Membership programs are quite popular on the web these days.
For instance, companies like Netflix or Hulu are doing well despite what's been commonly known as the financial depression.
If you take a look at how Netflix is performing, for example, you'll quickly find that the recent returns section indicates a growth of over 800 percent in the last five years (at the time of writing).
Granted, Wolfram Alpha isn't the most dependable of sources, but it still gives a very good picture of the situation as a whole.
A membership program does not equal video streaming business, though. These days, you can get pretty much anything on a membership basis.
Just to give you some not that obvious examples, there are popular memberships for jewelry, clothing, handbags, food delivery, beauty products, even razor blades.
Furthermore, many expert blogs teach us that having a membership program as part of your business is the holy grail of online profits!
So just to flip this online marketing fairytale on its head, here's why and when you SHOULDN'T LAUNCH a membership program.
1. The problem of content
Content is by far the most important element of every membership program, which is kind of obvious, right?
But the biggest lie circulating around the internet is that creating content is easy (and quick).
Making a membership program just text-based is no longer attractive in the 21st century.
Too many gurus try to convince us that the process involves taking some content you already have, re-purposing it, and then delivering it inside your membership program.
This is a mistake, and it won't make your audience happy in the long run.
The main rule of membership programs is that they offer something not available elsewhere for free, so simply re-aligning content is out of the question.
This means that you will have to create something entirely custom-made. Also, it needs to be quality enough so people would want to stay subscribed after receiving the initial package.
Moreover, making a membership program just text-based is no longer attractive in the 21st century. These days, you need audio, video, Hangouts, e-books and etc.
All this simply takes time. And if you don't have that time then don't launch a membership program (sorry I’m this direct about it; I wish there was another way to say this).
2. No marketing plan
Quite a popular opinion among business people is that marketing is more important than the product. While I don't consider the case being this extreme, it can surely get almost as important.
A membership program is essentially like any other product. It needs good and creative marketing to exist.
For example, if you're a really popular niche blogger then you can make the blog your main marketing tool. But if you're not, you're going to need a completely separate marketing plan for your membership program alone.
Technically speaking, not having such a plan won't prevent you from launching the membership, but it can cause you to shut it right back down after just two months or so.
In short, don't launch a membership program without a marketing plan.
3. No co-authors or other help
If you’re a solopreneur, running a membership program all by yourself can get very time-consuming very quickly.
Getting some help can make your life (and your profits) much better.
Co-authors will help you create content, while other members of your team can handle customer support, technical issues, promotions and myriads of other things.
I do admit that this isn't a mandatory element, especially if you're just rolling out your program in beta (more on that in a minute).
However, you need to understand that things can get very complicated sooner than you’d expect. If you have someone that can help you with the daily tasks, the whole endeavor will be much easier.
4. No software to run it
Even though things are a lot simpler today than they used to be just a couple of years ago, membership programs still involve some technical work (mostly setting things up and managing the project).
If you're planning on using WordPress and building your membership program with just a bunch of password-protected posts then think again because it's not a viable solution (something your customers will let you know probably within the first week).
Now, you can still use WordPress as the base of your program, but you’ll need some custom plugins to aid you. Looking at the free side of things, consider going with WP-Members.
There are also loads of paid plugins, which can be a better choice if you want to have more control over your content and member data.
Also, another thing to keep in mind is that you will need a way to communicate with your members outside of the program. Sending emails by hand will probably work only if have less than 10 people on board. So to effectively communicate with bigger communities, you’ll need a newsletter service.
The ones I recommend are MailChimp and SendinBlue. There are free accounts available, which offer custom email creation tools, tracking mechanisms, and even some nice autoresponder functionality (free at Sendinblue). In short, everything you’d need.
5. No actual solution/benefit
I might be sounding like Captain Obvious here, but your membership site really needs to solve some specific problems or present clear benefits regarding why people would want to be a part of it.
