to existing resources you’ve created (including your community of followers), not purchasing a new product from you or an hour of your time. Decoupling your income from your availability can actually free up more time for you to focus on the areas of your business that most need your attention.
Membership sites stabilize your income
As well as increasing your bottom line, membership sites also provide more regular, predictable income. Unless something catastrophic happens to your brand, you can assume with a reliable degree of certainty how much income that site will produce each month. For edupreneurs, who may be more used to the peaks and troughs of new release months vs. those long, slow months between course launches, having even a small portion of reliable income can help budgeting and ease some of the uncertainty of making a living from teaching online.
Membership sites make upselling easier
If a member signs up for your site, it’s a safe bet that they’re familiar with your content and want more of it. That makes membership sites a captive pool of engaged learners who are just waiting for your next product to drop. Upselling to this audience is as easy as posting a link and having a large group of people waiting to buy your next product as soon as it’s available can create a wave of early interest that boosts your overall visibility.
Membership sites allow you to control your platform
Most edupreneurs establish some kind of online presence where they can interact with learners. Typically, this is done through social media accounts, as it’s hard to beat the size of their audiences. However, when somebody else controls your business platform, they can shut you down in a second. Accounts are arbitrarily deleted all the time, or algorithms can change, leaving your posts unseen and unheard. When you create a membership website, you create a platform that you control, protecting your business.
Membership sites build your reputation
“Social proof” is the term digital marketers use to refer to the phenomenon of people trusting what other people trust. It’s what makes us check reviews before committing to a purchase or follow social media accounts that our friends also follow. Membership sites can have the same effect on your reputation. Think of every member as a five-star review endorsing your teaching. The bigger you can make your following, the more influential you become, and the stronger your reputation grows.
Membership sites vs. subscription sites
As I briefly mentioned, there is a subtle but important distinction between membership and subscription sites. A subscription site is any site that offers access to material for a fixed amount, usually monthly. Ancestry.com is a subscription site that allows researchers to look up their family history. Although Ancestry has message boards where users can discuss their research, they aren’t the point of the site. If subscribers lost access to the information Ancestry holds, they wouldn’t continue their subscriptions to retain access to the boards.
A membership site also provides ongoing access through fixed payments, but the main driver behind membership sites is the community they contain. Look at Knit Camp by Olive Knits. This membership site is so popular it has a waitlist to join, and its main attraction isn’t the free knitting patterns and swag (although they help!) but the active community of knitters willing to discuss their work and help each other out. Half of the incentives the site lists for joining relate to community engagement and interaction.
If your plan for your membership site is to upload content on a regular basis but otherwise treat it as passive income, you probably won’t get very far. Expect to spend a number of hours each week interacting with members through your site to generate discussions and answer questions — at least until the community grows large and active enough that your absence won’t be noticed.
For edupreneurs, creating an active membership site has more advantages than simply keeping subscribers engaged. Members can actually benefit from group discussions that further their understanding of your lessons, and struggling members can get support to help them keep up. This leads to better educational outcomes, and more favorable reviews of your courses.
How much revenue can a membership site generate?
While there’s no easy answer to that question, we can estimate the success of an average membership site from looking at statistics from Patreon, a platform that enables creators to make money through subscriptions. Patreon itself says it has more than 3 million patrons supporting in excess of 100,000 creators. Some quick math shows that’s about 30 patrons per content creator.
Graphtreon has dug deeper into Patreon’s statistics and estimates there are just under 190,000 creators with at least one patron, sharing about $23 million in payouts each month. That means the average creator makes around $120 per month, or $4 per patron.
While those numbers give a very rough idea of how much content creators are making overall, the income of individual creators varies wildly. For every membership site earning six or seven figures a year, there are hundreds that barely cross four figures (including the average Patreon account). And while it’s nice to have some extra cash on hand (all those smaller revenue streams add up over the year), a membership site can be far more labor intensive than, say, sharing an affiliate link on a blog post.
Making a membership site cover its own costs (including the cost of your time) and turn a profit takes a lot of hard work. That’s why it’s important to consider honestly whether your career is at the stage where opening a membership site will be successful. You don’t necessarily need to have a fan club, but you do need loyal followers or an edge over the competition that others will aspire to emulate – and that may not necessarily be your historical audience.
A good example is Food Blogger Pro, a membership site for aspiring food bloggers started by the bloggers behind Pinch of Yum. Rather than create a membership website for the people who enjoy their recipes, they created a site for other content creators who want to learn from their success.
Consider, too, that sometimes membership sites can cost you revenue in other areas. For example, let’s say you created an ebook last year and sold it through Amazon at $9.99. Amazon pays out around 70 percent of retail on every copy sold, netting you $6.99 per book. This year you create a membership website and sell your book directly to members, losing only 5 percent through a distribution service, netting $9.49 on each copy.
While you’re making more per copy sold, you could still end up losing money overall. That’s because third-party sites use algorithms to display popular products to a wide base of users. If 1000 of your learners purchase your book directly from you, you sell 1000 copies. But if those 1000 learners purchase your book from Amazon, that could be enough to push your book high in the genre rankings, where another 5000 people might see and purchase it.
