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Choosing and validating your membership site idea

Membership sites are a great way to earn recurring income, but choosing the right topic for your membership is important. Here's how.

Hair full of suds and brain going a mile a minute, your morning shower becomes a lightbulb moment.

You have an idea for a membership site. A good one. One that has the power to deliver recurring revenue and a rock-solid business with the right membership software.

But like most great ideas, you put it on the back-burner. There are kids to feed, errands to run, day jobs to work.

Except the idea won’t leave you alone.

It’s there when you’re falling asleep. When you make a U-turn, it’s in your passenger seat.

Eventually, you realize you have to put it in motion.

But how do you do that? That’s where this article comes in. Today, we’ll show you how to narrow in on your idea, validate it, and implement it.

First, though, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page about membership sites.

What is a membership site?

Membership sites come in a variety of flavors. At a minimum, a membership site is any arrangement where customers subscribe to you on a monthly or annual basis for access to exclusive benefits.

They don’t necessarily have to be paying for it, but if they subscribe once and don’t have any commitment after that, the program is more in line with a readership than a membership.

And there are a lot of models to choose from, depending on your ultimate goals. If you want to build an audience, low-cost or free membership sites may be your best option. If you’re looking to make it a mainstay of your income, your model will have to change to match.

Whether your membership site is delivering a box of goodies or a digital box of educational magic, ecommerce-based subscriptions generally fall into three categories.

If your membership gives learners regular lessons and new content, it probably falls into the “subscribe for replenishment” category. If it gives them exclusive access to coaching sessions, it falls into “subscribe for access.”

For instance, MarketingProfs “PRO” membership falls into the access category because they offer members exclusive content.

Now here’s the (really) good news:

Subscription-based businesses are wildly popular nowadays. In fact, 92% of millennials have an active subscription.

And, even if you don’t use your membership as a direct source of revenue, it can still be very helpful to sell online courses or digital downloads.

One retailer found their subscribers spend 2.7x more than their nonsubscriber customers.

So what is a membership site? A profit machine that can and will work for you -- as long as you get the idea behind it right.

Which is what we’re going to do next.

Choosing your idea for a membership site

Now that we’re all on the same page, you need to refine -- or generate -- your idea for your membership site.

There are two approaches you can take for this.

  1. Find a profitable niche

  2. Identify problems in that niche (that you later validate)

  3. Narrow in on the most profitable of those problems

Or, if you already have an idea, you can work in reverse:

  1. Start with your idea

  2. Find the niche audience associated with it

  3. Do your research on said audience

In either case, you’ll want to use an intelligent analytic tool like Quantcast to start gathering data.  It’s similar to Facebook Pixel, but a little more user-friendly.

Here’s how to use it.

As usual, start at the homepage and click the “Get Started” button.

This button will launch a new screen:

Choose the first option under “measure,” then go ahead and finish signing up on the next screen.

Once you’re done, you’ll open up your new dashboard. You need to add a “property.” Click on the indicated button to go to the next screen.

Now, plug in your website URL and select “Get Your Tag.”

Easy as that. You’ll receive a unique tag on the next screen to add to your website.

From here, select your CMS (WordPress, Wix, etc.) for detailed step-by-step instructions on adding it to your website. The instructions should open in a new window, but don’t close this one yet.

It took me about two minutes to set it up on a WordPress site.

When done, return to the original page and click “I Added My Tag.”

You should see your property status change. It takes a day or two to start gathering research on your visitors, but that doesn’t mean we did all of that for nothing. You can also use Quantcast to check out your competitors’ -- and ideally, soon-to-be yours -- audience in the meantime.

Plug in a URL in the right-hand side menu indicated below.

As an example, we’ll check out BuzzFeed. Note that you may have to shave off the “https” to get it to run.

How much information you spy depends on whether or not they’ve also used Quantcast.

Here’s a peek at our results for BuzzFeed.

Cool, right? As your Quantcast runs, you’ll be collecting similar information, all of which you can use to build accurate audience personas of your niche.

And accuracy matters. Businesses who reach -- or rocket past -- their revenue goals are 2.4x more likely to be effective at using personas than other businesses.

Nothing makes you more effective than homework.

As you’re waiting on your data to populate in Quantcast and checking out your competitors, you need to keep in mind that your target audience should be laser-focused to a small niche.

Omo and Eulanda, co-founders of (HDYTI), explain this point succinctly:

“Small businesses cannot be all things to all customers. While being a generalist may have its benefits, defining a niche market is one key to long-term success.”

As an example, consider Jamie Keddie’s membership program.

Storytelling is a wide market -- too wide for any small business owner to cover and still have time to enjoy their profits -- but, by narrowing in on teachers, Jamie doesn’t have to worry about that.

Becky Mollenkamp has a similar approach, focusing exclusively on women entrepreneurs.

And, when you consider that entrepreneurship is growing at a staggering rate globally, that’s an important step to ensure Becky can deliver her services and have a life outside of it.

So no matter how you choose your idea -- whether you work from the idea first or audience first -- make sure you’re narrowing down on the people you’re going to serve by building as accurate as possible audience personas.

Quantcast is one tool you can use to do that, and it’ll really come in handy as you move to the next stage of your membership site creation.


Validating your idea

Everyone likes a little validation every now and again -- your business included.

Validating a product idea is simpler than it might seem, too. You just have to sell it before you build it.

Selling your idea first helps you measure market need, build a list for a profitable launch, and adjust any kinks in the machine before you start pouring time, energy, or money into it.

