What is a Membership Site?

Illustration of a crowd of faces.

Wondering how to run a successful online business? You’ve come to the right class. Uh—place. Want the flexibility to work from your laptop and earn some income at the same time? A membership site is one of the best ways to form an online business. If you’re already in business, you’re probably saying, “Yet another site I have to manage?” Or if you’re just starting out, you may be blankly staring at your screen asking, “What is a membership site, anyway?” Let’s put your anxiety to rest. We’ve got Membership Sites 101 right here.

DEFINITION
A membership site is a gated part of your online business where only members who subscribe can access the content you’ve placed behind the gates. A “gate” is simply a barrier you build into your website using a plugin, like the one we offer here at MemberPress. Once you’ve got that barrier in place, members can log in and access exclusive content, special offers, and even be part of a community of other members. They can also interact directly with you. Your membership site can be paid or free or a mix of both.

When we talk about “content,” we mean digital products like ebooks, webinars, online courses, and podcasts rather than physical goods that require shipping. That’s not to say that if your business offers physical goods you can’t expand to the digital products side. For example, if you’re a photographer and you own your own studio and camera store, you could offer digital products like webinars on how to shoot at night or sell your photos in ebooks. There’s your content!

Pretty simple, right? We think it is, and we can help you build it. We’ll show you how it’s all going to work and how to convince customers to pay for your content.

EXAMPLES
Let’s take a look at some successful membership sites so you can see firsthand what they’re all about.

  • Authority by Copyblogger is a community where members receive training on content marketing. This incredibly successful membership site is currently closed to new members—it’s that popular! However, Copyblogger does offer a lot of free content, and you can get on a waiting list to join the community.
  • E-Course Launch Formula. Karen Hocking teaches others how to create successful e-courses. Not only is this a prosperous membership site, it’s a great resource if you want to create your own e-courses.
  • eDiets focuses on making healthy lifestyle changes and includes meal plans, fitness plans, nutritious recipes, and community support for weight loss and healthy eating. They’ve built their site and optimized it so it appears at the top of search engines—so, besides offering tremendous value to their customers, they’re savvy marketers.

Additionally, take a look at some of MemberPress’s customers running successful membership sites:

  • Callie Willows and her partner, Mike Morrison, started Member Site Academy, a successful business that offers training, coaching, and courses for those who want to build their own successful membership sites (and they use MemberPress to run it!).
  • Cameron Reilly and his business partner, Ray Harris, Jr., run a successful site offering fascinating history podcasts. The first episode is free. Then, if you like what you see (and you will!), you can subscribe and access other episodes that detail the lives of some of history’s biggest names.
  • Interior designer Lisa League created Qpractice, a membership site that provides services to other interior designers preparing for the National Counsel for Interior Design Qualification. Talk about finding a niche!
  • Mariska van de Langenberg is the CEO of 5 Star Signals, a membership Forex Trading company specializing in foreign currencies, including active trading and investing. The company’s goals include helping 100 percent of its team members become financially independent within just five to seven years!

HOW TO GET MEMBERS—“IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME”
First, find a niche in your industry where you’re offering something specialized enough that customers are willing to pay for your content and services. Consider the photographer example above: What does this photographer offer that no one else offers? An e-course on shooting your own portraits? A webinar on starting your own photography business? A membership of fellow photographers who look to this photographer as an expert in landscape photography and who want to learn from him or her?

Additionally, you should consider the length of the memberships you offer. Will you be able to provide premium content weekly, or monthly, or is your content going to be limited? Members will quickly leave your site if they discover they’re paying for content that’s repeated, recycled, or easily accessed by a simple web search.

You’ll be juggling a lot of things as you launch your site, but of these three particular things be sure: show you’re an expert in the field, that you’re passionate about what you’re doing, and that you want to share it.

A surefire way to build a membership base is to offer free content on your site.

DID YOU SAY “FREE”? (I thought you were telling me how to earn some income!)
Why start with free content? Well, for one, it’ll help you build a solid customer and membership base with those experiencing your content firsthand and who will be more open to paying for premium content in the future. Once you’ve built up a base, it’ll be easier to sell memberships to those who already want to learn from you.

Make sure you’re a trusted, credible source with plenty of information. Your content should be of value to your customers and illustrate your knowledge. Additionally, if you mix content—free and paid—you can easily draw new members with your free content. The more members you draw, the greater your chance of securing buyers for your products. As always, consider your audience. Struggling students might not be able to afford your content now, but once they graduate and get those high-paying jobs, they’ll remember how your content helped them, and they’ll become members as soon as they can pay the dues. The same can be said for entrepreneurs just starting out and building their businesses (perhaps just like you!).

WHAT KIND OF CONTENT SHOULD I POST?
Check out our blog for what kind of content to post and for some great tips on how to make that content stellar. In short, however, consider some of the following:

  • Ebooks
  • E-courses
  • Webinars
  • Podcasts
  • Virtual conferences
  • Evaluations

WRAP-UP
Got a pretty good idea of how to start a membership site now? What else would you like to know? If you’re already a successful membership site owner, please share a few tips with our readers!

About Lindsay Flanagan

Lindsay Flanagan is a writer and editor with Eschler Editing. She has a Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing. In addition to reading and writing, she loves photography, rock concerts, riding motorcycles (but not driving them), and chasing after her two young daughters. She blogs about being a mom and a fangirl on her blog, The Calligrapher’s Ink.