Sales / E-commerce

The Small Business Owner’s Complete Guide To Managing Membership Websites

Kelsey Bratcher, Jorge Lazaro Diaz, Jennifer Leslie, & Justin Topliff

Updated: Jun 07, 2023 · 11 min read

Toolkit for download in this article

how to make money with membership sites

Hey there, Small Business Owner!

Have you worked hard to create an eye-catching website? Do you do everything you can to boost your visibility? Have you built a sales funnel that can court and nurture your prospects almost on its own, but still find yourself stretched thinner than you’d like?

If you’ve answered “Yes” to any of those questions, a membership site might be for you!

Uh, OK. What’s a membership website?

All cheesy-T.V.-spokesperson banter aside, a membership site could be a valuable strategy for your small business’ success, and for your own sanity.

In its most basic form, a membership site is a website that’s protected from the general public and only accessible to subscribed members. Membership sites usually require payment to either gain or retain access to content, but not always.

They’re also a different kind of business model. Instead of one-off sales, customers are charged a monthly fee for access, much like a gym membership. When customers sign up, they give you permission to take their money for months or years into the future in exchange for your products or services. You’ve probably seen this type of model before with membership sites for online courses or access to “exclusive,” ongoing content.

Ok, keep talking. What are the benefits of a membership website?

The core benefit of a membership site is to make money more efficiently. Instead of selling a service that you must be physically present to fulfill for every new customer, with a membership site, or as it's sometimes known, subscription website, you only need to create one product once for repeated sales.

You can also create products to sell on your membership site from work you’ve already done. If you’re a career coach, perhaps you’ve noticed a pattern that all of your clients typically require the same basic starting content. Currently, you may sell this as a service for $200. Why not turn this into a three-month membership course and sell it for $100 per month, netting you $100 more and saving you the time? After all, most of the content for a membership course is already in your head or in other pieces of content you’ve already created. All you have to do is convert it into a digital format for automated delivery.

Another perk of the membership website tactic is that it’s one of the easiest ways to retain customers longer and increase their lifetime value.

Say you offer a $1,000 consulting package, but it’s a hard sell because it’s on the expensive side, and your customers are often overwhelmed by the amount of material you cover in three months. If you digitize the course—turn it into an online course, spread it out over six months, and only charge $199 per month (because that’s more palatable than $1,000 up-front), you’ll likely find more customers wind up buying it. You’ll also make more money over the course of the six months ($1,194, versus $1,000), and your customers will be happy to receive your content in digestible amounts. In fact, your customers might wind up loving it so much, they won’t mind paying $199 per month to continue into a second, follow-up course on a different topic.

Did we mention that all of this can happen automatically, without you ever being present to deliver it? Sounds like a pretty sweet deal, if you ask us.

This all sounds great, but is it right for my business?

Any business owner can start a membership website; the industry you are in is irrelevant. You are in business because you have knowledge that people are willing to pay for. Now, all you have to do is put that knowledge into a digital format that people will subscribe to.

Recurring revenue is a game-changer when it comes to running a successful small business. It hedges against revenue volatility and is one of the biggest keys to financial freedom. Imagine having a dependable customer base paying you predictable income, instead of worrying whether you’re going to have a good sales month or not. Don’t forget that membership sites automatically distribute your content, freeing up your time so you can focus on growing your business.

Sounds great! Where do I start?

Step 1: Define your membership site goals.No doubt, there is a wide range of membership site ideas, but it’s important to define your primary goals. Here are a few you might consider:

  • Lead generation: Using your membership site as a lead magnet to provide a trial or access to free, gated content such as videos, audio recordings, or structured text content.
  • Information product delivery: Offering various levels within your membership site software to create a tiered-subscription structure. More recurring revenue is good, right?
  • Continuous content delivery: Do you need to build a membership site that is continuously producing new content in real-time to keep subscribers? Or do you want to build a membership site that drips content to your subscribers?
  • ... How about all of the above?

Step 2: Determine what your membership site will need

Once your goals are defined, the first step on how to create a membership site is you’ll need to determine what kind of features will support your business needs. Consider some of these common features many membership sites tend to require:

  • Video and media hosting: Do you need to have resources that can take care of this challenge for you or do you need a manager to handle this for you? CustomerHub and some other solutions make this easy.
  • Drip content: Time-released content allows you to start a subscriber out at a specific point in your membership site and slowly “drip” or release content over time for the length of the subscription. This is amazing for any membership site content you have created in advance. Each subscriber will be on a schedule and gain access to more content the longer they stay subscribed. Alternatively, you may be creating content on the fly and want to be able to provide content to your subscribers as you create it.
  • Subscription website builder: Make sure that the platform you choose to build a membership site on allows you create the kind of content you need. If you have quizzes, tests, or other user feedback, then you may need a way to store this type of information. Special tools that you provide to your subscribers may also require that your membership site management solution supports custom code.
  • Customer support: This is extremely important. What are you going to do when your membership site breaks or you can’t figure out how to use it? Are you comfortable with rolling up your sleeves and looking at code? If you are ninja wizard then you may not need it, but for the rest of us, having a customer support team to turn to when things go wrong can give you peace of mind and save you money.
  • Billing system integration: We might be biased, but Keap is pretty awesome at managing the billing for your subscribers. If you are using Keap to bill your subscribers, we recommend that the membership site solution you use integrates with it. No one wants to manually (Eww!) create new accounts or tear down accounts when folks decide they want to cancel.
  • Ease of use: You need to be able to create, update, and delete content yourself. Make sure that the solution you go with has an easy way to manage your membership site.