"Benefits" may seem like pure marketing hype, I know, but they actually are a real thing that your audience needs to see if they're going to sign up.
The problem with talking about benefits is something called the curse of knowledge (described in "Made to Stick" by Chip and Dan Heath).
The thing is that you - the author - know what your program is about, so you take some of its aspects as obvious.
This leads you to not talking about them altogether.
Your audience, however, doesn't have the same knowledge, so if you want them to take action, you need to take a beginner-centered angle when talking about your offerings.
If you can't come up with an easy-to-understand main benefit then don't launch your program just yet.
6. No go-to audience
This isn't such a big problem for popular sites (they have big communities to reach out to), but if you're a smaller guy then you can't rely on your current audience that much.
Actually, even for some big sites, if we look at the conversion rates of "regular blog readers to members," the numbers are not that great. Sometimes even below 2 percent (my own data). This means that if you have a returning audience of 1,000 people reading your site regularly, you might only convince 20 of them to subscribe to your membership program.
This is yet another issue to tackle in your marketing plan, and I'm only including this point here to make it clear that the sole fact of having a fairly popular site doesn't guarantee your success.
7. No media interested
Maybe "media" is too big of a word, as this is actually about other websites and bloggers in general.
Nevertheless, no successful launch goes without at least some media publicity.
And this doesn't even have to be an expensive thing to get.
Sometimes, what it takes is a handful of carefully crafted guest posts where you either mention your launch casually or utilize your bio box.
Of course, the absolute best case scenario is when you get your launch featured directly on one of the leading niche sites, but this doesn't always happen.
In the end, you've got to have something at your disposal. If no one is interested, no one will come to your site on launch day.
8. No beta group
Membership programs are tricky for one more reason. You can never know for sure if the program you're developing will actually meet the needs of your target audience.
You can make some predictions and assume a bunch of stuff, but you can never be 100 percent certain. That's unless you reach out to a number of prospective users and ask them to join your beta program.
In exchange for feedback, you can provide them with a complete package of premium content. That way, you will be able to get some real world data and use it to make your program ready for the main stream of customers.
The principle here is to have a minimal viable product - something that people can enjoy for its basic functionality.
What’s the alternative?
So what if you’ve decided that a membership program probably isn’t the best of solutions for you right now?
Well, fear not, there are many other business models you could pursue instead, but I’m going to focus on just one.
In a way, membership programs can be considered as a type of passive income - where you put in the work first, and then get the results over time.
So the approach I have for you is going the other way - active income.
I know that doing some active work and exchanging effort for money directly is not the most popular point of view out there.
However, it’s actually the most attainable and often the best way to monetize your online presence relatively quickly, especially if you don’t have a large platform yet.
I'm talking about freelancing.
Depending on your skillset, you can offer a range of services, like:
- Marketing consultation
- Marketing services
- as well as offline types of services such as interior design and etc.
Just to give you an example, in an interview at the Bidsketch blog, a popular blogger/writer Carol Tice talks about how much value her blog gave her when it comes to building a freelance career. One of the more interesting things she mentions is that making around $5,000 a month from blogging for clients was not uncommon for her.
So how to get started with active income? Well, like with most things, you only need to find this one initial client, then the next one, then repeat. It sounds drop-dead basic, but it kind of is. The difficult part is staying persistent and not quitting too soon.
Here are some proposal resources to get you started right away. They cover various online-based types of freelance jobs (like the aforementioned marketing services, writing, design, SEO, etc.). After filling in the blanks you can send them out to your prospective clients even today.
To be really honest with you, and encourage you to give this a shot, I have to say that if you're in a situation where you need $XXX by next Tuesday then your best bet to get it is indeed by doing something on a freelance basis.
So, are you planning to launch a membership program as part of your business anytime soon, or maybe going after active income sounds more appealing after all?
Also, is it just me, or do you also have the impression that some internet gurus present launching a membership program as a way simpler thing than it actually is?