How to Start a Membership Site: The Ultimate Guide for 2020
- Matthew Turner
It’s the holy grail of business… recurring revenue.
It’s also the one thing that seems almost impossible for an online course creator to have. We work with experts across every industry you can imagine, many of them running successful courses that generate increasing profit month after month.
Yet when someone buys a course from you, that’s it. It’s a one-time sale.
This means you have to create more courses and continue to up your marketing game.
Maybe it feels exhausting… like you’re unable to take your foot off the gas. If you do, your income will dry up. So you work harder, longer.
This is a common feeling among business owners in almost every industry you can imagine.
Sales fix most business problems. If you’re struggling to meet your targets, double down on sales. If things are going well and you want to scale to the next level, double down on sales.
The problem is, it’s an exhausting process that gives you little time to enjoy the life you’ve built.
This is where recurring revenue comes in. If you know you have a certain amount of customers sending you a certain amount of money every single month — whether you have a new launch or not — it gives you the freedom to step back, plan, and work “ON” your business.
Instead of always feeling like you’re stuck inside it as a glorified employee.
This is why recurring revenue is the holy grail or business. Yet how can you have this as a course creator? Once someone purchases your course they have no need to send you more money until your next course launch.
So maybe you build a coaching program, or take on some ‘done for you’ projects…
It’s the same problem, though. Time. They require a lot of YOUR time. Meaning you have none left over to enjoy life or work on your business so you can scale it to the next level.
The good news is, there is a way for course creators to generate recurring revenue without it stealing your time, energy, or resources. The answer is a Membership Site, and over the next few minutes you may realize it’s the natural progression from online courses you’ve been searching for.
Do YOU Need a Membership Site?
A membership site isn’t for everyone. If you’re just starting out and have no audience, content, or authority…a membership site isn’t for you.
At this stage you do have to double down on sales so you can build that all-important momentum. Success doesn’t happen overnight, and neither does authority.
However, if you have built an audience (even if it’s relatively small) and you have built some momentum, you may find a membership site is what you need to move to the next level.
So before we move on to asking what is a membership site?
First, ask yourself:
- Do I have an audience, and is a membership/community what they need?
- Do I understand who my core customer profile is on a deep level?
- Are there other membership sites like this? If so, can I build a better one?
If you answer “no” to any of these questions now may not be the time to build a membership site. Although recurring revenue is the holy grail of business, it isn’t easy to achieve. In the beginning, you do have to put in the hard work of sales, fulfillment, marketing, sales, fulfillment, rinse, repeat…
Yet once you build even a little momentum, it’s important you use it to escape the grind of working inside your business so you can do the smart thing of working “on” it. For most course creators, a membership site is what empowers this.
What is a Membership Site?
A membership site is a website (or area within a website) that provides exclusive access to those that pay for it. In other words, your members pay you money each week/month to gain access to your:
- Private community or forum…
Beyond this, there are no rules to what membership sites can and cannot look like. You get to choose what you place behind this private wall. As a course creator, I imagine this excites you a great deal.
The PROS of Having a Membership Site
- Increased Revenue: Not just an increase in your revenue, but a predictable one. When it comes to planning for the future, predictable income helps. It allows you to confidently place your time and resources elsewhere, knowing your cash flow won’t take a hit.
- Customer Loyalty: No matter how valuable your courses are, it’s difficult to build a relationship with your customers unless you work with them one-on-one. A Membership Site allows you to engage with your customers on a deeper level. You can interact with them inside the community, work with them more closely, and form a stronger bond.
- Consistent Stream of Traffic: This only applies if you host your Membership Site on your own website (we talk more about these options soon). If you do, you’re guaranteed an increase in traffic as your students access your content each day. From an SEO perspective… this is a huge win.
The CONS of Having a Membership Site
- Consistent Content: Unlike an online course, once you’ve built your membership site the hard work isn’t over. You need to keep adding new, fresh content all the time. This takes hard work, and depending on your niche, you may have to come up with a robust content strategy.
- Slow Burn: It’s difficult to make a lot of money, fast, while building a membership site. It doesn’t scale in the same way an online course does. You likely have to drip new members into your community week after week. As such, it takes longer to build success.
- Customer Service: The downside of forming a closer bond with your customers is that they expect a greater experience. You’ll have to not only deliver great content but consistently show up for your students when they need you.
A Membership Site isn’t for everyone. It’s not a get-rich-quick scheme or a guaranteed success. In many ways you have to work harder when building a successful membership site than you do when creating an online course. Yet the positives often outweigh the negatives once you reach a certain level of success.
It allows you to work “ON” your business and regain your freedom.
It may be exactly what you need, which leads us to…
How To Start a Membership Site
How to start a membership site… that is the question.
The good news is that whatever membership site you build, it will grow and evolve over time. This means you don’t have to get it perfect right away. In fact, the less perfect it is in the beginning, the better.
You need to work with your members and find out what works best for them.
The longer you strategize over this, the longer it takes to find the right answers.
To help you get started, here are the core steps you need to take to get your membership site up and running.
1:Choose Your Niche and Customer Profile
Would you rather go a mile deep with one person or scratch the surface with lots of people?
This is the difference between finding the perfect niche and settling for what most people do. It’s the first step in creating your membership site. You need to focus on your niche and figure out WHO you’re serving.
But maybe you hear the word niche and hesitate. It’s understandable. After all, what if you choose the wrong niche? What if you miss one that holds greater riches? Again, it’s understandable. But it isn’t an excuse. Those who try to touch upon lots of different areas end up mastering none of them.
Your members need more from you than this. They need you to understand their pain, the journey they’re on, what they are striving to achieve, and the tools they need to get there. So before you do anything else, get clear on what your niche is.
We’ve written a separate article that shows you how to do this, complete with niche market examples (click here to open this article).
Finding and focusing on your perfect niche is a huge step to take. But it doesn’t give you all the answers. Inside your niche are people, and these people are who you need to get to know on a deep level.
Maybe you already know them well. In fact, because you’ve already created a successful online course and built momentum, you likely do know them well. But not well enough.
Now is the time to get to know them better by crafting your perfect Customer Profile.
Again, we’ve created a separate guide that shows you how to do this. It’s one of the most popular posts we’ve ever created, so you may like to bookmark this to read later (click here to open in a new tab).
The main point of this step is NOT to skip it.
So many people do. It’s an opportunity for you.
No matter what you build later, your membership site will only be as good as what you put into this part of the process. Your membership site is designed to serve your members. You cannot do this unless you know who they are on a deep level, and you will not stand out from your competitors unless you choose the right niche.
Take the time to take this first step seriously. Your future self will thank you for it.
2: Validate Your Idea
At this stage, you’ve honed in on your niche, created your customer profile, and have a strong idea about what your membership site will look like. But don’t go all in just yet.
Take a step back.
Get out of your head.
It’s one of the biggest mistakes we see course creators make when building their membership site. It’s a common entrepreneurial pitfall. The temptation right now is high… you’re excited to turn your idea into reality. Yet right now it’s just an idea. Your task is to discover whether it’s the right idea!!
Validation is what you need before you go any further.
Asking your friends and family isn’t enough.
There are a few important steps to take:
- Research: further research your niche and customer avatar to find your main competitors and what they’re currently doing (marketing, messaging, products, etc…).
- Collect Leads: create a simple landing page and drive traffic toward it through ads. Keep it simple. Overview what your membership site will offer and provide an incentive/gift that captures their email address.
- Pre-Sell: through these new leads (and your existing audience), test the water with a pre-sell campaign so you can gauge interest.
You won’t know if your idea is the right idea until you test it on real people. Having them give you their email address is good, although taking their money is better.
It’s a kind of crowdfunding where you bring in your early adopters before you start building your membership site. You can set yourself a goal (i.e. 50 sales or 250 subscribers to your wait list) and track your results.
More importantly, you can observe people’s reactions, questions, and feedback. This is often more valuable than how many sales you generate. You quickly get a feeling for whether your membership site is striking a nerve. Your customers (or soon-to-be customers) will guide you toward that perfect idea.
Observe them. Listen to them. Where appropriate, schedule a call with them to learn more.
The whole point of this stage is to validate your idea so you can move forward with confidence. Validation can come in the form of sales or new subscribers, but sometimes it will be through feedback. You have to decide what validation looks like for you and your membership site.
Just don’t skip this step. So many people do, only to regret it later after they waste their time and money.
Take the time now to make sure your idea is the best idea you have.
3: Develop Your Strategy
Having validated your idea, you’re ready to develop a strategy to build your membership site around. Again, this is another step we see too many people skip. They figure they’ll figure it out as they go on.
In part, this is true. Your strategy will evolve over time.
Yet it’s important to spend time building your strategy NOW.
There are a few important aspects that go into this:
- Goals: it’s time to get clear on what you want to achieve. What’s your vision for this membership site a year from now… two years from now… in three or five years’ time? What are your goals and objectives for the first year of enrollment? What are your goals for the next 90 days?
- Content: there’s a lot of content that can go into your membership site. Your job now is to hone in on the content that will provide the most value to your members: online courses, video masterclasses, workbooks, live training, group calls, forum/chat area, software/tools, interviews, discounts/gifts/member perks, masterminds…?
- Delivery: having content is one thing. Delivering it is another. Will you give your members instant access to all your content? Will you drip-feed it to them over time? Are there weekly or monthly features? Will you release new content on a specific day each week or month?
- Access: one of the greatest aspects of building a membership site is that you can create multiple subscription levels. Your GOLD members, for instance, may get access to everything. Whereas your SILVER members have to pay extra for certain courses, interviews, or content. Over time, you may create a PLATINUM level that offers private coaching, group calls, or access to an exclusive mastermind/event.
- Pricing: finally, you need to consider the different pricing for each membership level, and HOW you’ll charge your members (recurring (weekly, monthly, annually), lifetime access, fixed-term pricing, pay as you go…).
Your strategy will evolve over time. What you create here is not set in stone. You do not have to create a sophisticated business plan that you’ll take to your bank manager. Yet it is important to create a complete document that details various aspects of your strategy.
As you build your membership site, this strategy acts as your guide.
It helps you choose the right tools, software, and payment platforms. It also ensures you stick to your goals, reminds you of the content you need to create, and keeps you focused.
You need this as you move forward, because as you’ll soon see… there’s a lot that goes into content creation.
4: Build Your MVP and Find Your Raving Fans
You’re almost ready to create your content and launch your membership site. But first you must go through another round of validation.
Here, you create your MVP (minimal viable product). In essence, it involves building your membership site with just enough content and features that it provides some value.
For example, you may release only the first module from your online course, commit to one weekly group call, and have a very basic chat area/forum. Your plans are to include many more weekly features, live trainings, and masterclasses… yet now isn’t the time to commit to these.
The reason is simple… what you build now WILL have errors.
The last thing you want to do is spend weeks or months building and perfecting everything, only to release it and come across a bunch of issues that you’ve missed. You’re too close to the process. Your first batch of members, on the other hand, isn’t.
They will spot errors, issues, missing pieces of the puzzle, and a whole lot more.
They WILL provide you with feedback, ask questions, and give you new ideas.
The less content you have to fix, the better. Start small. Create something; just enough to give your first batch of members value. From there, get to work with your Raving Fans!
What are Raving Fans?
Your raving fans are your beta testers; the first batch of members who test out your membership site.
These are the people who pre-purchased during Step 2 or joined your waiting list. You’ve given them early access at a reduced rate, possibly giving them lifetime access for a one-time fee. They know they’re getting a basic version of your offer in exchange for this. They know they’re part of the testing process.
It’s amazing how many people love to be part of something new and still in the works…
These are your raving fans because they are in it with you from the beginning. In many ways, they’re collaborators more than customers. You work with them more closely than you will future members. You get to know them, their stories, and maybe even their families.
Your raving fans help you perfect your MVP, so you can open it up to the masses.
5: Create Your Content
Finally, you’re ready to get to work and create your content, set up your Membership Site, and launch it to the world. We’ll focus on the different types of membership site platforms you can use soon. There are several options to choose from, and it’s important you use the right one for you and your members.
No matter what platform you use, what truly matters is the content you create.
While you work with your initial batch of members and gather their feedback, use this time to create your Content Locker: the valuable content your members get access to when they join your community.
- Online Courses
- Workbooks, PDFs, and Tutorials
- Guest Interviews and Masterclasses
- Trainings (live or recorded)
- Group Calls or Coaching Events
- Step-by-Step Guides
Don’t get caught up on creating too much content. Your members don’t need a lot. They need relevance and high value. Yet it is important to give them something when they first join. Their Customer Journey is key to your success. Make sure you create some memorable moments during those first few weeks.
But you don’t have to have all the answers at this stage.
Your membership site WILL evolve over time.
Through your weekly and monthly features, you’ll add new content to your locker. Once again, don’t get caught up trying to create endless amounts of content for your members. You’re not doing so for them, rather than for you and your own imposter syndrome (and scarcity mindset).
Fight this. Create enough and leave it at that.
From there, launch. We’ve created a separate guide on how to launch a new product. It’s just as relevant for a membership site because the launch process remains the same. I highly recommend you bookmark this to read later, as it may prove valuable in the near future (click here to open this in a new tab).
6: Deliver Ongoing Value
Launching your membership site isn’t the end. In many ways it’s the beginning.
What differentiates a membership site from an online course is that a membership site requires constant attention. You cannot launch it and leave it. You must continue to deliver value each day, week, and month. While you can do this with fresh, new content, it goes way beyond the content you create.
The community you build is at the heart of everything.
It’s ultimately why people join your membership site. At least, it’s the reason they stick around. After a while, the content becomes less of a necessity. They’ll learn what they need to. So why is that some people remain part of some membership sites for years? Why do they continue to pay $20… $50… $150+ per month?
It comes down to the COMMUNITY!
Your job is to build one full of like-minded individuals. Through the forum/chat area/private group, you need to facilitate an engaged community that grows way beyond you. These are the membership sites that last the test of time.
These are the ones that go on to become true success stories.
Everything you create up until this point is important. Yet it’s what you continue to create and nurture that matters most. It’s also what determines how much freedom you regain and the money you make.
An engaged community needs you less. They communicate with each other if you’re there or not.
They help drive new traffic, sales, and referrals. Your membership site becomes bigger than you.
This is a good thing because this is what gives you the time, freedom, and money you desire.
How to Build An Engaged Membership Site Audience
Building an engaged community is the key to your success. To an extent, building a community is the easy part. So long as you have a compelling offer and good content, your community will grow.
But an engaged one?
That takes a lot of intentional effort on your part.
Here are some areas to focus on to achieve this.
Give People a Compelling Reason To Join
Before someone even becomes a member of your community, it’s crucial to engage with them, communicate with them, and get to know them.
Give them a compelling reason to join during your launch. Whether this is by engaging with them via a Facebook Live or webinar, or making sure your email marketing “speaks” to them, start a conversation with them and keep it going.
Nurture, don’t sell. Be one human speaking to another.
Do they need features to join your membership site? Yes.
Do they need you to help them solve a problem? Yes!
Yet people purchase based on trust and their feelings. The sooner you engage with them on a deeper level, the better.
Nerd Fitness has built a truly engaged community largely due to gamification.
Playing on his members’ love for video games, Steve Kamb creates quests and badges to engage his audience. It gives them a reason to get involved and to stay involved. There’s greater motivation to consume the content, and, more importantly, act on the lessons.
You can do the same for your own membership site, no matter who your members are.
Create a sense of excitement and belonging through games, challenges, and anything else that nurtures continued engagement.
Sharing social proof is a powerful tool for you as you create awareness, generate leads, and convert them into members. However, building social proof is also a great way to engage your existing community.
Ask them to be involved. Have them share testimonials (ideally, over video).
But don’t make it simply about you. It’s clear how you gain from this.
What about them?
How can you reward them and make the whole process worthwhile? How can you make it fun? With a little creativity, you can turn gathering social proof into an engaging situation where everyone benefits.
Although your membership site lives online, there’s no reason why you cannot create real-world events to bring your members together. From small gatherings to more formal masterminds, having your members meet each other in-person is a great way to build engagement.
It not only helps YOU build tighter bonds with them, but helps them do so with one another.
This comes back into the online world, creating a more engaged community that everyone can enjoy.
Although not as powerful, you can replicate much of this online with events like:
- Group Calls
- Q&A Sessions
- Guest Lessons/Lectures (lead by members)
- Accountability Groups
- Informal Office Hours…
And anything else that brings your community together, placing them in a situation where they can work with each other.
