I’d been meaning to write an article about how to build a membership website for a few months now, even before a global pandemic (and, likely now, a global recession) struck.
As we know, so many things have changed overnight. This is especially true for online membership sites.
In this case, they have become even more valuable to both potential members and business owners alike.
What once looked like a fringe business to sell content on the Internet, online membership websites have now become an essential way to connect people with a common goal who are navigating uncertain, rapidly changing times.
For those who build a membership site, there’s the opportunity to create a meaningful and important business around an interest. For those who join a membership site, it can become a lifeline.
What is a membership site? In its simplest definition, a membership site delivers exclusive content and benefits to people who pay a monthly or annual subscription. Choosing to create a membership site today means that you can offer people an important way to navigate a world that has only gotten more dynamic, with new rules that are being made up as we speak.
In this article, I’m going to offer a different approach to thinking about how to build a community site with up-to-the-minute recommendations that are much more relevant to a world turned on its head.
So, whether you’re looking to move an existing small business online or build a membership site as your first business, this guide is designed to help you build something that’s relevant and meaningful in our new world.
Step 1: Choose a Topic That’s Important to People During Times of Change
Let’s address this head on. Jobs that we all took for granted even a few months ago are gone, and it’s unclear when they might be coming back. That’s tough to say, but it’s also true.
Additionally, I don’t know about you, but the things many of us spent money on in our old lives seem laughably irrelevant today.
At this point, you may be jumping to the conclusion that the last thing people want now is to spend their precious income or savings on joining a new membership site.
You’d be wrong.
When you build a membership site around a topic that’s important to people during times of change, people will invest their hard earned money in joining you. Why? It turns out the best way to navigate uncertainty is by teaming up with other people to find creative solutions.
But how do you team up with other people when we’re stuck at home trying to “flatten the curve” of a global pandemic, while our professional and personal worlds change before our eyes?
You guessed it: An online membership site that attracts motivated, paying members to navigate a topic that’s essential for them to master now.
What are some examples of membership site categories that matter more in changing times? Here are three:
Career & Professional Membership Sites
Every career path needs its own professional membership site that combines education, training, and networking. In a pandemic-triggered recession, these networks become even more valuable as we face the new reality of navigating our careers.
Only by coming together with other professionals on our same path are we able to figure out what this new world means to each of us, not just today but as we move forward.
The kinds of questions a virtual community of fellow professionals can uniquely tackle together include:
- How does the current environment impact us and our profession?
- What does it mean to be great at our jobs over the next 12 months?
- What challenges and opportunities are created by today’s new realities?
- How will our companies and teams change?
- Where are the biggest needs for our skill sets? What’s become obsolete?
- Are there ways that we could pool our resources or help lift each other for the benefit of all?
- How can we come out of this chapter stronger?
These questions don’t have easy or obvious answers. There’s no Google search you can do for them. And yet, they are essential to our income, sense of self, and ability to positively impact the world around us in good times and bad.
With a career-focused membership site, you can crowdsource answers to these questions and find creative solutions with a network of motivated and invested professionals on the same path. It turns out when people share their stories, experiences, and ideas with each other around a common goal, we all make much faster progress and adapt to today’s realities more rapidly.
Choosing to create a membership site to bring specific professionals together is not just about building a healthy business for yourself, but offering something essential to people at a critical time.
Health, Wellness & Spirituality Membership Sites
Health, wellness, and spiritual practices only get more important in moments of uncertainty and change. Think about the power of a guided community in helping you build a practice around daily meditation, create a better relationship with exercise or fitness, or get closer to your spiritual or religious purpose. If these things are important in times of prosperity, they become even more essential to each of us under pressure.
In the future, we will absolutely return to the habits of going to a gym, visiting a yoga studio, or (if we are so fortunate) leaving town for a weekend meditation retreat. But even then, people will continue to expect both the convenience of a virtual option, and the vibrancy that comes with an online membership site.
