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How to Create a Membership Program that Rocks

Posted By Guest Blogger 24th of January 2011 Blogging for Dollars 0 Comments

This is a guest post by Mary Jaksch of A-List Blogging Bootcamps.

Many bloggers dream of adding a membership program to their blog. And with good reason. A membership program can create raving fans, will make your blog stand out, and can even create a great revenue stream. But most membership programs fizzle out because the creator made one or more of five critical mistakes in creating and running it.

In the last couple of years I’ve set up two successful membership programs, the A-List Blogger Club, with over 800 paying members, and the free Goodlife ZEN Fitness Challenge, with over 350 members. And I’ve helped quite a few bloggers to plan and set up successful membership programs. I’ve learned what works, and which mistakes to avoid.

Initial questions

Before I share my tips with you, let’s consider a few important questions.

Is creating a membership program really worthwhile?

A membership program is a lot of additional work for a blogger, so it’s important to think carefully before you establish one. The upside is that a membership program boosts a sense of community on your blog, creates goodwill, and can be a great source of income. The downside is that it’s hard work to maintain a membership site. In other words, you have to work your backside off in order to make it a success.

Paid or free?

Whether you want to create a paid or unpaid membership is a decision you need to make before you start. It’s hard to convert a free program to a paid one without losing most of your members. If you are dead keen on starting a free program, make sure you have a plan of how to monetize it in the future. Otherwise, it will become a drag on your time and energy. (You’ll find some suggestions on how to monetize a free program further down).

What’s your offer?

If you want to create a paid membership program, you need to make a crushing offer in order to get people to join. And you need no-brainer benefits in order to get people to stay.

If you start a paid program, just creating a forum isn’t enough. If you offer some kind of training as well, you’re off to a good start. Because people expect information on the Internet to be free, and they don’t want to spend money in order to just bitch and moan about their life on a private forum. But many are willing to pay for new skills.

For example, for membership of the A-list Blogger Club (which Leo Babauta of Zen Habits and I run jointly) we offer free access to any future A-list Blogging Bootcamps, as well as to all the material of past Bootcamps. Members get a monthly interactive masterclass, plus members-only monthly training seminars. All this for an under-the-radar price of $20 a month. Members regularly tell me that we’re giving away too much. True. It’s our intention.

How can you over-deliver?

Take-home tip: offer “too much” for a price that’s “too low”. It’s not enough to have a crushing offer. There are some important pitfalls you need to avoid if you want to create a successful program. I’ve sighed over many new programs that were doomed to fail, just because the blogger made one of the following mistakes.

5 Critical mistakes that can kill your program

Mistake #1: There isn’t enough momentum

You need momentum in order to start a membership program. That is, you need a bunch of people who are ready and eager to join. I reckon that you need at least 50 members in order to make it work. If you have less than that, the program will most likely fizzle out. Nobody likes hanging out in a dead forum where zilch happens.

When Leo and I started the A-List Blogger Club after our first Bootcamp, we started with 45 members. The first month was touch and go because we had barely enough momentum. I used to post on the forum about ten times a day, just to keep the thing alive. Then, as soon as we hit over 100 subscribers, the forum burst into life.

When I created the Fitness Challenge on Goodlife ZEN, Leo Babauta suggested creating a forum so that members could report how they exercise each day. Over one hundred readers had expressed that they wanted to join the Fitness Challenge in comments on my introductory post. So, from day one, I had over 100 members in the program. Now numbers have swelled to over 350 and the forum is a lively place.

Make sure you have at least 50 people who will start your program from day one.

Mistake #2: You start because you think it’s a good idea.

Many bloggers tell me that they want to start a membership program. I applaud the idea in principle. But warn that it’s not you, the blogger, who needs to think it’s a good idea. Your readers or participants need to clamor for an ongoing program. My suggestion is to create something on your blog that creates a buzz – and only then start a program.

Let me give you an example: Project 333—which was started by Courtney Carver of Be More With Less—is the kind of project that’s begging for a membership program. The project is about creating a wardrobe with only 33 items that you can live, work and play in for three months. The project has had a huge buzz on Facebook, and Courtney is now developing the project on her blog. I see that her latest post about the project has over 100 comments. That’s a sure sign of enough momentum for starting a membership program.