Above all… make sure your membership evolves into the community it needs to become.
You may start this. It needs you to lead from the front. Yet after a while, you may have to take a backseat and simply take it where it needs to go based on the actions of your members.
It’s impossible for you to know where that will be until you start.
It could take weeks, months, or even years. In time, it will evolve.
Don’t fight this. Embrace it. Involve your members in the process. Gather their feedback. Give certain control over to them. Place ownership of the entire community into their hands. Let it evolve as it needs to and you’ll create an engaged community that lasts the test of time.
These are just a few ways to nurture a tight-knit community with your members at the heart of it. Bringing new members into your membership site is one thing, keeping them around is another. Yet it’s keeping them around that fuels the whole point of you doing this.
You want an ever-growing group of people paying you each month to access your community. You want them to stay around for years, allowing you to use your time elsewhere to grow your business.
This only happens if you build a community worth coming back to.
Engage with them, and continue to do so every chance you get.
How To Choose The Perfect Membership Site Platform For You and Your Members
As you can clearly see, the community you build plays a huge role in your membership site’s success. Engagement is an important part of this, but so is the platform you use. It needs to be simple, effortless, and not add a burden to your members’ already busy lives.
They don’t want to take multiple steps to access your content. They don’t want to search endless Google Drive folders and don’t have time for a slow, buggy, and erratic website. Instead, they need reliability, fast, smooth service, and an experience that just… works.
As we mentioned earlier, the content you provide (and experience) is what matters the most. No tool or platform will fix this. Yet without the right platform (and tools), you may not give your content the service it deserves.
So before we bring this Membership Site Guide to a close, let’s look at the two main types of Membership Site Platform you can use:
- WordPress Plugin
They both have their pros and cons, but one type will make more sense for you.
Option 1: Cloud-Based Platform
A cloud-based platform is where you use a third-party tool to house your membership site (and its content). Examples of this include:
There are a lot of benefits to using a third-party tool like these. For starters, you don’t have to worry about website speed, hosting, security, or anything else that can drain your website as your membership site grows. It can remove a lot of the hassle, leaving you to create content and focus on your members.
However, these cloud-based platforms do tend to be more expensive and they do take traffic away from your website (removing a core SEO benefit of hosting your own membership site). It also involves you placing your content on a platform you do not own.
It gives you less freedom to do as you wish in the future.
You lose some control, which may be a deal-breaker for you.
Option 2: WordPress Plugin
The alternative to a cloud-based platform is to host your own membership website with a WordPress plugin like:
These options give you greater control often at a more affordable price. You can build your membership site as you wish and evolve it over time. And because you’re hosting your community on your own site, as it grows you’ll gather more and more traffic. This is great for SEO and ranking high with Google.
However, it does mean you’ll have to consider hosting and security moving forward. If there’s an issue, it falls on you to fix it. You’ll likely get fewer features than you would with a platform like Kajabi, meaning you may need to use other tools such as email providers and payment gateways.
These costs can add up, and as your membership site grows, the costs grow with it.
We’ve written some supporting articles and guides to help you choose the right membership platform. You may want to bookmark each of these to study in detail later:
- The Ultimate MemberPress Review: How to Build the Perfect Membership Site
- The Complete WishList Member Review: Is it Your Best Membership Site Solution?
- How to Find and Validate Membership Site Ideas: The Proven Guide
- Membership Sites: An Entrepreneur’s Guide (With Examples Included)
How To Start A Membership Site: Your Next Steps…
Not everyone needs a membership site. Not every course creator is ready. If you’re still getting started and building momentum, now may not be the right time. Yet once you do build momentum, it’s often the natural progression to take so you can regain time and freedom.
Membership sites give you access to the Holy Grail of recurring revenue.
It’s something we often talk about with our clients, as we help them get the most out of their online courses. It can be the difference between having a side hustle and genuine business; the difference between everything falling on your shoulders and you building a team to do the hard work for you.
We hope you’ve found this Membership Site Guide valuable. Your next step is to decide if it’s the step you should take next. If it is, you may like to join us in our Free Course Builders Bootcamp. Online courses are often a key part of membership sites, so it’s essential to have a winning course to have a winning membership site. You can join our Course Builders Bootcamp for free here.
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