Selling access to members-only content is another excellent monetization option for bloggers. With a membership website you would be charging a recurring fee for access to some type of premium content. The fee could be monthly, annual or at some other interval. Paying members will get access to the premium content as long as they have an active membership. As long as the member does not cancel, their next fee will be charged automatically, which helps to increase the percentage of members that renew. There are some exceptions where fees are one-time only or where the renewal fee is not automatically charged, but typically a membership website will involve automatic recurring payments.
There are several possibilities and different ways that you could go about running a membership website/blog.
You could use the members-only content as an add-on to the free content available at your blog. In this case you would continue to publish content that readers can access for free, but some content, videos, or resources will only be available to paying members.
Alternatively, your blog could contain only premium content with no free content that is freely available (this is less common).
Another option would be to create a separate website for the members-only content and use your blog as a springboard. In this case the target audience of both sites would be the same, so you could use the blog to promote the membership website.
While each setup is a little different, the basics of achieving success are the same regardless of which approach you take. In this chapter we’ll be looking at “membership websites”, which is the collective term that I’ll use to refer to a blog or website that uses any of these membership approaches.
Pros of Membership Websites
The most significant benefit, and one that is often touted by those who preach the use of membership websites, is income that keeps coming from automatic member renewals. Instead of selling a product for a one-time fee you can continue to make money from the customer until the membership is canceled.
Let’s take a look at an example. Imagine you run some sort of blog that covers topics related to food and diets. You could put together a collection of healthy recipes and sell it as an e-book for $19. Or, instead of selling it in e-book format you could place the recipes on your blog and only allow access to paying members. In this scenario you might charge $5 per month for access to all of the recipes. While the initial price is lower than the price of the e-book, for every member that stayed active for a year you would make $60. And if they stayed active even longer your revenue from that customer would go up from there. Of course, some members will cancel their memberships, but the example shows the potential lifetime value of a member/customer.
Successful membership websites bring in revenue each month from new signups and from renewals. Recurring income is highly desirable for bloggers and online marketers because it has a passive element to it. Of course, running a membership website is not totally passive, there will be plenty of work involved. But it does allow you to build an income that can “snowball” and keep growing larger as long as you are able to get new members to sign up faster than the existing members are canceling. An effective membership website will almost always see slow but steady increases in revenue thanks to this recurring income.
High Income Potential
Because of this slow but steady increase in revenue, the long-term income potential for membership websites is pretty high. However, in most cases it will take some time to reach that high potential. Some membership websites are able to attract a lot of members immediately and experience significant income from the start, but in most of these situations the success is a result of an existing audience. For example, if you launch a members area when your blog is 3 years old and after you have already built a really strong following, you’ll be much more likely to make money quickly as compared to launching your first blog and offering memberships from the start of the blog.
High Lifetime Value Per Sale
I touched on the lifetime value of a customer in an earlier point, but it’s worth emphasizing as one of the major benefits of having a membership website. If you are selling products (for example, e-books) from your blog you can increase the lifetime value of your customers by adding new products and promoting them to your past customers. With a membership website this is basically done automatically. You don’t need to re-sell the customer on another new product, you just need to provide them with premium content that has a high enough quality that they don’t cancel their membership. And as long as they are not canceling their membership, that lifetime value keeps growing.
Predictability of Income
In addition to having a high potential for income, membership websites also offer more predictability in your income. Bloggers who sell products experience a great deal of ups and downs in income from one month to another. That’s not necessarily a bad thing (especially the ups!) but many people prefer to have a better idea about how much money they can expect to make each month. When you’re selling products you will probably experience big jumps in income when you release a new product, and then it will drop down in months when you don’t have a new product.
With membership websites you can have more predictability because you can calculate the average signup rates for new members and the average renewal rates for existing members. Of course, these numbers will fluctuate, but they will stay somewhat consistent. With most membership websites the renewal rate for existing members will stay surprisingly consistent. For example, you may know that on average 5% of your members will cancel in a given month. With that information you can look at the membership fees that are scheduled to be billed in the upcoming month and you can assume that you will actually collect about 95% of that amount. Additionally, you should also know the average amount that you make each month from new member sign ups. Add the two together and you’ll have a fairly accurate estimate as to how much you can expect to make in the upcoming month.