Mistake #3: Your program lacks clear benefits.

You need to give prospective members a good reason to join. I’ve seen a lot of limp programs especially in the self-development field that offer this kind of “benefit”: This program is a place where you can share your journey of development. Boring, right?

What’s important here is to think about what aspirations members share. Common aspirations are the glue that holds members together. For example, fans of Project 333 want to experience practical minimalism, the participants of the Goodlife ZEN Fitness Challenge want to get and stay fit, and the members of the A-List Blogger Club want to become better bloggers.

Once you’ve got the handle on the common aspiration, it’s easy to formulate clear benefits. Just make sure you don’t use what copywriter Clayton Makepeace calls “faux benefits”, that is, features masquerading as benefits.

Mistake #4: You let spammers and ranters into your forum

People who join a membership program get hacked off if they read spam comments in the forum. To scan the forum for spam is one of the necessary tasks of maintaining a good program. Make sure that only registered forum users can post. And assemble a group of moderators to help you with the task of keeping your forum clear of spam and rants.

Set the culture of the forum by responding in a friendly, supportive way to comments. Create guidelines and make sure members adhere to them. If you get nasty people in your program, don’t hesitate to give them a warning, and block them if they continue to flaunt your guidelines.

Mistake #5: You pluck a name out of thin air.

I’m often amazed at the names bloggers come up with for their programs. Take a name like “Cut Your Coat”. You might think that “Cut Your Coat” is a dress-making program. Wrong. It’s about self-development—but who would have thought that?

Make sure that the name of your program clearly states what it’s about. The purpose of the program needs to be self-evident. If you need to explain the name, bin it immediately.

How to monetize a membership program

The best way to monetize a free program is to create digital products that are tailor-made for your ‘captive’ audience. For example, I’m in the process of creating ebooks and podcasts about fitness and motivation for the Fitness Challenge at Goodlife ZEN. The key is to create products that can help your members to participate successfully in the program.

If you run a paid membership program, you can create courses or digital products to sell to your members. Survey your members to find out which relevant skills they would like to develop.

How to set up a membership program

Setting up a free membership program is easy. All you need to do is to add a forum to your blog. I use the free WordPress plugin Simple:Press. It may not the best forum software, but it’s easy to install, and it preserves the appearance and branding of your blog.

If you want to set up a paid membership site, I suggest using the WordPress plugin Wishlist Member. It’s a premium plugin and costs $97—but it’s worth it. Wishlist can be adapted to many different program structures. And it’s easy to integrate with payment processors, such as Paypal or 1Shopping Cart, or with email responder services, such as AWeber, or Mailchimp.

So should you create a membership program right away?

Whatever your plans for a membership program may be, don’t be in a hurry to create it—especially if it’s going to be free. Wait until you have enough momentum, as well as a real reason for setting up a program. Then think carefully about the structure you are aiming for. You need to know exactly what you want to offer, and how you are going to deliver it in your program.

Don’t settle for mediocre. Instead, create something of real value. Most of all, be insanely useful. Create something that can change lives.

Over to you—if you’ve run a membership program, what are your tips?

Mary Jaksch has created the Great Fitness Challenge on her blog Goodlife ZEN. She is passionate about blogging and is co-founder of the A-List Blogger Club.

About Guest Blogger
This post was written by a guest contributor. Please see their details in the post above.
  1. Lots of the time many great bloggers share what method would they recommend us to go for in order to earn great revenue stream, and membership program is one of the most frequent answer. It build a passive income and continuous stream of money to your pocket, as long as the program is still running.
    Agree with offer “too much” for a price that’s “too low”. When we can provide many values while they only need to pay for a little, the values of us suddenly become triple, where people will value us much more than they are, thus loyal to you.

    Providing high values to readers and members is the keyword here. :)

  2. I do agree that having a membership program for your blog is a good way to earn some monthly recurring income especially if you are good in your particular niche. I’ve seen membership sites around topics knitting, guitar lessons and even the iPhone and the iPad. I guess the key here is to keep your posts worth paying for – and it’s not really that hard. I mean, if people are willing to pay for books which go to the shelf after they have finished reading it, why not then pay for a membership site that has fresh content on a regular basis?

