The year 2020 started off as the year of perfect vision. Let’s face it. We’re all really looking forward to get rid of 2020 as fast as we can. Some of us are sprinting full speed ahead, some are limping. We’ll all likely remember is as the year of the Coronavirus lockdown.

Or maybe you’ll remember it as the year you started your membership site.

Really? Who starts a new business when the economy has crashed and seems to be spiraling downward?

Not to be hardhearted, but the economy cycles in and out of recessions. You’ve got to have some rain with the sunshine for the flowers to grow. 

Lots of people start businesses during recessions. Near the turn of the last century, during the San Francisco-earthquake-fueled panic of 1907-1910, General Motors opened its doors. The company is now worth north of $30 billion and employs more than 150,000 people. 

 And a lot of 2020s still-blazing companies were birthed during the 2008-2010 recession. Think WhatsApp, Venmo, Pinterest, Uber, Slack, and Square.

If you have the passion and a long-term focus, you can start a new business, too. One business you might want to look into is a membership website.

Why start a membership site now?

Maybe you want to switch horses because you don’t feel safe in your pre-Covid career. Perhaps that career has somehow lost its luster for you in the wake of Coronavirus or for some other reasons. Or perhaps you need a side hustle, or even a new full-time gig, to cope with a loss or reduction in income.

Whatever your reason, building a membership site in 2020 will allow you to grow your income while staying safe at home.

What’s a membership website? Is that the same as a subscription?

A membership website is an online platform that offers members access to gated content. Digital downloads, webinars, online courses, etc are all great examples of content you might offer. Another way to think of a membership site is to think of a gym. You have to pay to play.

These websites can have a range of tiers as well as monetization models. Some charge members a recurring fee, others offer their content for free, and still others combine the free and paid models. (Of course, you want to make money off your membership site, but you can choose to monetize it by advertising or other means.)

There’s a difference between a membership and a subscription. A subscription allows access to the resource for a defined period, such as monthly or annually. Membership is being a member of the group.

Since some membership sites offer free or hybrid models, you can’t really say they’re subscription sites. To make sure we cover all models, we’ll stick with the term “membership (web)site.”

What advantages are there to creating a membership site?

When you create a membership site, you leverage your time and content. You build content once and then sell it to thousands of students for years to come. And if you want to, you can automate a lot of the process.

Owning a membership site gives you a steady stream of income. Imagine having 100 members paying you $39.00 every month like clockwork! That’s almost $4,000.00 a month for doing what might take you only an hour per day.

When your members must pay for your content or otherwise jump through some hoops to get it, they’ll value it more. So when you suggest that they’ll benefit from another one of your offerings, they’re more likely to bite. 

When members make the trek to your site, they’ll also generate lots of organic traffic that Google will notice.

The benefits of a membership site cut both ways. Your members typically pay a lower fee for your content in a membership site than they would for a course that offers lifetime access. And you’ll all enjoy the loyalty, respect, and warm and fuzzy feelings that spring from being part of a like-minded tribe.

How do you get started with your membership site?

This year, there are many reasons to start a membership site. 2020 has been a tough year for a lot of people. Some lost their job, have struggled to find a new one, or have needed to find a whole new career. People have started to look at online businesses they can run from their house at an alarming rate. Some people have seen membership sites as a possible answer. If that’s you, you’ve got to account for the two core elements most memberships offer: content and community.

In a pinch, you can set up a Facebook group for your paid-up members, so the community isn’t as big a deal as content. Ideally, though, you’ll set up an on-site forum. Facebook is rented land, and they can change the rules at any time.

Why build your empire on rented land?

Anyway, on to content. How do you create enough content upfront to convince browsers to buy into your membership?

Actually, you don’t need to create content upfront. You can do it on the fly. 

That way, you can eliminate one of the most dreaded pre-launch tasks.

So how does that work?

Simple. Schedule a calendar of upcoming live webinars that are open only to members. Or if sneak previews are part of your marketing plans, to selected non-members. People’s standards for live webinars are lower than for pre-recorded courses. 

The webinars then go into your permanent archive to build value for new and old members.

Choosing a niche for your membership site from scratch

If you’re absolutely starting from scratch and don’t know what kind of membership site you want to build, ask yourself some questions. Here are some good ones to start with:

  • What subjects interest you?
  • What areas do you know the most about?
  • What problems do you know how to solve?
  • Which topics that you could teach do people want to learn about?
  • Which topics are people willing to pay to learn about?
  • What questions come up a lot in your Facebook groups?
  • What questions relating to your industry come up on social media?

This exercise should generate a few broad ideas for you. Now narrow those ideas down with a few more questions like these:

  • Is there a substantial audience for this subject?
  • Is there too much competition from others covering this subject?
  • How much expertise do you have on this subject?
  • Will people pay to learn about this?
  • How easily can you create content related to this subject?

