7 Tips for Creating and Running Your First Membership Site

7 Tips for Creating and Running Your First Membership Site

Reader Comments (53)

  1. Thank you for this great article.
    I would love to read your thoughts on the following, beacuse it is what stops me from either joining or creating a membership site.
    I know dripping content is a way to keep your members for longer. If they get everything immediately, they will read it or download it, and then they will unsubscribe, even if you provide expert calls or mastermind groups.
    But it’s not exactly clear to me how you effectively communicate to your audience the fact that they will not have immediate access to all of the membership content.
    I cannot imagine that if I want to learn a new language or how to build a website with HTML and CSS, I will have to start in January and complete the course in June, for example.
    I mean that each member will probably have their own pace of consuming content and moving forward towards their goal. Also, some members might be in a hurry to fully learn a new skill, in order to apply it on their job, so that their boss is happy. Finally, others might devote theirselves to the membership site for 10 hours a day, while others have young children or work long hours.

    • The best way is to define a clear, logical curriculum, let people know what that will be in the sales process, and simply let people know, very clearly, how the content will be delivered over time.

      Ideally you want enough new content each week to keep your members busy, but not so much that they get overwhelmed.

      The length of time the course takes should depend on how long it would reasonably take to master the material. To use your examples, I don’t know if anyone expects to learn a new language to any level of proficiency in 5 months, but that’s too long, for most people, for a course in how to use CSS or HTML.

      • I’m with Sonia here!

        With my site, I went for having a bunch of up-front content that members could self-study, then a clear promise about what they’d get (monthly seminars). I also made the community aspect clear. The seminars aren’t dripped, they go out to everyone at the same time, whether they’ve been members for a day or a year.

        As a member of sites, I’ve seen various “content dripping” models. One I particularly liked let me choose between two versions — I think it was weekly lessons vs lessons every other week. There was a set length though (for me, it was 26 weeks, or you could take it over 52 weeks) and I think the whole cost was paid up-front.

  2. Nice run down of points Ali and a great affirmation that I did some things right when I launched my member site. Call it dumb luck I guess. One point I would add is once you have momentum rolling, make a point to extend some of the relationships into real life. Attend a conference and create a meet up, schedule some kind of event. This has been the most rewarding thing I have done to date and was excellent insight into how I could improve. It helped that my members are the best marketing tool I could have when they began to talk up the site to non members.

    • I agree, that’s so rewarding and really adds to the experience — and in my experience it always seems to unlock interesting new ideas to add to the membership site!

      • Totally, I went from a fleshed out curriculum for 4 “semesters” of content to 12 semesters after one meet up with my members. My second meetup then reconfigured that whole calendar and I’m about to begin a “users choice” semester with projects voted on by the membership.

        • I really like that suggestion, Shannon — thanks for adding it! My members are pretty scattered around the globe, but I’d love to arrange a meet-up at a conference in the future. I’ve been to similar things as a member and they were great fun.

  3. Excellent post about something that’s not written about much. I am in the midst of a blog re-launch process and am going to include a registration/membership option as part of the “new and improved” site.

    This post is helpful because your personal story and how you made this happen is real and your tips are useful.

    I wish you all the best…well done!

    • Thanks, Joe! I didn’t want the post to be too much about me, so I’m glad those bits were interesting and I got the balance right. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Best of luck with the relaunch and the membership option; hope it goes really well for you! And thanks for your good wishes too.

  4. Thank you for this timely post. I just got back from a fabulous networking event and realized that I need to incorporate speaking engagements into my business NOW. I’d love to implement a membership site too. Even though I’m a writer, being a speaker appeals to me as well. I finally realized I need to do both and help as many people as I can. Onward…

    Thanks again. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • There’s always another thing to add, isn’t there? I want to get into more speaking (but had a baby earlier this year, so those plans are on hold for a bit as travel’s now trickier!)