If you want to get fancy, you can use the Lean-Agile marketing model. Here’s an overview of how to take a market opportunity to a laser focus point with these systems.

All you need to do is write out the ideas you came up with in the first part of this article on post-it notes (physical or digital) and sort them into categories.

And, at this stage of your membership site, you have everything you need to start building the second map and gauge the attractiveness of your idea.

But this is where it gets trickier. Because you can’t be the one to judge that attractiveness. For that, your potential audience has to help.

Which means you have to hit up social media and start talking to people.

The easiest way to get started is to do some hashtag research and see what conversations are already going on, then join in.

As an example, let’s say I wanted to start a membership site around design inspiration. I head to a tool like HashAtIt and plug in a relevant hashtag.

This is a great tool to use because it searches through every major platform and can tell you where the conversation is happening around a specific hashtag.

In this case, it seems like Instagram would be the best place for me to get involved in the conversation and start putting out feelers for my idea.

Running the same search for just “#design,” I see that Twitter may be a better place to use this hashtag.

Both of these have potential, but since a membership site -- or any online product -- needs a narrow market to gain ground, you’d be better off heading to Instagram for this specific type of membership.

Click on one of the posts that jibes with your idea, follow the trail of hashtags, and you’ll land at an audience you can engage with and pitch your idea to.

Which begs the question: OK, you can find them, but exactly how do you “join” the conversation?

You can create polls to engage with them on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

You can also submit your content to start getting followers with the hashtags you’ve identified as part of your audience.

That’s what Jake Starr did to get his ecommerce business off the ground to the tune of six figures.

Just don’t rely too heavily on “vanity metrics” like page views and likes. Referrals back to your website, retweets, and comments are all much more accurate metrics for validating your idea.

Alternatively, if social media isn’t your flavor (though it’s worth considering since 8% of small businesses attribute social media as the source for at least a quarter of their new customers), you can also use online communities.

Specifically, forums related to your niche. You can find them with a quick Google search. Keeping with our earlier example, here’s what I mean:

Like that, I have two forums and two sources for finding new forums with a search that took 0.57 seconds.

Just be sure to check out the rules for any forum you decide to leverage before running your idea by them. Some may require a certain number of posts or have specific requirements for promotion.

Reddit and Quora, as you can see in the above example, are also potential avenues of validation.

If people are interested, they’ll let you know in direct feedback, visits to your website (which is where your Quantcast will come in handy to get their demographic information), and preorders once you’re ready to go live.

That’s how it worked for Laura Elizabeth, who pulled in $33,000 in her first week of online course sales.

She had this to say about talking with her audience ahead of time:

“But you also need to know the people you’re selling to really well. It’s hard to accurately guess what people want, what kind of content resonates with them and how they like to be spoken to.”

The same principle applies to membership sites. So, if you want to validate your idea -- and you should -- go where your potential audiences are and start talking with them.

Social media and online communities are both easy, no-commute options.

Then, use their responses to arrange your ideas into the attractiveness map and narrow in on the one that fits into the “gold mine” category.

It isn’t necessarily easy, but it is simple.

And, once you do that, you can finally get to the exciting part of this journey.

Implementing your idea

Once you’ve validated your idea, it’s time to start building your membership site -- but you’re not done with your homework yet.

You need to get the tools to build your website, which you can learn more about in our main guide.

You also need to keep the momentum going from your validation stage by redirecting it to your blog.

Ideally -- if you haven’t already started -- you should also be giving away free content to keep the interest going. Curating it is a good step, but creating is where the leads are at.

Posts that link back to your site on social media, i.e., content you create and share on social channels, boast a 54% higher click-to-conversion rate than curated links.

This is probably why 81% of professional marketers intend on increasing their original content for their blogs.

So, although content may be new, if you’re trying to get off the ground and implement your membership software, create your own content -- it’ll pay off.

Finally, you’ll need some great membership software. I may be a little biased, but I think Podia’s is pretty great. You can get started for free today.

I’d like to close out this article with a particularly poignant statistic.

What do 51% of people say is the best way to become an entrepreneur?

“Start a company.”

So what are you waiting for? Get your idea out there. And, remember, Podia is always here to help.

From idea to reality

Great ideas don’t just come and go. They park in your brain until you unleash them and see what they can become -- membership site ideas included.

Here’s how to make your membership idea live its best life:

  • Be clear on what a membership site is. If you’re looking for monthly or annual subscribers, you want a membership. If you’re looking for lifetime followers, your idea is probably more in line with having a readership.

  • Chances are you don’t have just one great idea, but a handful or more. You have to narrow in on the best one to devote your time and energy. Do that by choosing the one with the most profitable niche.

  • Don’t have an idea yet? No problem. Work in the other direction and start with a niche, then investigate that audience and come up with your ideas based on their needs.

  • Regardless of your order, you have to build a strong understanding of your audience. Audience personas are a great way to do that, and Quantcast can help you build the most accurate picture possible (for free).

  • After that, you have to validate your idea. There’s no substitute for testing it on the audience it’s intended for. Use hashtags on social media to join the conversation with your audience or start a new one with them.

  • Online communities like forums and Quora are also a strong source for validation. Just make sure you peep their rules before you post.

  • Validation done? You’re at the exciting part now. Implement your idea and build your membership site. While you’re gearing up, keep the momentum going by giving away free content and beefing up your blog.

Membership sites are a powerful source of recurring income, but it’s not just about the bottom line. When you start a great membership program, you’re bringing together like-minded people -- your customers -- and opening the door for so much more than profit.

The profit part is pretty nice, though.


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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.