When you create a membership website business alongside a physical studio or in-person training workshop, you’re expanding who you can serve and, in turn, your income potential. You’re also creating something that’s more valuable to everyone with each new person who joins because you’re able to pull from a much wider, more diverse, and more interesting community of members.
A membership site where members master health, wellness, or spirituality topics needs to be well-defined and specific. But when you hit this mark, you’ll find the demand for healthy practices will continue to be a key part of how we all survive (and eventually thrive) in this new chapter and beyond.
Membership Sites for Other Important Interests
If personal finance, retirement savings, or cooking were important enough for a paid membership site before a recession, they are even more critical now.
And these topics aren’t the only ones.
There’s a whole host of areas where paid membership sites are the perfect way to deliver information, support, and professional and personal networking that gets people results they couldn’t otherwise get on their own.
As you explore offering a membership site outside of career, health, wellness, or spiritual topics, ask yourself whether your topic is important right now and whether members will benefit by navigating this category together with other motivated people. If the answer is yes, you’ve got the right ingredients for a membership site.
Wait. Am I Qualified to Create a Membership Site?
Speaking of experts, you may be wondering if you can create a membership site if you are not an expert in your chosen topic.
The answer? Absolutely.
Your value as the creator of a membership site isn’t in your expertise, or the expectation that you’re going to have the answers. It’s in your enthusiasm to set up the structure for you and your members to master something essential to you and them right now, together.
When you look at any number of examples of membership sites, they aren’t led by experts. Instead, they’re spearheaded by people who followed their curiosity and connected people around an interest. In the process, they have created six-and seven-figure incomes via their membership sites.
If you’re drawn to a specific topic, it’s a good sign that you are more qualified than you think.
Step 2: Focus on a Narrowly Defined “Ideal Member” (At Least to Start)
Once you have a clear, motivating topic for your membership site, it’s natural to want to make it available to everyone.
This is a mistake.
Being too general in defining who your membership site serves is one of the fastest ways to fail before you even get off the ground.
Here’s how it happens: Because you’re passionate about your topic, you see clearly how it applies not just to, say, mobile app software product managers but to all technology company employees. And if that’s the case, then really, doesn’t it apply to all professionals inside and outside technology companies around the world?
What comes next is the question, “why do I want to limit myself and the benefits of my membership to just mobile app software product managers when I can have thousands of members by going broader to all professionals?”
So, you start broad. You market your membership site to all professionals. You tell your friends and network about your new membership site for all professionals. You post on social media about this new exclusive membership site for all professionals. You even run ads on Facebook or Instagram to tell people about a different kind of membership site for all professionals.
Then…no one shows up. You tell yourself that it’s because people are too busy or they are happy with the status quo, scrolling endlessly through their newsfeed on Facebook or Instagram.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
When you look at membership sites that are thriving, what do they have in common? They each started with a very specific, clearly defined ideal member to serve first.
You want your initial members to see themselves quickly in your outreach and say, “hey, that’s me!” This will make growing your membership site much easier and go faster.
What are the ways that you can narrow your initial ideal members? Here are a few starting ideas:
- How would you characterize them if you saw them walking down the street?
- Can you zero in upfront on a specific gender or age group most in need of your topic?
- Are your initial ideal members at the same life stage?
- Do they share a profession or aspire to a specific role or career?
- Do they come from a similar background or geographic location?
- What are their goals or motivation to join your membership site?
- Where are they starting today?
- Why aren’t they able to achieve these goals on their own?
- What have they tried without you?
- How is our new normal impacting them? What questions, opportunities, or challenges have become more urgent to navigate in the context of a community?
- If all of these things are true about the members you want to serve first, who does it mean that you’re NOT looking to attract upfront?
In answering these questions, do interviews with people who you think could be your initial ideal members and listen to how they describe themselves and what motivates them. The insights you’ll get from these conversations (and subsequent choices you make in defining who you are going to serve first) will make a huge difference in successfully building a membership site.
Step 3: Choose a Software Platform With the Best Member Benefits to Deliver Your Membership Site
Until recently, the software platform most often chosen to deliver a membership site was WordPress, a “content management system” (CMS) originally designed for blogging. Today, the platform powers roughly one-third of all websites around the world.