From my experience of about 3 years with a membership website, the actual numbers wind up being pretty close to the projections each month. There are some exceptions, such as a month when I run a promo to bring in more new members, but for the average month the numbers play out fairly predictably. The more members that you have the more accurate you can be with your predictions for income. With fewer members the numbers are more significantly swayed by just a few members canceling.
Cons of Membership Websites
Can Be Difficult to Set Up
Many bloggers find it difficult to set up a members-only area to their blog, or a separate membership website. While there are a lot of options, it can be confusing. There are some systems that allow you to set up your members-only area with no need to do any coding or programming, but the details of setting it up and integrating payment processing can be overwhelming to a lot of bloggers.
In addition, while there are a number of options, it’s often difficult to really compare one to the next because of all the variables. As a result, some bloggers who are considering adding a members-only area will look at their options and give up because they don’t know what to do next.
The good news is that this has become considerably easier in the past few years, especially for bloggers using WordPress. While WordPress doesn’t have any built-in functionality for managing a membership website and charging for access, there are several different plugins that can be used. I’ll discuss some of those plugins, as well as other options, later in this chapter.
Many People are Resistant to Sign Up for Recurring Payments
Think about the different bills that you pay on a monthly or recurring basis. You probably have things like a mortgage or rent, electricity, cable or satellite TV, internet access, and phone service. These are all things that you would consider to be necessities or very important to your lifestyle, right? Most of us don’t want any more monthly bills than we already have, and we’re hesitant to agree to anything that involves these types of payments, even if it can be canceled.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned through my own experience of running a membership website is the resistance that most people have to recurring payments. I mentioned earlier that recurring income is one of the best things about having a membership site, but members/customers look at it from their own perspective. If you, the blog/website owner, are receiving recurring income that must mean that customers are making recurring payments. While you may prefer to collect payment repeatedly rather than selling a product for a one-time payment, most customers would prefer the one-time payment over the recurring payments. Of course, details of the offer and the price will factor in here, but as a general rule you can assume that many people will prefer to avoid recurring payments whenever possible.
I’ve seen this for myself, and I’ve also talked to a number of other bloggers with membership areas over the past couple of years and they almost always have had the same experience. When I launched my membership site I found it to be much more difficult than I anticipated to get people to sign up for recurring payments. The result was that I had to put in a lot more time than I was anticipating to create more premium content in order to increase signups. Looking back, I would still consider the membership aspect to be a great decision, it just wound up being more of a challenge than I expected.
Not all membership websites involve recurring payments. Sometimes there is just a one-time fee for permanent access, or there could be a one-time fee that gives access for a limited time with no automatic renewal. If you are planning to launch a membership website that involves automatically recurring payments just be aware that you will need to give people a very enticing offer to get them to sign up. If they feel the value of the membership is high enough to justify the recurring payment you can overcome the resistance to recurring payments.
The best way that you can overcome resistance to recurring payments is to give members something that they view as necessary, or at least highly valuable. It could be something for their business or personal life, but if they view it as a necessity they will not have as much of a resistance to recurring payments.
There are also a few ways that you can still make sales to people who simply don’t want to sign up for a recurring payment. First, you could offer a membership option without a recurring payment. This should be priced higher than the membership option that does involve a recurring payment so you can give people an incentive to sign up for the recurring payment. For example, you could offer one year of access to your membership site for $99 with an annual recurring fee, or one year of access for $129 with no recurring fee. This way if people want to get access but they don’t want to sign up for recurring payments they at least have an option, and if they choose that option you’ll be compensated with a little extra money.
Another option is to offer products or bundles without a membership. Going back to our earlier example of a members area for recipes, you may offer your members unlimited access to hundreds of different recipes. You could also offer an e-book of your most popular recipes for a one-time payment. Again, this gives an option to customers who want to buy but don’t want recurring payments. You should price the items high enough that it encourages people to sign up for the membership since it is the best deal for the money. Otherwise you may be encouraging people to buy your product for a one-time fee instead of encouraging them to sign up for the membership.
