Building Recurring Income with Membership Sites
One of the biggest problems with blogging income is that most of the sources are one-off. You get an affiliate sale or sell an ebook and that’s it.
Research shows it can take as many as seven touch points with someone before they buy your product. That means it takes as many as seven times for a reader coming to your blog, reading social media posts, reading your emails or other interactions to trust you enough to buy a product.
The problem in all of this is that it takes so long to convert someone to a customer and so much money…then with one purchase, they’re out the door.
It’s one of the reasons why it is so expensive to get a customer. You need to be constantly reaching out through advertising or new content to reach new people for a sale.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of bloggers do very well selling these one-time products and affiliates.
And they work their ass off doing it.
Wouldn’t it be better if you could keep that customer and turn it into a relationship that makes money every month?
That’s exactly the idea of creating a membership site on your blog. Membership sites offer a way to actually grow the relationship with previous customers and turn that relationship into a source of monthly income.
What is a Membership Site?
I’m using the term membership site loosely here to mean any kind of password-protected or members’ only content. The most common form of this is pages on your blog that are behind a password protection. Only members may login to access the pages and content.
There are other types of membership sites though. It may not even be a site but a series of emails you send out to members for a course of instruction.
As we’ll see in the next sections, membership sites may or may not charge a fee for access. Most charge a monthly fee but others run on hybrid mixes of monthly fees and upsell to members.
How do Membership Sites Make Money?
So there are two ways most bloggers make money on membership sites, either on monthly fees for access to the site or by selling products or services to members.
I like the first method best, charging a monthly fee for membership. It gets you money upfront and you don’t have to push people into another sales funnel. It can be a lot of work to set up and maintain a membership site. It kind of sucks when you need to do that plus push further sales to make money.
I also believe that if someone is paying a monthly subscription for access, you need to do everything you can to give them the world. I like being able to focus completely on providing as much value as possible for their monthly fee rather than holding some content back for another product to sell.
The other idea is to charge a little less for membership but then upsell people into products, services and affiliates. While I prefer the other model, this one is a smart way to run a membership site also.
- You get more members on the lower monthly access fee, as long as you’re not pricing it so low that people question the value of the site.
- If someone trusts you enough to pay for membership access, they’re already primed to take your word on other products.
In reality, the best way to run your membership site is somewhere in between. I tend towards the higher membership fee and then rely less on product or affiliate sales but they do come in occasionally and can make for a great additional income stream.
8 Ways to Create Value for Membership Sites and Make Money
How you provide value to your members is limitless but there are some common ideas that seem to work. These ideas aren’t mutually exclusive. You can use one or a combination of several to really give members value for their subscription.
1) If you are technically-inclined, a software subscription can make a lot of money and is one of the easiest to manage. Create a WordPress plugin or an application and charge a monthly fee for use.
You’ll need to market the software, answer any questions and make sure it stays updated and working but you won’t need to constantly create new content or run a membership page.
2) Drip feed content or courses is a popular membership feature. This usually comes in the form of a series of emails that go out and teach members how to do something. The ‘drip’ part just means that the emails or content go out to members gradually, in a series rather than all at once.
You can deliver all your content through emails or just keep the course material on members-only pages and then link each new part of the course in an email series. I like managing the courses on web pages because it’s easier to incorporate video and other materials.
3) Counseling and consulting services are another way to offer value to members but these are usually as add-on services rather than something that comes with the subscription. One of the ideas behind a membership site is that it makes money from many customers at once. You can charge more money with one-on-one consulting but it takes much more time.
4) One way to get around the problem with consulting is to offer Mastermind groups. These are regular meetings where members of the group share their ideas and help others to solve their problems. Technically, mastermind groups are supposed to be a little more group-led rather than one person leading but they can work here as well.
While you will probably be talking the most and guiding the group, paid mastermind groups can be a great way to build interaction and community among members. It’s the sense of community you get from interaction that will keep people in the membership group and keep your income growing.
5) Monthly services are popular with membership offers. This may be less like the strict definition of a membership site and more like a business service but it is a great add-on to offer value to your members.
There are a lot of different ways to offer monthly services. It can be a personalized service like offering monthly tech fixes or SEO services to each member. It can also come in the form of a monthly newsletter or content tips.
