Promoting a membership site can be difficult, especially at the beginning when there aren’t many members and you don’t have an active community using the site, generating content, and building a community. However, if you want to grow, you have to continue to work to market your membership site long after launch day has passed. If Day 1 is launch, and Day 2 is membership signups, what happens on the third day?
Here are five keys to helping your membership site continue to grow in launch week and beyond.
1. Launch into Critical Mass
While attracting a lot of members does not guarantee the success of a membership site, too few members will kill one quickly. There is no magic number to aim for, but in general, it’s in your interest to get as many of the right type of people into your membership site from day one.
And that means orchestrating a strong launch.
If you already have a significant following – especially through an e-mail list – a strong launch may seem relatively easy. You just need to effectively communicate the benefits of membership and provide a sign-up process with as little friction as possible.
But whether or not you have a following, don’t underestimate how hard the sell can actually be. Most people already have a lot of options for connecting with other people online, so what makes your membership site so special? It’s going to be a combination of the content, the contacts, and the coordination you can offer. In other words:
- Content: what content can you provide that members can’t get anywhere else? (Remember, you are a big part of what is unique about your content.)
- Contacts: who else will be in the community that they might otherwise have a hard time connecting with? (This comes down to really understanding your audience.)
- Coordination: how will you ensure that members will get maximum value from the content, from you, and – ideally – from each other? (This creates the overall context – the least tangible, but most valuable aspect of any membership site.)
Building interest in a membership site is all about communicating the points above in a compelling way. Use your existing platforms – your blog, your social media accounts, your e-mail list – to market your membership site and build interest in it well before it officially launches.
And don’t just talk about the site: get your prospects to actually register interest by signing up for an e-mail list (or segment of your current list) created specifically promoting the site. When launch day comes, you want to be able to get to your highest potential prospects easily.
In my experience, one of the most effective ways to build interest and identify strong prospects is to run one or more online events in advance of launching the membership site. This may simply mean a Webinar or two or it may mean a full-blown virtual conference (a fantastic catalyst for a membership site, in my opinion). However you go about it, the point is to offer content on one or more topics that will be central to your membership site and – critically – to give prospective members a good feel for you and your expertise.
The importance of prospective members getting the chance to know you – and trust you – can’t be overstated. Initially, their view of you – much more than the content you offer or the prospect of connecting with other members – is the factor most likely to drive conversion. With that in mind, be clear on the message you want to convey and make as much use of video and audio as you comfortably can. These media tend to be much “warmer” than text and can help you form a connection much more rapidly.
Finally, launching a membership site involves most of the same practices as launching any other kind of learning experience successfully. Be sure to review:
- The 4 Critical Components of a Successful Product Launch Formula
- Build An Audience – What I Did (and You Can, Too)
2. Reward Your Early Converts
How you treat the earliest members of your membership site will set both the tone and the pace of its ongoing development. Helping early members feel special can go a long way toward making the site itself feel special over time.
This process begins, of course, during launch – often in the form of special, limited time pricing for people who are willing to sign on early. Be cautious with discounting, though – you want to be sure never to devalue the membership in any way or make it feel purely transactional.
To the extent that you offer discounts early, be clear that they are time limited, and use them as way to encourage member participation – by, for example, setting the expectation that early members provide you with feedback about the site in exchange for receiving discounted pricing. Sell early membership as a privileged opportunity to see behind the scenes and help shape the site along with you. Ideally, you want members to develop a sense of ownership of the site.
And, consider providing early members with additional value that later members won’t get. This might include additional access to you (e.g., through periodic Web conferences) – which has the double benefit of helping you build relationships with your members. It might also mean access to exclusive content or to sessions with special guests. Spend some time brainstorming and you can come up with many ways to reward early members that don’t involve discounting.
Be sure to be highly responsive to early members. Respond to discussion board posts quickly. Acknowledge contributions. Possibly even consider awarding digital badges (a feature of many membership platforms) or other prizes for participation or for helping to spread the word about the site.
In general, your main goal with early members is to shape a sense of belonging and group identity. However great your content is, eventually people will work their way through it. Once that happens, a strong sense of community is the main thing that will keep them around. And, I emphasize this as part of marketing, because it is also one of the main things that will pull new people in and keep the community growing.
3. Give to Grow
Once your site is live, consider publishing blog posts or other free content related to the site on a regular (weekly, monthly) basis in order to attract new visitors who can be converted into paying members. Many membership sites hide the majority of their content behind a paywall, which means it isn’t indexed by search engines. If all of your content is hidden in this way, you’re shutting out a valuable source of organic traffic.
Truth is, you’ll need to give away some of your best content to attract prospective members and convince them your membership site is worth it.
So, be sure to follow good search engine optimization (SEO) practices. The same SEO practices you need to use for selling online courses apply to driving traffic for your membership site.
