Want to Create A Membership Site in 2023? Do It the Right Way!
By now, most people have bought an online course of some kind.
Whether it was a micro- or mini-course for just a few bucks, or a multi-month (or longer), multi-thousand-dollar behemoth, online courses are a great way to move from the 1:1 style of business toward helping more people at the same time.
In other words, with an online course, you get to do the work once and sell it over and over to different customers, thus leveraging your time in a big way.
Recently, "membership sites" have become all the rage, and in this article, I want to dive into the nitty-gritty: what they are, why they don't usually work, and what to do instead.
But First, What IS a "Membership Site" Anyway?
Great question! A "membership site" is where someone pays you on a recurring basis (usually monthly) for membership access to a growing library of information — usually training content.
Depending on your area of expertise and the style, value, and frequency of the content being released, you can charge anywhere from ten bucks a month up to many thousands! (Sweet!)
A popular membership site that you may have heard of is Masterclass.com.
It's a vast library of content from over 100 content creators that you've probably heard of. Containing dozens of courses, it costs just $15/mo.
But don't get too excited, a little later I'll show you why this style of membership doesn't work well for students, why you shouldn't follow their example, and what to do instead.
What areas of expertise do membership sites work for?
But before we get to that, you might be wondering, what topics work for membership sites? Will it work for my area of expertise?
You can create a successful membership site within any topic or area of expertise, such as:
- Health & wellness
- Style & beauty
- Sex, love & intimate relationships
- Parenting & family
- Life purpose
- Business & entrepreneurship
- Corporate training & consulting
- Career & professional skill development
- Money & finances
- Real estate
- Retirement & legacy
- Time management & productivity
- Personal growth & skill development
- Religion, faith & spirituality
- Home improvement & organizing
- Survival & sustainability
- Art, hobbies & sport
- Animals & pets
- Non-profits & social responsibility
Why Are Membership Sites So Popular?
Here are the top 7 most commonly-given reasons to explain why everybody is hot for memberships right now:
- They allow you to serve lots of members with the same content, which saves money, increases efficiency and bottom line profits
- They increase customer loyalty and generates a palpable sense of "belonging" among customers and students
- They provide you a predictable stream of revenue month after month
- They allow you to sell more digital products & services with less effort
- There's more revenue potential from existing members through ascending them up to a higher membership level, and greater access to you and your premium content
- They help increase organic referrals since people love telling friends about stuff they like
- Huge upside potential: 100 people paying you $100 a month gives you a $10,000 per month revenue. Obviously, the more people you attract, the higher and higher it goes, and all you need to do is what you love and keep adding content
But it's not all sunshine and unicorns. (Is it ever?)
There are some significant downsides to the membership model that aren't mentioned in the brochure that you absolutely should consider before adding a membership site to your business.
The Downsides of Memberships They Never Tell You About
Firstly and most importantly, they can take a long time to scale up to the point of producing significant revenue.
This is often called the "Long, Slow, Ramp of Death" — and you'll need to be OK with potentially slaving away for a good amount of time before you see the ROI. (Potentially, years!)
For example, say you're charging $20/month and you get 13 customers in month one, 17 in month two, and 20 in month three that would feel like nice progress. You got 40 customers in only 3 months!
However, your revenue would only be $800/month.
And after you take out business expenses there's not much left over. Certainly not enough to cover the cost of an employee (like a support rep) or your salary. And what happens if your growth per month stalls at 20 customers?
The truth that's never spoken is that — especially in today's economy — membership sites are incredibly difficult to build to a profitable level and beyond.
Next, there's another big problem to keep in mind that almost nobody wants to talk about — student attrition.
In fact, the stats say that the average amount of time that most people will stay in a membership is around 3 months.
Can you guess why? Hint: it's more to do with psychology than the quality of your content (or anything else for that matter).
To explain what I mean, let me tell you a story.
It's the all-too-common story of the typical membership subscriber, her experience as she makes her way into a membership, and how the ending was preordained even from the very first moment.
Meet Sue, a busy mom who finds her way to the sales page for your subscription membership.
She definitely needs what you're providing, and as she scans your page, reading about all of the content that's already in there, she thinks to herself "Wow — I get access to all this valuable content for just 49 bucks a month?! Plus everything they add in the future? Sign me up!"
So she pays, and then, as a new member, her email dings. (It's your welcome email.)
She marks it as important, so she'll remember to get back to it over the weekend. And for the rest of the week, she feels happy about having gotten a really great deal, and mentally looks forward to digging in when she has a little more time.
And then the weekend comes, and life happens. So she doesn't get a chance to log in. There's just too much to do that's a higher priority right at that moment.
So a week goes by. And then another week. And then suddenly, a month's gone by.
Wow! How did that happen? In fact, Sue only remembers that she has the membership subscription because you just emailed her to let her know that you just added another piece of super-valuable content.
