How to Create an Amazing Membership Website: The Complete Guide

This step-by-step guide contains everything you need to know about building and launching an online membership business.

how to create online courses in 2018

“A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another.”

Seth Godin, Tribes

What comes to mind when you think of the word “leader”?

Many people picture an authority figure; a CEO, a politician, a coach.

Of course, those are examples of leaders, but they’re far from the only ones.

In fact, we believe that everyone can be a leader.

And there’s a very good chance that you already are!

If you have a customer, a client, an email subscriber or a social media follower…then you’re already leading.

People have chosen to follow you because they believe that you can help them in some way. - Tweet this

That’s a powerful and exciting position to be in, and one of the best ways to leverage that position to build deeper relationships with your audience, help more people and earn money from your passion is to create a membership website.

In this guide, we’ll show you exactly how to harness the power of one of the most exciting creator monetization options out there.

We’re covering everything from start to finish, so don’t worry if you don’t even have an idea for your membership subscription business; we’ll help you with every step along the way.

Enjoy the guide, and congratulations on taking the lead 💪

Table of contents

Chapter 1
The definition of a membership site, and how it differs from other online business products like courses and digital downloads.
Chapter 2
There are many models you can choose from. These 8 examples are already proven to work.
Chapter 3
Plus, learn about membership tiers and whether you should offer monthly or annual subscriptions.
Chapter 4
Picking a platform is a challenge that even experienced creators get hung up on. How to make the decision quickly.
Chapter 1

What is a membership, anyway?

A membership is a subscription-based product that lets you charge your audience a monthly or annual fee in exchange for access to your membership site.

There are many different types of content, products or services you can offer on that private site (more on that later), but the key is that the site is “gated” and only available to members.

Some memberships include additional components like webinars, private Facebook groups or Slack channels and offline events.

You could also offer a membership subscription for free, in which case it’s like having an email list on steroids, as the features of most membership platforms (like Podia) — including comments, “likes” and the ability to easily browse past updates — make it far more interactive and intimate than a traditional newsletter list.

What are the benefits of memberships?

Of course, there are lots of ways to build an online business, from online courses to selling digital downloads, and plenty more.

But memberships have some unique benefits over other product types:

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to choose one type of product for your business.

Memberships, courses and downloads can be — and often are — complimentary parts of a successful creator’s product mix.

As Travis Northcutt of MemberUp explains, memberships offer multiple benefits to creators:

“From a business perspective, the biggest benefit is the potential for steady monthly revenue, plus ongoing opportunities for upselling your customers in the future. You're also likely to generate additional product/course/membership ideas, since you'll likely be interacting with your members a lot more than if they made a one-off purchase.

From a satisfaction standpoint, many people who run membership sites with communities (forums, Slack or Facebook groups, etc.) find doing so very fulfilling, and often build close relationships they wouldn't have otherwise.”

Travis Northcutt

Who should consider selling memberships?

Below are a few of the scenarios where a membership might be a great tool for you:

And if you're still struggling to decide, see our guide on whether you should choose create an Online Course or a Membership site.

Who Benefits from Memberships?

If you’re a…
Then a membership can help you…
Content creator (blogger, vlogger, podcaster, etc…)
Sell content directly to your audience without relying on ads, sponsors or affiliate partnerships. Cut out the middleman and build a deeper relationship with your tribe!
Service provider (consultant, freelancer or coach)
Add an additional revenue stream to your business by offering exclusive tips and advice for a subscription fee. It’s the perfect upsell opportunity to clients whose contracts are ending, or downsell for prospects who can’t afford or aren’t quite ready to pay for your full hands-on services.
Product company (software, eCommerce or brick-and-mortar)
Build a free “fan club” that offers your customers a unique behind-the-scenes look at the company behind the products they love. Increasingly, people crave a personal connection to the companies they buy from, and a membership is an extraordinarily powerful way to build that relationship.
Chapter 1

What is a membership, anyway?

A membership is a subscription-based product that lets you charge your audience a monthly or annual fee in exchange for access to your membership site.

There are many different types of content, products or services you can offer on that private site (more on that later), but the key is that the site is “gated” and only available to members.

Some memberships include additional components like webinars, private Facebook groups or Slack channels and offline events.