So, before switching your brand to a membership site, or selling your products and services directly to members, consider carefully what impact it will have on your business to move your sales to another platform. If a past book or online course hasn’t done as well on a marketplace platform such as Amazon or Udemy, by all means sell it directly to your learners and keep more of the profits. However, if the initial sales boost your learners provide made your products hugely successful on a third-party marketplace, make sure you’re not costing yourself those sales by cutting the marketplace out.
Choosing the right platform to build a membership website
There are essentially two options open to edupreneurs who want to create membership sites: pre-build or self-hosted.
The obvious solution for a pre-built membership platform is Patreon. You can create your own landing page, choose your tiers of support and create whatever rewards you like, and upload and restrict content with ease. Patreon costs nothing to join, but they take a cut of 5-12 percent of creators’ monthly income (plus processing fees). If you want to test the waters of a membership site without spending hours (or a lot of money) on creating your own platform, Patreon is a great way to get started.
If you’d like to have more control over the design and features of your membership site, you can instead use a service such as Podia. – Podia Memberships Prices start from $39/month (or $79/month for membership features), and include a website, online course builder, email marketing, and all kinds of third-party integrations. Edupreneurs can host and manage almost all of their products and services using Podia, and the fixed cost makes budgeting easy.
Wild Apricot is another freestanding platform for creating and managing a membership site. Get all your features in one place and try everything out for free. Plans start at $40/month if you have more than 50 free members (or any paid members), and that includes everything from custom domains to member apps.
If you aren’t particularly tech-savvy and don’t want to spend a lot of time managing your own hosting and website, Podia or Wild Apricot are good alternatives.
For edupreneurs who want to retain complete control over their membership sites, self-hosting is the obvious solution. Popular content management systems such as WordPress and Squarespace come with a variety of membership plugins that allow site owners to restrict access to content, manage memberships, and process payments.
Let’s take a look at some of those options.
Creating a self-hosted membership website
Building a membership site doesn’t have to be complicated, and you don’t need to learn a lot of code in order to create a site that suits your needs.
Choose your membership model
Knowing in advance what sort of membership site you want to create, and how you intend to monetize your content, will help you narrow down your options for a self-hosted site. Will you need content delivery automations, forums, or tiered content restrictions? Will you collect one-time payments or recurring subscriptions? Do you want to create and sell courses as part of membership?
Make the decisions about your ideal offer, features, and terms before you invest in any software or services.
Select your CMS and plugins
The easiest way to create a self-hosted membership site is with a content management system (CMS) or plugins designed to do the heavy lifting for you. While WordPress is the most common CMS edupreneurs and small businesses rely on, it isn’t the only option available.
Wix offers membership features for business subscribers and adding a members’ area is as simple as clicking a button. Users can combine this feature with other Wix plugins such as Chat, Forum, and Blog, in order to build restricted content and community areas.
Squarespace also offers tools to build members’ areas into new or existing sites. Process payments, gate content, and build your community — although you will need to use third-party plugins to create forums.
Weebly also offers membership site features for Pro plans and above. You can add gated content, community forums, and segmented groups without coding or installing and third-party plugins.
If you want to host a membership portal on your existing website, you can use Memberspace. This is a third-party plugin designed to work with all major CMSs (including WordPress and Squarespace) that instantly builds a membership platform on your website, with plans starting from a very reasonable $25/month.
Create content for your membership site
Many edupreneurs repurpose content they already have on hand when they’re first setting up a membership site. Lessons from your courses, past seminar recordings, blog posts, and book chapters all make great incentives for people to join your site.
However, not all the content you create has to be formally structured. Taking part in a monthly group chat with members is just as valuable to many learners as accessing a full course of videos, and it only takes as much time from you as you spend chatting.
New membership sites will be a little sparse when they’re first set up. While you should provide some content for your first members, you can also sell your site based on your content calendar (as long as you stick to it!). Many people will be happy subscribing now to get the content they want later.
Promote your membership site
Membership sites suffer from lower organic reach than your products might enjoy on marketplace platforms such as Udemy and Amazon, and that means you need to promote them consistently in order to keep attracting new members.
In addition to getting the word out through social media and your mailing list, use content marketing and consider the judicious use of paid ads in order to grow your site.
Learning how to market a membership site can be trickier than building the site to begin with, but it’s an important skill to master.
Starting a membership site isn’t for every edupreneur, at every stage of their career. However, if you have the dedicated learners willing to pay for access to your lessons on a subscription basis, or knowledge that other industry insiders will pay to learn, then building a membership site is a great way to take control of your business platform and stabilize your income.
There are multiple options available for edupreneurs to create membership sites through custom built CMSs or plugins, meaning you don’t have to learn to code or spend hours figuring out how to gate your content or create subscription tiers. The simplicity of setup makes it easier to run a membership site now than at almost any time previously!
Once you’ve created your membership site, check out my post on the top 10 elements all successful membership sites have in common to discover how to maximize your site’s potential and continue building your online audience.