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5 expert tips (I wish I heard sooner) for running membership sites

Get five battle-proven tips for running your membership website from expert creators on the frontlines of digital communities and businesses.

The way I figure it, there are three types of people when it comes to asking for directions:

  • The Explorer. It’s not how fast you get there, it’s how much you discover on the way. How else would you find out about that cow museum?

  • The Cartographer. If you’ve got a map, you’ve got a way. So what if it’s ten years old and has coffee stains?

  • The Communicator. If you want to get somewhere, ask someone who’s already been there.

And sometimes, especially when the destination is off the beaten path -- like creating a membership website and keeping it running -- a person can be all three.

Not that we’re always willing to make the transition between them. For entrepreneurs, paving our own way is almost an ethical obligation. Stopping to ask for directions and letting someone else guide us isn’t painless.

But if you want to sell memberships -- and you want to sell as many of them as quickly as you can -- hearing from the people who’ve been there can be the difference between a frustrating year and keeping your sanity.

So without further delay, here are five expert tips for running your membership website that I definitely could’ve used when I started mine.

Tip #1: If you want to engage your members, open the floor with polls

Have you ever had a teacher that was unquestionably brilliant, but try as you might, you were dozing in the first five minutes of every lecture?

It’s an affliction common to education and membership websites alike.

Because no matter how wonderful your assets are or how helpful your content is, your audience is still passive without direct forms of interaction.

Simply put, there’s nothing to engage them.

Professional promoters struggle with this puzzle, too. Trailing behind content quality, marketers rank engagement as their second greatest struggle with establishing credibility for a brand or business and building trust. Online course creators like Reuven Lerner echo this sentiment, saying that the value of engagement can't be understated, though the mark is easy to miss.

Luckily, Ayat Shukairy , CRO aficionado and co-founder of Invesp , has a solution for this .

She recommends using interactive content , explaining: “One of the great inventions of the 21st post dot com bust were [sic] marketing technologies that could gather customer information, behaviors, and insights in the easiest ways possible.”

For Invesp, she uses a platform called FigPii to run polls. For your membership website, Google Forms , SurveyMonkey , and Typeform are all excellent -- and free -- solutions. Facebook and Twitter also have polling features.

Ayat is no stranger to engagement, by the way. Just check out how Invesp ranks globally :

So if there’s anyone you should take advice from for keeping your members pumped, she’s a great place to start.

Polls aren’t just a way to benefit your membership website in the short term, as an aside. Improving engagement is also critical to keep your member retention numbers up and stabilizing your recurring revenue.

Research conducted on how surveys and polls influence customers found that a year after customers were asked for feedback, they were half as likely to have canceled their service or moved to a competitor and generated more profits than those who hadn’t been engaged.

Lay’s often uses this method as part of its new product development and marketing campaigns with off-the-wall flavors that encourage users to participate in the shape of the business.

E!News, reporting on said flavors, makes an especially meta follow-up example:

Just a quick word of caution when you’re setting up your polls. If you’re using an email platform like MailChimp (which we integrate with , if you didn’t know) to send out your polls, make sure you’re designing for mobile devices.

Over 33% of surveys in 2017 were completed on a mobile device.

This is the gist of it:

If you want to engage your members -- and you should if you want to keep them as long-time customers -- use polls. Just asking for feedback makes them more likely to stay with you in the long-run.

Tip #2: Create a community for members to support each other (And interact with you)

Interactions through polls are a strong start for boosting engagement on your membership website, but they’re not the full monty.

For that, you need good ole’ fashioned connection, says Melissa Norris of Pioneering Today . In an interview with Amy Porterfield , she explained how community connections have become the cornerstone of her membership program.

“Honestly, the private Facebook group has been one of the biggest assets to the whole membership site,” she told Amy, “The group is a true community, which happens in your private Facebooks but doesn’t happen in every single one I’ve been a part of with courses.”

Her results may sound surprising, but they make sense when you consider that 30% of people on Facebook are connected with people they’ve never met in the offline world.

That’s the real beauty of social media. It creates a rich web of human connection irrespective of distance and demographic where people can come together for a shared interest.