You could also offer a membership subscription for free, in which case it’s like having an email list on steroids, as the features of most membership platforms (like Podia) — including comments, “likes” and the ability to easily browse past updates — make it far more interactive and intimate than a traditional newsletter list.

What are the benefits of memberships?

Of course, there are lots of ways to build an online business, from online courses to selling digital downloads, and plenty more.

But memberships have some unique benefits over other product types:

Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to choose one type of product for your business.

Memberships, courses and downloads can be — and often are — complimentary parts of a successful creator’s product mix.

As Travis Northcutt of MemberUp explains, memberships offer multiple benefits to creators:

“From a business perspective, the biggest benefit is the potential for steady monthly revenue, plus ongoing opportunities for upselling your customers in the future. You're also likely to generate additional product/course/membership ideas, since you'll likely be interacting with your members a lot more than if they made a one-off purchase.

From a satisfaction standpoint, many people who run membership sites with communities (forums, Slack or Facebook groups, etc.) find doing so very fulfilling, and often build close relationships they wouldn't have otherwise.”

Travis Northcutt

Who should consider selling memberships?

Here are a few of the scenarios where a membership might be a great tool for you:

Here are a few of the scenarios where a membership might be a great tool for you:

Who Benefits from Memberships?

If you’re a…
Then a membership can help you…
Content creator (blogger, vlogger, podcaster, etc…)
Sell content directly to your audience without relying on ads, sponsors or affiliate partnerships. Cut out the middleman and build a deeper relationship with your tribe!
Service provider (consultant, freelancer or coach)
Add an additional revenue stream to your business by offering exclusive tips and advice for a subscription fee. It’s the perfect upsell opportunity to clients whose contracts are ending, or downsell for prospects who can’t afford or aren’t quite ready to pay for your full hands-on services.
Product company (software, eCommerce or brick-and-mortar)
Build a free “fan club” that offers your customers a unique behind-the-scenes look at the company behind the products they love. Increasingly, people crave a personal connection to the companies they buy from, and a membership is an extraordinarily powerful way to build that relationship.
Chapter 2

Choosing a membership model: 8 examples that work

Unlike online courses, which solve a specific problem or pain point for your students, most memberships are ongoing.

That means (with just one exception, which you’ll learn about below) that solving a finite problem that can be solved in a few weeks isn’t enough.

Fortunately, that still leaves you with a world of options.

Here are just a few of the ways that you can model your membership:

Content Updates

One of the most common membership models is the Content Update Model.

In this model, members pay you for access to content that you publish on an ongoing basis.

Examples of Content Update Model memberships include:

Daily, weekly or monthly tips, like the ones David Delahunty publishes in his 5 Ideas a Day Community:

Behind-the-scenes updates about what you’re working on, like Mackenzie Child’s live recordings of his illustrations:

Curated roundups of (and commentary on) content your members will find interesting and valuable, which is how I structure my own membership:

Or video lessons, like the artist Robert Joyner offers to budding painters in his popular Painthog Membership:

The Content Update Model depends on your ongoing publishing to succeed, so be sure that whatever topic you choose for your membership, you’re confident that you can create enough content to offer value to your community over the long term.

Content Library

Unlike the Content Update Model, the primary value offered with the Content Library Model is access to an existing collection of content that was published in the past.

See, for example, how Becky Mollenkamp offers her entire content library to members of her Own it Crush it VIP Membership:

Of course, you can combine both content models, offering members access to past and future content.

Group Coaching

If you’re a coach or consultant — or want to become one — the Group Coaching Model, like the one Justin Jackson uses, is a terrific way to grow your business.

The reason this model is so powerful comes down to one simple word: scale.

If you do ten coaching sessions per week at $50 per session, and each session lasts one hour, then you’ve earned $500.

That’s great, but now those ten booked hours are closed; you can’t earn any more money from them unless you raise your rate.

Now imagine if, instead, you offer group coaching at $30.

The possibilities for that hour become a lot more interesting, as you can book two ($60), three ($150), five ($250) or more clients.

A Group Coaching Model membership is a simple way to deliver this service, allowing clients to sign up for regular coaching sessions with you. Plus, they’ll get value from your content updates, member community and more.

Professional Service

If you offer professional services like design, consulting, writing or anything where you’re paid for tasks or time, then a Professional Service Model membership is worth considering.

