Building a membership site is an excellent way of monetizing your expertise and creating a community of dedicated followers. Done well, membership sites will boost authority as a subject matter expert, attract new leads for your business, and generate significant recurring revenue.
In this post I’ll review everything – really, everything – you need to know about starting and maintaining your own successful membership site.
Table of contents
- What is a Membership Website?
- What is the Difference Between a Membership Website and a Subscription Website?
- 15 Reasons It’s Worth Starting a Membership Site
- What Types of Membership Sites are Successful?
- 5 Examples of Successful Membership Websites
- Questions to Ask When Planning a Membership Website
- Membership Site Models
- Should Your Membership Site Be a Community?
- 10 Ways to Create Content for a Membership Website
- Membership Website Builder Options
- One Plugin to Rule Them All?
- The Top WP Community Plug-In
- Top 10 Membership Site Must-Haves
- Membership Site Features that Add Value
- Choosing the Right Platform for a Membership Site
- 15 Ways to Market Your Membership Site
- Final Thoughts: The Membership Site Flywheel
What is a Membership Website?
A membership website is a site that provides content relevant to a specific audience and requires visitors to join to gain access to that content.
Often joining requires payment, but not always. A homeowner’s association website, for example, might be limited to members of that particular community, but doesn’t charge for access. NextDoor is another example of a membership site that limits access to individual community groups but is free to join.
For subject matter experts, a membership site might mean a place where your followers can access you directly to ask questions; it may be a place where you facilitate connections and sharing of knowledge among members; it may be a place where you host online courses and other educational content. Often, a strong membership website will be all of these things – and any of these approaches can generate revenue.
That doesn’t mean a membership site is always right for every entrepreneur at every stage of their career – and the definition suggests why.
First, there must be people who want to join your membership site.
Having an established audience — or a way of quickly tapping into a new one — is critical to making your site a success. How will you attract members? What incentive do they have to join your membership site? Some entrepreneurs strike gold straight away with a strong site in an untapped niche, but for most, your reputation will need to precede you in order to encourage the first members to join.
Next, there has to content that makes joining worth it. (Even with free sites, people won’t “spend” their time unless they think they will get value in exchange for it.)
Membership sites are content-driven – whether that means content you create, content your users generate, or – in many cases – both. So, you need to have a content plan firmly in place before launching a membership site.
If you’ve already established yourself online as a subject matter expert, you can repurpose blog posts, educational videos, webinar summaries, and other materials to jump-start your membership site. If you don’t have this type of content, you’ll need to start creating it and/or implement an approach for generating content rapidly within the community – like hosting a series of Webinars that you record and make available in the site or running a challenge in which you reward members for contributing to the discussion forums.
Whatever method or methods you choose, you should have a plan for how (and how often) to create new content so your site has a steady stream of material to keep members interested and coming back.
What is the Difference Between a Membership Website and a Subscription Website?
Subscription sites are similar to membership sites in that they restrict access to their content to subscribers. In fact, they are similar enough that the two terms – membership and subscription – often get used interchangeably. That’s a mistake.
The primary difference between the two is that subscription sites are purely transactional – their fees are tied directly to the value of their content – whereas membership sites are fundamentally about relationships and belonging.
People join a membership site because they identify in a personal or professional way with the purpose of the site and they want to be associated with that purpose and with other people who value that purpose. Membership aligns with their identity.
That may sound like an academic point, but it’s really critical to getting membership sites right.
Consider Amazon Prime as an example.
For $119/year, subscribers get free 2-day shipping on all their Amazon orders, plus some streaming and digital content benefits. The entire cost-benefit analysis of a Prime subscription comes down to whether or not you’ll save money over the year by paying the fee. Nobody is joining Prime to support Amazon or show that they care or (I hope!) because being a Prime member is an important part of their identity. If a Prime user finds a cheaper option that achieves the same thing, they’ll cancel their subscription.
That’s the last thing you want if you are a subject matter expert trying to build a thriving, sustainable business online. Competing on price is no way to live or – for the vast majority of businesses – to do business. When you create a sense of belonging and foster a connection to you as a subject matter expert you generate value that is above and beyond the raw value of your content.
And that leads us to some of the key reasons it’s worth starting a membership site.
15 Reasons It’s Worth Starting a Membership Site
As an expertise-based business, running a membership site has a number of benefits, both for your finances and your reputation. Paid membership sites allow you to boost your earning potential and stabilize your income. And even free sites can make upselling your courses, coaching, books, and other offerings easier and more successful.
Above and beyond that, however, your membership site helps you build your reputation as an expert, creates an all-important community based around your work, and allows you to control your own platform. There’s nothing more frustrating for any online entrepreneur than establishing an audience on a platform, only to have the terms of service or algorithm change and place you back at square one.
Here are some of the best reasons to start a membership site:
1. Membership sites generate revenue
The content you create for your site can command its own price and putting it into a “self-serve” site decouples your value from your availability. Rather than selling your time through paid speaking engagements, teaching, consulting, coaching, or mentoring, you can let your content stand alone and earn revenue around the clock. While testing the waters with a membership site you can offer free access tiers and charge only for premium content to attract the highest number of members while also earning revenue from your best content.
2. Membership sites stabilize your income
Earning income as a subject matter expert is one thing. Stabilizing that income is another. Whether you’re selling online courses, conducting speaking engagements, or offering consulting and mentorship services, your business can be full of highs and lows. Membership sites can alleviate some of the uncertainty around your income by providing reliable monthly revenue. While your site income will vary a little from month to month, once established it should be predictable enough to provide much-needed stability.
3. Membership sites make cross-selling and upselling easier
Whether your members pay to subscribe to your site or not, you can still generate revenue by selling your other products. After all, your members have signed up because they trust your expertise. That means you have a pool of interested learners who are primed to buy your next product, sign up for your next course, or engage with you for premium consulting or coaching services.
4. Membership sites build your reputation
While many members join sites run by experts they already trust, having a successful membership site also elevates your reputation among newcomers to your niche. Establishing yourself as the subject matter expert in your field is a great way to continue growing your business and being able to point to an active membership site is an ideal way of proving your value as an educator or entrepreneur.
5. Membership sites give you control
When you host your own site, you control everything about it, from the content to the comments in your forums. This is critical to building your business the right way, both because you can manage all the interactions that occur on your platform, and weather changes to a potential third-party host. How many Facebook groups have sunk into obscurity after an algorithm change? How many communities have gone under because a site closed their page, or shut down completely? When you host your membership site, you stay in control.
6. Membership sites increase customer retention
When your site has a strong sense of purpose, members want to continue their association with it. Especially if that means accessing a continuing stream of related, relevant content. If you take things further and create a community-driven site (more on that below), the connections your members make with each other can keep them engaged, even if they exhaust the content that you provide. Encourage activity in your members’ forums and carefully moderate the content to ensure that they remain an active and welcoming place. As your site grows, you can consider handing off moderation to a few of your most engaged and dedicated members. Nurturing strong social bonds between your members ensures that they never want to leave.
7. Membership sites increase learning retention
Your site offers members the opportunity to revisit, review, and engage with your content over time. A large and growing body of research suggests that spacing learning opportunities over time like this dramatically increases the chances they will retain the knowledge and skills you have shared with them.
And guess what? That means your impact as a teacher increases, which contributes to the greater customer retention already mentioned above.
8. Membership sites can foster social learning
Social learning is an important component of many membership sites, for good reason. Few people learn anything in a vacuum, and solo learning can be much more difficult. If somebody watches an educational video alone and fails to grasp a core component of the lesson, they may struggle ever fully to understand and learn from the lesson. However, if a group watches the same video, those who didn’t follow the lesson can ask their peers for an explanation or observe what they do. By working as a group, all participants can gain the same knowledge.
