Launching a membership site the right way: 4 proven steps
Scared that you'll launch your membership site to crickets? Don't worry, we've got you covered with a step-by-step plan to ensure your launch is a success.
Launching a new membership site can feel a lot like the first day at a new school or job.
You know how you start is vital for your future earnings, so you pick out your outfit carefully. You set an early alarm to make sure you get there on time.
The nerves probably keep you up later than you’d like, but you pull it off, and once you walk through those doors to greet your new classmates or colleagues, you realize something:
It’s not half as scary as you thought. In fact, you got this.
Now, swap out “colleague” for “customers” and you have the same experience with a membership website.
Instead of a perfect outfit, you need the perfect membership software. And instead of getting up earlier than any rooster in its right mind would, you need a marketing plan.
Which is where this guide comes in. Today, we’ll take you step-by-step through everything you need to know to give your membership website a stellar first (or second) impression.
Let’s get right to it.
Step #1. Research your target audience and create a journey map
Researching your potential customers is such a pivotal step to creating a marketing plan for an online business or product that, in a perfect world, you wouldn’t be allowed to launch before you did your homework.
And it’s a step that can hurt even giants if it’s skipped.
Here’s what I mean:
Think back to the last time you ran out of laundry detergent or needed a random office supply.
What did you do?
If you’re like me, you headed straight to Amazon. It’s almost a Pavlovian reflex at this point.
And given that 55% of people say Amazon understands their needs and preferences in a way other retailers can’t match, it’s probably a reflex a lot of you share.
But the point isn’t to tell you about how great Amazon is. Instead, it’s to drive this point home:
Even with over half of their customers saying they understand their needs, Amazon couldn’t salvage the Amazon Fire from the dregs.
They didn’t understand what their audience wanted, and despite a marketing budget that could put someone through a proper undergraduate education, it was an all-but-lost cause.
The Microsoft Zune, whose existence only survives in recent memory because of Guardians of the Galaxy, is another example of a product that fell short in the hands of business behemoths because it missed its mark with its audience.
That’s how important this step is. Skip it, and it won’t matter how much time or money you sink into your launch. It’s not going to reach its potential.
So, how do you do audience research? You start with audience personas (which you can learn more about and get a walkthrough for in our previous article about online course marketing strategies). After that, you refine them to laser-target your products and promotions.
Refining is a crucial addendum in this step.
Continuously refining and reshaping personas helped one business grow their lead acquisition by 166% month-to-month.
A third of top-performing marketers report that having the tools they need for gathering data and analyzing it is critical to understanding their customers.
But a word of caution. While data is essential in marketing, it’s not the end-all-be-all.
For most companies, data-based marketing strategies only get them halfway.
On a scale of one to seven, with one being the lowest and seven being the highest, marketing professionals say analytics only get to a 4.1 in terms of contribution to actual sales performance.
So although hard data like analytics are a must-have and should be a cornerstone of your research, they can’t be the entirety of it.
Besides, even if they were enough, you’d need some serious traffic to get anything meaningful out of it, and if you’re just launching (or re-launching), that’s probably not viable.
One great (and fun) way to supplement your data is to create a customer journey map out of it.
This technique is the most popular choice of businesses looking to improve their conversions, with 66% rating it as a vital way to use data.
Customer journey maps are typically associated with user experience design (UXD), but that’s not a bad thing. Applying UXD research helped Sales Hacker reshape their marketing strategy and close up gaps by providing audience insights they might have otherwise missed.
Here’s what a customer journey map looks like in its most dressed-down state:
And here’s a peep at what the same kind of map looks like when it’s been decked to the nines by a designer:
A lot of this data comes directly from analytics, but you can enrich it further by scanning for online conversations on sites like Quora and social media and sending out audience surveys.
You can build your own journey map for free with tools like Lucidchart or UXPressia, but any kind of diagramming software will work. The key to succeeding with a journey map is making it as accurate as possible by combining analytical and anecdotal evidence.
Once you’ve got sufficient research at hand, the map itself is simple.