    • Yes, theoretically adding a membership program is a no-brainer, Mike. But in practice it often doesn’t work. The internet is littered with failed programs. There’s an intangible aspect to successful programs: people need to feel a sense of ‘belonging’.

      • Mary,
        Thanks a lot for sharing this. I am about to launch a membership site and your advice came on right time. I am going to create awareness before I launch the program to get atleast 25 signups to start the program.
        Your intangible aspect thing, sense of ‘belonging’ is well taken.

    • Like Mary says, it does not often work. It would depend mostly on what your niche is and whether people in that niche are willing to pay. Also you need to look at your competition: if you are offering paid membership on a topic like blogging, unless you are offering your content in a fresh and totally unique way, why would anyone pay to read your blog when there is Problogger.net?

      Secondly, this is where building lists comes in. If you have not built a list and have a zero subscriber base…trying to work on a membership site model would be an uphill journey. UP the Everest. Without any landing cushion.

  3. Mary, yes “insanely useful” is so important. What I love about your ideas is that they come from a place of genuinely wanting to spread information and connect with like-minded people. You always seem to have such practical advice on the how-tos, which is great, but it’s the whys behind your projects that really make them sing. You honestly live them … as a blogger you wanted to help bloggers, and you do immensely. I wouldn’t have a blog if it wasn’t for A-List Blogging Club, or at least not one that is surviving and thriving. Now, you’re focused on fitness in your own life and you want to share that too, so you’ve started the fitness challenge. I think all of these strategies work when they come from the heart. Yours is immense, Mary.

    • OH! Thanks, Katie.
      You’ve connected the dots in an interesting way here: the ‘why’ of starting a membership program has to come from a core aspiration. By the way, Katie – you’re next for creating a membership program :-)

  4. Perfect timing for this post! I am just getting ready to add a membership program to my blog! In my opinion it all depends on the niche! If you have a niche that this type of service would fit into than your blog can earn some nice extra money have membership features! Thanks again Darrin for giving us the info we want!!

    • To niche or not to niche – that is the question. If the niche is too narrow, like ‘How to Paint Your Toenails Like a Pro’, you may not get enough people to join initially in order to get things rolling.

  5. As long as we provide great value, great content, and show that we care for our readers, the results will shine through.

    Having said that, there was a lot that I picked up from this post! Plenty of useful tips that, if I ever create a membership program, I’ll put to good use. Thanks for sharing :-)

  6. Great post Mary!

    As someone who is behind the scenes of many membership sites you made some very valuable points – especially in regards to building “momentum”.

    Just because someone “builds” a membership site doesn’t mean it will instantly be successful.

    You’re right in that you do need to get involved.

    The other thing I LOVED was your focus on “over delivering” for your members.

    If the price is a “no brainer” for your members, and they themselves feel as though your price is way too cheap, then your retention rates will always remain high.

    You’ve given some great advice for everyone and I definitely hope more bloggers realize the potential from the audience that they’ve built.

    • Stu, the Wishlist Member plugin (that you’ve created) is one of my main tools. I’ve learned so much not only through using your software, but also from the ongoing training you provide – and from the membership program you’ve created for your users. It’s awesome!

  7. i think the biggest problem of all is procrastination. Many people have the idea, but never get started. Many ideas are in the heads of people but at a time you have to get started. So try it out en go for it instead of waiting for the right moment. the right moment will never come, or, in other words, the right moment is now!
    start with your membership programm and go for it!

  8. I sell a service based on monthly memvership fee, do you have any tips that I could to to expand this and give more benefits to my members ?

  9. Good article. My opinion is you need to be offering really strong, intangible value, and it’s something that even if you don’t have a lot of paying subscribers, you still have to put the work into, because, well, they are paying!

    I think it’s best to start when you have a bigger base of traffic, but that’s just me. :)

  10. Great tips, definitely worth following.

    Thanks for sharing Mary.


  11. I completely agree about not rushing the process of creating a membership program. I eventually want to start a membership program (free, and selling products) once I’m ready to expand my blog, but it’s important to make sure that you have enough of a support base to be able to make the idea take off. But, don’t overwhelm yourself with so many details that you never end up starting it–save some of those good ideas for future updates to keep building momentum.