So she promises herself that she'll try harder to get back to it over the weekend when she has a moment to herself. (But again, it doesn't happen.) And the cycle repeats another few times until she actually forces herself to log back in.
And her first feeling is .... overwhelm.
The dark side of getting so much premium content is .... there's so much content!!
It would take months to go through it all. And lacking a clear direction or path, it's easy to feel a little lost. What do you do first? And suddenly, it isn't feeling like fun anymore.
And that's the key.
Because the core value proposition of all memberships is "a large amount of content that grows over time", ironically the larger it becomes, the more overwhelming it begins to feel to members.
And because memberships aren't super-focused courses that solve an urgent need or pain a customer might have, they don't feel enough urgency to take action right now. And when life happens, your membership site goes to the bottom of the list.
Here's an example from MindValley's membership offering to show you what I mean.
Their promise is:
- You'll save big on your lifelong education
- You'll discover transformational wisdom and ideas not yet covered in mainstream learning
- You'll connect with the world's best teachers and community in their all-on-one revolutionary online learning membership platform
Sounds great, but here's the reality that faces students:
What do you choose? What part of your life do you want to work on first?
So, back to Sue. She scans the list of possible paths she could take. According to the site there are "hundreds more areas of transformation"! Feeling overwhelmed by all the choice, she just goes ahead and chooses something at random.
But remember: because a membership isn't a course, it's not tied to one super-specific problem that your customer is facing right now in their lives. It's just a big database of content on some topic you're an expert in. So while there's value in the content, your student just won't feel a huge motivation to consume it.
Back to Sue. She skips to another piece of content halfway through the first. And after a few minutes of that, she's a little bored and not 100% sure why she's there or what she should be working on.
Her email dings. She task switches to check it out and promptly forgets all about what she was doing.
The next day she sees your tab still open. And with a sigh, and feeling a little guilty, she closes it. It hasn't yet been the experience she expected. She hasn't been able to get the value she thought she'd get.
And that brings us to the 3-month mark after joining. She gets another email: more valuable content just went up. "Click to go and check it out!"
Her first reaction?
Guilt for not taking full advantage of the membership.
Guilt for not finding success again.
Guilt for feeling trapped in repeating life patterns.
To feel better, she tells herself — "This is great value for sure! But I just haven't had the time to dedicate to it." This allows her to feel like it's not her fault. (It's something we all do.)
And her natural next step, to stay in alignment with this, is to email and cancel the membership, while at the same time profusely promising that she'll come back, just as soon as she has the time to dedicate herself to it.
But the reality is that most people will never come back.
Mostly because we all harbor a feeling that we didn't get the value we wanted the first time and that somehow it's our own fault. And because we feel a little guilty about that, we don't want to risk repeating the experience.
And that's the lifecycle of the typical membership site, and it's the reason why most people drop out of "typical" memberships after just 3 months.
So let's take a look at how those seven promised membership benefits ended up...
- First: "they allow you to serve lots of people with the same content, which saves money, increases efficiency and bottom line profits." This one is true, so long as you're able to KEEP your students in your membership over the long haul. (And I have some tips below for how to do that.)
- Second: "they increase customer loyalty and generate a palpable sense of "belonging" among customers and students." This one seems like it might be true, but as we've seen, because most membership plans actually "force" their customers to quit and feel guilty at the same time, it actually creates the opposite of loyalty. It actually makes your customers want to forget about the whole experience.
- Third: "they provide you a predictable stream of revenue month after month." Yes, if you're only measuring a 3-month window. But over the long term, most memberships have a predictably DOWNWARD trend, which isn't what you want.
- Fourth: "they allow you to sell more products & services with less effort." False. Imagine you sit down at a table in a restaurant. Instantly food arrives. So much that it fills up the table. And then more food arrives, and they drag over more tables in order to have somewhere to put it down. Eventually, you're surrounded by tables. Enough food for a year. How do you feel? After a few bites, most people are full, and then, very quickly, begin to feel overwhelmed by the sight of all the food they can't possibly eat. At this point are you likely to want to buy MORE from that restaurant? Absolutely not. And the same is true for memberships.
- Fifth: "there's more revenue potential from existing customers through ascending them up to higher levels, and greater access to you and your content." See above.
- Sixth: "they help increase organic referrals since people love telling friends about stuff they like." Maybe partly true for the first month? But pretty quickly, members begin to disengage emotionally for the reasons I've already mentioned. And nobody is going to recommend you when that starts happening.
- Seventh: "the 'upside' potential seems so great. 100 people paying you $100 a month gives you a $10,000 per month revenue. But the more people you attract, the higher and higher it goes, and all you need to do is what you love and keep adding content." The best metaphor for most membership plans is the proverbial leaky bucket. You've got to keep putting more and more new people into it to keep up with the people leaving. You can't grow a business that's a leaky bucket.