All you have to do is diagram tasks, emotions, and touchpoints -- places where your customers interact with your brand -- according to the different sales stages.
Looked at from another angle, you can create your journey map in five steps:
Start with setting your goal, and if you have any business partners, getting them on board with it.
Then look at the research you already have at hand and try to generate insights from it.
If you don’t have enough to complete this step, don’t worry, because the next is what we’ve covered today -- using your analytics and scanning social sites.
Next, create your map. It can be as visual -- or textual -- as you prefer.
Finally, use your map to shape your marketing, and more specifically content, plan.
Step #2. Use your journey map and data to create a content plan
A content plan is exactly what it sounds like: a framework for what kind of content you should create (such as blog posts, infographics, and social posts), when you should create it, and how you should distribute it.
You can do content marketing without a plan, but like most things in life, the more documented your strategy, the better your results, particularly if you want to monetize your blog audience in the future.
Which is probably why 40% of business-to-consumer marketers have a documented strategy and 23% plan to create one.
By the way, businesses from every online industry have credited content marketing as their growth-boosting linchpin.
But returning to content plans, creating a documented strategy keeps you on track when the million little hiccups of everyday life get in your way, and if you’re working with a small budget, stretches your dollar out further.
After all, if you know in advance what kind of content you need to create, you can maximize on its usefulness by devising ways to repurpose it (aka, creating once and publishing everywhere, as we covered in our previous article on giving away content for free).
You can find some excellent, free content marketing plan templates on Curata to get you started, but the basic gist is this:
First, find a content management system. WordPress is the most popular, but you don’t have to stick with a traditional CMS if it’s not your speed.
In fact, for a content plan, project management tools like Coschedule and Trello can help you manage your assets and schedule more intuitively. You can check out a detailed guide to the latter two tools (plus a bonus) in our article about blogging and SEO.
I’m personally a fan of Trello in particular, and I’m not alone.
As for how to put one together, it’s simple.
Generate your content plan based on the information you compiled in your journey map. What are the emotions people feel about your brand or membership when they first become aware of it? What about when they’re considering purchasing it but aren’t ready to jump in yet?
Address those emotions and frustrations with your content. That’s all there is to it.
Once you’ve got your content or project management system and strategy down, you need to build creative assets to go with your future content.
These are the graphics, icons, and other resources that will be associated with your business. Even better if you can create ready-to-share materials like social posts.
That’s what we do for our affiliates, and they love it.
Creating assets as part of your content plan help users share your branded content once you start publishing. The less work it is for them, the more likely your content is going to get traction.
The last step is to roll out your content plan. Create the copy for your blog posts (this article on online sales writing may help), pool the research for your infographics, and start getting it out there.
Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube are the most popular distribution channels for professionals.
Implementing your content plan will not only attract a larger audience on social through shares, but it’ll also help your pages compete on Google when potential customers look up information about your subject area.
72% of marketers report that it’s their biggest driver for search engine optimization (SEO).
But if that’s not enough to convince you that this step can help you reach more customers and have a more profitable launch, consider the case of CollegeRaptor.
They had almost no organic reach. None.
Pulling together an infographic and creating content with public data that anyone could find helped them see up to 100,000 visitors per month in a year’s time.
Just this one piece of content -- a nice piece, but far from elaborate -- did all that.
After creating your content plan and aligning it with the stages you mapped out in your customer journey map, it’s time to launch.
Step #3. Soft launch with affiliate program
A soft launch is like a practice job interview, except if you do it right, you can actually get paid for it.
And, because soft launches include on a very select number of people -- say, your social list or nurtured email list -- you can test the water with your membership website without putting it through the full paces and scrutiny of the public.
Take the creative assets you created in the last step and, just like we do, pair them up with an affiliate program.
Having assets at the ready will put you well ahead of your competition. Affiliates report that less than 25% of programs they promote provide them with the materials to do so.
If you’re not familiar with affiliate marketing, you can read more about it over here in our affiliate marketing tips guide, but the basic of it is this:
You incentivize early customers to sell your product by offering them a cut or return on any sales they land for you.