Even if your members all work through the material on your site at their own pace, they can still turn to the community on your website for help and advice. Your more advanced members can help new members to understand the material. This ensures not only that everybody keeps up, but that members enjoy a positive learning experience by engaging with your content and their peers.
9. Membership sites enable you to stretch your content
Content is king, but producing it can take time better spent elsewhere in your business. With a membership site, you can recycle your existing content and repurpose it for an endless stream of new users. The longer your site is around, the larger your content library grows, even if your production rate is comparatively slow. You can also repurpose content created for other projects, such as guest posts, lessons from old online courses, webinars, and seminar videos.
10. Membership sites allow for user-generated content
If your membership site has an active user base, all the content they generate is a goldmine. Users can add to your content library, come up with new questions or viewpoints that you can harvest for ideas for new content of your own, and keep new members engaged. Your membership site might be devoted to only a few pieces of your own content, but if there are thousands of discussion posts in the forums, there’s always something new for members to discover.
11. Membership sites provide social proof
Social proof is a form of psychological influence that can play a powerful role in marketing and learning. We are more inclined to trust things that other people tell us are trustworthy. Reviews and testimonials are a form of social proof, but even without a star rating next to your site, the very existence of other users is enough to convince more to join. Social proof is why books proclaim their bestseller status on the cover, why retailers announce “more than 1 million sold!” and why large membership sites will publish their member numbers. The more members you have, the easier it becomes to convince others to join.
We are conditioned to look for social proof, so it’s important to view your membership site through that lens, and keep in mind signs of negative feedback to avoid. An empty forum with no recent posts is a deterrent, not an incentive to join. In order to jumpstart your social proof, it’s a good idea to create a launch period with a waitlist for your site and welcome your first members as a group. This will give them other people to interact with and begin creating the community atmosphere that will help your site thrive.
12. Membership sites can generate great web traffic
Search engine algorithms rely on their own form of social proof — web traffic. The more popular a site already is, the more likely it will appear near the top of search engine results. Successful membership sites are often great at increasing web traffic because active communities are filled with members who spend a long time on the site and return to it frequently. This can raise your site’s ranking and give it a serious SEO boost. (Note: this assumes that enough of your content is publicly accessible – i.e., not behind a paywall – so that search engines are able to index it.)
13. Memberships sites strengthen your connections
We all remember that one great teacher or mentor who made us feel seen and heard. When you run a membership site, you can become that person. Developing strong relationships with your members, either by engaging with them directly, or through nurturing a community around your work (or both!) makes your members feel personally connected with you. This not only provides more incentive for your members to remain with your site, but also increases your overall membership as they tell others to join. Word of mouth recommendations are hugely influential, and a loyal member base can increase your overall membership exponentially.
14. Membership sites allow you to experiment and test
Bored of blog posts? Not got the equipment to create a new video to the standard you want? Membership sites enable you to experiment with the content you offer. Rather than spending half a day writing a blog post, you could devote an hour to a live Q&A with members, and the recording or transcript can remain on the site as part of the content library for future users. Your site gives you the freedom to try different approaches and new methods of sharing knowledge and engaging with members.
15. Membership sites provide valuable feedback
Related to the previous point, a dedicated and engaged member base is a great place to look for feedback on your new or existing products. You can ask members directly what worked for them and what missed the mark, send out questionnaires to discover what members think is missing, or give them sneak peeks at upcoming content in exchange for their thoughts. Through your members, you can beta test every element of a new product ahead of its launch – and even pre-sell it before it is actually made.
And don’t forget to review your metrics. Members might not want to tell you directly that something fell flat, but if a new video has a low watch-through rate, or no one is buying when you try to pre-sell, it’s time to review what went wrong.
What Types of Membership Sites are Successful?
While entrepreneurs can — and do — find success with all kinds of membership sites, some are more successful than others. Generally speaking, the further you niche down, the easier it will be to find a devoted audience. If you try to break into a broad category now, it’ll be uphill all the way.
Froe example, starting a membership site around angling tips, tricks, and product reviews right now would be very challenging. There is simply too much competition, and too many established voices in that field. But if you niche down, eventually you’ll find an area within your expertise that is still untapped; say “pole fishing for catfish,” or “deep sea spinning reels for big game.”
Niching down might seem like a mistake — you’re reducing your audience size, limiting your income potential, and closing the door on opportunities. However establishing yourself as an expert often requires becoming a big fish in a small pond (to borrow an angling metaphor). Unless you already have a large established audience base and platform, it’s almost always better to first position yourself as an expert in a very specific niche. Later, as your audience grows, you can expand your expertise to continue developing your business and widen your niche.
5 Examples of Successful Membership Websites
If you’re looking for inspiration, check out these membership sites. They all demonstrate that any niche can be successful (and profitable!), no matter how obscure it may seem.
Food Blogger Pro
Lindsay and Bjork Ostrom are the husband and wife team behind Pinch of Yum, a recipe blog that attracts over 80 million annual visitors. They founded foodbloggerpro.com to share their expertise, enabling other wannabe food bloggers to emulate the success of Pinch of Yum. Members unlock tutorials, Q&As, community insights and more to help them on their journey to success. Priced at $35mo/$350 annual, the community has over 1000 active members, all learning and offering feedback to support each other on their paths to food blogging success.
International Gem Society
Always wanted to know more about gemstones? The International Gem Society calls itself the “ultimate resource” for everything gem-related. Members can learn to identify, value, buy and sell gemstones, stay informed of the latest industry news, and learn a host of gem-related facts. Boasting almost 16,000 members, pricing starts at $9/mo ($75/year) for hobbyists, and $20/mo ($192/year) for industry professionals.
Training Beta is dedicated to the sport of rock climbing, and covers everything from the basics to coaching, training, and nutrition. Information is provided via newsletter, podcast, blog, and variety of videos available on the site. Much of the information is free, but members can access more intensive courses on an individual subscription basis, making Training Beta a great example of a hybrid income model membership site.
When was the last time you did a handstand? It’s probably something you haven’t considered since you were a kid. But Kyle Weiger has devoted an entire membership site to learning how to do the perfect handstand. Really. In fact the site is so popular, it generated over $200,000 in its first year. The site offers plenty of information in blog posts and free training videos. Members can also access exclusive additional content at no cost (basic membership is free), or sign up for up to four paid training courses retailing around $200-$1000 (although frequently on sale for half price or less).
Learning to play an instrument is on most people’s bucket lists, and GuitarZero2Hero says anyone can learn to master this instrument. Premium membership costs $17/mo ($99/year, or $199 for lifetime access) and unlocks a range of exclusive training videos, Q&A sessions, and more. With GZ2H, you’ll be strumming along with the latest hits and your favorite classics in no time.
Questions to Ask When Planning a Membership Website
Planning is everything. A website can be as little as a single page, but membership sites are much more complex. Asking yourself some fundamental questions before you begin building will help you define what your site is (and isn’t), identify your target audience, and develop a content strategy that delivers results.
What value will you provide to your members?
Every membership site (and really every business!) needs to start with this question. How will belonging to your site improve the condition of the average member? Put another way, what will membership help them do? If that’s not clear, you may not be able to attract members even to a free site, much less a paid membership site. So, get very clear about the benefits you will communicate to members and why your site is uniquely positioned to deliver those benefits.
Keep in mind, too, that a true membership site will have a sense of higher purpose that is attractive to prospective members and aligns with their identity. What it the purpose of your site and how does it align with the identity of your prospective members and the value you aim to offer?
What knowledge/expertise do you want to share with others?