The way the model works is this: clients buy a monthly or annual membership that includes a pre-determined scope of work each month (or year).

For example, drum teacher Jared Hoffman sells drum lessons this way through his Drum Club Membership:

This benefits both the service provider and the client as it creates predictable, recurring revenue for the provider, while letting the client guarantee availability in advance.

Product Bundle

If you already have other digital products like courses, ebooks, templates, cheat sheets or any other downloads, the Product Bundle Model can help you get more of your products into people’s hands.

Rather than trying to convince your audience to buy multiple products from you, you can make it easy for them by bundling two or more products together, and offering them with a Membership subscription.

Chantel Arnett, of the Blog Biz School Membership, offers members a huge array of her other products in one fell swoop:

Besides being a standalone membership model, offering a product bundle is a powerful way to convince prospects to join any type of membership.

Community

In a Community Model membership, members get value from being a part of a community of like-minded people who share a goal.

You’ll need to manage the community to ensure that posts stay on topic and members stay engaged, and these types of memberships often have a forum component, or a shared Facebook or Slack group.

Christine Morris of the FBL Academy Mastermind Membership offers exactly that:

Path-to-Result

Want to help your members achieve something specific?

Then a Path-to-Result Model is what you’re looking for. In this model, members join based on the promise of accomplishing an outcome at the end of a pre-determined period.

That’s the approach that fitness instructor Masiel Encarnación takes with her 8-Week Snatch Membership:

This model is similar to online courses, but the membership approach makes it easy to add other components like a community and live content updates.

Hybrid

The last — and most popular — membership model is the Hybrid Model.

This is exactly what it sounds like: a combination of two or more of the above models.

While it’s helpful to know the different types of models, the reality is that many membership creators combine different models to offer more value to their members.

You could offer, for example:

The Hybrid Model makes it easy to add lots of value for your members, and also to offer different options (called “tiers” — more on that, and why you might want to do that, in a bit).

So, to recap, the 8 primary membership models are:

The 8 Primary Membership Models

Model
Description
Content Update
Regularly published content.
Content Library
Access to a pre-existing library of content.
Group Coaching
Scheduled group coaching sessions.
Professional Service
Pre-purchased services on a recurring basis.
Product Bundle
Two or more digital products offered together.
Community
Members learn together and from each other.
Path-to-Result
Accomplish a specific outcome.
Hybrid
A mix of two or more of any of these models.

Once you’ve chosen one to start with, it’s time to work out a few final details…

Chapter 3

Setting a price for your membership

A lot of creators turn pricing into a complicated mental struggle.

“Should I charge $5 or $50?”

“Should I have a free tier?”

“What if my price scares people away?”

Reasonable questions, to be sure, but don’t worry; we’re about to resolve them all.

How to choose a starting price for your membership

As with any product, the best pricing strategy depends on your goals.

What is your #1 goal for your membership?

The answer to that question will determine the optimal membership pricing strategy for you.

Here are some guidelines to follow for picking a price to charge.

Scenario #1

Goal: Build the largest possible membership base.

Best for: Creators who want to build and grow a platform to engage with as many members as possible, regardless of revenue generated from membership subscriptions.

Optimal pricing strategy: Offer your membership for free or a very low price (

Scenario #2

Goal: Make the most revenue from membership subscriptions.

Best for: Online entrepreneurs who want their membership to serve as one of the primary profit-generating pillars of their business.

Optimal pricing strategy: Set your price high enough that members will take it seriously and engage with the membership, but low enough that the monthly recurring charge won’t lead to high churn. A good test for this is “how much are they already spending monthly to solve problems in the same topic area?”

For example, people who hire personal trainers tend to spend a lot on them (say, $300/month), so you can price your fitness membership relative to that ($149/mo, while most people don’t spend much on home organizing ($0 for most people), so you’ll want to price that membership lower (for example, $19/mo).

Scenario #3

Goal: Upsell members into a professional service

Best for: Consultants and coaches who offer memberships as a lower-cost option for prospects considering a services engagement.

Optimal pricing strategy: Price your membership relative to the service you’re going to upsell your members on; as a rule of thumb, the price should feel like a no-brainer if they’re considering your other service but it’s “just a bit more than [they] can spend right now”.

