For many entrepreneurs, passive income options are the top choice. While they take time to set up, the amount of effort involved drops off once they're up and running. Even so, for many passive income streams, such as information products, you have to start at zero each month and hope you sell enough to meet your goals.
The ideal online business involves both passive and recurring (continues regularly) income, and one of the best ways to have that is through a membership site.
Understanding Membership Sites
Like gym memberships that require monthly fees, membership sites are places where people can join to get whatever it is you offer. Many membership sites offer articles or reports, video tutorials, webinars, checklists, templates, apps or software, and more.
Generally, people join membership sites because they help simplify their lives, speed up learning curves, and/or give them greater detail on how to do something than general content offered online. For example, there are many online marketing membership sites that delve into specific topics, such as how to write a successful Facebook ad, how to maximize Instagram, and/or how to repurpose content across marketing platforms.
There are multiple pros and cons to starting these kinds of membership sites. Before getting started with one, it's important to weigh the good with the bad.
Provides a steady income
Enhances reputation as an authority on the subject
Builds momentum as memberships increase
Frees time with automated updates
Offers a flexible schedule
Requires diligence to maintain relevance
Requires constant membership recruitment
Requires technical knowledge
Demands frequent updates
Pros of Building a Membership Site
Many companies, including Microsoft and Adobe, have begun to use membership or subscription models in their businesses because there are many benefits, including:
- Steady income: If you have a monthly membership site and you’re able to retain a good percentage of your members, you can count on regular (recurring) income, as opposed to starting from $0 every month. For example, if you have 100 members paying $30 a month, you can, for the most part, count on $3,000 per month income, as long as you retain your membership numbers.
- Builds credibility as an expert: Being seen as the go-to authority in your niche not only increases your membership site income, but can create other income opportunities such as coaching, consulting, or speaking.
- Builds a loyal community: If you provide quality content, many of your loyal members will refer new members (you can even offer an affiliate program), and they’ll buy new products or services you offer.
- Can be automated: Depending on what you choose to do, you can turn your membership site into a passive income stream that delivers your content automatically.
- Offers great flexibility: You can run a membership site anytime and anywhere, as long as you have internet access.
Cons to Running a Membership Site
There are a few downsides to building a membership website you’ll want to consider before getting started:
- Maintaining relevance: You need to stay current on news and trends in your niche to ensure your members are getting relevant content.
- Recruitment: You need to replace any members who quit and keep working to grow your list of members.
- Technical know-how required: While some memberships can be run through email, most top membership sites are run online, requiring some technical knowledge or money for tools and services to run it.
- Frequent updates needed: Depending on what you offer, you may need to continue to offer new content regularly. For example, if a monthly webinar is part of the membership deal, you need to plan and do a monthly webinar.
Types of Membership Sites
One great thing about membership sites is that there are a variety of ways you can offer one. The basic types of membership sites include:
- Courses: Teach members what you know.
- Premium content: Articles and reports.
- Industry insights: Stay on top of important trends or financial reports relevant to your market.
- Curated content or information: Research and gather information—such as daily discounts or coupons—so your members don’t have to.
- Digital products: Offer private label right (PLR) content, website themes, apps, or tools.
- Community/mastermind group: Help members solve problems or work through issues with peer-to-peer mentoring.
Content in membership sites can be offered in a variety of ways. One is through email. For example, a course can deliver each lesson by email once a week. A daily deal or industry insight might deliver content daily.
Many membership sites have an online members area, where they can access the information. In this case, you can have all your content posted so members can peruse and use at their convenience. You also can provide content on a schedule, such as a new PLR package, training, or webinar once a month.
Ideas for Membership Sites
The ideas for membership sites are endless. The key to success is to find an idea that involves lots of content and that others would pay to access. For example, if you can teach guitar lessons or cake decorating, can you set up enough lessons to make a full course and are there people who will buy it? It’s always best to consider ideas that benefit others, such as saving them time and money, or helping them lose weight or get healthy. Business-to-Business (B2B) membership sites are ideal because even in tough times, many businesses will join and/or maintain their memberships if they believe it will help their business.
How to Start a Membership Website
Membership or subscription-based businesses have many moving parts during the setup, but essentially, here’s what you need to do:
- Brainstorm membership business ideas: Make a list of your talents, skills, interests, and experiences. Review the type of membership sites above for help in determining how what you know, love, or do can fit into a membership model. For example, what can you teach? Have you created a great online tool you can sell as a subscription?
- Research your favorite idea to determine if there is a demand, as well as if the market is willing and able to pay for it: There are many ideas that the market will say they love, but they might not like it enough to pay for it, or what they’re willing to pay might not be profitable for you.
- Plan your membership program: Decide what you’re going to offer, how and when you’ll offer it, and membership term length. For example, what content will you offer and will it be delivered in PDF, video, or some other method? Many membership sites offer a variety of content delivery methods to make sure they hit all learning styles. Further, will you deliver your content weekly through email or will you have an online membership? If it’s online, will new content be added monthly or will all the content be available at the time of joining? Finally, how long will memberships last? Depending on the content you offer, an end-date might be evident, such as a course. Other membership sites may go on indefinitely until your member decides to leave. Just remember, indefinite month-to-month memberships will require you to offer new content on a regular basis to retain existing members. That means you’ll need to have a topic to which you can add content indefinitely and be willing to commit to long-term content creation.
- Research your tools. If you’re going to run your membership through email, you’ll need a website through which members can join and an email service that can deliver the content. If you want to run an online course, there are several services—such as Udemy and Teachable—that offer platforms. If you’d like complete control, you can build a membership site. There are several scripts and WordPress plugins that will run the membership aspect of your site. Other tools you may need include audio or video creation and hosting, and webinar services.
- Price your membership program. When you have your tools, you’ll know the upfront and recurring expenses to run your membership. You’ll also want to consider the cost of your time. Finally, what is your content worth? Part of the worth comes in the quality of the information, and part from the quality of the delivery of the information. The final step is deciding if you’ll run your membership month-to-month, for longer terms, or indefinitely. You can offer a variety of both. For example, the month-to-month price can be $49, but a six-month subscription can be $235, which is 20 percent less than paying $49 for six months. This gives you more money up front and a longer time to build trust and loyalty.
- Create your content. Once you have your membership site outlined, it’s time to create the content and tools you’ll be delivering. This probably will be the most time-consuming part of your start-up. However, if you plan to deliver your content over time, you can create your content as you go. Just remember, people will be paying for this content, so there is an expectation that it will be more in-depth than what they’ll find for free online. The appearance of the content also should be professional.
- Build your membership site. If you haven’t already, you’ll need to set up your tools and begin loading your content.
- Market your membership site. This is where you’ll now spend the majority of your time and money. A membership site can be extremely profitable—but only if people join. There are a variety of ways to market a membership site. First, you need to know your ideal customers and where you can find them. Next, you need to find ways to entice them to your membership site. That can be through articles related to your topic, Facebook ads or other ads, social media, and more. Consider using a lead magnet and funnel system to capture potential members’ emails since most people don’t join on their first visit. Your lead magnet could be something that’s already inside your membership site. Or, you can offer a free 7-day trial or a $1 first-month trial.
- Keep your membership site active. Make sure your content is up to date and providing value to your members. Always be working to increase membership and replace members who drop out. Consider having a community aspect to your membership to keep members engaged with you and others in the community.