And in the case of membership sites, having a community elevates the program to more than just the sum of its parts. It creates a collective tribe that’s supportive, engaging, and benefits everyone -- your customers and you -- involved.

Facebook Groups , as you might have guessed, is a popular tool for membership websites (online course leaders should take heed of them for online course marketing strategies , too).

You don’t have to create a ton of content to make them thrive, either. User-generated content -- i.e., posts from members -- uplifted growth by 923% for one entrepreneur.

Becky Mollenkamp, whose membership program brings in $10,000 a year for her, has a thriving Facebook group as part of her program.

Facebook not quite your speed? No problem. If you have a more technologically-savvy audience, Slack is another free solution where you can create a community, functioning very similar to the internet relay chat systems of the days of yore.

Digital Freelancer uses this system as part of their community-based membership.

It also has over 750 native integrations alongside Google Drive support, which makes it significantly more powerful than Facebook Groups for more productivity-centered membership programs.

For more information about Slack, check out this awesome guide by ConvertKit ( another thing we integrate with) over here .


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Otherwise, take Melissa’s advice and create a community to keep your members engaged with each other and you.

Tip #3: Let members take a free trial spin

Having a free membership tier or offering a free trial of your membership program is a strategy that we’re big fans of, and we’re not the only ones.

Steve Collins of Teach Hoops , a membership website for basketball coaches, employs it as well.

Steve offers a 14-day free trial, explaining in his interview with Pat Flynn , “It’s always there.”

And because it’s always there, he adds a little more grease to the palms of prospectives with an enticing offer, “I’ve offered to do one-on-one if you join … I think I have to come up with something that’s going to … entice them to try it out. “

Is the enticement necessary? It depends on perspective.

On average, subscription-based businesses (such as memberships that require recurring payment) have a free trial conversion rate of 59.9% .

Steve’s experiences corroborate this experience, saying, “...there’s all sorts of stuff you read on the internet about churn rate, but people tend to stay. It’s really exciting.”

Like Melissa, Steve says it’s the chance to experience the community aspect of his membership program in the free trial that really pushes prospects over the conversion edge.

That tipping point is what content marketing consultant and writer Adebisi Adewusi calls the “ aha moment ,” and it’s pivotal to reach that moment as quickly as possible during your trial.

Slack, the platform we discussed in the last tip, has some serious mastery over this moment. Instead of bombarding users in their freemium trials -- which are similar to free trials but trade a finite duration with finite features instead --  with calls-to-action, they use value-based prompts.

In other words, they provide relevant value even with their free tier, and the result is an awesome conversion rate and loyal customers .

So you have two options with this advice. Either make your free trial unlimited and provide instant value as Transistor, a subscription-based podcasting platform , does ...

...or create a free tier that still provides value for the people signed up, similar to what you see Spotify, another recurring subscription service , do.

In either case, don’t underestimate the value of giving away free content for your membership and customers. It pays more than you think.

Tip #4: Make your content customer-first, business-last

When you started blogging for your online courses or business -- or when you do start -- your focus is on the bottom line, right?

After all, there’s no shortage of marketers (self included) talking about how content marketing can grow your business and improve every metric under the sun.

It’s cheaper, provides higher conversion rates than traditional marketing, and generates three times more leads .

But while your content delivers value for your membership website, its focal point shouldn’t be on your bottom line.

It should be on the people who create that bottom line.

At least, if you want to copy the success of BuzzFeed’s Tasty .

Orlando Baeza , Buzzfeed’s VP of Marketing, elaborated in a talk with Billee Howard , explaining how focusing content on viewers and subscribers transformed the network in just a few years' time.

“Now, Tasty is the biggest food network in the world, largely because of the approach we take to content development and to how we service [sic] our audience. We're listening to them, and we're answering the bell repeatedly.”

And with almost 1.2 billion views in October 2018 alone, their audience hasn’t stopped ringing that bell in the slightest.

“Instead of focusing on something,” Orlando explains, “We're focusing on the person that's reading or watching.”

They aren’t just getting more views than their competition with their approach, by the way. While they haven’t released an official report, Social Blade puts their annual earnings between a quarter-million and up to $5.8 million -- just based on their YouTube channel.

