It’s an alluring promise—money you can plan on depositing to your bank account on a specific date at a specific time on a monthly basis.
In reality, it’s a bit more complicated. But with some hard work and subject matter expertise, you can build a membership site that delivers incredible value to your subscribers and a predictable income to you.
I’m Chase, President of Leverage Creative Group.
Over the past 6 years or so, I’ve had the privilege of strategizing the launch, maintenance, and improvement of multiple membership sites that deliver five figures in revenue to our clients per month and have a huge impact on the subscriber base.
In this article, I’ll detail the process of discovering why you should create a membership site, how to do it, and what your next steps should be. It’s not an easy process, but it’s one that’s worthwhile for building the online business of your dreams.
Why You Should Create a Membership Site
What if I started this section by telling you you probably shouldn’t create a membership site?
To embark on this journey you need to be dedicated to providing amazing content for your target user. If I can deter you from pursuing the investment altogether by telling you a few horror stories, so be it.
Because the worst case scenario is for you to start a membership site and then want to kill it. Let’s not fall into that trap.
Great, then you should create a membership site…maybe.
A membership site needs:
- a killer value proposition to the end user
- ongoing valuable content to keep members engaged
- continuous launches to prevent your site from churning folks out at a rate that outpaces the attrition. (Churn is a ratio that we use to identify the total numbers of users lost per month versus the total number of users.)
Your idea needs to be broad enough to attract enough people at a reasonable price.
For example, when Jerry Jenkins set out with our team to create the Jerry Jenkins Writers Guild in 2015.
Over the next six months, we tested several different types of content to identify the things a writer would pay for consistently to get better at writing. The pitch: A gym membership for writers to improve their writing skills.
Let’s run it through our framework:
Killer value proposition:
21-time New York Times Bestselling Author will help you become a better writer…
Yep, that works.
Ongoing valuable content:
Jerry has four main pieces, all of which are provided at least quarterly:
- Office Hours: open door Q&A with Jerry
- Masterclass: video of a conversation between Jerry and one of his writer friends
- Workshop: a live monthly training session based on member feedback on what they’re struggling with the most
- Manuscript Repair and Rewrite: Jerry edits one page of a member’s fiction/nonfiction manuscript
Additionally, there are two full courses and several bonus courses available in his Guild.
He checks this box.
Jerry has one annual launch, and a one-dollar trial consistently available.
Broad enough idea:
Apparently 81% of Americans want to write a book. That gives us a 200 million person group.
I’ll go ahead and check this box, too.
Started at $30/month or $300 per year. Now at $45/month or $450 per year. Roughly equivalent to a gym membership.
So yes, Jerry does have a profitable idea for a membership site. However, over the lifespan of the site, we’ve had to make decisions to make it more profitable—things like:
- Batching masterclass interviews
- Killing the forum and developing an Ask Jerry Feature
- Raising the monthly membership fee
He also has a full team to help him implement these tweaks, and while we work with some folks, we can’t work with everyone.
If you can crack the code for your membership idea, you should continue and create that membership site. If not, keep thinking about the idea, honing your offering until you create something people can’t resist.
As you consider the best offer you can build, you also need to consider how it’s built. Let’s discuss some membership software platforms.
My intent is not to tell you which membership platform you should use, but to make you aware of what’s available so you can research and make your own decision.
At the end of the day, you need to consider three main solutions for membership site platforms:
- How to Protect the Content
- How to Process the Payment
- How to Talk to your Customers
There are a myriad of solutions for each of these, so I’ll walk you through our tech stack currently, and where else we considered.
How to Protect the Content
The primary thing to keep in mind as you begin creating a membership site: the content must be protected. This means you need a gateway behind which a potential purchaser cannot pass.
For example, if you visit JerrysGuild.com, you’ll notice the gateway is on the front page. Other membership sites offer some free content and then put up the gateway (think New York Times, or similar news sites).
The software that will enable you to do this is called learning management software or LMS.
Here at Leverage we’ve tried a couple of plugins that plug directly into WordPress:
- Wishlist Member: enables you to create free, trial, or paid memberships, and offers unlimited members, and membership levels.
- LearnDash: allows you to create and control self-hosted courses
But ultimately, we decided to create our own, called Leverage Learn. It’s not currently available, but you can sign up here to be notified when it is released.
The problem with a plugin developed by someone else is that it may or may not integrate with your current answers to the other two questions.
It may limit your ability to design the content (or the types of content you design), and it may limit your ability to personalize content to each individual user.
These are all problems that can lead to significant churn. So, we created a membership specific version of our software to combat these things.
If you don’t have the ability to custom design, then I would choose one from the list above that best fits the types of content that you would provide.
How to Process the Payment
How many ways are you going to accept payment? Where are you going to accept payment from?
Currently, we are re-evaluating our answers to this question, because we’ve found that the existing payment processors aren’t necessarily set up for perpetual memberships. Still, you can piecemeal a solution by using the following:
Stripe is by far the most flexible. It’s the one we suggest you use as your base processor.
How to Talk to Your Customers
If you are delivering consistent content, you need to be able to communicate with your customers consistently, which means you likely need an EMS (Email Management Software), a webinar/live streaming software, and potentially a community management software.
For this, we’ve used the following:
Ultimately, we decided to really control the community management piece by focusing the interaction between the end user and the subject matter expert (instead of the end user to other end users).
So, we’ve landed on a combination of Keap and GotoWebinar.
All-in-one solutions can be great for folks without a team, so you need to be aware that they exist. Their biggest drawback is, they aren’t custom built for your solution, and are a little rigid in that regard.
Still, to get going, you can at least check out:
If you go with one of these, keep a close eye on churn. If you don’t, you may realize that your site quickly becomes unsustainable from a profitability standpoint.
If you’re concerned with churn, you should check out the following solutions:
- Profitwell Retain
Both of these companies focus exclusively on reducing churn from declined credit cards, and we’ve used both to save significant money over the years.
How to Create a Membership Website
So, after all of this, you’re still with me? Are you ready to dive into the confusing and rewarding world of membership sites?
All right, here are four steps you need to take to create a membership site:
Define your target market
Know exactly who you’re talking to, what their biggest pain points (needs) are. Offer a good solution for those needs. The best tool we use for this is the empathy map. You can get our template here.
Define the content offering
What are the specific things you are going to provide, and when are you going to provide them?
A membership site works best when you remember that people want access to you, so give them a space to interact with you. Then, build out some teaching content that you can batch, or at least scale fairly easily.
Remember, with Jerry, this access was accomplished with Office Hours and the Ask Jerry feature (which replaced the less scalable forum).
Set a price
To know how to appropriately price, I do competitive research on what other membership sites in your niche are offering. If there are no other membership sites, then reconsider the niche.
Are people willing to pay monthly for what you have to offer? Competition is a good indication they are.
After you’ve set a price, test it. See if you sell appreciably more units at a higher or lower price point.
Set a Deadline
Give yourself a timeline for taking the website live. In the time, between now and your deadline, consider:
- Your launch strategy
- The content schedule and map
- What help you’ll need
Then, keep pushing yourself to get all of these things accomplished long before your deadline.
Once you’ve launched, monitor everything. The smallest changes can improve your churn.
- Monitor what types of content are getting the most engagement
- Ask why people are leaving when they decide to leave
- Ask what content current members are looking for
- Go through your order process to see if there are any impediments to purchasing.
In other words, keep learning. Keep learning about your membership site, and keep learning about your customers. It won’t look the same today as it does tomorrow.
What’s the Secret Ingredient? Commitment
Hopefully, I dissuaded you. Hopefully, you’ll give up. Hopefully, you won’t put yourself through the torture of a membership site.
I’ll leave you with a quote from our proposals:
Before any new relationship takes shape, we make sure everyone knows the following about what Leverage does:
- It takes time, more than most are willing to spend
- It costs money, more than most are willing to invest
- It works, more than most are able to experience
And let me tell you, if you get it right, it sure is a lot of fun.
Let us know if we can help you get there.