    Thanks for the post! It has really helped me put into perspective the potential pitfalls (which I have fallen into in the past).

  12. As a member of both Mary’s membership sites, A-List Blogger Club and GoodLife Zen Fitness Challenge, I can testify that her tips are spot on. It’s absolutely true that you need a good sized member base to start from. I’ve joined at least two other membership sites set up by bloggers and neither of them had enough initial members to be sustainable. It’s a shame that those bloggers put in a lot of work for no gain.

    First, build your readership and generate great excitement about what you are providing. When you’re providing something of real value and word has got around people will start clamoring for a membership site. Still, don’t start one unless you can sustain it. A membership site needs a lot of nurturing at first – you can’t just drop the ball and expect your site to be self-sufficient.

    One thing Mary didn’t mention. It’s really wise to have some technical expertise you can call on. Be prepared to pay to keep your site running. Once people are visiting regularly and counting on your service you need to sustain things and not let technical glitches bring you down.

    Needless to say, I’m not planning a membership site in the near future. Instead I’m focusing on providing lots of value through great articles and in growing my readership. Mary is a great mentor and I’m being a good listener!

    • Hi Alison, I think your site, LovingNaturesGarden.com has great potential for supporting a membership program in the future. For example, in this age of economic constraint, many people not only want, but need to produce their own vegetables, whether it’s in their gardens, in window boxes, or indoors. A course and membership program with that in mind will work well for you, Alison, once you’ve established a strong subscriber base.

      An example of this kind of idea is HerbMentor.com which was started by John and Kimberly Gallagher. Interestingly, this is how they work around their members’ expectations of being mentored personally:

      “HerbMentor is NOT about John and Kimberly mentoring you. HerbMentor is about a community of herbal learners of all experience levels joining together to help each other deepen relationships with the plants and our health. Consider John and Kimberly your hosts.”

      I’m not sure whether their hands-off stance really worked: they are now employing someone to answer questions in the forum.

      • Our approach of having the community as well as experts mentor our members works really well. We’ve been online over 3 years with it and we’ve been able to make a living since we launched it. We are actually involved in our forum, though not as much as we would like too. The person who answers most questions is a better herbalist than us, so we want to make sure our members are in the best hands. It also allows us to spend more time creating content for members. As your site grows in content and members, you have no choice but to employ help, as it is impossible to keep up the quality. Our quality has gotten better each month, and it is because we know our limitations and know when to get help. Our approach is far from hands-off. If anything, it’s a little overboard on the “hands-on.” If we have made one mistake it’s providing too much content for too little money. However, that said, no one ever complains and we have high stick rates. Great thread!

  13. Hi Mary, I got a lot out of this post, not as someone who is thinking about setting up a paid forum (yet!) but as a member of a number of them.

    I’ve been in a few really exciting, lively forums that really provide great connections and learning opportunities (A-List blogging club is one of those!) and a few that quickly became stagnant and died off, making it a very easy decision for me to leave.

    The difference between the two is covered in your advice about building a culture, and having an enthusiastic set of moderators, or helpful senior members. That, and your other point about over-delivering, are the key elements in all the forums that have really engaged me.

  14. “offer “too much” for a price that’s “too low”.”
    I think this is the most important point in the post. Insanely good value for money is what keeps members subscribed on a long term basis.
    There is the potential with membership programs that provide information for the user to pay for one month on a membership site, download all the information and unsubscribe. As the information:price ratio changes there becomes less point in ripping all the information off the site and leaving.
    Using A-List Blogging as an example: $20 per month can easily be seen as a worthwhile investment per amount of information and networking and feedback opportunities it provides. $20 can be rationalised as a legitimate running expense for a blog. The information may be worth more than that but it is much harder to justify $50+ per month running costs on a fledgeling blog.

    • That’s an interesting point about pricing, Lip. Personaly, I agree about ‘under-the-radar’ pricing. In my own experience, I’m more likely to stay in a program, if the price is so low that I can justify the ongoing expense.