      Good luck with the speaking engagements and with getting a membership site out there too. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. This post was timely and really helpful because I am about to launch a free membership site using Premise. I want to dive into the aspect of relationship-building and personal contact. I have the eBooks, audios etc but I am now asking: how to keep the community together? Maybe I can try Google Hangouts where I use screen share with really nice slide shows so I don’t feel like I am center-stage the whole time. I like the idea of also having “office hours”, maybe on Twitter? I don’t have a forum on my site so I need this kind of interactive platform to stay personally connected. And meet-ups are a fabulous idea too. This post also reminds me that I could be participating in the Authority forums more often:) I know it’s a great resource that could be instrumental in getting advice and ideas as I move forward.
    Thanks again for passing on what you’ve learned. Best of luck for the future of your site!

    • Thanks, Lee! I have a Twitter list for my site members, though only a handful of them are active on Twitter so that’s never really taken off — I’m thinking of exploring a Facebook group next.

      Are forums a possibility or have you totally ruled them out? (I wasn’t sure from your comment.) I’m using Simple:Press for mine (which integrates nicely with WordPress and mostly-nicely with DAP, which I’m using to run the membership site — Premise didn’t do membership sites when I started mine, alas!)

  6. Running a membership site has always been something of interest to me. After all, who wouldn’t want a steady, consistent flow of money coming in? I’ve kept putting it off however, for the reasons you’ve mentioned. I feel like you’ve got to either have something completely unique (not easy to come up with on a consistent basis) or have an extremely large following that you have good relations with.

    Maybe some day I’ll carry through with it. Right now, the closest thing I’ve gotten is a ‘donator’ option on a forum I’m running. It’s quite a bit different though, as payment is one time only and the donators get more abilities, such as animated avatars, donator only forums, and more privileges. Maybe I’ll expand on that!

    Thanks for the wonderful article.

    • James, that sounds like an interesting place to start! I don’t think you need a huge following, though obviously strong relationships help.

      Could you start off with something small, simple and cheap (think minimum viable product)? “Completely unique” is, frankly, out of reach for me at least — I try to provide solid teaching content which is easy to digest and apply, and my members seem happy with that. ๐Ÿ™‚

      The community aspect of the site has also worked well, and you’ve obviously already got some great experience there with the forum you run.

  7. Membership sites are great for building a community too. A since of belonging is powerful.

    Thanks for the awesome post Ali! And congratulations on having a baby this year! Babies are awesome!

    • Thanks, Justin! Babies are even more awesome than membership sites. (Though they need a heck of a lot more maintenance. ;-))

      I absolutely agree with you on the sense of belonging: one of the things I’ve loved most about my membership site is being able to bring together people who’d never otherwise have met. It’s wonderful watching friendships form and seeing members support one another.

  8. Sound advice! I’m on my second membership group (2.5 years into it) and it runs smoothly. I heartily agree with the “free membership” thing.

    I also started mine with a Beta group of some of my best peeps – free for 2 months before I opened enrollment. Many of them have now been paying members for 2.5 years.

    One more thing that has really helped me is having a VA who is solely responsible for the happiness of my members. They know that she is always delighted to help them.

  9. Thanks Ali for this article. Reading as someone who has run a few successful membership sites and the developer of a successful membership plugin, I found it compelling and found some good ideas that I will be trying out.

    Your first point was great – start before you’re ready. I have fallen into the same trap of thinking this isn’t right, I’d like to tweak that, etc. But on my most recent endeavor, I did exactly as you are suggesting – get it out there, and start with a discounted fee. That strategy really works and got the ball rolling quickly.

    Running group events and helping members find their way around are the two points that were the biggest take-away for me. These actual current challenges for me, and things that I’ve been working on. Your ideas are encouraging.

    Same with your ideas on shift and adapt. I have found that things reach a steady plateau, so it takes some fresh ideas and moving things around to get it to the next level.

    On your question for top tips, mine is to be proactive with customer service. I have been fortunate to have a very low refund rate and complaint rate. I believe that stems from the fact that I try to be quick about responding to member issues. If your subscribers feel like you are listening to them and you care about delivering a high quality product, it builds customer loyalty and satisfaction.

    In my situation, since it revolves around technical support, that means responding quickly to questions and support needs. A lot of my competition says they respond withing 48 hours. So I try to do better than that with a target of “as quickly as possible.” During the regular day (and evening), for the items that are not automated, I check-in every few hours. And if I can’t give a solution right away, I let them know I am looking at it.

    • Chad, good luck with going forward with your site.