Step 3: Convert your knowledge or existing product into consumable content.Once you have an idea of what your business needs will be to run a successful membership website, you’ll need to package up your content. There are hundreds of ways to do this: downloadable files, videos, audio, interviews, ebooks, special reports, reviews, tutorials, online training or courses, worksheets, etc. Remember, you likely already have your content lying around; you just need to repackage it.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that customers can easily get overwhelmed if you throw too much content at them at once. Frequently, member site creators forget to create a “Getting Started” section or course overview explaining how to use the site, where to begin and to set member expectations. This can cause members to get antsy, confused, or overwhelmed, which can lead to you losing happy members.

How to stop losing members

Now, keep in mind that you’re in a good position when members first arrive. You’ve impressed them enough to get them to make the purchase. Now you have to convince them that your approach to delivering your content is just as good.

We recommend using video. It doesn’t have to be Hollywood quality, either. Using only a webcam or your phone’s video app, you or your spokesperson can present with a screen capture video to explain your member website. Before you hit “record,” keep in mind that your goal is to:

  • Thank members for joining.
  • Explain to them you understand how they feel now that they are encountering the content for the very first time, and
  • Assure them you and your team are here to get them through it.

Finally, don’t be afraid to splice up your content and stretch it over a period of time. Customers love digestible packets of information, not all of it at once.

Check out Keap's Lifecycle Automation Assessment to determine where your business stands among the industry's top performers.

Step 4: Plan out your monetization strategy and customer journey.You don’t have to charge monthly for everything. Perhaps you offer a free five-day mini course to generate leads, then market your three-month paid course to them. What can you sell your customers after your three-month course? The goal is to get customers in and keep them in. Offering multiple products is a good way to get a deeper share of wallet from your customer. Make it easy for them to spend their first dollar (a lower priced a-la-carte item) and then find a way to increase their spending (a higher priced, multi-month course).

Step 5: Load everything into your membership site solution and automate marketing and upsells.Building all of this may take some time, but once it’s built, it will likely be the last time you have to touch it—that is if you’re using an online membership site management solution. If you’re already using Keap, good news! We offer two viable solutions to easy membership site management.

CustomerHub, Memberium, and iMember360 fully integrate with Keap for marketing, billing, and customer management, so all you have to worry about is how to create site content. However, they offer different things for different people.

CustomerHub is for businesses that want to get a membership site up and running quickly without requiring knowledge of another platform like WordPress. Since it is a hosted membership site, you won’t have to deal with updates, security, or accidentally breaking anything. It even allows users to update their credit card information (it will automatically revoke access if a credit card expires) so you don’t have to chase them down, and its Keap integration can also power your upsell emails once users complete a course or product.

Memberium is for entrepreneurs who are looking to run advanced membership sites that practically run themselves, utilizing Keap's automations in WordPress. With Memberium, you can create an unlimited number of membership levels, add one-click upsells, embed legacy order forms, create advanced engagement campaigns, and pull e-commerce data into your site.

iMember360 is for entrepreneurs who want the key membership site features, but require extensive configuration and customization. You will need to host iMember360 yourself on your own WordPress site.

Step 6: Drive traffic to your site.You’re ready to start selling. Paying for qualified traffic is a quality investment here. Don’t leave yourself at the mercy of SEO. The more qualified visitors you bring to your site, the more likely they are to convert into paying customers. Paid advertising costs more money, but it’s scalable and controllable. Affiliate marketing is also a great way to gain qualified traffic. Seek out influencers in your space with large followings and give them a commission if they promote and sell your product.

Step 7: Keep your members connected and engaged.In the last few years, we’ve seen a rise in popularity of a forum component on member websites. This is where members connect with each other and share their experiences. They support and advise each other with support. (The upside to this is you can offload a part of your support work to your tribe).

Using Wordpress tools like BBPress or Muut, adding a forum is straightforward. Another option is to set up a private Facebook group. Many have found the tribe of fellow members they connect with in these forums are as valuable, if not more valuable, than the course itself. If you, as the membership site owner, make that environment available, not only do you get the credit for it, you also reap the benefits of that additional “stickiness” of continued memberships.

Another tactic to keep your members engaged and committed to your membership site is to give them goals to achieve. Sure, some of your members will be self-motivated and will have set their own goals, but chances are, many others could greatly benefit from help in this area. Try setting up a leaderboard, where members can see how their progress compares to others in the program. A little competition never hurt anyone!

With your leaderboard, you can get elaborate, if you like. But you can also use something simple, like scoring people on the number of lessons completed in a given month, for example. At the beginning of each month, everyone’s score should be reset to zero. Then, give members a point or two for completing a lesson in the given month. Get creative and find other ways to build in points. Then, publish a list prominently on your site recognizing your top performers.

Excellent! I think I’m ready to create my own membership website.

Great! We’re glad we could help. Just remember, as with anything, perfection is not required, especially when you’re starting something new. We encourage you to take the first step and experiment with a free, five-day mini-course (or something of the like) based on one of your existing products. If nothing else, it will make a great lead magnet you can put on your website. But who knows! If you pair it with a paid upsell, you just might get your first taste of predictable, recurring revenue.

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