Please read this before you make costly mistakes that waste time and money!
I’ve ran successful memberships for a long time already…long before they were the trend. Back when I did it, we didn’t have all those fancy plugins and sales page designs. Everything was coded manually and custom-developed *hacked* to make things work.
Now it seems memberships are so easy. Anybody can do it. Right?!
My background in running membership sites
Believe me when I say this, I know exactly what you’re going through. I’ve been there before.
- Creating material, outputting videos and PDFs.
- Setting up website, sales pages, registration pages.
- Setting up technical parts, membership plugins and integrations.
- Going back and forth on product names and pricing.
- Oh yeah, and let’s not forget changing your mind a hundred times.
- Then you launch.
- Then you realize it’s not going how you expected and you’re forced to pivot.
- Remove and repackage things.
- …then relaunch AGAIN…to your same list (oh how embarrassing!)
- Then redesign your new website yet again.
- Then relaunch AGAIN!
- Then try ads.
- Then try random things out of curiosity and desperation.
- Maybe quit a little. Or maybe stay and assist the remaining 30 members like it’s a chore.
- Then come back to it later with a clearer vision.
What can I say? You only learn by doing. That’s for sure. Thankfully I’ve already done it and I can honestly say I would rather not ever have to go through that again for myself. It is truly a lot of work to do it right.
It’s so much work, you totally forget about your original ideas of it at all. I want to be frank with you:
If you’re only doing this membership thing as a way of making passive income, you should just quit now. It’s not easy money no-way no-how.
Maybe it’s easy to make friends and fans. Easy to have stage-5 clingy clients who need to hear your loving voice each and every day.
If you don’t like watering your cactus twice a month, you really aren’t gonna like running a membership site. – Johnny Nguyen
Managed membership sites for clients.
They range anywhere from under a hundred members to over a hundred thousand—I know, what a lucky bastard! I’ve helped in every part of their memberships as well. New ones need help with basic marketing strategy or setting things up. Established ones need help with coding and server management (since their site now crawls under the weight of its massive success).
Very familiar with membership plugins.
I’m extremely involved in the development scene for membership plugins. I’ve made reviews, chatted with plugin developers, gave free support on their Facebook groups, I’ve also developed my own addon plugins for popular membership plugins (I have 2 for MemberPress).
Does all this mean make me the expert of memberships? Absolutely not. I’m not a membership site coach. I have zero interest in doing training programs or helping other people make money when I could be doing it for myself. But I am happy to share a few insights if it makes helping you out and making the world a better place.
Please…take everything I say with a grain of salt. And only apply if it makes sense to your situation. When in doubt, try everything and break the rules! 😀
1. Differentiating your membership PLANS
There are generally 2 kinds of plan distinctions:
Let’s pretend you sell membership plans for online tennis lessons. A user-centric plan could look like BEGINNERS, ATHLETES, PROS. A solution-centric plan would be TECHNIQUES, TRAINING, STRATEGY.
And I’m torn between telling you which one to follow. Like 80% of the memberships (or any businesses out there) will go the USER-CENTRIC route. But…if you’re selling to people who know what they want/need, then you should go the SOLUTION-CENTRIC route.
For example…let’s look at the market for “drones”. If you go online and look for lessons on flying drones, they usually separate them by user-centric (CASUAL, HOBBYIST, PROFESSIONAL). But if you go to a drone store, you will see sections laid out in solution-centric manner (NEW, USED, PARTS, ACCESSORIES, BATTERIES, BAGS, etc).
So I won’t tell you which one you need for your membership but you have to think it over very carefully. Generally, I think the user-centric route will appear more high-value and longterm benefit for your potential customer. Whereas the solution-centric route will feel more like a quick-and-easy short-term solution.
2. Careful “membership” LABELLING
Be very careful with how you throw the word “membership” around. Because the word isn’t as valuable as you think. If by “membership”, you mean a SUBSCRIPTION…I can tell you nobody wants to sign up for a subscription. Nobody wants to keep giving you money forever. Not even your mother.
- Is it an exclusive club?
- Is it an on-going service?
- Is it something that makes your customer happier every single day?
You gotta be real careful with how this is sold.
Most people trying to start a membership have this fantasy of other people paying their bills (for the rest of their life). I’m here to tell you that’s usually a silly idea. And for a hundred-and-one reasons.
- Is your membership built around a short-term issue? Customers will quit soon.
