21 marketing channels for membership sites: Sales and advertising

Subscription Coach Amanda Northcutt's tips for marketing

This post is part of a series, based on the ebook 'Top 21 marketing channels for membership sites', written by The Subscription Coach Amanda Northcutt.

Download the entire series as an ebook >

Referrals

Referrals are the warmest leads you can get. Unlike the other acquisition channels discussed here, referrals are something everyone should be asking for without exception.

Don't ask the wrong members for referrals; instead ask for them from your current power users! Remember, your power users are those who are most engaged in your membership, spend the most money with you, and are your top brand evangelists.

It's imperative that you ask for referrals from power users, rather than those who have become unengaged and in desperate need of some TLC. Sending the right message at the right time to the right members is key to success at every level of running your membership – including asking for favors, like referrals, reviews, and networking introductions.

Paid advertising can be just about anything, but most common opportunities for membership sites include: Google AdWords, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, within an influencer's channels (sponsored emails, podcasts, via social, etc.), paid content, a traditional advertisement in an industry publication, and anywhere else someone will take your money in exchange for promotion.

Paid advertising should be the easiest channel to track. If you can't track the success of anything you're paying for, I can't imagine a circumstance in which you should do it. If you're a giant company, first of all, you're not reading this, but you might purchase ads strictly for brand awareness. If you're under $5 million ARR, you shouldn't be advertising for brand awareness – you should be advertising for trackable conversions.

At the same time, it's important that you have realistic expectations of what paid advertising will do for you. If you find a silver bullet acquisition channel that is profitable and never runs dry, you should play the lottery, too. For the rest of us, we're hoping to land on 2-4 acquisition channels that are profitable and reliable for a period of 6+ months. Expect to have to pivot your marketing approach from time to time.

If your advertisement is the first exposure your prospect has to your membership offering, your CTA cannot and should not be asking them to start paying for your membership.

The same principles apply in your marketing outreach as they do in your nurture sequence (which is the pre-loaded series of emails someone receives over time after downloading your lead magnet): make the right ask to the right person at the right time.

If you ask for too much or too little at the wrong time, the would-be qualified lead might ignore you forever because you came on too strong, or your offer just wasn't compelling enough to warrant action on their part. Ever asked someone to marry you on the first date? How'd that go for ya? Or the converse of that, ever had sparks fly on a first date and then not call them for 3 weeks? Your ad must attract your target audience by providing the right offer at the right time.

To test paid advertising, I recommend starting with Facebook ads. Their platform offers an unbelievably broad reach, is affordable to try, and provides a level of customization that is virtually unmatched by any competitor with a similar pool of people (2.3 billion) for the price. Not to mention, their tracking data dials in on exactly how much value, in real dollars and cents, your advertising campaign was worth. All you have to do is log in to Facebook Ad Manager and check; no math required.

Install the Facebook Pixel on your site if you haven't already and set up a 3 month, budget- limited, retargeting campaign. Retargeting means showing advertisements to those who have been to your website and interacted with your brand on some level.

You can expect a higher ROI (return on investment) by showing ads to those who have already visited your website and likely have a general idea of who you are and how you might help them, rather than an advertisement on Facebook being their first exposure to your brand. Do not show the same ads to the same people over and over and over again during the 3 month test period. Test a handful of ads – both video and static – and assess the results of each.

Here's a great guide on getting started with Facebook ads: buffer.com/library/facebook-ads-guide.

PR (Public Relations)

One way to leverage PR in your membership is to create a newsworthy story about yourself, your business, a product launch, event, partnership with a charity, etc. and then work with influencers and highly relevant publications to distribute that story. This can be something you pay for, or if your story is newsworthy enough, perhaps you can get it included in some publications at no cost.

Getting a well-known person from a particular publication to interview you and publish it is awesome, too, and in some cases even better. Bear in mind, publications are typically more amenable to include excellent content from you if you are also a paid advertiser.

If you have put in the time to build relationships with the influencers who run the publications you're targeting for PR, your chances of cooperation and perhaps even collaboration are far greater than going in cold.

For small to mid-sized businesses, content marketing is highly intertwined with PR at this point. The lines are pretty fuzzy on where content marketing begins and PR ends; influencer marketing is also tied in here as well.

