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The Inside Scoop on Membership Sites
Updated: Dec 10, 2016 / Article by: Lori Soard
There are many different ways to monetize a blog, but have you considered creating a membership-based option? Membership based sites can take many different forms. They can be completely membership based with only a landing page accessible unless you pay a fee. Probably more common are areas of a site that is membership based and either require a fee to access or a subscription to a website or forum. The National Federation for Independent Business (NFIB) states that a membership-based site is typically a site where people pay a “monthly fee to access content.” Some different type of membership sites include:
100% membership based
A few free articles and then premium content that is membership
Special membership features such as workshops, content, videos
A blog that is membership-based or has parts that a membership based
Organization that you must be a member of to access additional or hidden content
Pros and Cons of Membership Based Sites
As with most models, there are both pros and cons when it comes to running a membership based website. I've experienced these first hand years ago when I ran the print and online magazine for readers and writers titled Yellow Sticky Notes. This magazine was full of articles, stories, poetry, and ads. The online version offered a few free items that those visiting for the first time or on a quarterly basis (it was a quarterly magazine) could read. However, to access all of the material they had to subscribe to either the print or online version of the magazine. There were many issues related to running a membership-model site that made it a more difficult task than running a standard site. However, there were also rewards.
Generates a revenue
You can gather a lot of information about your audience and create highly targeted content
You must keep the content fresh and interesting because people are paying for it
You will need help to keep up with forum posts and/or content. This is far from a one-man show if you run a membership-based site.
The bottom line here is that if you are charging people or requiring them to provide info in order to access part of your site, you had better make sure that membership content is amazing or you're going to have some very angry members.
Successful Membership Sites
There are many examples of successful membership site models. Recently, I chatted with a writer friend of mine, New York Times best-selling author Bonnie Vanak. I've known Bonnie for many years and always known her to be smart and savvy about the business end of her writing. I wasn't surprised when I recently visited her site and saw that she has a members-only area.
http://bonnievanak.com I have been thinking about adding a similar feature to one of my websites, so I immediately messaged Bonnie and asked her about it. She said that she does not actually charge for the content, but that members get access for signing up for her mailing list. They get interesting freebies, the opportunity to enter contests, etc. This might work particularly well for authors and artists who want to engage readers and encourage them to read their work, buy their work in future. I think this type of model would work really well for:
One highly successful membership-based site is eDiets. This site offers a service for a subscription fee. Although the focus around eDiets is weight loss, this type of model to apply to any type of service you might offer.
http://ediets.com eDiets has revenue fluctuations, but just as an example, in the second quarter of 2012, the company brought in $5.63 million in revenue and had a gross profit of $2.81 million. It can be hard to pinpoint what makes one site more successful than another, but there are a few features of eDiets that are likely contributing to ongoing success.
Everything is funneled toward getting people to sign up for the service. From the landing page, to articles, to free offerings, you are encouraged to get started with eDiets and start losing weight.
A free diet profile is offered. They offer you a free profile, but the profile even funnels you toward signing up for the service. Plus, now they have your email and contact info because you freely gave it to them. This is rather brilliant really.
The site is bright and easy to navigate. Choices are limited, so you are funneled by those limitations as well.
If you've been blogging for very long, you've likely already heard about this site. ProBloggers offers a free newsletter and forums to help both bloggers and clients interact with one another. Their topics are timely, in-depth and well-researched. Darren Rouse is an authority in the world of blogging and has established himself as the go-to source for blogging everything.
“…blogging isn’t about growing rich – it’s about communicating on a topic that you enjoy, have a passion for and want to connect with others on. So pick a topic that reflects who you are.”
If you want to repeat Rouse's success, don't start a membership site just to have a membership site. Your goal should be to share content you are truly passionate about. If you do that, and you develop knowledge in a niche topic, you will attract subscribers who will pay for what you have to offer.
“Start at the bottom of the funnel. Before investing in building awareness and trial of your membership, make sure that once you have attracted a new member, that they’re going to stay. In other words, retention is way more important than acquisition. Otherwise you risk having a sieve instead of a funnel. This is critical with membership models, because they depend on retention and long term engagement for profitability.”
Baxter also points to what you need to focus on:
“The transaction is the starting line, not the finish line. Once someone signs up, make sure that the on boarding process is optimized to build engagement. How are you rolling out the welcome mat? 3. Once your business is rolling, identify your most engaged, sophisticated customers and listen to them to identify potential new offerings. In a membership model, the mission you serve may remain constant even as your products and services change. For example, if you run a gym, you may evolve from jazzercise to boot camp, but you’re still helping members stay fit. And if you’re only offering Jazzercise in 2016, you’re unlikely to attract new members, or even to stay interesting to your current gym enthusiasts.”
Software Options for Membership Sites
Because membership sites can take a lot of time and effort to build and maintain, you need to figure out a platform that works well for you and your users. There are a number of options you might want to consider.
Blog with Password Protected Area: This option can work well if you only plan to offer a few member-based options or some specific items in exchange for contact info, for example. WordPress has several plugins you can use for this type of site. For example, you could install MemberMouse or S2Member. Many of these plugins do have a monthly fee to access premium features and really customize your membership based area.
SubHub: SubHub is rich in features. You can do anything from a pay-per-view model to recurring subscriptions. Create an online store and integrate it for additional revenue. This software also offers a free trial.
MemberGate: MemberGate offers all the features of SubHub, but may be better suited for organizations where subscriptions are recurring as renewal forms appear already filled out with member info for easy renewal. They also offer a mobile-friendly, responsive layout.
WishList: WishList works with WordPress to help you password protect some or all of your content on a WordPress CMS site. Features include different membership levels (gold, platinum, etc.), and sequential content delivery.
EasyMemberPro: This is considered a “high-end” software for membership offerings. Some of the features include the ability to add affiliate links for members, autoresponder integration, and automated backups.
Memberful: This is an easy setup software for a site already in operation to which you want to add a membership area. You an set up private membership discussion areas, integrate with WordPress or Squarespace, and use developer API to custom integrate.
Wild Apricot: Wild Apricot is a good choice if you are not technically inclined. You can easily use one of their templates to get your membership-based website up and running quickly and easily. Try it out for free for 30 days and see what you think.
These are just a handful of the choices out there. The best membership software is the one that you find easy to use and where you can make updates on the fly. The great thing about most of these is that there is a trial period or demo so you can test it. The bad thing is that you can spend a lot of time setting up the membership area with a particular software only to find you don't like the way it looks, works, or the difficulty level of using the software. However, it is worth the extra effort to figure out which one you like the best because you'll likely be using it for years to come.
Smart Ways to Monetize Your Membership Areas
What if you already have a website in place, but you'd really like to add a membership element to further monetize your site? This can be challenging. If your site has been up and running for any length of time, you already have a following and the last thing you want to do is anger or alienate your loyal fans. There are a number of ways you can integrate membership areas into your site without losing current readers.
Offer a new feature you aren't currently offering. For example, you might add an area with video tutorials or classes.
Offer a huge discount to current readers for a limited time.
Offer a free membership to those already on your list for the first year or so.
Continue to offer some content for free and add premium content for a fee.
Offer an ad-free area for a small fee.
Add a newsletter that is membership-based. It can be electronic or print-based.
The key to keep the readers you have is to be really upfront about why you are going to a membership based model. Perhaps you put a lot of time into creating content for your website and it has become a full-time job. If so, be honest. Tell your current readers how much time it is taking and that if you are going to continue at this level you have to earn a living from it. Most people can understand that and won't hold it against you. It's a good idea to offer at least some content for free to readers. Why would anyone subscribe to a site without knowing what they were going to receive in return? Would you buy a product without knowing what it was or how it might benefit you? Membership-based sites are an excellent addition to your overall monetization strategy. The key is to add it in a smart way and focus on repeating successful elements that others who've gone before you have already discovered.
About Lori Soard
Lori Soard has been working as a freelance writer and editor since 1996. She has a bachelor's in English Education and a PhD in Journalism. Her articles have appeared in newspapers, magazines, online and she's had several books published. Since 1997, she has worked as a web designer and promoter for authors and small businesses. She even worked for a short time ranking websites for a popular search engine and studying in-depth SEO tactics for a number of clients. She enjoys hearing from her readers.