6) A community forum is one of the best features you can add to your membership site. A forum is pages on your membership site that allow members to ask or reply to questions and talk between themselves. You can set member content to post automatically or you can set it so you must approve any questions/replies before they are posted.
There are different levels of control you can take with the forum. The obvious tradeoff is the time it takes to manage and the control you have to weed out spammers or non-relevant content.
The benefit of a forum is that it can grow to sustain itself if you can attract a few active members. A quality forum will be a resource for members. They’ll grow to rely on it and the interaction they get and you’ll have customers for life.
7) Some form of monthly live interaction is common on membership sites. You may be active in the forum or posting content regularly but it’s also a great idea to offer a monthly webinar or presentation that details a topic. This can take the form of a group conversation like a Mastermind or a more one-way directional presentation but allowing for Q&A at the end.
8) Monthly guest speakers are another way to add value for your members. Besides a way to offer different perspectives and expertise, guest speakers are also a way of getting the word out on your membership site.
Planning your Membership Site
Like a lot of the products or blogging income streams we’ve talked about, your membership site has to come from a position of expertise and passion for the topic. While some may argue that experience is all that matters, I don’t think you can really provide the kind of quality to members if you don’t also enjoy talking about the topic.
This doesn’t mean you need decades of experience before you can be successful. You’ll pick up all the experience and insight you need after a year or two of blogging it. Make sure you check out a few books written by other experts to see if there’s anything you’ve missed but don’t wait too long to get your membership site started.
Once you’ve narrowed it down to a general topic, are there any niches within the topic for which you can create a site. Can you narrow your topic by gender, age or other demographic? The more focused you make the site, the more people will be compelled to join because they’ll be able to relate more personally and will feel like it’s perfect for their needs.
Next, take a month or two to stalk your competition.
- What are the blogs or other membership sites in the niche? Don’t make the mistake of thinking that no competition means a great opportunity. It might mean that there’s no money in the idea.
- Don’t worry too much about competing with other blogs or membership sites. It’s a big internet and providing really great value will bring members.
Join a membership site or two for a couple of months. What are they doing right and what could be improved?
- How much are other sites charging and are there discounted plans or membership levels?
- Resist the temptation to set up your membership site as the low-cost competitor. It only hurts everyone by creating a price war and you’ll have a tough time producing quality content for the site for the amount of money you make. Instead, focus on how you are going to provide great value and then charge for it.
Top off your topic research with common questions you see on forums, Reddit and Quora. Develop your membership site and content around answering these common questions and your members will see it as a one-stop resource.
Which is the Best Membership Site Plugin?
You add a membership site to your blog through a plugin. The setup to get your membership site started is pretty easy but you’ll need to think through some of the different choices for plugins.
There are a couple of free plugins for membership sites but don’t get too cheap on this one. Most plugins cost less than $100 as a one-time fee and the extra features can be well worth it to make your membership area all it can be. It’s a pain to switch your membership pages to a different plugin after already getting started so take the time to pick the best plugin for your needs.
Some of the most important features to consider for your site include:
- Number of membership levels. While I usually go with just one or two levels, there are reasons to want more membership levels.
- Protecting download content. If your members are able to download content like printables and pdfs, you want to make sure they won’t be able to share them with other people.
- Content Access. All membership plugins will let you protect the site-wide content but some will also allow you to sell content on a pay-per-view basis or on other models. It’s a nice feature to have if you want to sell individual posts, videos or other content.
eCommerce features will help you sell other products like pdfs and courses beyond your basic membership access.
- Content drip allows you to plan a series of content to new members directly on the site. This can help keep new members from binge reading all the content and then canceling their subscription quickly.
MemberPress is an easy-to-use and basic membership site plugin that offers most features except ecommerce ability. It’s a very popular plugin and the ecommerce option can be handled with a shopify account. The plugin costs $99 for one site or $199 to place on multiple sites.
WooCommerce is one of the most popular ecommerce platforms and the membership plugin looks to be just as popular. The plugin is a little more expensive but offers the ability to create multiple membership levels, both paid and free. The plugin costs $149 for a single site license.
MemberMouse is a monthly subscription plugin which means it costs less to get started but probably more expensive over the long-term. The starter plan costs $19.95 per month while the advanced plugin costs $99 per month though most will be just fine with the starter plan. The upside to the monthly price is that you get better customer service and updates than typically seen with one-time purchase plugins.