But by and large, PR is a tool that large companies use to sway public opinion. There are huge agencies that are highly skilled at this, and that's just not what we're going for with the vast majority of membership businesses.

Cross promotions

To run a cross-promotion, identify a handful of non-competing organizations that are targeting the same audience as you, and work with them to cross promote each other's businesses.

What other products or services does your target audience buy? Brainstorm a quick list of tangential products and services to the one you offer. Spend a few minutes on Google searching for small businesses who sell those tangential offerings. Identify around 6 whose target audience very likely matches yours and that you are confident you can offer value to.

Don't approach another business owner and ask for a cross promotion if you can't bring a boatload of value to the table yourself. This has to be mutually beneficial and the other business owner must clearly see the value proposition for their own business in order to give you the time of day.

If you are running a membership to teach email marketing, partner with someone who teaches, runs a membership, or sells a course on social media marketing, Facebook marketing or similar.

If you teach any sort of hands-on skill or craft, partner with online stores who sell supplies to your members. If your membership teaches a paleo lifestyle, partner with a paleo meal kit delivery service.

Bundles, reciprocal discounts, and ongoing reciprocal promotion (usually with an affiliate program) are three ways to approach cross-promotions.

Bundling products and/or services for a limited amount of time for holidays, Black Friday, or whenever makes sense for what you're offering is a relatively low risk, low effort way to begin and test a cross-promotional relationship.

Offering a discount to your cross promotional partner's business when someone signs up for your membership is great, too. Just make sure your promo partner is making a similar offer when someone purchases from them. This is a one time set and forget, highly trackable promotion provided you are using a promo code.

You can formalize a cross-promotional partnership by instituting an affiliate relationship as well. I'll touch on this in more detail a bit later, but basically you get a cut of the business you send their way and vice versa.

Direct sales

Perhaps everyone's least favorite, but depending on the size and stage of your membership site, direct, or one-to-one, selling is often a necessary evil to get traction when you're starting out.Direct sales involves seeking out prospects on a small scale, often a one-to-one basis, and approaching them directly (first with value!) to start the conversation.

If you do find it necessary to sell directly, you're likely just starting out and trying to get some traction, or you're selling a B2B (business to business) membership or subscription at a high enough price point to justify the time and effort required to close the deal.

LinkedIn's Sales Navigator is an absolutely necessary subscription to have if you're selling this way. There's not another business database on the planet as robust and accessible as this.

A one-to-one B2B outreach strategy, including 7-12 multi-platform touches, over a set period of time is necessary to make this work. You are going to need to offer a lot of personalized value to your prospects through various platforms (email, social, phone, video, sometimes direct mail) and be able to pivot quickly as necessary to even get on their radar.

A haphazard approach just isn't going to cut it. A sales strategy like this is nuanced and beyond the scope of this guide.

Affiliate programs

An affiliate program means you are giving 10-30% of a member's monthly or annual fee in perpetuity (until the member cancels) to someone else in exchange for a directly attributable referral.Offering affiliate programs to influencers and those organizations that would qualify for a cross-promotion can be a worthy incentive for someone to encourage their audience to sign up for your membership.

It's imperative to factor the affiliate fee into your CAC (customer acquisition cost) and see how it stacks up to other marketing channels to see if this is right for you (a.k.a. actually profitable). Remember the equation: cLTV - CAC. In other words, is what you're making from a member over the lifetime of their time on your site more than what you paid in marketing expense and any associated sales commissions to acquire them? If so, how does your affiliate program stack up to other acquisition channels in terms of profitability?

A second option you could experiment with is paying a larger, one-time upfront affiliate commission. This can be a bit risky, but if your site is well established and you have a solid grasp on your customer lifetime value, this can be a profitable approach. It can be a better incentive for affiliates (they know exactly what they'll make per referral), and if you have a good handle on your LTV you can ultimately see a larger long-term profit. But, you've got to have the cash on hand to make this work, since that affiliate fee will be higher than what a new member pays you for the first few months.

A middle-of-the-road, slightly less risky affiliate option is to pay your affiliate a high percentage of the member's monthly fee, say 50-75%, for the first 3 months of their membership. That way, you're not out any cash up front and the affiliate shares the risk with you more equitably. If they send a member your way that's not actually a good fit for what your membership provides, they're going to churn early and the affiliate misses out on their commission.

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