You can (and should), of course, also deliver free content directly to subscribers by e-mail. People who are still on the fence about joining your site can often be persuaded to join a newsletter instead. Sending out a regular email with useful content that leads into the paid content the site offers can incentivize uncertain followers to join the site.
Keep in mind that, as your site grows, it can become the source for some of your best content. By surveying and/or interviewing your members or even just pulling selectively from comments posted in the community, you can generate original research that will be broadly valuable to your target audience. This research can be used as a sign-up incentive for your e-mail list and/or the basis for hosting a Webinar or other live online event, as already suggested above.
This type of research, by the way, is very often attractive to reporters, bloggers, and podcsters looking for interesting stories. Consider issuing a press release on a service like PRWeb and/or being active on HARO, a site that links subject matter experts to journalists and reporters, to attract opportunities to spread the word about your site. And, reach out to bloggers and podcasters in your niche to offer a guest post or book an interview.
4. Pay to the Peak
Free content and word of mouth can go a long way, but if you want to go further and higher, you will eventually benefit from running paid ads to market your membership site.
I say eventually because in most cases you will be wasting your money if you start running ads before your membership site has any real traction. Remember that ads are mostly about reaching people who don’t already know, like, and trust you. Converting these people into buyers for a membership site will be tough unless it is clear that you are a going concern that is producing significant value.
With that in mind, make sure that you continually gather strong “social proof” in the form of testimonials from current members as well as from any influencers who may be well known to your prospective members. These will be useful for all parts of your marketing, but they are particularly valuable once you start attracting significant numbers of people who don’t know you to your site.
You can advertise on almost any platform, from search engines to social media, and these ads can be highly tailored to match the interests and demographics of the people most likely to become members. Before starting an advertising campaign, look at your existing members and past learners to discover as much about them as possible. Are they mostly male or female, old or middle-aged or young? Knowing who your likely learners are will help you determine the best platforms on which to reach them, making your paid marketing efforts more effective.
Also, don’t neglect offline promotional opportunities, such as industry publications or college newspapers. Because so much of the focus has turned to digital these days, these often offer opportunities for exposure that stand out from all the noise – and that your potential competitors are probably ignoring.
5. Add Affiliates
Finally, don’t go it alone in building your membership: find affiliates who will promote your site in exchange for a commission on any sales they make. Many membership platforms feature tools creating and managing an affiliate program.
A strong affiliate program can create massive leverage because it creates a network of people with a financial incentive to increase your sales. Some of the people may be influencers in and around your niche who have a significant audience. You benefit from the fact that their audience already knows, likes, and trusts them and so – by extension – are going to be much more open than random prospects to knowing, liking, and trusting you.
As I’ve written before, you should be careful in choosing your affiliates. Personally, I’m not a fan of opening up a affiliate program for just anyone to sign up. You want to make sure affiliates have certain qualities, like;
- A genuine belief in the value you offer
- Solid experience with affiliate marketing (or at least a commitment to learn rapidly)
- An audience that will value your membership site (doesn’t have to be a large audience – it’s the “will value” part that is important)
- A commitment to actively marketing your membership site in the same way they would market their own products
Keep in mind, too, that the best people to market you membership site are often the members themselves.
You will, of course, want to encourage all of your members to spread the word to anyone they know who might be interested in your site, but some will also be good candidates for your affiliate program. You may even want to make participation in the affiliate program a reward for reaching a certain level or length of membership.
However you go about, recognize that for an affiliate program to work, it will require some of your time and attention. You’ll need to provide images, text for e-mails and social media posts, and other marketing collateral to support your affiliates. Ideally, you’ll also come up with specific campaigns – like, for example, the promotion of an event – that make it make it as easy as possible for them to be an active affiliate.
In other words, a successful affiliate program is an investment, and that’s why I have put it last in my list. Consider it only once you have all of the other pieces firmly in place.
Fuel Your Flywheel
The ultimate goal of a membership site is to reach a point where it becomes as self-perpetuating as possible.
There’s no point denying, though, that it usually takes a long time and a lot of work to reach this point. Data from The Community Roundtable, for example, suggests that most communities only start to generate a significant return on investment after two years.
So, it is important to recognize from the beginning that a membership site is a long-term investment. If a successful site was easy to pull off, everyone would do it, and it wouldn’t represent the incredibly valuable, strategic asset that it does.
To achieve success, you’ll need to continue pursuing and refining the activities above – even, occasionally, doing re-launches of the site to bring in significant new blood. But if you are persistent and consistent with your efforts, you’ll eventually reach the point where members themselves contribute most of the valuable content and do much of the work to attract new members – and where you have very clear insight into periodic contributions you can make to increase the value of the site.
At that point, you will have achieved what Jim Collins, business guru and author of the mega-bestseller Good to Great, call “the flywheel effect” – a point at which your membership site has a momentum of its own.
It’s not an easy point to reach, but the rewards are huge. And, of course, the only way to get there is to get started.
Other posts in this series: