10 Key Elements of Successful Membership Sites

By Jeff Cobb.  Last Updated on July 11, 2024

Roll of tickets printed with "Members Only" for membership concept

Successful membership sites exist across all industries and fields, in a variety of sizes and business models. From subscription services such as Blue Apron, Dollar Shave Club, and Microsoft Office, to dating sites like eHarmony and niche interest sites, for example Ancestry.com and Goodreads.

As an edupreneur, you’re probably familiar with big e-learning sites like Udemy and Skillshare, where learners join to take free and paid courses online. And, of course, there are countless niche membershp learning sites in just about any topic  you can think of.

It might seem like there’s too much variety in the scale and scope of membership sites to draw any parallels, but there are certain key elements common to the majority of successful membership sites, whatever their business, industry, or model.

1. They do what they’ll say they do

This is arguably the most important aspect of any Web site, but it’s especially critical for  sites that encourage memberships (free or paid).

If you build your site as an educational tool, then spend a month blogging about your last vacation and new puppy, you’ll soon start hemorrhaging members. Members join a site for a specific purpose, and that’s usually because the site offers a benefit to them, be it a product, knowledge, or just a sense of community.

If you’re struggling to convert visitors to members, or have a high attrition rate, reconsider how you’re marketing your site, and what the site is actually delivering. It’s easy to over-promise and under-deliver if you’re not careful, and members who feel cheated or misled will leave and never return.

When you’re building your site and establishing a content and marketing strategy, focus on what it is possible for you to achieve, not what you’d like to provide. If you promise to do a monthly online chat, do it.

If you can’t meet your commitments to your members, rethink your approach.

2. They provide quality content

It doesn’t matter what the focus of your site is, as long as you’re delivering the content your members want and they think it’s worth their money.

Members will be happier waiting longer for new content if that content is of a high standard. Don’t rush content thinking it will make your members happier to have more quantity than quality. A well-articulated post per month will be better received than a weekly update that doesn’t say much at all.

Pay attention to how your members respond to new content to judge what they consider quality. In part this will relate to how you’ve marketed your site. If you’re charging a large subscription fee and promising professionally edited videos each month, members are going to feel cheated if you upload mobile phone footage.

If, on the other hand, your members are aware they’ve joined a beta-testing site where you trial new lessons and ideas, they’ll forgive content that doesn’t look like a finished product. In those cases, it’s the content of the material that will matter more than the presentation.

Your members will vote most honestly with their time. If an hour-long video loses 80 percent of viewers within the first five minutes, consider what happened in that time to put them off. (And, of course, make sure you are tracking this kind of data in the first place!)

If your members frequently return to your text posts but ignore audio, dig into why. Some subjects lend themselves better to one format over another, but it could be that your microphone quality is impacting your listening or viewing figures, or your grammar is holding back your blog posts.

Always try to learn from your members why they prefer what they do, and which type of content they value most highly.

3. They combine free and paid membership levels

There are a number of good reasons to avoid offering your content for free. Free content can devalue your brand and make monetization harder. However, it’s also a good idea to have some loss-leader content available to attract new visitors and convert them to membership level.

The key to using free content successfully is to whet your visitors’ appetite for more, and drive them toward a paid membership.

Blogs are the most common way most Web sites attract new visitors with free content. Well-written blog posts rank high in search engine results, increasing your site’s authority and attracting more visitors. Because most blog posts are short-form, they’re also a good tool for establishing a reader’s interest in your subject and pushing them toward your paid membership to learn more.

Including a double level of free content is one of the most successful ways of getting new members to sign up for your site. Begin with public content such as blog posts that are visible to non-members, then lead into a first tier of free membership to access more. Once a member signs up for your site, you can build a sales funnel to encourage them to sign up for a higher tier. Without this entry-level membership, you’ll lose many visitors who could have been converted to paid members at a later date.

Be cautious of using paywalls and membership barriers to hide all of your content. Several large sites use this method, allowing a non-member to get halfway through a post or article before blocking them from reading the rest until they sign up. While the technique sometimes works on successful membership sites, you’re more likely to annoy readers who feel like you used a bait-and-switch, and they won’t return to your site.

4. They offer free trials

If you already provide free access to some content, and a free membership tier for more, offering a free trial of your paid membership features might seem unnecessary (and even a bit painful). However, the sticking point for many people when considering a membership site subscription is not being sure if the membership is worth it. A free trial of a paid membership tier allows new members to see exactly what they’re getting for their money.

How long you offer your free trial for will depend in part on how long it would take an average member to review the information on your site. Two weeks is standard across most successful membership sites, but free trials can be a short as a few days, or months long. Generally speaking you want to give your members a fair shot at seeing what’s available, but not leaving the trial free for so long that they view everything on the site, forget they have the membership, or you reset members’ mindsets about the value of the subscription.

When offering a free trial, always avoid requiring payment information upfront. For many members this is an immediate turn-off, and you’ll see a high number of drop-offs at that point in your funnel. Membership site software makes it easy to remind members when a trial is about to expire and prompt for payment or shuts them out of the site once their trial period has lapsed. Requiring payment information upfront prevents people from signing up and seeing what your site can offer, defeating the point of the trial.

Screenshot of Mighty Networks courses on multiple devices
Looking for a great membership platform that can also power your online courses? Take Mighty Networks for a free spin.

5. They make members at all levels feel valued

Your goal with a membership site is to encourage as many members as possible join the highest tier of membership, but be careful not to make free and low-level members feel undervalued.

Each membership level in a successful site should be aimed primarily at retaining the members, and secondarily at converting them higher. Your lowest level members have already completed most of your sales funnel and are most likely to convert to higher levels, so they should be made to feel important and get quality content from your site.

Hold back your most valuable information for higher membership levels, and don’t be afraid to reconsider what your members value most. You might think your video content is the most valuable, but if your top-tier members are more interested in first-look content instead, then switch your access levels around—making sure to give members plenty of advance warning if they’re about to lose access to a feature. If the change is significant, grandfathering in old members for additional time is a good way to ease the transition.

6. They listen to what members want

There are a variety of ways you can get feedback from your members through a membership site. Polling members is a good place to start, but don’t rely solely on what your subscribers say. If you’re running a site built around you and your products, members might feel guilty if they say something you’re doing isn’t working for them. Instead, they’ll vote with their time or with their wallets, reducing their use of your site or even leaving entirely.

Each time you upload new content, review how well it performs. Different formats will have different viewing and interaction rates, which should be kept in mind. Videos might outperform text posts, for example. In those instances, review both how your content performs against similar content as well as across your site as a whole.

Drill into why some types of content aren’t performing. It could be that your lessons don’t translate well to a particular medium, or it could be that you’re failing to provide quality content in one area. Don’t assume the former if it could be the latter at fault.

If an element of your site is consistently underused, it’s probably worth cutting your losses and abandoning it in favor of content your members do want. Poll members on what they prefer, and always ask positively led questions to make it more likely they’ll be honest. “What about my live videos do you like?” will generate more honest responses than “Why do you ignore my podcast?”

Listening to members and taking their suggestions on board will help them feel valued and appreciated, as well as help you identify any confusion in your branding or content.

7.  They interact with their members

Polling users for feedback and suggestions is the first step to interacting with them on a personal level. For an e-learning site, members often join to get better access to the educator as the ultimate source of the knowledge the site is providing. Making yourself available to your members is an important aspect of encouraging new signups and keeping existing members happy.

That doesn’t mean you have to be available to all your members 24/7. A monthly Q&A, commenting in forums, or otherwise joining in conversations and keeping an open dialogue with your members will help keep people happy without taking all your time.

Make sure to have help documents, quick-start, and navigation guides for larger websites, and an email address available for technical support and troubleshooting.

As your membership site grows, hand off moderation of forums and comments to valued members. The largest sites often run themselves, with users working to provide support and guidance for new members.