YouTube was their least popular traffic source, by the way, at ‘only’ 121, 722, 843 views, a significantly smaller number compared to their Facebook views.

Not bad for a channel that’s barely three years old, right?

Tiffany Williams is a big fan of this member-first strategy for content creation, as well.

She focuses on providing women entrepreneurs with the tools they need to be masterful business owners -- and makes a sustainable income with her Rich Girl Academy membership program as a result.

Just look at this customer-serving content plan .

Basically, Orlando’s advice and Tiffany’s approach drills down to this:

Content might be for the betterment of your business, but if you want your membership program to thrive, focus on the benefits of it for your customers -- the revenue will follow.

Tip #5: Transform everyone into your sales team

This tip comes from an unexpected source, but it’s too relevant to membership site owners not to include as a bonus.

Patricia Sigmon, president of the David Advisory Group as well as the author of the book Six Steps to Creating Profit , recommends this for employees :

“If you can get your employees invested and motivated to sell your message by encouraging self-development, through roundtables, conferences, lunch meetings, and webinars you'll be well on your way to creating an organization that's built around increasing profits.”

Swap out the term employees with customers, and you have premium advice for membership sites with affiliate programs .

And if you don’t have one, you should get one ASAP. With the holidays around the corner, affiliates -- your customers -- can drive significant profit for your business and help you sell more on Black Friday and Cyber Monday .

That applies to any holiday, by the way. Affiliates drove clicks up by 48% over Memorial Day weekend for their retailer partners in 2018 and improved clicks by 34.53% overall since last year.

It doesn’t take long for an affiliate program to become successful if it offers the right incentive to its participants. After switching to a higher payout, Chewy’s revenue soared in just four short months.

That’s why we start our own affiliate partners at a generous 30% recurring commission .

As for how to get your customers on board as affiliates, webinars -- part of Patricia’s advice -- stands out.

You can read more about the benefits and platforms you should use in our article about using webinars to launch an online course , but here’s the cliff notes version:

  • Webinars are powerful tools for emotional connection and education.

  • They move customers through the entire sales funnel -- meaning you can take potential affiliates through consideration to buy-in.

  • They convert significantly more than your standard landing page.

And as a bonus, they don’t have to be lengthy affairs. Webinars in the education industry tend to run for an average of 55 minutes, but anywhere between 30 minutes to 1 hour can sufficiently get your customers rolled into your affiliate program.

Starting an affiliate program takes even less time than that. You can set yours up in about 30 seconds if you’re on Podia’s Shaker plan .

And if you’re not, why not give it a free spin for 14 days ?

No hassle, no limits. We promise.

From explorer to expert

Look, I get it. Asking for help feels like it goes against the entrepreneur honor code, but when your business is on the line, you need an expert in your corner.

Even better if that expert has some great advice for your membership site, too. Check these out:

  • Want to improve engagement with your members? Use polls. Asking for feedback and interacting with your audience improves their chances of staying. Plus, it gives you useful insights into what your customers want -- and don’t want -- out of your program.

  • Communities are the lifeblood that keeps membership sites growing even when the creator has to step away for a spell. Use Facebook Groups or Slack to build a community where your members can engage and bond with each other.

  • Asking for a commitment before your members have gotten a chance to check out your product is old school. In modern times, you need to give them a free trial or free tier to familiarize with your membership to capitalize on customer growth.

  • Keeping with the lifeblood analogy, content is the beating heart of your membership website, but while it might sustain you, it beats for your members. Create content for them and not your bottom line (it’ll grow accordingly, though).

  • You’re probably a one-woman or man show, but your customers can easily become part of your sales team with an affiliate program that pays off for both of you. Think of them as your partners in crime and use webinars to get them on board with your profit caper.

Whether you’re the explorer, the mapper, or the community -- or even all three -- use these tips to help your membership site thrive, boost your engagement, turn a tidy profit, and uplift your sales.

About the author

Lauren Cochran is the former Director of Content for Podia. She still drops in to say hello and share cat pictures from time to time.