You should be able to come up with a shortlist of 2-3 possible ideas after this exercise. Keep your ideas targeted—think niche, not broad.

For example, creating a membership site about Facebook ads is too broad. Niche it down further, such as, “I’m going to teach fitness professionals how to maximize their Facebook ad spends.”

Narrowing down your niche

Maybe you already have a solid idea for a membership site. 

You may already offer a professional or coaching service that you can monetize more effectively as a membership site. 

Or you may know a lot about a topic that you want to share with this world.

Before you rush out and build your membership site, ask yourself these questions:

What audience have you already developed?

Many successful membership site owners have already demonstrated their expertise by building an audience elsewhere—on a blog or YouTube, for instance. They’ll have a ready-made customer base primed to purchase their membership as soon as it’s introduced.

That’s the best-case scenario. If you don’t have a pre-launch audience, a membership site can still work for you.

What value will you bring to the table?

Potential members need to see the value in your offering. If they can find the information they need at other sites for free, why sign up for your website?

If you already have an audience, ask your audience what problems they have. Use that information to solve problems or fill in holes that you noticed within your target market.

If you’re not an expert in the area you’re considering, study up on it. Potential members need to see you as a trustworthy resource.

“Far too many people are trying to build an audience without having a unique viewpoint of what they’re teaching or doing,”

warns Brendan Hufford, the creator of 100 Days of SEO and Director of SEO at Directive Institute. 

What kind of content do you want to share?

The type of content you create will depend a lot on your topic, but you should let your interests and passions guide you. 

You will need to find a way to differentiate yourself from other players in your niche. Find what resonates with your subscribers and grow your membership website.

Everyone has a phone these days. They provide a great way to start creating videos. You can use your computer to create content for meal plans, even webinars. Figure out how to make a difference in your members’ lives. Start there.

What should your price point be? 

Pricing can be all over the map, depending on the kind of content you’re sharing. One way to pinpoint your price is to research other membership sites in your niche.

Then choose a price that falls somewhere in the middle. You don’t want to price members out or make them feel like your site is too cheap to be good.

How do you choose a membership site platform?

After you’ve chosen and validated your niche, you need to select a website platform that fits the needs of your site. It takes time, money, and aggravation to change course midstream. 

There’s a slew of generic website builders on the market. To ensure your platform meets the needs of a membership site, it should have these features:

  • Membership management – Creates different membership tiers (paid, free, and hybrid) and adds and manages members.
  • User registration and member profiles – Creates front-end options for your users to sign up or log in and access their member profiles.
  • Content restriction – Hides your content from general audiences.
  • Payment options—Integrates payment gateways to accept online payments.

Here are three membership site examples to get your creative juices flowing!

There are a bunch of membership models out there. Some require daily engagement, while others are more set-it-and-forget-it. Here are a few of the most popular models:

 1. Content Update

In this popular model, members pay you to access continually updated content. For instance, artist Robert Joyner offers video lessons to wannabe painters in his Painthog Membership. 

Members develop FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) with this model, so you’re likely to keep your members long-term. One caveat: make sure you can keep cranking out that content.

2. Content Library

This type allows access to an existing collection of content that’s already been published. A good example is Becky Mollenkamp’s Gutsy Boss Club. Mollenkamp offers her entire content library to members. 

Giving access to all your content from day one of signing up is risking. Your members can quickly consume all the content you offer resulting in them leaving sooner than you intended.

To combat this, you can do as Mollenkamp does: keep adding valuable new content, although not as regularly as in the Content Update Model. Each month, Mollenkamp shares journaling prompts and coaching calls, and every now and then, she sets up other fun, helpful extras for her members.

3. Path-to-Result

Do you want to help your members achieve a SMART goal (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time bound) with a relatively short time fuse? Then you should look into the Path-to-Result model.

That’s how fitness trainer Masiel Encarnacion structures her 8-Week Snatch Membership. But Encarnacion’s model also contains the element of group coaching. Which leads us to the next one.

4. Hybrid

This is the most popular model. It combines two or more of the models. In addition to the ones we’ve discussed, some other models are group coaching, professional service, product bundle, and community.

You can consider two of the membership sites described above—Mollenkamp’s and Encarnacion’s—as hybrids. Most membership sites have some mixing-and-matching to line up with their creator’s vision and their audience’s wants and needs.

Wrapping Up

Are you out of your mind for considering launching a membership website in the midst of the Coronavirus pandemic? Of course not! Membership sites can provide a reliable side income. If you want to make a healthy full-time salary, a membership site provides the right methods to get you there.

AJ Morris

About the author: AJ is the product innovation and marketing manager for iThemes and leads marketing efforts for Restrict Content Pro. He has years of experience working with and development membership sites.