- Is your membership built around a long-term issue? Customers may quit anyway.
- Is your membership built around an absolutely needed service? Internet, phone, etc.
- Is your membership built around other benefits? Savings (Costco/Amazon), useful repetitive task (lawnmowing), etc.
You need a really really strong benefit proposition to sell a membership. Heck, arguably even stronger than selling a one-time product. But to make it simple…your membership must have ongoing benefits to justify its ongoing costs.
3. BILLING for customer lifetime values
No member stays forever. Don’t kid yourself!
How long do customers usually stay? Do they tend to stay longer or shorter? Be honest with yourself!
Most membership or (we could say) subscription-based products use the recurring revenue model to INCREASE CUSTOMER LIFETIME VALUES. And if you’re not calculating things correctly, you’ll probably get the reverse effect. The idea is to adjust the billing to your advantage.
Let’s go over some examples…
- Pretend you’re a fitness gym and most people quit within the first month. Knowing that you’ll probably want to sell them a cheap deal of 12-months upfront.
- Pretend you’re a cellphone shop and most people want to buy a $1k iPhone upfront. Knowing that you’ll probably want to sell them a dragged out payment plan over 24 months.
You see? Sometimes you make more by selling longterm plans to short term customers. Other times, it can be the reverse. I’m sure there are many more examples but I didn’t think of any on the spot. The idea is the same. You should price yourself based on how long they stay.
- Longterm pricing if they’re quitting in 3 months.
- Short-term pricing if they’re gonna stay awhile.
4. Designing your “FREEMIUM” experience
Every membership site (or business) uses the freemium model.
This is true whether you know it or not. Even Ferrari uses the freemium model. And the freemium model is this. Users who don’t pay get a certain level of free product or service. And the users who do pay will get “the good stuff”.
Most premium products and businesses out there use the “freemium” model in an interesting way. Let’s take GUCCI for example. Their freemium experience is you get to go into their store and try their stuff for free. Smell it, touch it, maybe even put it on. But that’s it! If you don’t pay, you can’t take that experience home with you.
Now what about Ferrari? Sure, there’s the showroom and giftshop and what not but that’s not the freemium experience to me. To me the Ferrari freemium experience is you driving past the dealership but from your crappy car. It really works. Since you’re already sitting in a car, driving back. There’s sounds, there’s sensations. And then there’s the imagination of how everything would be so different had you been in a Ferrari. Maybe you even think back to the times you saw Ferrari’s in movies or commercials.
The freemium model is simply a matter of allowing users to get a taste of things and build their desire for the premium version of it. Easy for some products and businesses…but how the heck do you do it for your membership business?
Well, maybe you start a free membership. Or a blog with tons of helpful advise. A newsletter, etc. Yes, it’s a lot of work. This is why I say membership businesses are not easy to do! The bright side is that the freemium content will help you build a following and authority within your niche. Which over time pushes people on the fence to try your product.
One thing I know for sure. It doesn’t matter how incredible your sales pages or advertising, if you give away nothing for free….and you lock all your good stuff behind a subscription payment plan, that membership is not gonna grow very fast. And don’t bother with the “free trial” thing either. Nobody trusts that. I seriously think it’s easier to sell your first month at normal price than with a free trial.
5. Ongoing “PREMIUM” experience
Ongoing payments need ongoing value (justification).
Can you imagine paying $15/month for Netflix if they never add new shows or movies? Imagine every day you log in and it looks the same EVERY DAMN TIME. Ok…now think back to your membership idea.
Are you gonna actually create new premium shit every week/month/year? Because again, how the heck are you gonna justify that recurring payment for your customers?
There has to be new stuff, new excitement, new announcements. New stuff is always happening! New stuff is always coming out! Every time you customer is thinking of cancelling, they see an announcement and then have sudden FOMO (fear of missing out). They think to themselves…“ahhh, I won’t cancel…I might want to see that”.
Or would you rather they think, “Ehhh…it’s the same thing every time. I guess I’ll just stop my membership now and sign up again when I have time later.”
Here’s the other part of the PREMIUM experience. Whatever your membership is selling, it has to actually be something that a customer uses everyday (or every week). Because if they don’t use it, they sure as hell are not going to keep paying for it. And if your product isn’t essential enough for them to use, then it isn’t premium!
My tip here is to adjust your content to how people use it. Too often we make content for the way we want to sell it, or the way that’s easiest for us to make.