Why WordPress? The early membership site model promised someone that they could set up a bunch of exclusive content around a topic and put it behind a paywall. Then, they could simply charge people a monthly or annual subscription fee to access it.
In this model, membership benefits were about content, not about people. Therefore, in order to both deliver and charge for content, you needed WordPress. This also meant you had to hire a developer to custom-build your WordPress membership site at the cost of tens of thousands of dollars.
But this wasn’t the end of the investment or the software you needed to create a membership site.
Quickly, many realized that content alone wasn’t enough of a membership benefit to keep people subscribing and coming back. When people heard “membership,” they were hungry for the implicit value that comes from connecting with other motivated people around a topic they cared about.
They were less interested in the content produced by the entrepreneur or expert behind the membership site, and more interested in the stories, experiences, and ideas of other members with the same interest.
Initially, the simple answer to this demand was to add a private Facebook group after the fact. This community afterthought created new challenges. Now members had to jump between different platforms to buy memberships, consume content, and meet each other.
Independent of the unique problems with Facebook groups, this “solution” was a mess.
But that was then and this is now.
Today, there’s a new breed of modern community platforms that have emerged to deliver a much more integrated and natural membership website, without the need for any custom development or a separate Facebook group.
The leader in this new category of membership site software is Mighty Networks. An alternative to a Wix website or Shopify ecommerce store, a Mighty Network is a website builder expressly made to deliver membership websites, online courses, and community together all in one place, under your brand, and instantly available on every device–web, iOS, and Android.
With a Mighty Network, you have member profiles and direct messaging, as well as a ton of flexibility to build your member benefits and tiers with:
- Exclusive content delivered via organized topics and beautiful rich-media articles just like you’d find on WordPress.
- Exclusive groups that can function as “mastermind” or coaching groups with more personalized or intensive instruction, feedback, problem-solving, and accountability, typically at a higher subscription tier.
- Online courses that structure content into a step-by-step program alongside the option of a dedicated course community.
- Events that can live within groups or online courses.
- An overall community that makes it easy for members to consume each of these elements while connecting to other members.
As new solutions like a Mighty Network emerge with more frequency today, it’s clear that the old, tired, content-heavy approach to launching a membership site on WordPress and a Facebook group is no longer your only option.
In this new model, your prospective members may show up for you, your content, or your online courses, but they stay because their connections with other members get them the best results.
Step 4: Pick Your Starting Price
Now that you’ve chosen a modern membership site software platform like a Mighty Network, you have more membership benefits to offer beyond content alone.
Between online courses, smaller mastermind groups, live events via video conferencing, and even an optional 1:1 coaching tier, you are ready to think about what you charge for your membership site and the member benefits you will offer as part of it.
There are three key principles to keep in mind when choosing a starting price for your membership site:
If you are starting from scratch, keep it simple and just offer one level.
While you may be tempted by all of the membership tiers you could create, start with one and make it really valuable. Consider what will make your members successful in what they want to achieve, and focus here first.
When you try to do too much at the beginning (typically because you think that offering digital products and services is about your time and content, not about the results and transformation your members want), it leads to unnecessary pain and possible burnout down the road. You can avoid this scenario by focusing on one simple tier at the start.
As you build this initial high value tier, remember that it’s not about content, an online course, or even your own coaching time alone. Your community and the connections you will make between members will likely end up being the reason your people achieve the results and transformation in their career, health and wellness, or other important interests they want. Call this out, market it, and never forget how essential it is to their success and yours.
Price it at what it’s worth (which is typically more than you might be comfortable charging, at least initially).
When the motivation for your membership site is strong, the ideal member you’re serving is specific, and your member benefits tie to a bigger purpose in their lives, you’ve dramatically increased the likelihood that you’re going to get people results that they can’t get on their own.
This is extraordinarily valuable to people.