      I really like your top tip. I do my best to respond quickly to members too. Good point too about letting people know that you’re looking into something, when a quick solution isn’t possible — I think simply knowing that a message has been read and is being acted on can really make the difference between a disgruntled customer and one who feels very well taken care of.

  10. Thanks for the great tips! I just started my membership site –so this article comes at a great time. As far as the technical side goes, I am using Profits Theme. It seems to be the easiest for me. I also surveyed a few of my ideal clients using survey monkey, as well as connecting with them on Facebook and simply asking them what do they want in a membership site. This way I have a deep understanding of what I can deliver. I know their needs are destined to change over time. I guess what I would like to add is just survey your readers and see what they really want in a membership site. This will save you a lot of trouble in the long run. For example, I was planning on doing live monthly training calls. But to my surprise, a lot of the people on the survey preferred training videos that they can access at any time. ๐Ÿ™‚

    • Glad this was good timing for you, Nina! And congrats on starting your membership site. ๐Ÿ™‚

      I’ve found Survey Monkey a really handy tool as well, and I use it to ask members what topics they want, what they’re enjoying most about the site, and what I can improve. Great tip about asking people what formats they want for training — I’ve found that what *I* think they’ll want often isn’t actually what most people are keen on!

  11. Great post Ali. Nice to hear of your success. Congrats on the baby too.

    I am part of the ‘traditional membership organisation’ sector. I find the development of niche membership sites fascinating.

    Many traditional membership bodies are struggling with recruitment and retention of members. Yet there are lots of examples of individuals setting up sites and creating paid-for successful membership communities.

    In my experience membership is about value. You need to deliver something that your members value, which is very easy to say and more difficult to achieve!

    Good luck to all of you that are thinking about setting up a new community.

    • Thanks, Abby. ๐Ÿ™‚ I absolutely agree with you on value, and also agree it’s easy to say and harder to actually do!

      I’d love to hear a bit about your experience of traditional membership organisations, particularly any tried-and-tested techniques there that you think online communities are often missing out on.

      • Hi Ali

        I think traditional membership bodies/associations have been good at using their members not only to spread the message but to be involved in running the organisation. This feeling of ‘belonging’ does equate to value to many members. However, this is obviously trickier for a lone person running a membership site but as you and some of those posting comments have already said you can involve members through asking for feedback and engaging them in events/competitions/sub-programmes.

        Membership site owners should definitely ‘use’ their members to help them market/sell more memberships through testimonials and case studies.

        Traditional members organisations are also good at bringing members together through in-person events. As the organisation they are in a unique position of being able to convene a group of people interested in x. Again not as easy for a lone membership site owner, but worth considering if there is enough of an interest. Social media is great, but in-person meetings/networking events are still really powerful.


        • Thanks, Abby! In-person events are definitely something I’d like to try in the future.

          I think a sense of belonging is really important — it’s something that I’ve deliberately tried to foster on my site, and I’m thrilled that members do seem to feel that it’s “their” place not just mine … but I think I could go further with that!

  12. Hi Sonia…

    Awesome comments and instruction… Thanks to you and everyone for sharing.

    Question: wasn’t the original video one about setting up membership sites? I saw it and didn’t have an hour to watch it right then, but when I came back this Leave Lame Behind one was up here.

    I know (hope) I’m not going crazy… please advise. Thanks

    • We did do a video for our course Teaching Sells, which is an extensive course on building a membership-based education business, that might be what you’re thinking of?

  13. This is great! I am just starting out (a few months old, really) and have been playing around to try to find the best structure for my material.

    I have one class that essentially everyone needs to buy, but I am thinking about doing the first year mandatory to cover the class, and then hopefully make it awesome enough over a year that they want to stay!

    I teach a natural birth control method and there is one other forums for it online but it’s really bad, so I would love to do webinars or recordings and have forums for support for people who use the method. It’s very exciting!

    • Good luck with the structuring — I think that can be easily as much work as actually creating material in the first place!

      Getting them to pay for a year’s membership (up front?) sounds like it could work well; I find that members who’ve stuck around for a year are likely to stay around even longer. Most of the ones who don’t engage leave after a few months — often they say they simply don’t have the time to use the site.

