Membership site handbook

A practical guide to building a successful subscription business.

Grow your membership site

Chapter One: Planning

Congratulations! You’ve decided to take a leap towards maximizing your passion and sharing your ideas with the world, all with the goal of trading value for revenue — but, not so fast. First, you’re going to need a plan. If your membership site is the home of your dreams, this section of our guide is the infrastructure. Here, we’ll discuss the best strategies for planning, pricing, building, and launching your membership site. Let’s get started!

Meet the demand (if it exists)

Before you start, you need to make sure there is demand and that your specific site will stand out from the crowd. Start by asking questions. Who is your audience? In which industry do they work? Are they professionals or consumers? How can you provide this audience with the most value? Is your market oversaturated or is there some empty space you can fill? One way to find answers is to start digging into relevant conversations already taking place online.

As The Membership Guys’ Mark Morrison shared in his podcast titled "Where to Look When Building an Audience for Your Membership Site,” “passionate people find each other and they congregate around various different places online.” Those places include forums like Reddit, Facebook groups, and Twitter where you can find the right people based on their profiles and conversation hashtags.

Once you find those conversations, start participating by sharing links, helpful responses, and your unique insights on the topic. Also, make sure to not only dig into the conversations but get to know the people having them. Understanding your prospective audience will help you shape and refine your offering and inform your pricing strategy; but more on that later. One final tip: try conducting keyword searches through sites like SEMrush or Google’s Keyword Planner. Both will give you insight into how often potential customers are searching for the solution your membership site can provide.

Stand out from the crowd

Competition is a healthy indicator that there is a market for your product; so if you see oversaturation in your space, don’t just pack up and leave. Instead, think of ways to differentiate yourself from the competition, because people are willing to pay for unique and valuable insight. For example, if you’re a teacher planning to offer subscriptions for weekly downloadable class plans, but you discover lots of other sites offering the same thing, you can shift to providing “professional learning” resources for teachers that go beyond basic lesson plans. Not only does that give you a niche market, but it also gives you access to an audience made up of professionals who are willing to pay more, something we’ll dig into when we discuss pricing.

Invest in building your audience

When it comes to launching a successful membership site, one of the biggest questions you’ll ever answer is “when”? For Brian Krogsgard of Post Status, a successful audience-backed WordPress news site, launching immediately wasn’t the best strategy. “The biggest thing for me to be successful was to give it time before I ever asked for money. I ran Post Status for two years before I turned on memberships. More than anything, I spent years building up brand equity in my space so that people felt confident paying for membership.” So how do you build that brand equity? It may sound cliché, but the answer is creating something unique and valuable that your audience is unable to access anywhere else.

A recent Sports Illustrated article written about Memberful customer Ben Falk, dives into why Cleaning the Glass content stands out. Sharing his thoughts on a now viral video that Falk created, the writer of the article shares:

“Here, without bells and whistles, is an efficient way to explain a relatively advanced, if not unique, skill. It’s the type of example that only someone versed in the game could recognize, only someone adept at programming could illustrate, and only someone who watches a ton of video would come across in the first place.”

What Falk is offering is unlike anything else in the industry; it’s smart, it’s helpful, it provides value, and it’s worth paying for.

Confirm audience engagement

So, now that you’ve built enough brand equity, is it time to turn the membership switch on? The more your audience engages with you, the more likely it is that a membership component will work. If they’re already interacting with your content regularly, it’s more likely they may be willing to pay for it. Here are three quick metrics to help you measure engagement:

  1. Check your subscribe and unsubscribe rates: This includes rates for your blog, newsletter, and other content you allow your users to freely opt-in to. A high unsubscribe rate may be a sign that you’re not ready to go into paid memberships. Another telling metric is your email open rate. If you use MailChimp for email newsletters, you can use their Form Builder to request more information than just email addresses from your newsletter sign ups. If you’re looking for more granular information, like what a lead is interested in, you can use landing page builders like Leadpages to not only capture leads but actionable insights.

  2. Confirm social media reach: Start digging into your social media metrics to understand how many people are listening. If it’s small now, don’t get discouraged. Building an audience takes time, and you can continue to work on it as you go. Also consider setting up Google Analytics on your site so you can see how many visitors come from social, what content those visitors view, how long they stay on your site, and in the future, if there are any membership conversions attached to those visits.

  3. Gather feedback from your audience: Team Flower, a membership site focused on teaching courses in the flower industry, stands by customer surveys, early and often, as one of the best ways to guide your membership plan. Co-founder Jesse Perry shared his strategy for getting feedback from customers, “[Conducting] deep surveys, the sooner, the better. Maybe as part of your funnel when people subscribe, asking them questions and then periodically asking what their biggest problem is. The sooner you can get to know [your customers], the better." Jesse also shared that feedback could impact your product road map, "There can be something that you’re not even selling, that no one else is selling, that if you just offered as a simple product, everyone would buy if it was the solution they wanted. The more you can survey, the better.” Davesh Sharma of wpkube agrees that setting up a feedback loop is important and that creators should focus on people first and revenue second. He shared, “Your members aren’t just sources of money, they’re also full of valuable feedback. Listen to what they say and when you’re just getting started or launching a new course, don’t be afraid to let some early-adopters in for free or cheap. While you might be missing out on some potential revenue, the feedback that you gather will help you refine your site and generate more paying customers later on.” According to automation leader, HubSpot, the average email open rate across industries is around 30%, so if your open rate is falling way behind that number, it may be an indicator that your content needs to be improved. Remember, a large subscriber list means nothing if those subscribers aren’t clicking, reading, and opening your emails.

Now that you've got an actionable plan in place, it's time to move into one of the most important steps — perfecting your pricing strategy!

Next up, Pricing