How to get started with your first membership site

Membership sites have become increasingly popular as a model for generating revenue and building a community around your online business.

And if you’ve got the content, the products, and the drive, you can create your own membership site that will amplify your brand in all kinds of ways.

Setting up a membership site can seem like a job for digital business experts, but the reality is that it’s an attainable goal, especially if you have the right tools, guidance, and passion! In the spirit of enabling people who want to create their own membership site, we’ve put together a general guide to help you figure it all out, and take your vision from a dream to reality.

Why are membership sites so popular?

Well, for one thing it usually means monthly (or yearly) recurring income, and who doesn’t like that? As opposed to buying products individually, members pay a regular subscription fee to gain (and retain) access to valuable gated content, which can be anything from articles, resources, and tools, to podcasts, videos, webinars, and other kinds of digital products. Gated content can also be free content that is accessed in exchange for contact information or mailing list signups, with premium content available with a paid membership.

This recurring income can be much more predictable and reliable in comparison to the variable income that comes with selling individual products and services. The subscription model also benefits customers in that they typically pay less per month (or per year) than they would have to spend to get the same amount of products; memberships usually offer the customer wider access than they would normally have, expanding their exposure to your content and products and turning them into regular users.

Setting up a membership site is not only a win-win for you and the customer – it’s also one of the best ways to build an entire community and loyal customer base around your business. People who are willing to sign up and pay for a membership are the most likely to be interested in future products and engage with your marketing efforts, making it a great opportunity for nurturing an ecosystem that supports and grows your business and provides continuous value for your customers, too!

Let’s talk structure

Similar to starting a digital product site, there is an industry standard structure to membership sites, from the foundational components and design, to payments, content pages, and communications.

To understand how this structure looks and functions for self-hosted websites, here’s a brief overview of the basic elements from the ground up:

  • Web content management system (CMS) / PHP framework: The foundation on which your site is built, with a back end for editing code (functionality) and a front end for adding, modifying, or removing content. Examples are WordPress, Joomla, and SiteCore.
  • Domain: The internet location where your site lives, and the web address that people type into their browsers to find it. Some domain name registrars include Namecheap, GoDaddy, and Network Solutions.
  • Host: The server where your website data is stored, and a service that enables it to be viewed by people on the internet. Examples are BlueHost, HostGator, and DreamHost.
  • Theme: A collection of files that change how your content is presented. For example, a WordPress theme includes a PHP template file to dictate the layout, and a CSS file to dictate the style, including fonts, colors, and other elements.
  • Payment gateway: A service that processes credit card payments by transferring data between the payment portal (website, mobile phone, etc.), the customer’s bank, and your bank. Popular payment gateways include PayPal, Stripe, and Authorize.net.
  • Membership platform: Software that integrates with your CMS, payment gateway, and other elements, adding membership functionality to your site, such as a member area / member dashboard, the ability to restrict content, and charge recurring subscription fees.
  • Member area / member dashboard: This is the interface your members have access to, and functions as the home base for their activities on your site, including things like:
    • Customer purchase history
    • Access to purchased products and gated content, including:
      • Course curriculum
      • Special offers, upgrades, relevant products
    • Account information
    • Affiliate commissions (if applicable)
  • Member forum (optional): Part of the member area, this is the central communication directory where your member community can discuss products, content, and anything related to the use of your membership site.
  • Content pages: These are the different web pages of your site. Some examples include:
    • The homepage: The default page that people see when they visit your site, the page that gives visitors quick access to other pages, and / or the page that shows visitors what your site is all about.
    • Landing pages: Different pages that are designed to appeal to different audiences, promote different products, or serve different purposes, but ultimately lead back to the main site.
    • Product/service pages: Pages that explain your business offering or products in more detail.
    • The support / contact page: The page(s) customers will go to if they need help, have feedback, or want to contact you.
    • The about page: This is where you want to let your website visitors know what you’re all about. You can include:
      • Your founding story
      • Team biographies
      • Your company vision
      • Your mission statement
      • Your plans for the future
  • Your onboarding process: What experience will new members have when they subscribe to your site or purchase a membership?
  • Other non-website components
    • Mailing list / newsletter
    • Member emails

Managing content and your website

The foundation of most eCommerce sites is a content management system (CMS), which manages everything from web pages, text, and graphics, to code, other digital files, and any display or interactive elements. When it comes to membership sites, WordPress is the most common CMS platform, allowing for extensive customization and plenty of flexibility if you want to create something unique with advanced features. WordPress has been around for a long time, and is a go-to choice for homegrown membership sites that are custom-built, powering about 30% of websites on the internet – you will need some technical know-how and a willingness to learn (there’s a tonne of information out there!), or you may consider hiring someone to help.

WordPress is an open-source CMS (and blogging) platform that is free to download and install on your own server via WordPress.org, or you can pay to host your site on WordPress.com. Within the eCommerce community, WordPress.org is overwhelmingly preferred, as it gives you full control over the look, feel, and functionality, allowing you to modify your site as you wish. Overall, it’s often cheaper to host your site on your own server, and you will have more flexibility and control.

If you decide to go this route, you can start getting your site set up by downloading and installing a theme and any relevant plugins, or hiring an expert to help with this. As I mentioned before, there are extensive resources online for almost anything you want to achieve in WordPress!

If you choose not to use WordPress, then you’ll be looking at hosted platforms (“cloud platforms” or “cloud services”) that give you less control over the look and performance of your website, but may be more suited to your business.

WordPress plugins & themes

If you decide to head down the self-hosted WordPress route, you’ll need a few extra bits and pieces to get your website functioning as a membership site:

  1. Plugins, to help with membership functionality, and,
  2. A theme, to help with the design and structure of your site.