Requires On-Going Work to Retain Members
One of the biggest drawbacks to membership websites is that they require on-going work in order to keep your members. If they are making recurring payments to maintain access to your site, they will expect to have new content or resources on a regular basis. If you’re not adding new content or resources to the members area you’ll be likely to see a high cancellation rate.
If you don’t have the time or don’t want to do the work yourself, you may be able to outsource the work to have others create the content or resources for your members area. In fact, this is something I recommend in most cases, at least as a supplement to the content that you are creating yourself. This will free up more of your own time and can help you to be able to do a better job of being able to promote and market the site and get more members. The downside to this approach, of course, is that it will cost some money. If your members area is bringing in money each month this may not be a problem, but when you’re just getting started it can be hard to justify the expense of hiring others to create content for your membership site that doesn’t yet have many paying members.
Tips for Membership Websites
Now that we’ve looked at some of the good and bad things about membership websites we can move on with some tips. If you’ve decided that you would like to generate some income from a membership website, here are some tips.
Consider the Amount of On-Going Work Before Getting Started
Starting a membership site is a pretty big commitment. You’ll be committed to dedicating time, money, or both to creating premium content or resources for your members. Don’t expect it to be easy or quick, and be realistic about how much time you are going to need to devote on a regular basis.
If a membership site is a major part of your plan for making money with your blog, this commitment is probably not as big of a deal, and it can be well worth the time and money. But if you’re just experimenting or still trying to determine the right approach to monetize your blog, I would encourage you to hold off on starting a members area until you’re better prepared to move forward.
Take Time to Choose the Right Membership Platform
One of the biggest challenges I had when launching my first membership site was finding the right platform to use for managing the members and payments. I actually went through 3 different systems before the site was even live. In the end, I wound up using probably the most popular membership platform, aMemeber.
aMember is a popular choice because it can integrate with a lot of different scripts and content management systems. It’s also been around for a while, which helps when compared to some of the newer options. aMember can be a good choice, and overall I have been happy with it, but it’s not without its faults. For starters, it’s much more difficult to set up than a simple WordPress membership plugin. I’m pretty competent with setting up and managing my own websites, but I actually hired a developer to install aMember because I found it to be confusing and I wanted to make sure it was done right. Finding a good developer to work with aMember isn’t that easy, and from a few of the developers that I have talked to, a big reason for that is that it can even be difficult for developers to work with. That’s concerning to me, and that is one of the reasons I probably would not use aMember again if I were starting a new membership site.
I would still recommend that bloggers take a good look at aMember to see if it could be the best fit for them, but for most average bloggers who are using WordPress I would recommend not going with aMember. If you’re not using WordPress your options may be a little more limited, and aMember can work with a lot of different systems.
For WordPress users there is an ever-increasing number of membership plugins that can be used. There are some free plugins that enable you to allow visitors to create accounts and allow you to manage access to content, but as far as I know there are no free plugins that allow you to set up a full-fledged members area including recurring payments and automatically cutting off access when members cancel. Even if there was a free plugin for this, I probably wouldn’t recommend using it. Free plugins can be great, but for critical functionality I don’t encourage using them. Free plugins are often abandoned by their developers and not updated to maintain compatibility with new versions of WordPress. Commercial plugins that you have to buy are, in general, more likely to be well maintained because the developer has financial motivation. In addition, you’ll get very limited customer service for free plugins, but you should get more responsive services when you pay for a plugin.
A few of the most popular WordPress plugins for membership websites include Wishlist Member, Membership, MemberWing, MemberMouse, and Restrict Content Pro (there are even more, and new ones are coming out pretty frequently). Of these, I have personally used Wishlist Member, Member Mouse, and Restrict Content Pro, with MemberMouse and Restrict Content Pro being my favorites.
Regardless of which WordPress membership plugin you are using, the basics are the same. You will upload the plugin to your site, set up one or more membership levels, input your details to accept payment (most of them work with PayPal, some have other options as well), users will be able to sign up which will set up recurring payments, you will be able to mark content as members-only to protect it, and your members will have access until they cancel the recurring payment, and when they cancel the payment their access will be cut off.
The benefits of using a WordPress plugin for managing memberships include that you won’t have to do any coding, and you will be able to manage everything from your WordPress dashboard.