My favorite of the membership plugins is the S2 Member plugin. It’s one of the few that offer a free version of the plugin. Honestly, many bloggers will do just fine on the free version though the single-site paid version is only $89 and $189 for the multi-site license. It’s a one-time fee and the free version can be upgraded to premium if you decide.
S2Member integrates with all the major payment processors including PayPal and Clickbank. It’s easy to set up on your blog, discussed below, and the free version includes all the basic features to start a membership site without committing to purchasing the plugin.
How to Set Up a Membership Area on Your Blog
Each of the membership site plugins will need to be configured after installing and it works a little differently on each. I’ll walk through the process of getting started with S2 Member but you’ll see similarities if you choose one of the other membership options.
First, sign up for S2 Member and select your plan. You can start with the free option. I like the added payment form options with the Pro version and they seem to boost member signups so you might consider the one-time fee for the extra features.
Next, go to ‘Plugins’ and ‘Add New’ on your WordPress dashboard to install the S2 Member plugin.
After installing the plugin and entering your password from the S2 Member website, you will need to create two pages to get started.
- Members – is the first page your new members will see after they join. I like to use this page to post updates and for a quick list of important pages and news.
- Subscribe – This page holds your PayPal buttons and payment levels, or whichever payment processor you use.
The main S2 Member dashboard looks like the screen below. You’ll need to change a few of the settings but many of the defaults work well.
- Deactivate Safeguards, yes
- Security Subscription Key, save your unique security key somewhere safe with the rest of your passwords
- Email Configuration, make sure it shows the email you want to use for the membership site
- Open registration, this is yes only if you offer a free level of membership
- Membership Levels, you can rename your levels to something more persuasive
- Login Design, add a logo and change the fonts/color to match your website brand
- Registration Options, I usually use yes for all three of these but it’s a preference thing
- Login Welcome Page, set this to the Members page you created so people will see it when they login
- Membership Options Page, set this to the Subscribe page you created so people can see your membership options and payment buttons
That’s it! You now have a membership site on your blog. Now you just need to link up your PayPal account to start receiving payments.
Make sure to update your Member page regularly to show new members how to find their way around and to best content.
How to Get Members for Your Site
Any time you are asking people to pay for a higher-price product or a recurring fee, you’ll need to go a little further in convincing them to make the purchase. We saw this in the webinar and courses chapter and it’s just as relevant with membership sites.
We’ll start with the sales process first and then look at ways to get people into your membership site sales funnel.
Remember, very few sales happen the first time someone sees a brand or a product. Years of watching commercials on TV and people are blind to most forms of advertising. The advertising that isn’t subconsciously ignored is mistrusted as a gimmick.
I hate academic theories as much as anyone but the AIDA acronym is extremely useful in making money blogging and something you need to be familiar using in your sales process.
- Awareness – Your potential customers have to know what the product is and who you are first. Just trying to inform them without converting to a sale will go a long way to building a level of trust they need before they’ll be comfortable buying.
Interest – Get the potential customer interested by showing them all the features included on the membership site and what it has done for other members.
- Desire –Create a real desire in the potential customer by showing them how the product serves their needs. Create a personal connection between the customer, yourself and the product.
- Action – At this point, a sale is almost a given if you’ve taken the time to develop a relationship with the potential customer and walk them through the other stages.
Just sending people to an advertising page rarely works, maybe converting three people out of 100 into paying customers. Using a sales funnel where you start off by building awareness and interest before pushing the sale can result in much higher conversion of up to 20 customers per 100 visitors.
For your membership sales funnel, you might start with a webinar. Promote your webinar through banners or links on your blog that lead people to a landing page sign up.
You can also use an email series as a way to convert visitors into paying members. Set up a landing page to get email subscribers for a special course. This can be a small how-to course within your membership topic or anything that will help your target market solve a problem.
The landing page helps build awareness of your expertise. You then send out an auto responder email series that delivers the course to subscribers. You should offer value in the emails as a standalone but can also pitch the membership site. The idea is that the emails help solve a smaller problem but subscribers will need the full membership access to find everything they need in the topic.
For the actual conversion to membership, I like offering a free two-week trial that automatically converts into a paid membership if not canceled. Free trials are almost expected anymore and you’ll have a better opportunity to convert people into long-time members.