So if you charge $1,000/month for your service, offer your membership for $500 per month. If you price this too high, you’ll begin to cannibalize your service sales, but if you price it too low, you’ll have a hard time upselling members to something that’s 4-5x more expensive.

Regardless of which price you choose, a smart method that many successful creators like Dave Delahunty use is to start for free free, and then raise your price:

“You need to test your product first before you start asking for people to give away their hard-earned money.

I knew my 5 Ideas a Day product would work because I had built the community prior to launching the membership.

I had spent the previous year uploading 5 ideas every day for FREE! I posted my ideas on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Medium, LinkedIn and many forums to maximize my community growth.

I had built up a solid community of engaged fans who loved seeing my daily ideas. They loved them so much that they were prepared to pay the $4.99/month.

Build the community, test the product and if it works, ask them to pay.”

Dave Delahunty

But if you want to charge from day one — perfectly reasonable, since you’re providing something of value! — then follow the advice of Callie Willows, Head Honcho at the Membership Site Academy:

“When it comes to pricing, there is no right or wrong answer or set guide to what to charge and it will depend on things like your monthly deliverables, the amount of access to you and your audience and market.

It can take some experimentation to find your sweet spot. So my top tip is that if you're not sure about your pricing, start with a lower price than your end goal - it's much easier to raise your price later (and create some reverse discount promotions in the process!) than to realise you have set your price too high from the start.

This also has an added benefit of rewarding your first members for getting into the membership early - they get the best ever price and get to keep this for as long as they are a member, which then helps with retention.”

Callie Willows

Monthly vs. annual pricing

Most membership software platforms let you charge monthly or annual subscriptions.

Both structures have their pros and cons, and it’s important to understand them to choose one that’s right for you.

Monthly billing offers a lower member commitment and is easier to sell than annual billing, which requires a higher financial commitment (unless you discount it steeply).

On the other hand, annual billing guarantees that you won’t have monthly members leaving each month, while monthly billing gives your members the option to cancel frequently.

The cash flow benefits of annual billing can’t be ignored, either, as getting paid upfront gives you the opportunity to invest your revenue faster and grow your business.

But monthly billing will also reduce issues that are common with annual plans, like credit cards expiring between payments and members forgetting about your membership because they don’t see the monthly charge.

A rule of thumb to help you decide on a pricing structure is: will your members get massive value in the first 30 days of their membership? - Tweet this

If the answer is yes — and the value in the first month is reflective of the value they can consistently expect to get each month — then your member churn (members leaving each month) will likely be lower, so monthly subscriptions are fine.

But if the answer is no — for example, if members will see their biggest return on investment if they stick around for 4-6 months or longer — then you’ll be better off with annual pricing, as members paying monthly are far more likely to drop off before getting value from the membership.

Additionally, you can offer annual billing with a slight discount as an option when selling a monthly membership model. This lets most members select the easier-to-stomach monthly subscription, while letting those who prefer to pay upfront for a discount do so.

Expert pricing tip: using membership tiers to turbocharge signups

Note: if this is your first time selling online, we recommend skipping this section on pricing tiers. Keep things simple so that you can get your membership off the ground, and then add tiers when you’re comfortable with the rest of the process and ready to take things to the next level.

One of the most powerful tools that membership creators can use to increase signups and deliver a better experience for their members is to offer membership tiers.

Here’s why: tiers make it easy for your prospective members to choose a plan that fits them.

Tiers can help shift your prospect’s decision from a binary one (“should I sign up or not?”) to a best-fit one (“which tier is right for me?”). - Tweet this

Plus, tiers can have a massive psychological effect on how your prospects perceive your pricing.

A quick and fascinating story about bread makers

What does your membership have in common with bread making machines?

A lot, actually.

In the 1990’s, William-Sonoma introduced a bread maker in their stores, priced at $275.

It was one of the first bread makers in the market, and when it launched…sales were disappointing, to say the least.

Concerned, the retailer hired a research firm to help them figure out why the bread maker wasn’t selling.

The consultants came back with an interesting recommendation:

“Make a bread maker that’s slightly better, but price it twice as high.”

Williams-Sonoma did what the researchers suggested, and guess what?

Sales skyrocketed!