And by being valuable to people, it means you can charge more money than you’re probably comfortable with. We think about it as “pricing at a premium,” which is when you charge at least $299 per year or offer a one-time fee of no less than $499.
When you’re ready to add membership tiers, it’s easier to move “down” than “up.”
As a rule, it’s always easier to start high and surround your members with a lot of support and benefits, then pull back features for lower priced tiers. When you start with limited benefits at a low price and then try to move “up market,” it’s much harder to tell what people need to be successful, which drives how high of a price they’ll pay.
Rather, start your membership tier(s) packed with value and goodness and charge a premium. You’ll learn the most this way and get your initial members the best results, which is easier to adjust and build on over time.
Step 5: Recruit Your First Members
Now you’re ready to recruit your first members to your new membership site.
For a variety of reasons (especially related to the way that Facebook and Instagram make their advertising money), don’t assume you’re going to put your membership site out there and see it go viral.
Especially if you are starting from scratch with no email list or established social media following, the more likely outcome of this approach is that you’ll have a membership site with no members.
A better option is to set a modest goal for your number of members out of the gate and work your personal and professional networks to recruit those people. Because you are pricing at a premium ($299 or more per year), you can set up a membership site with 10 or even 15 people and still make the financial return worthwhile.
Let’s do the math: If you can get 10 people to pay you $299 per year, that’s $2,999. And if you can do that, then there’s no reason you won’t be able to get 20 people, then 30 people, then 100 people to pay you the same over the next few months.
This math is also why you’re well-served to price at a premium beyond $299/year. The more value you bring per person, the more you can charge. And the more you can charge, the fewer people you need upfront to make your membership site a success.
If you have an email list or social media following, recruiting your first members is pretty straightforward.
Start by creating an email campaign and posting regularly to social media. Be sincere in how your new membership site can serve as an essential professional and personal support network for people navigating a new world today.
Then, use the motivations and language you hear from your initial ideal member interviews to reflect back to people what they’ll get from your membership site that would be much harder to get on their own.
For those building a membership site for the first time without a following or email list, start by reaching out over email, text, or the phone to your professional or personal network to recruit members. Tell folks what you’re building and who it’s for. Then, ask for nominations or recommendations of people who would benefit from it the most.
Posting to social media and waiting for a reply simply won’t work. Only about 3%-5% of your friends and family see your social media postings on any given day. The bet that they are going to join your new membership site from one or more posts is just too low, which, in practice, will mean that you do a bunch of work that no one sees and you get discouraged unnecessarily.
Don’t do this.
Instead, get on the phone with people and share with them the motivation you’ve had to create a membership site and what they’ll get from joining and participating. When you set a reasonable goal of 10 or 15 initial members, the return you’ll make on these calls is incredibly high.
Bonus Step: Stay Open and Curious, and Keep Experimenting After You Launch
The demand for online membership sites to navigate important topics in a rapidly changing world will only build from here.
A network of people mastering a topic together creates the fastest path to new solutions, creative problem solving, and uncovering previously hidden opportunities when the rules change overnight.
This also means that if you’re starting with the assumption that you’ll set up a membership site by working on it for six months, produce a bunch of content, custom develop a fancy website, and make it perfect before inviting in your first member, well, you’re probably setting yourself up for more pain and a higher probability of an expensive failure than necessary.
When you have a clear topic, an initial member in mind, and a way to connect members and deliver value live as you go, it’s better to get your membership site quickly in the hands of even 10 initial members and learn as you go.
The most successful creators of membership sites treat their jobs like detective work. They love to ask questions and listen to their members (or ideal members before they have any); experiment with new benefits to see what works; and reframe what doesn’t work into a new set of questions that help them get more specific about who they serve.
Finally, they’re clear about what their members will get from a membership site that connects them to each other.
Create Online Memberships That Need to Exist Now More Than Ever
Membership sites are the solution so many of us need right now to navigate these changing times. The people who may already be following you need this kind of membership site now more than ever.
If you’re curious, motivated, and ready to prioritize working smarter over harder, you have something important to bring to the world right now.
I can’t wait to see what you create.