Before starting your membership website you’ll want to research your options and find one that will be the best fit from you. You don’t want to just choose one and then decide 4 months later that you want to change systems. Moving member accounts and recurring payments can be very complicated and in some cases impossible. See this page at ProfitBlitz for more details on a few plugins: WordPress Membership Plugins.
With that in mind, here are some things to consider when evaluating the membership platform:
- Ease of Use for You
Some systems will be easier to setup and use than others. WordPress plugins are typically the easiest to set up. Also try to see if you can preview the admin user interface either through screenshots or a demo before purchasing. You’ll want to have a system that makes sense, includes all the features you need, and ideally does not have tons of extra features that you don’t need. I’ve found Restrict Content Pro and MemberMouse to be among the best in terms of ease of use.
- Ease of Use for Members
In addition to being easy for you to use as the administrator, pay attention to the usability for your members. Look at the sign up process, the login process, and the membership dashboard that they will see when they login in (if applicable). Try to evaluate it as if you were going to be a user.
- Track Record and Likelihood of Longevity
Because it can be such a major process to move from one membership platform to another, you’ll want to make sure that you are going with a stable option. You don’t want to choose a product from a company that will be out of business in a year, and you don’t want to choose a WordPress plugin that will be abandoned by the developer with the next major WordPress release.
It can be a challenge to evaluate the stability of a company or product, but there are a few things you can look at for clues. First, how long have the company and the product been around? I wouldn’t automatically eliminate new options, but those that have a history and a track record can be a little more comforting.
Next, try to get a feel for it’s popularity. If a product is making money for its developer it is likely to continue to be supported. On the other hand, if it’s not making much money for the developer it is more prone to being abandoned or discontinued. Do some Google searches to see what systems other bloggers are using and recommending and you can get a feel for the ones that are doing well and likely to be around for a long time.
- Can You Find a Developer?
If you need help setting up the system you may need to hire a developer that is familiar with your platform of choice. If you’re working with a WordPress plugin you probably won’t need a developer since you should be able to do everything without editing any code. However, for other systems like aMember you are likely to need a developer at some point. Do a Google search to see if you’re able to find developers that mention a capability of working with the system you are evaluating.
- Cost (One-Time vs. Recurring)
The costs associated with different membership platforms are really varied. Some will involve only one-time payments. Others may involve monthly or yearly fees. In general, WordPress plugins will often involve the lowest cost. I would encourage you to take the cost into consideration without allowing it to totally dictate which option you choose. You’ll want to have a system that works well for you and your members, even if it means spending a little bit more money than with another option.
- Payment Options for Members
How will your members be able to pay for access to your members-only content? Most membership platforms will integrate with PayPal and some will offer other options as well. If you only want to accept credit card payments and not deal with PayPal, make sure you find an option that allows you to do this. Also take into consideration how easy or difficult it will be for your members to make payments. If they can’t make payments in the way that they want (for example, if they can’t use PayPal in their country) you may miss out on some signups.
- How Does it Protect Content?
Each membership platform will have its own way of protecting your members-only content. Many of the WordPress plugins work in a similar fashion. Typically, you can set specific pages and posts to be accessible only to members, and with most plugins you can also designate smaller sections of a post or page (such as a download button or a video) to be protected. If someone without a membership is trying to access members-only content they will see a message about the content being available only to members.
Check the specifics of any system that you are considering. If there are specific ways that you plan to use protected content be sure that it will work with any system you are considering.
Tips for Making Money from Membership Websites
If you’re thinking of adding a members area to your blog, here are some tips.
Have a Very Strong Offer to a Targeted Audience
One of the keys to having a successful membership website is to target a very specific audience. You’ll need to find out what that target audience feels that they really need and deliver it to them through a membership at your website. Earlier I mentioned the need to make your membership content a necessity for your members, and that is much more realistic when you are dealing with a highly-targeted and specific audience.
If you can give your visitors a convincing reason why they should join your membership website you will have better success at converting visitors to paying members. For example, instead of just offering “premium content” for $19 per month, be very specific about what people can get out of your membership. Use a landing page to sell the benefits of membership.
From my own experience I’ve learned that in order to reach the level of success that I want with a membership website I have to work towards making it a “no-brainer” to sign up. You want to provide so much value to people that the price seems ridiculously low. If visitors feel that way, and if they fit into your target audience, your conversions will be pretty high and you’ll be seeing a lot of new members sign up.