      • Great to know! I was thinking more about pricing structure and I really think I could make it worth it by only going up a little bit on class price, so I feel like the year of membership would be a massive bonus that no one else is doing/ If I’m lucky, people will stick aroud for more than a year, too ๐Ÿ™‚ I would just have it monthly after that, though.

  14. YES! Perfect article and timing. Working on my fitness workout membership site the past few weeks.

    It’s tough to know when to pull the trigger with your minimum viable product, but sometimes you have ready, fire, aim!

    • Thanks Nick, glad this was good timing for you! And I agree with you on the ready-fire-aim approach. Best of luck with your membership site. ๐Ÿ™‚

  15. Thank you for this article.
    Is there an article which reviews different membership software (paid and free). Every one claims to be the best and for some one who has never created a membership site, it is difficult decide who is in fact the best. I am a tango teacher and I would love to have a membership site in which my students get to see instructional videos for my students.

    • If you find such an article, Alain, I’d love to see it!

      When I researched different software, I felt that many options had good potential but they all offered slightly different features. All I can suggest is pinning down exactly what you want to do (e.g. do you want forums, do you want to drip-feed content…) so you can find something which does what you need.

      • It would also be interesting to find out the cost benefits (but not only) of using pre-existing software and services than creating your own membership site based on an open platform such as WordPress.

  16. I have been trying to brainstorm a good membership site idea for a while now. I think a forum would of been a great idea but I already run a forum (that is quite active) on the same niche on its own domain. I wouldn’t think running two forums would be a good idea as that could become overwhelming a bit. I also like the idea of a free membership site with the ability to upgrade to a paid version that offers more features for the buck. Great post – thanks for sharing it!

  17. I started my little ukulele membership site “before I was ready,” by offering free membership. This has taken the heat off as I work out the kinks. I’m feeling ready to move to paid right about…now (synchronizes watch).

  18. Hi there,

    First I would like to say thank you for this post, going over the tips that you provided I know that I after go evaluate my site.

    I’m still in the beginning stages; I feel that I need to learn more. I haven’t turn my site into a membership site yet but for my upcoming project I know that I need to come back to your post and go over your tips.

    Also I feel that being involved with the right community and learning from each other is another learning factor for someone building their membership site. So I would like to say thank you again, and have a nice day.


  19. Great rundown, Ali, and all very timely.

    I’m just getting ready to relaunch my happiness website and am adding forums to the mix.

    Since our list is still small, I was thinking of making access to the forums available initially for free, then moving to a paid status by adding an exclusive, private sub-forum for insiders (where I’d be more accessible and there would be additional content).

    The free forum would be publicly readable (helping, I hope, draw readers) and since registration would be free, publicly writable, though at the “cost” of joining our mailing list.

    As a former member of the Third Tribe, one of the best things I found in a private forum is trust. I always felt that it was safe to communicate with other members (like you) there. We all shared common goals and were committed enough to them to pay for the privileges the site offered.

    For me, the community was the single greatest benefit. I think figuring out how to maximize that community engagement is the key to a successful membership site.

    This question is as much for Sonia Simone as it is for you, Ali, but what techniques have you found work to keep people engaged, not so much with the content, but with the community?

    One thing I think would be beneficial would be having email digests of the forum discussion topics with an option for daily or weekly notification. Have you tried this and how did it go, if you did?

    Best wishes,
    Kenneth Benjamin
    Founder & Chief Happiness Officer

  20. I belong to a couple membership sites – one I’ve been a member of for close to two years – and I have to say my biggest deciding factor in joining is price. Not just how much it is but is it available in a monthly subscription so if it isn’t providing enough knowledge/help/etc I can discontinue it?

    I see more and more people only offering an annual option, though, which totally precludes my ability to recommend it to other small business owners because the cost becomes much more of a factor. For instance, a successful site I know offers a great community and membership option and I’d love to join but it’s over $300 for annual access.

    I’m in the same boat as many small business owners and just don’t always have that kind of cash available (and even when I do I rarely spend that much in one fell swoop), so though I would dearly love to join that site it won’t be happening anytime soon. And while I would normally tell folks about it I can’t do that either – everyone is watching their pennies.

    By the same token they could have offered a monthly option with a lower annual one, or they could have split the annual cost into a few payments at a slightly higher fee and they would have expanded their audience significantly AND created even more word-of-mouth.

    You get what you pay for, but sometimes you have to think about the cost involved for your end user. And if your end user is a small business owner, many of whom are just starting out or haven’t figured out how to set that consistent income, then you will lose them pretty fast by NOT catering to their cost concerns.

    By the way, I’m really not whining – if I had the resources I would join that site at the annual cost in a heartbeat because they have convinced me they would add value … BUT right now that isn’t happening. They could have sold me on a lower cost pretty easily though – AND made a little more money in the long run, by having a monthly option available.

    For some sites, being seen as a membership site that is a cut above might mean you don’t take the little guys into consideration – and that’s perfectly okay – but I encourage anyone just getting started with a membership site to really brainstorm who their potential member is and what their cost concerns may or may not be as they are considering payment options.

    • Katrina, what an excellent point (and apologies for taking so long to reply to it!)

      Offering *only* an annual option definitely strikes me as a bit odd: you’re right, a lot of small businesses really can’t afford to pay a lot up front.

      I knew when I created my site that I couldn’t price it too high, as most of my members aren’t yet at the stage of making money from their writing — so they don’t have a lot to spend. It’s definitely important for would-be membership site owners to think about what they can realistically charge (and possibly scale down their plans accordingly!)

  21. Hi all. I’m struggling here a little bit and can’t find an answer to my question. Is WordPress a strong enough platform for a very busy membership website with millions of subscriptions? I’m thinking of using it for the front page blog (CMS?) but also providing a private area for paid members. Can I do that with WP? Some say yes and others say no. From what I have gathered, it’s not so much the amount of posts, but the amount of data to be stored from the members.


      • Thankyou Brian. Too late for me to get Premise – I’ve paid someone to build the site for me – I’m hoping Paid Memberships Pro will be sturdy enough to cope with all the data. Can I ask you one more question (wish I’d come here first)? I always thought a heavy traffic site shouldn’t have plugins because of all the extra code that might slow it down? On this site, I have around 15 plugins. Is that usual for high traffic websites? I was going to get my site built from scratch but was told that WP can handle a lot of data so in the end I went for it. Thanks.

  22. Hi all. I’m still confused by my earlier question. I’ve installed Paid Memberships Pro on my new website (I have a private Yahoo Group with just over 100 members but want to get them over to my new site). If I’m going to be spending a yearly fee with them, wouldn’t it be better to hire a coder to make one for me? Supposing I get millions of members (just supposing) does anyone know if PMP can handle all that data or would you recommend another solution? Thanks. ๐Ÿ™‚

  23. I currently run a membership program called Teach Me Info Marketing, and while it really isn’t a membership site, it is more of a membership service where I give my members information through their email accounts. Instead of them going to a site and getting the information, I send it directly to their inboxes in the form of audio and video lessons.

    There is an archive page that they can go to to read all of the emails that I have sent so I guess in that case, that would be the site portion of the membership. I charge $17 per month, and I make sure that my members get all the content that they could ever want and need, plus I also give them updates on things that are coming up.

    I do honestly believe in communicating regularly with your membership because in doing so, you build stronger bonds with them, and that in turn can cause them to have more people come and sign up because of what you’re offering them.

    Strong communication is a must with any online business whether it is a membership site, or you’re just selling one product. It doesn’t mattter. So as long as you have good communication between yourself and your members, then everything else will fall into place.

    Sure the site must be attractive, but remember, that the most important thing isn’t how the site looks, but what it actually offers and how it actually functions as a membrship program. You can have the best-looking site out there, but if it doesn’t perform, then all those looks just went down the drain.

    To be brutally honest here, I think that function is more important than form because form really doesn’t relate to the function whatsoever. You can have the ugliest site out there and it can perform like gangbusters, but on the other hand, you can have the most beautiful graphically appealing site out there and it can be a dud if you know what I mean.

    So pay more atten to function rather than how it looks. Don’t go overboard with scripts, graphics and such. Keep it stupidly simple so that it is easy to navegate and get around in. The more you overcomplicate things, the harder it will be for you to get new members and even retain the ones that you already have.

    So simple is best and high performance is also best. Teach Me Info Marketing is n’t the most beautiful, and graphically filled site on the net, but what it does offer is what many memberships don’t offer and that is true performance and content to its members.

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