But it wasn’t the newer, pricier bread maker that was selling…

…it was the cheaper, original one.

What happened here?

The answer is one that pricing experts have known for a long time: relative pricing.

Initially, customers had no idea if the $275 bread maker was a good deal or not; they had never seen a bread maker before, and didn’t know how much it “should” cost.

But by introducing a much more expensive model that was only a little bit better…Williams-Sonoma made the original model look like a fantastic deal!

You can apply the insights into relative pricing from this story to your membership by offering tiers, like The Portable Faith Community does:

Here’s how:

Step 1: Choose the price you want most of your members to select. That’s your “middle” tier.

Step 2: Next, choose a price that’s 25-50% lower. That’s the price of your “low” tier, which will be far less valuable than your middle tier. The price-to-value ratio difference (the middle tier is far more valuable but only slightly more expensive than the low tier) will make the middle tier feel like an excellent value.

Step 3: Finally, choose a price that’s a lot (for example, 100%) higher than the middle tier. That’s the price of your “high” tier. This tier will have the most premium benefits, but the high cost will also make the middle tier feel inexpensive in comparison.

Here are some ideas — with example pricing — for how you can structure your tiers to get the price-to-value ratio right:

Low Tier ($15/month)

A “light” version of your membership.

Examples:

  • Monthly updates (rather than weekly updates)
  • Partial access to a content library (rather than full access)
  • Partial community access (with some groups/channels reserved for higher tiers)
  • Product bundle only (with no other add-ons)

Middle Tier ($20/month)

This is the main membership tier, and where you deliver the primary value proposition of your membership.

This tier will include the “full” version of what you have in the low tier.

High Tier ($50/month)

Stack this tier with benefits that have high perceived value, like personal coaching sessions, email Q&A and private group/channel access.

With your membership model, structure and pricing set, it’s time to build!

Chapter 4

Choosing the best membership software and tools

Before we get into membership software recommendations, it’s important to understand that this is probably the LEAST important section of this guide.

There are plenty of tools out there, and if you follow the strategies and advice above, you’ll set yourself up for success with almost any tools.

So if you’re already using a tool that like, keep using it!

And if you’re not yet setup on a software platform, we suggest committing to picking one without getting analysis paralysis so that you can move on to growing your membership.

The guide below is designed to make your decision as easy as possible.

The best tools for building your membership depend on what features you need.

The good news is that creating a membership is MUCH easier than it used to be, and you don’t need to be tech-savvy to do it.

In the past, creators would need to wire up a whole series of apps and plugins, like:

It was enough to make any creator break out in a nervous sweat.

Today, there’s a single platform that does all of this for you, with a simple, creator-friendly design that will make building your membership easy.

We know, because we built it 😏

Podia’s membership platform makes it easy to:

We’re obviously biased, but here are just a few of the things that our membership creators — like the ones showcased in this guide — say about Podia:

Creation Station

Free

Nick Simard

Website Creator & Workflow Automator

"I’ve tried a dozen platforms and none make it as easy or enjoyable to create as Podia does, and if you get stuck support is fast and super helpful. The interface is gorgeous and clutter-free, both for the creator (that’s you) and for the student — everybody wins!”

Securing and Sustaining a Successful Digital Identity

$10/mo

QuHarrison Terry

Technologist & Writer

"The best thing about Podia is it takes care of all the technical challenges (file hosting, email notifications, user profile management, etc.) making it an effortless process for a creator to generate profits from their ideas and communities.”

8-Week Snatch

$197/mo

Masiel Encarnación

Personal trainer, Zumba instructor & fitness educator.

"I had been wanting to start a fitness membership site that would allow me to track my students and drip my content and Podia has allowed me to do that easily. It's user friendly, especially for people like me who aren't graphic designers, and the best part is that their customer service is super responsive and ready to help you if you get stuck."

Podia is free to try for 14 days, and you can sign up for your free trial here.

There are, however, a few cases where Podia might not be the best fit for you.

Some examples are below, along with the alternatives we recommend:

Start your membership journey

Thanks for reading our guide to creating a membership

We hope that you found it helpful.

In our next guide, we’ll tackle growing your membership once you’ve launched it 🚀

Good luck on your membership journey, and always remember that you are a leader.

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