There are two ideas in pricing that you might consider:
- Pricing levels and add-ons are always a good idea. Consider discounted levels like a per month membership and a pre-paid six-month membership with one month free. Also, consider adding extra services on higher membership pricing like an hour of consulting every six months.
- Some membership sites offer different levels of access for different prices. This can be a good way of getting people to subscribe at the lower levels and then upselling them into higher levels with more access and higher prices. I’m not a fan of this because it’s more work. I also like managing just one membership level where I provide as much value as possible rather than trying to decide how much each payment level gets for its money.
As for getting people into your sales funnel, there are quite a few methods you can try.
- One of the best sources for members is through the email lists from related websites. It’s part of the reason I manage six different blogs, building a list of people interested in specific topics but that I can also use to cross-promote different products or services. These lists take time to build but are relatively cheaper than other sources.
- Make sure you check out Steve Chou’s Facebook advertising strategy we talked about in the webinar chapter. Too many bloggers are afraid of spending money on advertising but done correctly and it can mean much more income than the cost. It won’t take long running your membership site to find how much a new member is worth, basically the average time a member pays dues. This will give you an idea of how much you can spend on advertising to get each new member.
- Banners and links on your blog and in top posts won’t send a ton of traffic to your funnel but are a no-cost option for advertising. Generally only about 3% of your visitors will click through a link and then only 5% to 15% of them will sign up on your landing page. That means over 300 visitors for a single signup.
- Affiliate arrangements work well for membership sites. Offer other bloggers or advertisers an affiliate commission for every visitor they send your way that converts to a paying member. Again, you’ll need to have an approximate for how much each new member is worth to figure out how much to offer as a commission.
Disadvantages of a Membership Site Income Stream
There is a lot to like about membership sites and they can be a great way to make money blogging but there are also drawbacks.
Membership sites will mean more work and more deadlines. If you promise your members a presentation or fresh content each month, you better deliver. It’s not like a blog where you can post whenever you like.
There will be more work interacting with your members as well. Monthly-paying members expect a level of customer service and access to your time. While one-on-one access can be managed by spelling out what members get for their money, you will still need someone to answer questions quickly. Most of the bloggers I know with membership sites have a virtual assistant to help manage questions that come in from members.
This all means that membership sites are much less passive than other sources of blogging income like affiliate marketing. One of the reasons I love self-publishing so much is that book sales are so passive after a successful launch. Membership sites can be made more passive with a forum or with a drip-feed content that goes out to all new members.
The tradeoff in all of this is the amount of money and income consistency for membership sites.
5 Tips to Get Started Making Money on Membership Sites
1) Get started now on your membership site. As with most of the product ideas in the book, procrastination and self-doubt is your biggest hurdle. Read everything you can to build your expertise in a topic and get started.
Try starting your membership site off with a lower, limited-time price. Offer membership to your most committed email subscribers and some other connections that might be a good fit. Let them know you want to use them as guinea pigs so are willing to let them in at a super-discounted price.
Getting started this way, you don’t need books’ worth of content for your members. Put together a basic course to get people started and then develop the rest as you go.
2) Join another membership site. We covered this in planning but it’s an important one that too many bloggers neglect. You’ll learn a lot about the management and value provided in membership sites. Remember though that what works for one blogger might not work for you. Be flexible in how you manage your membership site and what you offer members.
3) The best membership sites have engaged and interactive owners. Providing a regular stream of advice is fine but members can get that anywhere…for free. Members join because of your story and your success. Keeping this personal connection is the best way to keep members active. Engage in conversations and be a real resource for members.
4) Group events and challenges are a great way to keep members active and take some work off your plate. These can be monthly or quarterly challenges, where you propose a topic and metrics to reach and then guide the conversation around it. Get people to work in teams outside of the presentations or conversations, helping each other meet the challenge. Small prizes can help to incentivize people to participate and the interaction will really help build a community of members.
5) Invite influencers or a few people you know will be active to join for free. You might also consider offering discounts to different demographic groups or around holidays and awareness months. For example, promote a big discount for veterans around Veteran’s Day.
Setting up and managing a membership site can be a lot of work but it is one of the highest-paying ways to make money blogging. Instead of spending all your time trying to find new customers, membership sites offer the opportunity to spend more time creating value for existing customers and to make more money.