Some of the key benefits, of course, will flow from your knowledge and expertise and the unique experience that you – because nobody else is you – possess. Put a lot of thought into how best to focus your site. It could be dedicated to general study in your field, or to a very specific knowledge or skill. As discussed earlier, it’s usually easier to gain traction in a very specific niche, so having a clear focus from the outset can help you position your site to attract your target audience.
What audience will you share with? Do you already have that audience’s attention?
Once you know your site’s focus, you can identify your audience. This may be easier if you’ve already developed a reputation as a subject matter expert in your field. However even if you’re just starting out, you should be able to identify who your primary members will be. What are the characteristics of you rideal member? Or are there multiple ideal member types? Whatever the case, you should be able to describe you ideal members in detail. Knowing who your target audience is will help you reach them and encourage them to join your membership site.
What types of content will you share? Do you already have that content developed?
Whether it is generated by you, your members, or both, the content of your site is its primary draw, so it must be something valuable that your target audience wants. Of course, in the early days of a membership, a great deal of the content is likely to come from you, so what’s it going to be and how are you going to source it? If you are creating from scratch, don’t forget to factor in the time it will take you to create the content, if necessary. As a rule of thumb it takes twice as long to edit footage as it does to film, four times as long to create a written transcript from an audio file, and about 3 hours to write 1000 words.
How will members access your content?
There are many possible models providing access to a membership site . Here are some of the most common:
- Tiered access to different pieces of content at different membership levels
- Pay-per-view content
- A single all-or-nothing subscription package
- Free membership to drive upselling of other products
- Recurring weekly/monthly/annual subscription fees
- One-time access fee
Whatever membership model you decide on, remember to keep it in mind when you’re devising your content strategy (and, of course, choosing a platform to support it). If you want members to pay a month-to-month subscription, what new content are you providing to justify each renewal? If producing regular content isn’t feasible, consider a different model such as a one-time joining fee instead.
What membership levels will you offer, if any?
If you do decide to offer tiers of membership, it’s important to ensure all members still feel equally valued. Your $100/month members might be the rockstars who keep you in business, but that doesn’t mean you should neglect your $10/month members.
Each tier should offer differentiated value to the members that aligns logically with what they pay. There should be a clear delineation between the tiers so members can see at a glance what level of membership they need for the features or content they want to access.
Finally, changing membership levels should be made as simple as possible so your members can adjust their subscription as necessary. (This includes downgrading as well as upgrading. If your members can’t reduce their subscription at will, they’ll just cancel instead. Always strive to keep your members, even if that means including a free tier in your plan.)
How much will you charge, if at all, and how frequently?
Unsurprisingly, more people will join a free membership site than purchase a paid plan. This can be an asset on its own — you gain access to the contact information, demographics, and feedback of your target audience for virtually nothing. Having that information available may put you at an advantage over your competitors and make selling products to your audience much easier. For that reason alone, making your membership free (or at least including a free tier of membership, if not the whole site) is worth considering.
Beyond that, what should you charge for membership? A lot will depend on your target audience and the value you’re providing. Membership sites run the gamut from a few dollars per year to hundreds, or even thousands, each month. Check out similar sites for inspiration for your pricing strategy. That includes both membership sites in similar fields, and unrelated sites that target the same audience demographics. It never hurts to know what your target members consider a reasonable cost in general, not just for your niche.
In the end, though, don’t lose site of the value you provide. If you are providing content and connections that will help members take their lives or careers to a new level in a clear, verifiable way, you can and should charge a fee that reflects that outcome.
How will you get your first members?
Attracting your first members will probably be one of the most difficult parts of setting up your membership site, especially if you don’t already have an established audience. You need to make your first members an irresistible offer in order to overcome your lack of social proof (existing members, reviews, etc.). A little reverse psychology may help you drum up initial interest.
Keep in mind that people usually don’t value free products, so attaching monetary value to your membership could be more effective than offering membership for free, at least initially. Even if you let initial members in for free, make it clear that there is a price you would normally charge. You could also consider making prospective members join a waitlist or “apply” for membership so they feel like they’re part of a select club.
How will you build your membership website?
Finally, how are you going to make it all happen? Do you have the ability and/or time to build a site yourself? If not, do you have the budget to hire a developer to create and manage your site? When you’re just starting out it will probably be faster and cheaper to use a membership site platform such as Mighty Networks, or a plugin software like MemberSpace to set up your site. Third-party membership software usually contains all the tools you need to paywall your site, collect subscription payments, and even handle taxes and legal compliance. (
We’ll take a look further below at the different platforms you may want to consider for building and hosting your membership site, but first it’s important to think through your overall membership model.
Membership Site Models
Sold on starting a membership site but still unsure what your site will look like? There are many different approaches you can take to creating a membership site. Here are just a few of the most common models for managing access to your membership site:
Continuous content drip
This is one of the most common models for both membership or subscription sites – particularly for new sites where much of the content still has to be built. In this model, new content is delivered on a regular schedule to keep members engaged and ensure they remain subscribed.
A big upside of the continuous drip model is that content delivery can be tied to when a member joins and then automated. So, for example, a member who joins your site in July would get access to content according to the same release schedule as someone who joined in January. This approach ensures that you will always have a stream of people continuing to access your site over time.
If you don’t want to create ongoing content or want members to be able to access everything immediately, you can grant access to all the information on your site the minute they sign up. If you already have a significant amount of content that you can make available in a membership site, the chance to access it all at once can be enticing to prospective members.
At the same time, while this model provides members with a more immediate bang for their buck, it can reduce the overall duration that members stay subscribed (even truer you don’t already have a large body of content for them to access). One way to offset this issue is to include community elements in your membership site – e.g., discussion boards – that allow for users to engage with you and/or each other and provide a reason for returning to the website periodically. Another is to periodically offer live Q&A, town hall, or other group gatherings that create a “fear of missing out (FOMO)” effect for members who may be thinking about not renewing their membership.
Online courses are one of the most recognizable formats experts use to share their knowledge with others and hosting them within a membership site can greatly boost the value of both the courses and the membership.
You can create a membership site devoted to a single course or offer several courses to your members through the same platform. Once members have completed any courses that come with their initial membership, you can then introduce other courses over time, either as paid add-ons or as incentives to keep members subscribed.
As you’ll see below, there are membership platforms that support creating and delivering courses and most of the major online course platforms also have membership features.
Coaching / Mentoring
Whether in addition to or instead of offering courses, a membership site can be a great platform for scaling your coaching or mentoring activities. Using the tools that most membership platforms offer, you can create different tiers of access to you – usually with higher-priced tiers offering more and more personalized access.
By taking advantage of tools like discussion forums, you can easily address questions from individual members and/or give members the opportunity to support each other. If you hold group coaching or mentoring sessions, a membership site is also a great place to house these and, again, possibly add discussion forums to enhance their value.
Some membership sites are almost entirely community-based. For example, one of the most successful, Goodreads, has around 90 million members, all devoted to reviewing and discussing books. Nearly all of the content in the site is generated by these members.
Getting an online community going can be challenging – it will usually require significant work by you or another community manager to post initial discussion topics, draw members into discussions, and foster connections among members. The big upside is that, once you get traction, a strong community becomes increasingly self-perpetuating and can be a tremendous asset for your business. Because online community can be so powerful, I’ve included some additional thoughts about it below.
Digital and physical products can be supported through membership website subscriptions. Many Software as a Service (SaaS) platforms, for example, now use membership sites and community forums in addition to or in place of traditional help desks and user manuals.
If you publish books, make use of a formal methodology, or sell (whether as a manufacturer or as affiliate) tools or other products that are popular in your niche, then a hosting a membership site focused on them can be a powerful option. Very often people are looking for tips, insights, and complementary offerings that help them get the most out of these types of purchases.
Hybrid Membership Sites
Perhaps the most common type of site is the hybrid model that combines two or more of the models above, usually along with multiple membership tiers and monetization methods. For example, free members might be able to access a library of past blog posts, videos, and other content, and choose to purchase course lessons on a pay-per-view (PPV) basis. Alternatively you could offer basic courses as part of a standard membership fee, but then charge for premium courses and/or coaching to help members successfully implement knowledge and skills shared in a course. The options are endless.
Should Your Membership Site Be a Community?
Hosting a community-based membership site can be a great way to dramatically multiply the value you provide through your own content and expertise by engaging members to also contribute their own content and expertise. Those contributions typically come in the form of questions and answer (Q&A) exchanges in discussion forums with members sharing their own experiences and possibly uploading or linking out to content that other members may find valuable. A big upside of this approach is that it greatly reduces the pressure on you to continually create and feed new content into the membership site.
The online community model can work well as a way to supplement and support online courses or group-based coaching, particularly in niches where the knowledge and skills required are complex and/or evolving rapidly. A space where members can get guidance not only from you but also from experienced peers can represent a tremendous amount of value. The harder it is to find a similar group of people anywhere else, the higher the value.
Keep in mind, though, that it can be quite difficult to build a successful online community, especially in the early days. Stagnant forums might even harm your site’s reputation by making it look like it has few subscribers, or that you’re failing to engage those you do have. At the same time, active forums require active moderation to ensure that questions are addressed, that truly useful and accurate information is being shared, and that all members behave respectfully toward each other.
Because of these challenges, some membership sites choose to do away with forums entirely. While this leaves the onus on the site owner to create all the content and keep the site active, it does allow you to retain better control over your product. You aren’t building a site and hosting content in order for an outspoken community member to build their own reputation off the back of your hard work.
In general, while I’m a big fan of online community, it can be a double-edged sword. So, think carefully before deciding if you want to attempt to foster an atmosphere where your members interact with each other, or whether you’d prefer to remain the focal point of the community and keep all your engagements on an individual basis.
10 Ways to Create Content for a Membership Website
Most membership sites provide ongoing content in one form or another to keep members engaged and subscribed. However, coming up with a steady stream of new content ideas — and finding the time to create it! — can be a chore for any entrepreneur.
A time-tested approach for managing the need for content is to sell your content calendar.
Many site owners think they have to spend weeks or months filling the site with content to attract users, but that’s a big investment to put into a new project. Instead, when you launch the site use any content you already have (if you have any), and then include a calendar for new content. That way members aren’t joining your site to access content that doesn’t exist, but to be first in line to see content that doesn’t exist yet.
That distinction is important because it switches your membership to an exclusive offering, and exclusive means desirable.
By launching your site with a calendar of upcoming material, your members can see what to expect from the site and have something to look forward to,
Naturally, a delayed timeline gives you time to create content as the site grows, but it also creates anticipation – and that often drives engagement.
Of course, eventually you do have to deliver on content, so here are 10 ideas to keep you going:
1. Reuse evergreen content
As already mentioned, membership sites offer an opportunity to get the most out of your content, so be sure not to underestimate (or overlook) what you have already created. If you have blog posts, access to old guest articles, audio and/or video of past classes, seminars, and speaking engagements, these are invaluable assets.
Even if you already have a professional presence elsewhere, such as on an online learning platform or blog, it’s a good idea to consolidate all your content in one place.
Usually, it doesn’t matter that your members could access everything elsewhere for free, because the convenience of having all that information on a central platform is still appealing. (And chances are high that they haven’t seen or have forgotten about a lot of the content you have shared in other places)
Call out: An important caveat: search engines dislike duplicate content, and if they find the same blog post reproduced on several different platforms, all but the largest and/or oldest will be downgraded in search engine results. Membership sites often circumvent this problem because the majority of content is restricted behind a paywall, meaning search engines won’t index it anyway. If, however, you want to copy posts from your blog into your membership site as a free incentive for people to join, you will need to rewrite them so they’re not identical to existing online content.
2. Host AMA and/or Town Hall sessions
An AMA, or “Ask Me Anything” session is just what it sounds like – a chance for your members to ask you about anything that may be on their minds (related to the focus of your membership site, of course). A Town Hall is similar – it’s a way to bring members together in real time to ask questions, share information with each other, and maybe even do activities like collaborative consulting (aka “hot seats). Video and audio content and transcripts, that will become members-only content. (You might even want to livestream the initial live sessions in order to attract an audience for your membership site, but then make the recordings, transcripts, and any complementary channels available only for members.)
There are few methods that will reliably result in the same quantity and quality of content in such a short time, making this method far superior to spending weeks drafting lengthy posts to fill your membership site.
By beginning with interactive material, you’re also encouraging members to participate actively in your site from the beginning. If you include social areas such as a comments section or forum, your members will also generate their own discussion around your material, which can be invaluable for mining ideas later on.
3. Experiment with formats and ideas
Much of generating revenue online involves experimenting to see what works. As already noted, with a membership site, you’ve got a perfect focus group to experiment with new content, ideas, and formats. (It’s one of the most effective ways there is to validate your market.)
Because your content will be hosted behind a login, you’re also freer to experiment because you’re not constrained by the need to create search engine friendly content. Not all the material you create has to be a 1000-word article or hour-long video. Consider doing more live seminars, upload short mobile clips, audio recordings, photos or images, and create infographics.
Find what resonates with your members, and don’t be afraid to try something new.
Poll your members on what they like and dislike, and also look at your user metrics to see what gets the most attention. Site members will be more forgiving if you upload content they’re not interested in, but they might also be worried about hurting your feelings if they say they didn’t like something. Instead, try to upload at least two pieces of content in each experimental format and see what the attrition rate is for views and engagement between them. Members will vote most honestly with their time and ignore anything that doesn’t interest them.
You can also try out new ideas in the same way.
If there’s an area in your of field of expertise you’d like to explore but you’re not sure the market for it exists, offer a Webinar or post to your members and see what the response is. You can also use your membership site to create add-on content for your other courses and materials. Try hosting a live chat after broadcasting a new lesson, publishing supplemental lessons, or hosting limited classes.
Engaging with your members and soliciting their feedback makes them feel special, more informed, and encourages word-of-mouth promotion. If your members have helped you fine-tune your latest course, they’ll feel a sense of ownership over it that will incentivize them to tell others to sign up.
4. Host masterclasses
Your members sign up because they’re interested in your subject and expertise, above and beyond following a blog or taking any courses you already offer. Make the most of this by hosting masterclasses for the keenest learners. Do a deep dive into any existing course or webinar content you have, explore areas of your field you’ve only touched on in the past, and branch out into areas that weren’t as relevant to your broader audience.
One-off masterclasses let your members get “value added” for their membership, as well as allowing you to explore new areas of your field and trial their reception with an eye to producing more in the future. Let your members guide your teaching and they can show you the right avenues to explore to expand your content and inform the direction of your future courses.
5. Offer microlearning opportunities
Masterclasses are just one approach. You can also pull together quick mini-offerings on targeted topics. Doing that can be as simple as shooting a quick video with your phone or recording a brief session on Zoom or another Webinar platform. Or, you can kick things up a notch and use a tool like EdApp (free version available) that will also allow you to add in interactive elements.
If you pursue this option, I recommend actually using the term “microlearning.” It’s been trending for quite a while in the corporate training world and consumers are starting to become familiar with it.
6. Engage in group discussions
Hosting regular chats with your members is a great way of getting feedback and being accessible. Part of the appeal of a membership site is closer access to the source of the information (you!), so frequent communication helps members feel valued and keeps them loyal.
Not all your engagement has to be in a formal setting where you lead the discussion. If you include forums on your site (and I encourage you to do so) you can pop in and comment on posts and interact with your members in a friendlier, more informal way than in a traditional teacher/learner setting.
Your engagement will also keep forums and other user-generated content zones active. This area shouldn’t be overlooked, as user-generated content is just as valuable to your membership site as anything you upload. Thriving membership sites generate a sense of community between individuals and have active discussion areas. The conversations between your members are useful to new members, and you can also mine them for new lesson ideas and feedback.
7. Provide digital downloads
You can package and distribute almost any relevant materials as digital downloads that not only act as lead magnets to attract new subscribers, but add value for existing ones. This might include
- Cheat sheets – For every occasion when somebody wants to do a deep dive into a subject, another person just wants the CliffNotes. Providing easy-to-follow cheat sheets to key concepts, important skills, and major lessons, will endear you to many of your members.
- Templates, workbooks, and/or action plans – What methods do you use to stay on top of your field? If you use any kind of outline, template, methodology, or to-do list, share it with your members. It can take years of experience to find a method of doing anything that really works. Let your members jump the queue.
8. Conduct guest expert interviews
One of the fastest ways of adding valuable content to your site is to invite others to contribute. If you have industry connections in your field, leverage them to score interviews with other thought leaders your members can learn from. Just half an hour spent on a Zoom call with another subject matter expert could provide valuable video and audio content, plus a transcript, accompanying article, and more. If community is part of your model, you can host these sessions live, giving members the opportunity to ask questions in real time. And, of course, the recording can be posted in a discussion forum to allow for ongoing conversation.
9. Do news roundups
Curating content is a great way of monetizing a newsletter, but it can also be applied to your membership site. A daily, weekly, or monthly post featuring the latest news affecting your industry is a fast and easy way of adding valuable content that will appeal to your members and give them a reason to keep checking back into the community. I recommend using a tool like Feedly to easily track key news and content sources in whatever you nich you serve.
10. Feature member case studies
Last, but far from least, showcase how specific members are putting the expertise you have shared to work. As online community expert Richard Millington has put it, content about the community is the best content. By sharing case studies, you help members understand how to implement their new knowledge and skills, make it clear that “people like me” can do it, and maybe even spark a healthy sense of competition that motivates members to take action.
Membership Website Builder Options
So how should you launch your member website? As you might guess, there are many option, but they all tend to fall into one of the following categories:
- Website Builders with Membership Features
- WordPress Membership Plugins
- Online Course Platform with Membership Features
- Online Community Platforms
- Traditional Member/Customer Management Platforms
Naturally, all of these have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a closer look at each category and some of the options with each.
Website Builders with Membership Features
If you are already using (or plan to use) one of the popular website builder platforms – e.g. Wix, Squarespace, etc. – then you may already have access to all of the membership features you need.
Several website builders and hosting providers include membership options, either as part of the standard content management system (CMS), or as a bolt-on service.
If you are already using one of these platforms – or are in need of a user-friendly way to create and manage your website – then this is an attractive option. The main downside is that these platforms were not built primarily to support membership, so you may find them lacking in some of the key features you want – particularly if you want to combine membership with online courses.
Squarespace membership sites
Squarespace is one of the best options for a membership site out of the major website builder platforms. It enables you to easily set up free, one-time, or recurring fee membership models. It’s also one of the few of these types of platforms to integrate virtual classrooms, workshops, and even newsletters, although online courses have to be hosted through a third-party plugin. Members’ areas are available on all paid Squarespace plans, but do come at an extra cost, starting at $9/month.
Wix membership sites
Building a Wix site and turning it into a membership platform is as simple as clicking a button. Membership features can be combined with other Wix plugins to create forums and chat rooms, but the platform only has basic functionality for creating and hosting online courses. Member features are available on Business plans and higher, starting from $23/month.
Weebly membership sites
Weebly’s membership features are a little more extensive than those offered by Wix, and include options for tiered memberships, forums, and segmented groups. Membership features are available on Pro plans and above, priced from $12/month.
Webflow membership sites
Webflow positions itself as a competitor to WordPress, and has a similar suite of plugins and third-party integrations to enable membership sites. Webflow recommends Memberstack to manage your membership site settings using a process that will be familiar to WordPress users. You’ll need a business plan to add payment processing to your Webflow site, starting at $29/month. Memberstack costs an additional $25/month for a single site, up to 10,000 members.
One Plugin to Rule Them All?
MemberSpace is included here as a platform that integrates with all of the Website builders highlighted above and with WordPress options highlighted below. So, if you plan to use either WordPress or a webste builder, you should definitely check it out.
WordPress Membership Site Plugins
If you aren’t using one of the website builders above, then chances are very high that you are using WordPress for your member website. One of the things that makes it so popular is the huge number of plugins that make it possible to do just about anything with a WordPress site. Membership is no exception – there are many WordPress membership plugins.
The main upsides of using a WordPress plugin for membership is that it integrates right into the WordPress interface and in most – but definitely not all – cases it will play well with other key WordPress plugins you may use or plan to use. You also have a lot of control over customization (though may need an experience WordPress designer/developer to help with this). The downside is that managing a lot of plugins can get pretty challenging and inevitably you will run into situations where one plugin interferes with another.
Still, if you are into WordPress (and I am), there are some great options. Here are some of the best:
Probably the most popular membership site plugin for WordPress, MemberPress supports all of the membership models covered above and it’s the plugin I have used for my own WordPress membership sites. In addition to enabling you create multiple tiers and types of members, MemberPress supports coupons, dynamic pricing pages, connection with all of the popular payment gateways, forums, and more. MemberPress also has course creation and management capabilities, enabling you to make courses a part of your model without having to license a separate platform or learning management plugin. Get MemberPress for a single site from $179/year.
Paid Memberships Pro
Paid Memberships Pro is also among the most popular membership plugins for WordPress and it definitely gives MemberPress a run for its money. It provides for sophisticated management of multiple membership levels and tiers and also enables you to accept applications and process dues for an offline community, like a trade association, professional association, or member-supported organization (making it a viable WordPress competitor to the membership/customer management software options highlighted further down). Like MemberPress, Paid Memberships Pro also integrates easily with BuddyBoss, our top pick for building a community in WordPress. There is a free plan and paid plans start at $297 per year.
WishList Member bills itself as an all-in-one solution for powering an entire online business, and offers much more than paywall functionality. Restrict content, drip and schedule access, create unlimited membership tiers, and collect payments all in one place. WishList also integrates with top learning management systems such as LearnDash, TutorLMS, Elementor, Divi, and more, to seamlessly add online courses. Get all the features for a single site for $147 annually.
Designed specifically for independent content creators and online experts, Memberful allows you to create paywalled member areas, add multiple tiers, distribute podcasts, and more. It integrates with LearnDash and Sensei for courses and for community features, it connects to popular forum platforms like Discord and Discourse. Free membership tiers are only available when you purchase a Pro plan or higher, priced from $25/month. However, if you intend to charge all your members a subscription fee, Memberful offers a free plan that could help you get started for less.
MemberSpace is a simple plugin that instantly paywalls any part of your site you choose. You set the terms, and Memberspace takes care of everything else. Plans start from $25/month. MemberSpace is also available for SquareSpace, Wix, Weebly, and Webflow websites. You can read our full MemberSpace review here.
Finally, we cover another option, Memberium, further below under Membership/Customer Management Software because it is so specifically associated with Keap and ActiveCampaign.
The Top WP Community Plug-In
If you want to turn your WordPress membership site into a vibrant online community, BuddyBoss is hands down the best option there is. It provides everything you’d expect in the best community platforms.
You can, for example, use it to set up personalized activity feeds, notifications for members, group messaging, private messaging, member directories, social groups, social posts, sub-groups, etc. And BuddyBoss even makes it possible for you to host your own live events via Zoom.
Online Course Platforms with Membership
Companies that make online course platforms have started to realize that membership capabilities are a perfect complement to their core software for many of the reasons already covered above. All of the major platforms offer ways to sell membership access to courses and most of them also provide for ways to drip content to members and include community elements, like discussions, with individual courses or as part of your overall course site.
The major upside of this option is that the tools for creating courses, managing learners, and tracking results are going to be much better than with most of the other options here. The main downside is that membership is not the primary focus of these platforms, so they may not have all of the features you want. (That said, most of them are investing heavily in building out membership and community features, so it may just be a matter of time before a specific feature you want gets added to whatever platform you prefer.)
Here are snapshots of some of the course platforms we feel do the best job of supporting membership and online community.
Kajabi is an “all-in-one” platform that offers a full suite of tools to help you create and manage a website to sell digital products. Membership and community – along with online courses and coaching – are among the products for which Kajabi is most known. As an all-in-one, it combines these capabilities with native e-mail functionality (you don’t need a separate e-mail provider like Mailchimp) and the ability to create sophisticated sales funnels. If you want a powerful platform that enables you manage your entire web presence, offer online courses, and – of course – host a membership website, Kajabi is a top option to consider. Subscriptions start at $119/month, billed annually — more than many of its competitors, but well worth it if you plan to make use of all of its features.
Similar to Kajabi, Podia describes itself as an “all-in-one digital storefront.” It offers course creation software, webinar hosting, and email marketing features, as well as a custom membership site CMS. Podia is an ideal solution for many subject matter experts looking to diversify their portfolio and expand their business in new directions. Membership site functionality is available with Podia’s Shaker tier ($79/month billed annually) and higher.
Thinkific is primarily an online course platform, but it does provide tools for subscribers to build membership sites around their content. Membership features kick in at the Pro subscription level ($79/month billed annually). At that level you can create up to 5 courses and sign up unlimited members with no additional transaction fees. One potential upside of using Thinkific is the Thinkific App Store, which offers plug-n-play integration with a wide range of third party tools – including a number that enhance membership and community.
Teachable — another online course platform — also includes membership site functionality. However setting up your membership site with this software may be trickier than by using an alternative. Teachable itself admits you’ll have to do some extra work to create restricted learning paths, and perhaps employ third-party integrations to get all the features you want. However Teachable does offer some attractive bonus features for membership sites, such as quizzes, assignments, and live webinar hosting – and it also has an established integration with the Circle community platform (covered below). Best of all, the members-only features are available on the lowest tier plan, starting at just $29/month.
Another “all-in-one” option, New Zenler makes it easy to add multiple communities into a website that also provides for online courses. While not at quite the same level of sophistication as Kajabi, New Zenler does also provide e-mail marketing and sales funnel capabilities to help you with promoting your membership site and other offerings. There’s free version that’s pretty feature rich, but you’ll need to jump up to paid to get all New Zenler’s capabilities. The Pro plan costs $447/year and the Premium plan costs $1167/year. While New Zenler only offers annual plans on its website, if you email their support team and request to go monthly, they’ll hook you up. Their Basic plan is currently only $47/month.
Online Community Membership Platforms
Recently there has been surge of new platforms designed specifically to make it easy to create and run an online community – often as an alternative to options like Facebook or LinkedIn groups, where the community hosts have much less control over the experience (not to mention their users’ data). Naturally, these platforms include features for creating memberships as a way of managing who has access to what – and at what price – in the community.
Mighty Networks was built for creators and instructors to develop online communities — ideal for subject matter experts. The Forever Free plan includes a free subdomain, blog space, and ability to sign up an unlimited number of paying members. However if you want to create online courses in addition to membership, you’ll need to shell out for the Business plan, priced from $81/month.
Circle is similar to Mighty Networks, but takes a minimalistic approach. This is the community platform for you if you prefer to keep everything neat and clutter-free. While staying simple, it still gives you everything you need to set up a branded online community with multiple membership “spaces.” Note, however, that while it does integrate with Teachable and WordPress, it does not have native capabilities for online courses. Also, unlike Mighty Networks, you can only access it for free for 14 days. Beyond that, Circle offers three pricing plans. The cheapest is Basic, which accommodates 10 spaces and 1,000 community members for $39 per month. Professional, on the other hand, gives you an allowance of up to 100 community spaces and 10,000 members for $79 a month – while Enterprise is capable of supporting up to 3 communities, 1,000 spaces, and 100,000 members for $199 a month.
If you’d like an open source, discussion-driven option, then Discourse is your ticket. While you might expect “open source” to mean “complicated,” the default Discourse platform is actually simple enough to be comfortably used by all types of subject matter experts and edupreneurs, including the technically unskilled ones. You’ll be pleased that its interface is quite neat and straightforward, as it focuses only on the most important stuff. Unfortunately, what “open source” also does not mean in this case is “free.” The only free thing here is a trial that runs for 14 days. Once that lapses, you’ll be paying at least $100 per month to use the platform.
Membership/Customer Management Software
On the surface, it might sound like platforms in this category would be all about membership sites, but in reality, most were originally created mainly to manage member and customer data – not build websites or manage content and community.
That situation has changed some in recent years as a new breed of association systems (AMS) and customer relationship management (CRM) systems have included tools to support the entire member experience. These systems aren’t a big focus at Learning Revolution, but there are a handful of standouts that I think could be a good fit for some reader’s needs. (We’ve stuck with ones you can actually sign up for online via e-commerce, as opposed to “call for pricing” options.)
An all-in-one dedicated membership software that provides everything from a website builder with the ability to add blogs and forums, to custom domain and hosting, to online stores, payment processors, and of course a host of customizable paywall settings. Wild Apricot is aimed at traditional membership groups such as nonprofits, associations, and clubs, and as such also includes capabilities for managing events – both online and off. If you don’t intend to charge members of your site, Wild Apricot offers a free tier for up to 50 contacts, and paid plans start at $40/month. Check out our full review of Wild Apricot to see if it’s right for you.
Ontraport is an all-in-one customer relationship management (CRM) and marketing software aimed at medium to large businesses. It offers features that enable you to build a membership site from scratch or customize a pre-designed template. You can then charge for membership, limit access to content based on different membership levels, and drip content out to members. If you prefer to handle your membership site through WordPress, you can also easily integrate Ontraport and WordPress with OntraPort’s own PilotPress plugin (Note: this plugin hasn’t been tested with the latest three major releases of WordPress, so it is possible Ontraport is shifting away from it in favor of its native membership site features.) Basic Ontraport plans start at $79 per month, but to actually sell memberships, you would need to be on the Plus plan, which starts at $147 per month,
Memberium is a WordPress plugin, but we decided to include it here because it is meant specifically to provide membership capabilities that integrate with two popular CRM/marketing automation systems: Keap (formerly Infusionsoft) and ActiveCampaign. Basically, it enables you to harness WordPress as the front end for your membership website while taking advantage of the highly sophisticated segmentation and automation capabilities of the underlying CRM. Using it, you can set up a completely automated/self-serve membership site, sell online courses and/or offer them as lead magnets, and integrate with a range of other valuable WordPress plugins like BuddyBoss and LearnDash. Memberium licenses start at $57 per month or $570 er year. (This doesn’t include a license for Keap or ActiveCampaign.)
Top 10 Membership Site Must-Haves
Let’s cut to the chase. Whatever platform or plugin you use, all membership websites need certain essential components. Here’s my checklist of the top 10 things most membership sites need to succeed.
1. Members-only content
Okay, this may be an obvious one, but a membership site without members-only content doesn’t offer anything of value to incentivize members to sign up. It’s that simple.
2. Easy (but customizable) member registration
After you’ve created content that attracts potential subscribers, you need to make it as simple as possible for them to join for the right level of access. That means the systems needs to enable you to create registration forms that are user friendly, but that can also include any fields that are essential for you to segment your members in the right way.
3. Membership trial periods
One of the registration options (for paid membership sites) should be a free trial period so that prospective members can explore your site on a limited basis and discover if it’s right for them. As with the overall registration process, you should have control over what trial members do and don’t get access to. And, ideally, the platform should automatically send an alert – along with a purchase link prospects when their trial is close to ending and send a purchase offer when their trial ends.
4. Tiered memberships
Tiered membership levels have a number of advantages. They allow you to meet prospective members where they are in terms of needs and budget; they make it possible to upsell to current members or avoid losing members completely if they want to downgrade; and, higher priced tiers make entry-level tiers appear more affordable to prospective members who may be cost sensitive. (This is a well-known psychological principle in pricing. Having at least one significantly higher priced offering in your portfolio helps make lower priced options seem more within reach financially.)
5. Easy member administration
“Administration” can take a lot of forms. You may want to be able to bulk import members into the platform. Or assign them to different segments, groups, etc. based on specific characteristics. Or move them to a different membership tier. Or extend their membership. You get the point. The best platforms will give you a lot of flexibility in accessing and editing member data so that everything works the way you intend and the way members expect.
6. Email communication
To keep your site thriving and help members get the most out of it, you need to have communication tools. In most cases, the main tool will be e-mail and it should be possible – using the administration tools already mention – to send e-mails to specific member groups or segments. It should also be possible to automate e-mails. So, for example, when a new member signs up, she might get an automated sequence of e-mails confirming her membership and highlighting key aspects of the sight. (Note: this might also be achieved in many cases by integrating your membership site with your preferred e-mail platform.) While e-mail is the main communication tool supported by most membership site builders, many also have features for messaging within the platform and/or through SMS.
7. Dripped content automations
Regardless of whether drip content is your main membership model, there will almost certainly be times when you want to space out access to content. If you are using your membership site as a platform for teaching, this can be particularly valuable from the standpoint of educational effectiveness. And, for marketing purpose it helps to keep interest elevated and motivate members to return to the site.
8. Event registration
Event registration might not seem like an obvious “must have,” but as some of the content creation approaches covered above suggest, holding online events like “Ask Me Anything” or guest expert sessions can be one of the fastest ways to create content for your site and engage with members in real time. Actually having registration integrated into the platform helps you know which members are actual engage with event content. And, of course, you can also use this feature if you plan to host seminars, conferences, or other face-to-face events (which are likely to see a strong resurgence in the coming, post-pandemic months).
9. Online payment processing
While you may offer some of your membership content for free, you are probably going to want to charge for at least some of it eventually – which means you need the ability to accept payment for registrations and subscriptions. (That applies to events – covered above – as well.) A good membership platform should give you abilities to configure sales pages for your offerings – including what information you want to collect from customers – make it easy for members to select the right product and use and discounts or coupon codes you provide, and then process credit card payments securely through on of the major payment gateways like PayPal or Stripe.
10. Reporting and analytics
Finally, look for software that provides as many analytics reports as possible and presents data in a way that you find useful and user friendly (e.g., through a visual dashboard. Even if you don’t understand the significance of all the reports you can access, or you don’t need them right now, having access to your analytics history will help you analyze your site’s performance as it grows. This kind of data is invaluable for figuring out what’s working, what’s not, and what new benefits it might be valuable for you to add to the community.
Membership Site Features that Add Value
These features may not be essential to building a successful membership site, but they can add a great deal of value. Consider how they fit in with your plan for your site, and which of them will deliver the most impact for your members.
If you decide to make community a part of your membership site, then forums are usually essential. I advise looking for ones that work well on mobile devices – that’s often where people tune into forums these days. Be sure to think about how your prospective members may want to be able to use discussion. How important is search, for example? Will members want to be able to start their own discussion threads? Forum capabilities vary pretty widely across platforms, so definitely kick the tires.
2. Member directory
A member directory makes it possible for members to see who else is a part of the site, get some basic information about them, and – often – connect with them and message them. Often, this is one of the most valuable aspects of a membership site because members are looking for peers they can collaborate with and learn from. Of course, you’ll want to make sure there are appropriate privacy features. For example, if you think you’ll have members who don’t want to be listed in the directory, or if you want to collect certain information from members, but hide it from the profiles displayed in the directory, then make sure any platform you are considering supports these capabilities (many do).
3. LMS/course management
Learning management system (LMS) capabilities will be crucial if you intend to distribute online courses for your members. Some platforms (e.g., MemberPress, Mighty Networks) include LMS features to natively add courses to your site, but others will require a separate plugin or will need to be used in tandem with a site that provides for online courses. If you’ve already created courses using an LMS, look for integrations with membership site software before committing to a platform in order to minimize the work you need to do to combine the two. And, of course, keep in mind that – as covered above – many course platforms have built in membership capabilities that may be sufficient for your needs.
4. Online donations
Whether your site requires paying memberships or not, a tip jar or donation function is a good feature to include. It won’t make you rich, but you might be surprised how many people want to acknowledge great content by buying you a cup of coffee.
5. Affiliate program management
Word of mouth advertising is extremely powerful, and you can harness it by incentivizing your members to promote your site with an affiliate program. I’m not personally a fan of allowing just anyone to join your affiliate program. Just as with online courses and other digital offerings, you should strive to find good affiliates, who offer genuine endorsements of you and your site. The good news is your member pool is filled with people just like that! Consider requiring potential affiliates to apply for your program. That way you can find those who will be the best fit for your brand.
6. An online store
Finally, if you offer additional products outside of your membership content – for example, books or merchandise like t-shirts and coffee mugs – include an online store on your site. This gives members a one-stop shop to access everything you have available – and it can create an additional revenue stream for you.
Choosing the Right Platform for a Membership Site
While the best solution for your membership site will depend on your unique plans for the site’s purpose, content, and audience, there are common elements of any platform selection process.
First, remember that it is a process, and you need to get the sequence of the process right. Namely:
I’ve written extensively about how people tend to (a) jump to alternatives and (b) not give enough weight to risks when choosing an online course platform. The same observations and lessons apply when choosing a membership website platform.
Put the time into being very clear about your most important objectives for your business and for the member experience you aim to provide, develop brief use cases (short descriptions of actions users need to be able to take to support achieving the objectives), and write down a list of your most critical requirements – i.e., the things a platform absolutely must do to support the use cases and objectives. Focus on the ones that feel most unique to you – that is, that you suspect may be challenging to find a platform to support.
Having done that, the following evaluation criteria will help you narrow down the right platform.
Availability of “Must Have” Features
Armed with your most critical requirements, you’ll be able to tell quickly whether you should even consider a particular platform. For example, is it essential that members be able to form their own groups within online forums? Any platform you consider either needs to have that capability natively or have a very strong integration with a forum platform or plugin that supports it. Do you need to be able to offer online courses that included assessments? Make sure the platform enables you to create the types of assessments you need.
How much time do you have to spend on getting your site off the ground, and how easy is the new software to use? Most business software is designed to be relatively easy to learn, but some programs are trickier than others to get right. Some key ways to assess the learning curve are to:
- Take advantage of free trials. Nothing beats trying to execute your key use cases yourself.
- Do some searching on phrases like “[Name of platform] issues” or “[Name of platform] ease of use.”
- Ask in any forums or communities you are part of where other members are likely to have used membership website software
- Check out reviews on sites like Capterra and G2 Crowd. (Note: take these with a grain of salt – vendors put a lot of effort into getting positive reviews on these sites.)
While one platform or software might not be the ideal solution for your site, it could be the most time-effective one. And remember, there’s no use investing in a software that has more functionality than you need or know how to use.
Integrations with existing systems
If you already have a website, mailing list, online courses, or any other branches of your business already established, look for programs that will fit into your existing setup. This will make it faster and easier to launch your site, without risking losing any data. Most membership platforms offer a range of integrations and most website and course platforms have integrations with specific membership platforms. To the extent you can, see and experience what the integration you need the most are actually like in action. That may require contacting the companies that make the membership site software and asking them to show you, but that’s time well spent. “Integration” is a slippery term – it’s often easy for a company to establish an integration with another piece of software but for the actual user experience to be terrible.
Security and data privacy
Protecting your members’ data is vitally important. Not only does it build trust, but it keeps you legally compliant. Check how each tool you use stores and safeguards data, and if your members’ data is ever shared with third parties. (As part of implementing and managing your membership site, you should also make it clear to members how their data will be handled.)
How quickly do you want to create your site? If you’ve got time to kill to get it right, a more complex setup could prepare your site for long term growth from the outset. However if you want to establish your site quickly in order to recoup your investment or just to test out how viable membership is as a business model for you (i.e., minimum viable product), look for plug and play applications that don’t take weeks to learn.
How you intend to monetize your membership site will have an impact on the software and integrations you need to use. Free memberships don’t require any monetization, but you might need separate payment gateways if you’re combining subscription memberships with an online store. You also need to ensure your site is SSL secured and compliant with payment processing standards if you want to accept payments directly on site. Alternatively, a third-party processor can handle compliance on your behalf.
What happens if something goes wrong? Consider how you’ll resolve questions and get help when you need it. Check out the support features available for each software you’re considering before you run into problems, not after. If you take advantage of free trials on you short list of possible platforms, be sure to submit a support ticket during the trial period – you’ll get first experience of the speed and quality of the support. It’s also helpful to do the same kind of searching recommended above under Learning Curve to see what people may be saying about the support a company provides.
As noted above, people often don’t put enough thought into potential risks when making a decision about membership site software (or just about anything for that matter!). Support – just covered – is one aspect of risk, but so are factors like a company’s overall reputation and its financial stability. If the company that makes the software you are considering is publicly traded, then it’s usually pretty easy to get information about how well it is performing in the market. If it is a private company, this information may be harder to come by, but the same methods I cover in this post about online course platform risk apply when choosing a membership website platform. It doesn’t take much time to go through these steps, and you’ll definitely be glad you did.
Finally, you’ll need to consider how much the platform costs (which can, of course, be another aspect of risk). I’ll stress finally, because too often solopreneurs and small businesses will write a platform off from the get-go because it cost more than other platforms. But it could be that the more expensive platform does a much better job of addressing your use cases and achieving your objectives If it does, then you are likely to get a higher return on investment (ROI) of of it than you will off a cheaper alternative. So, don’t make cost-related decisions until you have gone through the rest of the process.
15 Ways to Market Your Membership Site
If you build it, they will come! Well, not exactly. Getting members to (a) discover and (b) join your site, (c) and stay is the final hurdle you must cross in order to make your site a success.
Of course, never forget that marketing starts with strategy: you need to have built an offering that has a viable audience and that provides value that aligns with that audience’s needs. In other words, you need to be clear about your objectives.
If you haven’t done that, no amount of clever promotion is going to result in a thriving, sustainable business of any type. The good news is that, if you have done that then promoting your membership site can actually be a pleasure – even for self-proclaimed haters of marketing.
Why? Because promoting will amount to letting people know about an offering that truly has value and can really help them. You’ll find yourself talking about something you love and believe in rather than something you are trying to “pitch.”
The following ideas will get you started, but never stop innovating. Aim to try a new method of attracting members each month, and experiment to discover what works best for your site.
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 any 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. Turn free content into content marketing
Once your site is live, use it as an engine for content marketing by 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. Leverage lead magnets
I’ve already hinted at this above, but lead magnets are so valuable that it is worth calling them out separately as method for building the audience for your membership website. Everybody loves a freebie, and offering a very specific product as a lead magnet is a great way of getting someone to sign up for your site. Sometimes it can be hard to quantify the benefit of subscribing to a site — a lead magnet provides a single, distinct benefit that makes it easy to say yes to signing up. And once they’ve joined your site, you can show them everything else that’s available if they remain a member.
5. Publish member reviews and testimonials
Feedback from real people about the benefits of joining your site is a powerful form of social proof. Make sure that you continually ask for and collect member reviews and testimonials to publish on your site and use in promotional materials. 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.
6. Ask members for referrals
We already know that word of mouth referrals are highly effective. Don’t be shy about asking for them. Remind your members to tell their friends about your site and the benefits they’ll get from joining. We all tend to stick to like-minded people, so chances are all your members each know several other people who would be interested in joining your site.
7. Encourage members to go public
Come up with a few places it would be appropriate for your members to add your site to their public online profiles. Depending on your industry, that could be a private (but not hidden) Facebook group, a LinkedIn course, a badge on their personal website or blog, or even a line in their bio.
8. Offer perks to recruiting members
As well as building an affiliate network, you can also create your own perks for members who share your content or recruit others. That could be as simple as an internal point system based on open metrics from your newsletter, and members could spend their reward points in your online store, or compete to win merchandise.
9. Feature your members
Creating stories about your members not only raises your social proof, it also gives you a range of promotional features that your members will be happy to share. Demonstrate how becoming a member of your site has given them new skills, improved their career prospects, or otherwise changed their life for the better.
10. Network with other businesses
Approach colleagues in your field or related industries and ask for referrals. Think about mutually beneficial arrangements you can strike — you might be surprised at the possibilities available to you. For example, if you teach a photography course, you could approach an independent camera supply store and agree to recommend each other’s services. When networking, always consider how your involvement with another individual or business will impact your reputation, and only propose deals you can stand behind.
11. Offer group membership
Signing up a group of people at once is great for giving your membership site (and its community) a big boost. Consider how the knowledge you’re sharing could positively impact college students, specific industry employees, local interest groups, or any other other organizations or businesses you can think of, and approach them with a group membership deal.
12. Set and share membership goals
Goal setting is a great motivator, and there’s no reason not to involve your members with your goals, especially when first establishing your site. Share your goals, and encourage members to make referrals and invite their friends to help you smash them.
13. Make members apply to join
This might seem counterintuitive, but people generally love to feel like they’re part of something exclusive. The sense of community you create with your membership site can be heightened by having members apply to join. You can use any prerequisites you like, and if you include an application questionnaire you can also get valuable insight into the mindset of your new members.
14. Offer members-only discounts on other products
If you don’t already include all your products in your membership site, consider offering a members-only discount. This is a great way of encouraging people who are already interested in your products to sign up for more, and keeps your members engaged with your content even if they’ve already consumed everything on your site.
15. Pay to the Peak with Advertising
Everything above will help you to grow, 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 – which everything above helps to do.
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 advertising 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.
Final Thoughts: The Membership Site Flywheel
The ultimate goal of a membership site is to reach a point where it becomes as self-perpetuating as possible. Be aware from the beginning that reaching that point is going to be a long-term process for many membership sites, no matter how strong you come out of the gate.
For community-based sites, for example, data from The Community Roundtable, suggests that most communities only start to generate a significant return on investment after two years.
As already noted, community sites usually take significantly more work than other types of membership sites, but even sites without community are unlikely to achieve success over night. If a successful membership website 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 you are retaining most of your existing members and continually adding new members.
At that point, you will have achieved what Jim Collins, business guru and author of the mega-bestseller Good to Great, calls “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.