- Instead of a 60-min video, try a series of 2-min videos released every few days.
- Instead of annoying emails for every forum reply, try a weekly recap of the most popular discussions.
- And if you don’t plan to create tons of new content, then just know your members won’t be around after 3-6 months. Most will quit after one month.
6. Convenient user ENGAGEMENT
The best way to grow user engagement is to come to them!
Currently, it is these 2 places…Facebook and email. That’s the fastest way to grow your membership community. Create a Facebook group and also keep tabs with them through a members-only newsletter.
Those 2 places are where your members are already active. It’s zero friction for them to be notified, log in, engage with likes and comments.
You know what’s a crazy idea? People trying to build their own social networks and forums. Yeah good luck with that. Good luck trying to get people to log into your site and type long passwords from their tiny phone.
…there are different community growth tactics for different community sizes.
If your membership is small or non-existent, go the Facebook and email route. But once it gets bigger…then you can start to migrate them off into your own managed forum on a private domain. And there on your own private site you can offer more benefits. More goodies and things to click on. More info, etc and etc. But that’s only once Facebook group has grown to be big enough.
7. Membership MARKETING
Sell the journey, not the solution.
This advice may seem backwards from everything you’ve ever heard about marketing but it makes to me. You have to sell memberships differently from how you sell one-time products.
You can’t be talking about solutions and features because then people start thinking whether they even need a membership. The hardest part about selling the membership is justifying why it even needs to be a membership.
Let’s take a membership course on guitar lessons for example. Why can’t that be a book or 60-minute video? Why does it have to be a “membership”? You see what I’m saying?
In moments like that, you have to focus on the “ongoing benefits” of that membership. That there’s a human there to handhold and guide them personally. Or that there’s other members there to ask for advice and tips from. Or that there’s an active board featuring recently-updated resources or gigs for guitar players. Again…the keyphrase is “ongoing benefits”.
8. SETTING UP your membership site
Make your membership site simple!
I can’t stress this enough. Most membership sites I see blow all their time and money on making a (convolutedly) fancy site. It ends up being too hard to build, too hard to manage, not only doesn’t add value to frontend customers but also takes time away from making valuable content!
User should see a clean home page, plans with details, registration page. Once logged in as a registered member, they see their members areas and content. That’s it!
Stop screwing around fancy sales pages, upsells, funnels, extras, chat area, forum area, blah blah blah. Stop creating non-essential pages. Small (or starting) membership sites need a simple user process. It’s only when you get big and so many members (and different types of members) that it makes sense to build out extra areas and features for them!
Last but not least, please don’t try to build everything yourself if you’re not technically savvy. It’s better to hire someone else to build so you can focus on content creation and marketing.
9. Choosing the right membership PLATFORM
Should you go with a self-owned (e.g. WordPress) or 3rd-party (e.g. Kajabi)?
I hear people complaining the pros and cons all the time and I secretly think NONE of them have ever had a successful membership site. For me, it’s not about the features or which one helps you start up faster. The main criteria for me is which one is best for you once you have over 1k members.
I will tell you right now…THINK AHEAD!
Whatever platform or plugin you’re using, check to see how it scales once you get past 1,000 members. Because some of them are absolutely limited as heck.
- They don’t allow other features you need.
- Their UI sucks for managing so many members.
- Their fees are too expensive.
- They don’t integrate with other tools/services you use.
And if you ever need to migrate platforms, it is SOOOOOOO painful and SOOOOO expensive. I’ve learned my lesson the hard way already. Anyway, I prefer WordPress for sure over a 3rd-party platform. Sure it can take more time and money to build out but totally worth it for me. But you’re welcome to do what you feel is best for you.
10. What to do with a SUCCESSFUL membership site
Think about a new/permanent content schedule for your membership.
What new stuff will you be adding over the longterm? And how will those new releases be scheduled? Monthly? Semi-annually? Annually?
Most likely, you’ll do one of the following:
- Realize memberships are way too much time and effort and slowly move back into selling products.
- Or hang on to your members and upsell them to products or more expensive memberships.
- Add other “authority figures” to your membership to create content and facilitate community discussions.
- Leave your niche entirely and invest your money elsewhere, like real estate. Then sell your membership to somebody else.
Wow! you just saved me, Jonny. I was building a membership site when I saw this post. I now know I had a wrong motive of building the site. Thanks johnny for saving my years.