How to start a membership site on a budget

Thinking of starting a membership business, but intimidated by the cost factor? Never fear! You can get your site up and running for less than you might think.

With any digital business, there are certainly costs to consider – but in reality there are plenty of membership site owners who are able to bootstrap their businesses with limited up-front investment. Sure, there are essential components that will cost you money if you want to sell memberships, but there are a few tricks to getting started with a budget in mind.

In this post, we’ve put together a few tips to help you get your membership site off the ground without breaking the bank.

The unavoidable costs

Look, a membership site can’t function without a few basic things. You need to have a website, and that website needs to live somewhere. Then, you have to add in functionality for restricting your content to members, accepting payments, and communicating with your mailing list.

At the most fundamental level, you’ll need to pay for a domain name and web hosting. If you’ve already browsed GoDaddy or Namecheap, you probably know that it’s pretty cheap to buy most domains, with many prices as low as $10 per year.

When it comes to hosting, it’s important to remember that membership sites are content-driven, which means that your members will be relying heavily on your site’s performance to consume your content and get the most out of their memberships.

Needless to say, good hosting is non-negotiable if you want happy members!

Shared hosting can definitely save you money, but it’s not the best option for membership sites because it typically includes limited resources, and often uses a shared IP address – meaning if one site gets black listed, yours will, too.

It’s also worth noting that memberships should be designed to scale, which is more difficult on shared hosting. As your site grows, you want to be able upgrade and migrate your data and content without down time – something that is much more seamless with cloud hosting.

Opt for an affordable managed cloud hosting solution like Cloudways, or a virtual private server (VPS) if you’re willing to spend $100+ per month.

The free elements

We’ve talked about how to get started with your first membership site, including the infrastructure needed to host content and sell subscriptions. The good news is that there are a lot of free or inexpensive tools and resources you can use to put it all together.

In addition to your domain and web hosting, you’ll need to use some kind of content management system (or CMS) to manage your website. WordPress is a great choice because it’s free and open source – which means there are plenty of plugins available to you, and a large community of developers that contribute to the ecosystem.

You’ll also need a WordPress theme to dictate the style and layout of your site. If you’re on a smaller budget, you can simply use one of the default WordPress themes that are available to all WordPress users, or find an affordable theme elsewhere.

Now, what about restricting your content to members? Fortunately, there are some free membership plugins like Restrict Content and WP-Members that give you this functionality, although you may need to upgrade as your site grows. You could also opt for a single site license with an affordable paid plugin.

Payment processing is technically not free, but the fees are per-transaction instead of paid upfront – so for all practical purposes, setting up payment processing is essentially free.

Last, but not least: Email marketing! Services like MailChimp are also free to set up, with costs only coming in once you exceed a certain number of emails per month.

Start out on a smaller scale

Keep it simple. You want to start your site on a smaller and more manageable scale; You can always grow and expand later!

Before adding any extra complications or complexities to your operation, such as hiring outside help with content creation, think about what you can do yourself.

Create as much of your own content as you can!

Initially, you don’t even need a lot of content to start a membership site. You just need enough to get people to sign up, and from there you can publish new content on an ongoing basis.

For example, you could start your site with very little if you do live webinars or training courses. These videos then can then serve as material for new members, while you continue to build a collection of content over time.

And hey – don’t forget that YouTube is free! You could even put a few of your webinars up there to get traffic flowing to your site.

Grow your audience organically

If you don’t have an advertising and marketing budget and you produce all of your own content, you can attract and grow an audience by posting quality free content on a regular basis. Some membership site owners start out giving written or video advice on Twitter, producing useful downloads like PDF guides, checklists, and worksheets, or building a following on YouTube with helpful tutorials, product reviews, advice, or entertaining videos.

Consider doing a guest blog post, or having a notable guest write a blog post for your own site. There are all kinds of ways you can use cross-promotion and partnerships to expand your audience without pouring a ton of money into advertising.

Budget doesn’t mean low quality

Starting with a modest membership site isn’t about cutting corners or doing things the cheapest way possible. After all, you want to be sure that you’re getting a good return on your investment before you make more serious financial commitments.

Doing things on a smaller scale also gives you more one-on-one time with your members, allowing you to get to know them in a meaningful way, figure out what they want and what kind of content you should produce, and get a better idea of how to market your memberships.

Take advantage of this time and get to know your membership business inside and out, so you can be well-prepared for when it grows – and hopefully thrives!

Have you started your own membership site on a budget? What tips do you have to share? Join the conversation below!

Mandy Jones

About the author: Mandy Jones is a content writer at Sandhills Development and founder of Looplicious. Hailing from Minneapolis, Minnesota, she's a world traveler and animal lover with a passion for creativity and maker culture. When she’s not writing blog posts for Easy Digital Downloads, Restrict Content Pro, and AffiliateWP, she can be found hanging out with other people’s dogs, or writing, recording, and performing music.

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