Choosing a plugin

You’ll want to choose a plugin that will give your site membership functionality. Membership plugins, at the most fundamental level, provide you with the ability to restrict your exclusive content to members, offer subscription packages, and accept payments, along with a variety of other useful features depending on which plugin you choose:

  • Do you want to drip your content to members? Dripped content is a common tool for many membership sites.
  • Do you want to offer multiple subscription levels? Look for a plugin that allows multiple levels.
  • Do you want to accept credit cards, PayPal, cryptocurrency – all of the above? Certain plugins are especially good with different integrations or payment gateways.
  • What about your budget? There are different price points and billing options out there, too.
  • Is support offered? Ensure that the solution you choose offers support for when you have any questions about the plugin.

Choosing a theme

Themes can include things like page layouts, color combinations, fonts, and any other aesthetic elements that make up the look of your site, and they can often be customized to your brand. There are a variety of WordPress themes available specifically for membership sites, which require different layouts for different purposes and member areas.

For instance, content is the key element of a membership site, so you might choose a theme that keeps your content front-and-center, showcasing your latest work in an easy-to-browse grid design or carousel. Pay attention to themes offering things like dedicated archive pages, pricing tables, different post types, as well as widgets and other extras (like a search box, call-to-action buttons, etc.) that are specific to membership and / or your type of content. Even if you don’t use a theme designed specifically for membership, most themes will work with the most popular membership plugins.

Pricing your memberships

Figuring out what to charge your members is an important step in the process, but it can be challenging to find the magic number. You want to consider things like what your time is worth, as well as the operational costs of running your membership site, plus the amount of recurring revenue you aim to make each month (or year). This is where researching your competition can come in handy! There’s no shame in adopting methods from successful membership sites – you don’t need to reinvent the wheel.

When thinking about your pricing, there are several things to consider:

  • Take a look at what your competitors are doing. Compare your content, products, and overall value. Are you offering more than they are?
  • Do you have a unique advantage or competitive edge that boosts your value, such as one-to-one support, coaching, or consultation?
  • What are the valuable benefits to subscribing?
  • How much revenue do you want to bring in per month?
  • How many members do you expect for your initial launch?
  • Do you want to be as accessible as possible to people of all different budgets, or is your membership site a premium product?
  • Are you an industry authority who can charge higher prices?

All of these are questions to ask yourself as you calculate your membership pricing. Consider implementing value-based pricing to ensure you’re pricing your membership at what it’s truly worth.

You might decide to offer variations on your prices, from monthly and annual fees to membership tiers and one-time payments for lifetime access. Many membership sites offer significant discounts to members for paying yearly, keeping the monthly option affordable, but higher-priced in the long run; either way, you benefit as the site owner.

If you decide on a tiered rate system (or multiple subscription options), consider making your ideal membership fee your middle-range option, and highlighting it on your pricing page as the “most popular” choice. This can drive more sales toward the number you actually want to make, while also offering for an “most affordable” option (with fewer features) for customers with smaller budgets, as well as a “highest value” option (with more features) for higher spenders.

Communicating with your members

One of the main reasons customers love membership sites is the community aspect. Community adds significantly to the value of your product, and enables a level of engagement that is hard to reach with just single products alone. If done properly, you can end up creating a long-lasting loyal army of supporters that are eager to consume your content and share it with others.

In general, it’s crucial that you maintain regular contact with, and engage your members to foster a sense of loyalty to your brand – you want to create a mutually beneficial relationship that meets (read: exceeds) customer expectations, and also helps you understand the needs of your audience, informing your future content, products, and relevant changes to your site.

Just like with any eCommerce site, you should have dedicated pages for contact and support, making yourself readily available and reachable within a few clicks. You’ll also want to consider using an email marketing service for managing newsletters and member emails; this will help you stay organized and allow you to market your products, content, and memberships to new and existing members, who are already pre-qualified customers.

Onboarding members

One of the most crucial parts of getting your membership site up and running is the experience they have after they purchase or sign up. This is known as onboarding, and it can have a huge impact on your potential success. Using sequenced emails as part of your onboarding process keeps members engaged for longer, meaning they’re more likely to stick around as a user (paid or otherwise) on your site.

Mastering the art of ongoing value

With membership sites, it’s all about consistent ongoing value that keeps your members happy, paying, and returning to your site again and again. Taking the time to strategize how you will produce the volume of content that’s needed to keep your site rolling will directly affect your level of success.

Figure out what you have the time and skills to do on a regular basis, and develop your plan around that; can you produce enough content yourself, or do you need to outsource? Are you able to offer one-on-one support, live streams, Q&A sessions, or other bonuses? Can you dedicate a block of time to content creation and then drip feed it for weeks or months? Ask yourself these questions to determine your plan of action.

Be bold!

As with any independent venture, there will be risk involved with setting up your membership site, and a lot of the pressure will be on you. But, remember that you can always start within your means, price your memberships accordingly, and expand (and increase prices) later; whatever it is that you can offer now is what you want to focus on. It’s easy to be overly critical of yourself, or even encounter imposter syndrome, but your expertise and insider knowledge is unique to you, and there is likely a niche community out there willing to pay for it!

Have you had success with starting a membership site? What did you find most helpful in your own experience? Leave a comment below and let us know!

2 comments

  1. Thanks for the tips. The most difficult part of the process, at least for me, is the traffic part. I don’t know why I can’t rank my site higher. If you have some tips for that it will be great.

    1. Glad you enjoyed the article Ivaylo! And you’re so right, getting traffic and new members to your site is a whole other part of getting a membership site up and running! We’ll pop that on our list of potential articles to write in the future. But a couple of quick tips I would suggest are improving your SEO, ensuring your free content is very high quality and keyword-focused, writing guest posts (if that’s an option for you), and then marketing your content and website through social media and/or advertising.

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