Test and Obsess Over Conversion Rates
Conversion rates are critical to the success of membership websites. Because the lifetime value of the average customer can be pretty high (through the cumulative total of recurring payments), being able to increase your conversion rate for new signups can make a big difference in your overall income with the site.
You should test things on your landing/sales page in order to maximize conversion rates. You may find that seemingly small changes and tweaks can have a real impact on conversion rates. Some examples of things that you may want to test are headline text, fonts, text colors, button colors, button sizes, button text, and graphics. The key is to change one element at a time and see if conversion rates go up or down. For a much more detailed guide please see The Ultimate Guide to A/B Testing.
Offer Long-Term Options
Another lesson that I learned very quickly in my experience with membership websites was the value of long-term memberships. I was surprised at how many people preferred to sign up for an annual membership over a monthly option. The annual plan offered a small discount when compared to keeping the monthly plan active for a full year.
What I found was that not only was that a good deal for members who wanted longer access, but it was also a good deal for me. First, it gave me that money up front instead of spreading it out in several smaller payments over the next year. I was then able to use that money to hire some freelancers to help develop more content for the members area to increase signups. Also, it reduced the amount of time that I had to spend managing the site. I had few payments to track, fewer issues with PayPal payments that didn’t go through, and that meant less of my time that I had to dedicate to administrative work. So my advice to others is to at least offer a longer term option aside from just a monthly membership, and you may even want to consider only longer-term options.
Re-Invest to Keep Improving the Site
In the previous point I mentioned that the yearly payments gave me more money that I could re-invest in the site, and I think that is a key point worth stressing. In order to have success with a membership site it will need to be improved constantly. In most cases this involves adding new content, which then makes it more valuable for members to continue their membership.
As your site starts to bring in some money I would encourage you to re-invest some of it into the site. Rather than trying to produce all of the members-area content yourself, look into hiring others to create some of it for you. While re-investing in the site will reduce your short-term profits it will help to make the site more valuable to members, which means more signups in the future, more recurring payments, and better long-term profitability.
Integrate Promotion into Your Blog Content
One of the reasons a members area is such a great fit for a blog is that you have an amazing platform to promote it, assuming you have established an audience for your blog before launching the members area. To take advantage of this, find ways to work promotions into your blog content.
There are plenty of ways you could do this, and the specifics may depend on your particular audience and the type of content and/or resources that you offer in the members area. One example is the very popular Tuts+ network that targets designers and creative types. They have a number of different blogs, and one of them is Psdtuts+, which publishes Photoshop tutorials. Most of the tutorials are free and some are members-only. On the free tutorials they offer the Photoshop file created in the tutorial as a free download for active members. So anyone can follow along with the tutorial, but if you’re a member you can also download the exact file used in the tutorial, which makes it easier to follow along. So even when they are publishing free content they are still getting exposure for their membership option.
Find ways to integrate your premium members area into your content (with a link to your signup page) and you should see an increase in the number of new members that signup. In some cases you may want to publish posts specifically to mention new content that is available in the members area, and in other situations you may want to work in the promotion in more subtle ways. One option for this is to write blog posts on topics that are closely related to your members-only content, and then at the end of the post you can mention the details of the members-only content for those who want additional info on top of what is in the blog post.
Get Members to Promote as Affiliates
When we were looking at the topic of selling products through your blog I mentioned the importance of having an affiliate program to increase your sales. The same thing can be true for membership websites. Some membership platforms, like aMember for example, have affiliate program capability built in. Other options, like most WordPress plugins, will not. So in this case you would have to find a separate system to manage the affiliate program. Most membership plugins will list the affiliate management software that can be integrated to work with the plugin.
Your members will often wind up being the best affiliates, because they can give personal testimonials and they can “sell” a membership to your website by speaking to their own experience and how it has benefited them.
Conclusion on Membership Websites
Membership websites are a favorite monetization approach because of the possibility for recurring income. This is definitely a compelling reason to consider adding a membership area to your blog, but success with this approach won’t come easy. In the end, I think it’s a good approach that serious bloggers should consider, but it’s not for everyone.