The important thing is that no member feels lost or ignored. A  successful membership site is built around you first, so don’t underestimate the value your members place on communicating with you easily and effectively.

8. They include social elements

What makes a membership website stand out from a blog or any other e-learning platform? It’s the interaction between your members. The social connections they form with you and your work, and between each other, are the ties that will keep them visiting your site and renewing their membership.

Adding social elements to a membership site can make it more difficult to set up, and it might be tempting to omit these entirely, or send your members off-site, for example to a Facebook group, instead of remaining within the member portal.

Sending your member away from your website is always a mistake and should be immediately discounted as a viable option for your site. Visitors are an important metric by which your site is ranked on the web. Repeat visits from even a small number of members who are engaging in conversations on your site forums or comment sections help boost your domain traffic and thus your site’s authority.

Adding a members’ area doesn’t have to be tricky. Content Management Systems such as WordPress offer a variety of free and paid forum plugins that you can use to create social areas on your site. When you post new content, encourage your members to comment and interact with it, and include a comments section or interactive chat anytime you post a video or go live.

When your site is first starting out and has a limited number of members, encouraging participation can be difficult, and it might sometimes feel like you’re talking to yourself, but taking the time in the beginning to pose questions, host Q&As, and build a robust social element into your site will pay dividends as your membership grows and interaction between users begins to take off.

9. They continue to drive new visitors and grow membership

Your site’s launch isn’t a one-and-done event. Membership levels will fluctuate throughout the site’s lifetime as new members join and old members leave.

You should plan for the natural falling off of memberships by continuing to promote your site and funnel new members. This will prevent the site’s social areas from becoming stale, and a steady stream of new members will compensate for any drop-off and ultimately help your site to grow.

There are a variety of ways to attract and convert new members to your site. Free content such as blog posts, cross-promotion through your other products, and advertising all play a part in spreading the word about your website.

Keep track of past members and offer incentives such as free membership periods to encourage them to return, and consider offering an affiliate program for existing members who can get friends and family to sign up for your site.

10. They keep it simple

If a site requires an advanced degree to navigate, you’ll lose members.

Make the content easily accessible and keep the site clearly laid out. A new user should be able to begin navigating your site almost immediately. Start with a clear organizational structure from the beginning to make it easier for members to find their way when your site is a decade old and has thousands of pages of content.

Even if your site is already established, it’s worth taking the time to tidy it up occasionally. Tag your posts, include quick-start guides for new members if there’s a lot to take in, and make sure you put your most valuable content and most recent uploads front and center. Successful memberships sites are in a constant state of upkeep and renewal

Bonus: They don’t alienate past members

A member leaving your site can sting, especially in the early days when you might really miss the recurring revenue. However, remember that past members have expressed enough interest in your site to sign up once, and they can be persuaded to do it again. That’s why it’s important to never burn a bridge.

If possible, find out why the member left. Exit polls are a great way to see what you’re doing wrong and give you clues how you can entice past members to return. An individual might have a change in financial circumstances, but if all your members leave because the cost is too high, you might need to rethink your pricing.

Some members will leave because they’ve exhausted the information available, in which case informing them of new content might entice them to return. Maybe your site doesn’t deliver what the marketing led members to expect, in which case you can identify the disconnect and fix it.

When a member does want to cancel their account, try to funnel them into lower or free tiers rather than having them delete their membership outright. This way they’re still interacting with the site, and can still receive notifications about new content updates, sales and promotions, and more that can encourage them to return to a paid tier.

Onward to a Successful Membership Site

I’ve covered why you should launch a membership site in an earlier post and now you’ve got the 10 elements of a successful membership site. The only question now is will you  act?  A  membership site can be an invaluable asset for any edupreneurial business, but there is one additional element every membership site requires to build momentum: time.

So, figure out your plan for  delivering on the 10 elements covered here, and get started today.


See also:

P.S. – Want to  go deeper on membership? Robbie Kellman Baxter has written a entire book on The Membership Economy. Get the book and also check out this interview with Robbie on the Leading Learning  Podcast.

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