So what's the solution? Keep reading and I'll tell you how to do a membership site right so that your paying members stay well beyond the typical 3 months. For years in most cases.
How to Create a Membership Site Right
In this article so far, I've explained how most membership sites make students and customers feel guilty, and virtually "forced" to quit and never come back.
But is there a way to make memberships work the way you want them to? In a way that can keep students year after year after year? That can keep your revenue growing over time in an upward direction, instead of a "downward death spiral"?
The answer is YES. There's actually a LOT you can do differently in your membership site to achieve this.
As we've previously seen, the big problem with most memberships is that they're a never-ending "river" of content that can easily feel overwhelming. With no guide or path to follow as they enter your world, students feel adrift and directionless.
So instead of doing that, we suggest that each month you focus on a new topic, or guiding "membership theme". For example, if you had a membership site for cooking skills, you designate one month as "Thai Cooking" month.
Now, instead of them feeling "lost" in your content, this gets your students focused like a laser on what they'll be doing that month.
Keep reading for my 7-step process on exactly how to implement this in your membership plans.
1. Create an Inspiring "Mission" for Students to Motivate Them
As we've seen, most memberships send you adrift with no guidance on what to do, or when.
Instead of that, I recommend creating an inspiring "mission" to motivate them for a 30-day period.
You might remember the Mission Impossible movies? You know the ones — "Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to..."
All you need to do is fill in the blank and you'll have a super-inspiring mission that will help students to understand what they'll have done and achieved by the end of the month.
For example: "By the end of August, you'll have mastered 5 foundational Thai recipes and cooked them for friends or family, to great acclaim!"
Now, instead of them feeling "lost" in your content, this gets your students laser-focused on what they'll be doing that month, and they'll be able to engage powerfully with each piece of content that's released that month.
2. Create a Video to Introduce that Month's Topic or Theme
Create a new video for each month and put it up on your membership site home page at the start of the month.
In this video, you welcome them to that month's membership theme, tell them why you're doing it, restate the mission (above) that you came up with, and make sure you tell them again in vivid detail how they might feel once they have achieved the mission.
Using the Thai Cooking month as an example, you could tell them how they'll amaze friends and family with their new skills and make them think they're eating in a restaurant. You'll describe the feeling of satisfaction and accomplishment they'll have as the food comes out to the table, the smiling, admiring faces of their guests, and the happiness for having provided for people.
Pretty compelling stuff, and we've found that the more vividly you can describe how that future moment will feel — the more likely they'll powerfully engage, get excited about taking action, and actually DO it.
Compare that with the typical membership experience where you're dropped into an endless sea of content, it's like night and day.
And we're only just getting started with what you can do. Let's keep going!
3. Create Three Inspiring Goals For Your Students
Next, we start to get a little more into the science and psychology of how to get students and customers to stay with you for years.
A few years ago, Harvard University did a study on goals that showed:
- 83% of the population doesn't set goals of any kind
- 14% of people have a general plan, but no specific, written-down goals to measure their progress
- And just 3% of people write down specific, measurable goals. And these people are THIRTY TIMES more likely to have success than the average person.
In other words, just having and writing down your goals actually has the power to make you up to 30 times more successful.
When we saw that study, we wondered whether something as simple as creating goals could really help make students on our membership site up to 30 times more successful?
So we decided to give it a try, and what happened next completely rocked our worlds.Firstly and most importantly, our students instantly got more excited about taking action. In fact, they even started posting selfies on social media with their written goals on our Facebook group!
Second, a lot more of them started taking action daily, instead of dropping off as they'd done in the past.
And third, we started more & more students posting in our Facebook group that they actually hit their goal, which was incredibly motivating for ALL of our students.
Over and over, we've found that when you create goals for students, it transforms them into unstoppable, achievement-seeking machines who can't be derailed, who always take action, even when it's hard or scary, and who never give up until they achieve what they set out to do.
But there's a twist -- we added those goals in a way that you've probably never seen before.
We give students not one, but THREE goals during each month's theme: a minimum goal, a target goal and a stretch goal. This allows you to set a range that will inspire everyone, from beginners to the most advanced.
Goal #1: the Minimum Goal
There are 2 rules of thumb for setting a minimum goal.
First, it should match the big promise of that month's theme. For example, for Thai Cooking month, you might want to set a minimum goal of cooking just one dish, or feeding just one person.
Second, it should be achievable if the average student takes the minimum recommended action in your course. If you like, you can also think about your minimum goal as the "safety net" goal — a goal that you want everyone to be able to hit no matter who they are.
Goal #2: the Target Goal
Your target goal is an inspiring goal that most students will be able to hit if they commit to taking real action.
