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5 types of membership site models (And how to pick the right one for your site)

Want to start a membership site, but not sure what kind of membership model to use? Our breakdown of 5 different models will help you decide.

Launching and running an online business is a lot like juggling. There are nine plates in the air at a given time, and if you miss a beat, half of them can break before you’ve blinked.

If you’ve been around the block for a minute, you’ve probably heard about membership websites and how the right membership software can set you up with recurring revenue and an online tribe.

This is all true. But how do you decide which model is best for your website? If you already have a business running, is it a good idea to bundle your products in your membership?

Is it safe to add another plate to your juggling act?

To help, we’ve put together this guide of five types of membership models and got down to the nitty-gritty to help you answer:

Which one is right for your website?

Before we get to that, however, we should clear the air first with a question of our own.

Why start a membership site?

Recurring revenue is definitely a nice bonus, but what else can a membership website do for your business?

For one, it can help establish you as an expert in your field, while helping you build a robust and tangible relationship with your audience members and customers. Plus, it’s easy to set up with Podia’s “Shaker” plan.

That said, if you’re new to creating content or working with information products, membership sites may not be the best first step on your online business journey.

If you’re willing to put in the hours to make it happen, however, you’ll get rewarded with consumers who are loyal enough to recommend your business to others. 60% of loyal customers tell their friends and families about the brands they're most devoted to.

What’s the secret to making your members that loyal? Make sure the membership meets their needs, just like you would with a loyalty program.

Once you land that, you don’t have to charge exorbitant fees to make a tidy income. The Ladies of Real Estate only charge $20.00 a month, but they have over 7,000 members.

This equates to over $140,000 in monthly revenue for them.

So, why start a membership site? Because, if you’re committed to growing it, you can build a tribe of supportive -- financially and otherwise -- members and a stable, profitable business.

Here are five models you can use for a membership site.

Content cache memberships

If you’ve already built up a ton of content and/or are giving away free content, a content cache or content library model is perfect for you.

But if you’re still building up your content inventory, this model may be better down the line than as your starting point, particularly if you want to create a lifetime membership tier.

Open Jazz Studio's All-Access Pass membership is an excellent example of the content cache model.

Signing up gets you instant access to their entire content library in one convenient location.

And convenient is the important word there. Because even though you’ve already given away some -- or even all -- of your content for free, you can still charge for providing access to it.

After all, the biggest driver for great customer experience isn’t about delighting them. It’s about reducing the efforts they have to take to complete their goals.

And consumers will pay more for convenience. Time is short, and everyone is looking for a way to save it somewhere, so if your membership spares them from spending hours searching through your site, it’s a viable business model.

It’s one that a lot of online tribe leaders have put to work, too.

For example, Dewane Mutunga’s “Writer School” falls into this category because it provides a video resource library.

Likewise, McCoy Buck’s Moho Studio Academy is another content library because it offers the tools and resources members need for learning animation.

As a final example, Aja Edmond’s expertly styled membership is another content library that includes tools and resources for business owners.

All three of these creators have vastly different audiences, but all three have something in common, too: they have the content needed to offer members a convenient, easy-to-access library to better their lives.

So if you’ve already got a handle on the content game, this model can work for you.

Community-based memberships

You probably noticed that two of the last three examples included a community component.

Community-based membership models rely on the value proposition that the whole is stronger than the one. These require a lot of hands-on management, more so than a content library, to ensure that whatever platform you’re using for your community stays safe and engaged.

Facebook Groups are a popular option to use for this, but forums are also common.

But anyone can start a group, right? How does this model work as a business?

Remember how consumers pay more for convenience? They’ll pay more for a human touch in their experience, as well. That's why Melissa Norris, seasoned and successful membership site owner, says her community has been one of her greatest business assets. (To hear more from Melissa, check out our expert membership site tips.)

After all, the top four reasons people say foster an emotional connection to a business can all be fulfilled by a community-based membership.

If that’s not enough, you should also consider this fact: 27.3% of consumers use an online community devoted to a product or service to do research before making a purchase.

So this model can not only sell memberships but help you sell digital downloads and courses, too.

Let’s check out some examples of this model in action.

First up is Digital Freelancer. While this membership includes a content library, it also features a Slack channel that gives it a community focus.

Support and collaboration from other freelancers going through the rigamarole of making it in the self-employed world can do a lot to evoke positive emotions in members.

RJ McCollam’s Hector has a community model membership around it, too. Again, you see it on Slack and geared at freelancers.

For a Facebook-specific example, Becky Mollenkamp builds her “Own It. Crush It.” membership around a community of thriving women entrepreneurs helping each other as they learn the ropes.

Alongside their excellent coach, of course.

As you can see, community-based memberships are just as versatile as content libraries.

However, these have a heavier time requirement, as you -- or someone you appoint -- will need to act as a moderator to keep the community thriving and on track.

What if you want a community without quite as much work, however? For that, you should try the next model.

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Updated content memberships

Using updated content as your model is great for building engagement with your audience. Members pay a monthly or annual fee to stay apprised of your latest-and-greatest creations.

This model is ideal for new content creators who don’t have an extensive library to offer yet, for those who want the social aspects of membership without having to act as a moderator, and anyone who’s trying to grow their industry authority.

And, it’s powerful for making sales. If you provide informational content updates, members are 131% more likely to buy from you after reading it.

Plus, building up your audience and keeping them in the loop with you helps to create a better customer experience -- the human touch we talked about in the last section.

40% of customers have switched over to a competitor because of their customer service, so if you’re on the beat with your audience with the updated content model, your competition should be wary.

Jamie Keddie’s Storytelling Membership is one of my favorite examples of this type of membership. He provides his members with weekly content updates and a monthly webinar.