Affiliates consistently drive new customer acquisition for businesses, especially during the holiday season. New customers consistently account for as much as 45% of orders during the last quarter of the year.
Soft launching with an affiliate program isn’t a new tactic, though it’s one that often gets skipped over. Using this exact strategy took Corey Ferreira’s business from startup to over $2,000 in profits in just five weeks.
Claire Pelletreau saw similar results when she incorporated an affiliate program into her launch, helping lift her first-month revenue to $37,517.
So, launch your membership website to a select group -- followers and early-adopters -- and leverage that group to spread your brand by creating an affiliate program to reward them.
And if you’re not, why not try it out for free?
Then, once you’re ready and you’ve addressed any hiccups that happen in the soft launch, it’s time to pick up the pace.
Step #4. Hard launch with a flash sale
Your soft launch serves two purposes: (a) it increases general awareness about your brand, and (b) it helps you ferret out any problems with your membership before you open to the public.
Your hard launch, on the other hand, only has one point -- to get as many sales as possible. And a flash sale with coupons is an easy, tried-and-true way to make that happen.
48% of customers purchase sooner when they have a coupon to use.
Plus, coupons are the crème de la crème for driving customer loyalty. 61% of customers say they use them, so this strategy isn’t just good for landing your first customers, it’s also great for keeping them.
And since a membership website is supposed to be a source of recurring revenue, that’s an important metric to hit.
That said, another quick word of caution here. Coupons are great for generating sales quickly, but they should be saved as a growth strategy and kept to a minimum after that.
Devaluing your brand with too many coupons may attract more customers, but they might not be the kind of customers you want.
Everyone loves a bargain. Not everyone loves a bargain hunter, though -- at least, not if it’s your livelihood on the line. If you find that you're only attracting bargain hunters, you may want to revise how you set your price for a membership site.
Otherwise, launch with a promotional price, but put a time limit on it and make it a flash sale like you see Neiman Marcus doing below.
You might be thinking that this tactic sounds fine, but where’s the proof?
It’s an understandable thought. Although anyone in business will invariably have a love-hate relationship with offering discounts, the ones who love it all have something in common.
They use it sparingly, and they make the offers ultra-targeted. Did your customer journey reveal that people weren’t sure if your membership program would be worth the monthly investment? Offer them a discount on a yearly plan or quarterly plan.
Taking this targeted approach can improve conversions by 272% in just a month’s time.
I’ve saved the best part of this strategy for last: it’s super easy to create a flash sale with Podia.
How simple? Let’s find out. As usual, start at your dashboard.
Navigate to your "Memberships" panel. From here, click on “Plans.”
Scroll down until you see the coupons panel, then click “create a coupon.”
Now, give the coupon a code -- “lift off” works well -- and click the drop-down menu under “type.”
For a flash sale, the second category is perfect.
Set your flash sale duration. For a launch, one or two weeks should give you ample opportunity to promote and distribute the coupon without hurting your brand’s value. Ordinarily, flash sales are much shorter.
All done? Click save…
...and you’re set! No mess, no fuss.
Just all that membership launch goodness.
Starting off on the right foot
Launching your membership website may seem daunting, but it’s easier than you think. All you have to do is follow these four steps:
- Research your audience and create a journey map for them. For the best results, use both hard and soft data to build your picture of how your future customers think and what they feel at different stages of the sales cycle.
- Then, use that journey map to create a content plan. You could skip the plan and just start publishing content, but when there are so many tools that make it easy to create a plan and so many benefits, why would you?
- When you’re ready to test the waters, soft launch your membership website with an affiliate program. You’ll get the chance to discover kinks in the machine and grow your business.
- Finally, after your soft launch, hit the pavement running with a flash sale during your hard launch. These limited duration sales can incentivize customers to purchase sooner -- just be careful that you don’t overextend your discounts and devalue your brand.
Equipped with these four steps, your membership website will thrive on launch day -- even if it’s your second or third time launching out. So get out there and start selling, and remember, the plunge is only scary before you take it.