Because here's the thing about your students: they're capable of much more than they suspect possible, and the 3 progressively more challenging goals wil stair-step them up into more and more action, kind of like having a great coach who helps us stretch and grow far beyond what we ever thought possible.
For Thai Cooking month, your target goal could be to prepare a 3-course dinner.
Goal #3: the Stretch Goal
You want to make this goal as inspiring as possible, and aligned with the ultimate promise of your month theme.
It may even seem completely unimaginable for most students at the start the month, but then, as they take action and progress through the previous goals, it actually becomes possible!
For Thai Cooking month, your stretch goal could be that the student prepare ALL of the recipes you teach, and put on a banquet for their loved ones.
And that's what it's all about — giving students goals that INSPIRE them personally. When you can do that, your students will get and stay motivated to take action and be more inspired to change their lives for the better.
And a huge positive side effect of creating clear and specific goals for your membership is that it helps your customers keep getting value from your membership, which gives them the only reason they'll need to stick around.
- I highly recommend membership features such as awarding points when goals are checked off. Incentivizing each month's goals in this way actually gets students excited to keep taking action throughout the month. Plus it turns each month into a fun "sprint" for students, to see who can earn all the points the quickest.
- Start publishing a Leaderboard: the longer students stay, the more points students collect (from previous months), and the higher they will appear on the all-time leaderboard, giving them a huge amount of status within your community as an ultimate member, which sets a culture of sticking around for the long term.
- And finally, allow students to redeem points for prizes, gifts, other products or courses, badges, or even free time in your member area.
4. Create a Set of New Actions for Each Month to Check Off
After you're done inspiring your students and customers with some great goals, you want to give them some easy ways to earn points at the start of each month to get them rolling.
For our cooking membership example, you could get them to take a few simple actions and give them points for doing so. For example:
- Give them a list of ingredients or supplies to order
- Have them add any live Q&A calls to their calendar
You can find lots more opportunities to give points if you use your imagination.
The advantage of giving points is that you're rewarding action, and that's the basis of every successful app and game out there.
The fact is that people love earning points, and the more opportunities you can give them to do so, the more action they'll take.
5. Award Points for Watching the Membership Training Content
Your main job as a content creator is obviously to create content for your student. But nobody wants to watch video after video with no "reward" in return.
That's why we highly recommend adding points to each piece of virtual training content you produce.
Give a point just for watching. Give 2 points for taking action or doing the homework.
Here's what that looks like when it's set up correctly:
You can see that underneath this training video we have 2 actions, each with points attached. Here's a close-up of action #1:
Separate all the homework steps for each piece of training content into separate opportunities to earn points. Each point earned will build their motivation to keep taking action more and more and more.
6. Publish a Calendar of Upcoming Month Topics or Themes
Sit down and plan out what you want to cover over the next 12 months, and publish a calendar in your member area so your students know what's coming up.
Also, include the calendar on the sales page for your membership site. It helps people make an empowered decision to join the membership.
Include it in the welcome email you send them when they join to remind them.
It helps them plan their time and mentally commit to taking action with you.
Plus, and MOST importantly, showing them what's coming up will KEEP them in your membership over the long term. When you plan your topics well, even if they're not interested in this month's theme. The odds are good they'll want to stick around for next month's.
Having a published calendar of the next 12 months of topics or themes is the ultimate stick strategy for membership sites.
7. Organize Your Membership Content into Thematic "Clusters"
Finally, organize your training materials for each month's theme into a single section on your home page, so students can find everything in one easy location.
As your collection grows, they stay inside focused categories so students can zero in on whatever takes their fancy. Think of each category or module like a mini-course within your overall membership.
There you have it! Our complete guide to creating a membership website doesn't suck, and that will keep students and customers in your community for years through:
- Change your topic or theme each month to keep students interested, taking action, and having fun
- Give them a "mission", or Big Why, so they understand what they'll be, do, have, feel or achieve by the end of the month
- Create some inspiring goals for the month to help them be up to 30 times more successful
- Give the points in exchange for action — people don't like to give up what they've earned
- Publish your future content calendar, so students can see what's in store for them
- Organize your eLearning content into monthly thematic clusters, to give students mini-courses within your overall membership
If you're looking for the right membership software platform to host your membership on, then Xperiencify is the only membership option out there that allows you to do everything mentioned in this article and much, much more.Prices start at $49/mo and they have an unlimited trial — so you'll have all the time you'll need to get things set up and ready to launch before you need to pay a cent.
Murray loves building software platforms that make life easier for marketers and entrepreneurs. It's all he does. He's built many tools over the years and helped thousands of people start and grow their business, which is his driving motivation.
His latest project is Xperiencify -- a new LMS / online course platform that fixes the "dirty secret" of the online course industry (which is that 3% of people get results from the course they buy.) They do it with a powerful combination of psychology 🧠, gamification 🕹️ and Silicon Valley "black magic". 🥷