QuHarrison Terry’s “Observer” level package membership is another strong example of a content update model. Most of the perks he provides for members are updates around his products and business.

So, if you’re new to content or want a more hands-off membership model that primes members for buying your other digital products, this is a good model for you.

And, if you want to take it further, you can combine it with the next model for a healthy sales boost.

Product bundle memberships

If you have Netflix, you’re familiar with this membership model already. This model is the closest translation to a traditional “subscription.”

And, it can help your sales a lot, plus it makes it easier and cheaper for your customers to access your products.

This model is ideal for anyone with a lot of related products to offer. Instead of selling each individually, you charge members a flat monthly rate to access several (or all) of them for a given duration.

You can see it in action with Michael Yadchuk’s Productive Writer membership, which provides his customers with full access to all of his products.

Pixel Vision uses this model, too, with their “Pro” membership which gives subscribers access to their core product as part of their monthly fee.

But just how much can this type of membership -- essentially, a subscription -- help your business?

Considering that media subscribers account for 46% of US consumers, this model is clearly popular among several demographics.

More specifically, the same study found that 15% of all online shoppers have signed up for an ecommerce subscription, so there’s definitely a potential audience to reach by bundling your products as a monthly package.

The key to succeeding at this model is the same as succeeding at any business venture: knowing your customer and providing a bundle that appeals to them.

Take, for instance, DevSprout’s monthly product bundle. All of the courses relate to one another and will resonate with the same audience, so it’s a smart business move to tie them together.

And, there’s more than enough material in that monthly package to keep subscribers coming back for more.

Gautam Gupta, CEO of NatureBox -- a wildly successful subscription box service -- explains the necessity of this for building a subscription service:

“ need to know who she is, what motivates her to buy, and how you will keep her. The subscription implies that you will provide value on a sustainable basis, so think about what happens after the first few months. How do you make the experience unique?”

Here’s the bottom line for product bundles as a membership model:

If you have products to bundle together and understand your core audience member, you can join the subscription economy and make this membership model work for you.

Virtual coaching memberships

Did you know that social interaction is critical for your personal health?

So this last model isn’t just good for your business, it’s good for your body, too.

This means Lesya Liu is killing it, mentally and monetarily, with her VIP coaching program.

What can be better than getting one-on-one time with members of your audience and empowering them while also making a profit as a coach?

A sizeable profit, at that.

Becky Mollenkamp’s VIP coaching program runs $300.00 a month -- not a fee that you can charge lightly if you haven’t built up your authority as Becky has.

But if you have, you can pare it down to 15 members a month and make people work for landing a slot.

It’s worth noting that defining coaching services as a membership is a little less clean-cut than previous models.

However, since it requires renewal -- in the above examples, on a monthly or six-week basis -- to use it as a recurring service, this can still be a business-viable model for a membership website.

That said, because it’s so time-intensive -- you’re essentially leasing out your personal time and attention for a fee -- this model is best combined with other types or kept as a separate offering from your core membership.

But for those who are willing to commit the time to provide coaching services, they’re tapping into a burgeoning economy. The personal coaching industry in the US alone is expected to hit $1.34 billion by 2022, according to some experts.

If that wasn’t enough to claim that online coaching services are here to stay, just take it from the coaches themselves.

Out of over 1,000 professional coaching practice managers and external coaches, 67% and 63% (respectively) predict that app-based coaching platforms and providers will become a notable contender in the industry.

So if you’ve got the skills, the time, and an audience behind you, why not open your business up for one-on-one interaction with virtual coaching services?

Or, better yet, create a membership group around it and host exclusive training sessions for them as a whole. Same benefits, way more profit.

Basically, virtual coaching services aren’t a traditional membership model and definitely aren’t for everyone, but for those who have the means, it’s a potentially powerful source of recurring revenue.

If you want to learn more about starting a membership website and check out even more models, swing by our dedicated guide to create and launching a membership site and give these four show-stopping membership examples a look.

Membership models and you

A membership site isn’t always for the faint of heart -- success won’t happen overnight -- but if you’re dedicated to creating one, it can provide renewable income for you and build a strong online tribe to support your business for years to come.

Here are just five of the models we’ve seen for membership sites and why they work:

  • A content cache, or content library, is a great model for someone with a lot of content under their belt. It doesn’t matter if you’ve already provided your content elsewhere on the internet: people are willing to pay more for the convenience of accessing it in one place.

  • Community-based memberships are another strong contender. This requires the most hands-on involvement out of all our models, so it’s not ideal for someone who’s short on time or doesn’t want an intense social requirement, but it’s great for priming members to buy your products and services -- or recommend you to those who will.

  • Don’t have much content yet or don’t want a time-intensive membership site? Then the updated content model may work for you. This model is best for building engagement with your business and keeping people loyal to your brand. Plus, it doesn’t take much work on your part.

  • If you have multiple products you can bundle together, you can create a more ‘traditional’ subscription membership by offering them all as part of a monthly or annual package. A large portion of consumers have an active subscription, so this can be an easy way to bridge the divide between hesitant newcomers and first-time customers.

  • Finally, if you have the time and the skills, you can create memberships for one-on-one interaction by providing virtual coaching services. This model requires a lot more time investment on your part, but if you’re committed, you’ll be joining one of the fastest growing industries out there.

If you like more than one model, then implement both and see how they work. You can’t divide people into clean “a” or “b” categories, so why should your membership site model, especially when you can get started for free?

About the author

Lauren Cochran is the Director of Content for Podia, an all-in-one platform where online courses, digital downloads, membership websites, and webinars – alongside their creators – thrive. Ironically, she gets tongue-tied talking about herself, and can usually be found with a to-do list in hand.