    • Yes, value for the money is key to any pricing paradigm, and exponentially more important for a product for which the customer must make the purchase decision on a recurring basis. Remember all those auto-ship book-a-month programs so popular twenty and thirty years ago? Those marketers tested the daylights out of offer and price–all the time. As a marketer I post the reminder that there is the flip side to the pricing coin, since customers expect to “get what they paid for.” Value is a perceived item, not an absolute, and it is possible to go too low. If i pay $10 for the sweater I don’t expect it to last long. If I pay $30 I expect at least the season out of it. So, as a consumer, i analyze not just value, but two other factors: How much are others charging for similar content? How reliable/authoritative is this source? (I listen politely when my neighbor tells me what makes a great blog, but I pay careful attention when the likes of Mary disccusses it. Credibility is key.)

  15. Hi Dave, I like your word ‘stagnant’. That’s a great way to describe a program that’s not working. The difficulty is that you can’t ‘create’ enthusiastic members. You have to be enthusiastic and passionate yourself – and hope like-minded people (like you) will join.

  16. Great Article Mary! I know of many “failed” programs and usually it’s because their membership club is rather dead – not much happening inside so new-comers leave rather than stay. Interesting how A-list started with only 45 people and was sort of “touch and go” until it reached 100 – It’s hard to imagine it being a quiet membership at one time – especially because now it’s popping with great conversation and education. I really can’t imagine that it was ever quiet.

    I see how momentum and the number of participants does have a huge affect. When it’s a membership program that’s alive and rockin’ new people will stay and those who been there for a while will stay. If it doesn’t have strong participation then people won’t stay and it can’t thrive.

    I appreciate you’re asking the question “is it worthwhile” – I imagine most people aren’t aware of how much work it is to start up a successful membership club – especially when the successful onces look “easy” from the outside perspective.

    You offer such great insight!!!!

    • Thanks, Aileen! It was quite funny when Leo and I decided to start the A-List Blogger Club. I hadn’t a clue how to run a membership program. It was – yet another – steep learning curve.

      I think that’s the great thing about being a blogger: welive dangerously on the edge of our knowledge and capability.

  17. Thanks, Aileen! I think one of the important factors of whether a membership site thrives or not is the ‘why’ behind the creation. For example, I’m an educator at heart. So, my prime aspiration is to create something that makes others shine. In contrast, I doubt that a membership program based on the motivation of making money would ultimately be successful.

    It’s a question of give and take: your focus needs to be on ‘give’, and not on ‘take’ :-)

  18. Hi Mary,
    Thank you for sharing this outstanding information. You have made the process a lot less intimidating. We have been thinking about a membership program for The Daily Brainstorm.com. Do you think an aggregate blog would be a good platform for a membership program?

    • Very interesting question, Barrie.

      A membership program really needs to arise from a community. That’s a bit more difficult to achieve on an aggregator site. Having said that, The Daily Brainstorm is getting some real traction now, and your subscriber numbers are rocketing.

      The way forward may be to devise a challenge that fits with the demographics of your readers. Here are some possible steps:

      Step 1: Write a post about the challenge topic (and check out response).
      Step 2: Create a live course to help people achieve the challenge
      Step 3: Create a membership site to support the course.
      Step 4: Create an Ebook (for $$)
      Step 5: Create a self-study version of the live course

      I have an idea about the topic. Email me and I’ll tell you… :-)

      • Thank you Mary! These are great suggestions. I love the challenge idea. I will definitely email you about the topic. We cover so many topics on The Daily Brainstorm from so many great bloggers (including you and Darren!), so I’m curious to see how we can pull all of that together with an appropriate challenge. You never fail to inspire!

  19. Mary,

    In thinking about the A-List blogging club, I believe one of the reasons it is so successful is because of your genuine participation. You guide members with smart information and a gentle hand. In leading by example, you’ve created this supportive, helpful community that is so useful to bloggers (new and experienced).

    Thanks for mentioning Project 333 today. With help from you and A-List Bloggers Club, I am confident that I can take things to the next level.

    I love it when from one article, I am inspired, motivated and challenged, all at the same time.

  20. Hi Mary,

    you’ve got great elements there and I do like how you encourage the readers to take the time to think and evaluate where they are right now before starting a membership program.

    As bloggers we are constantly reminded of the fact that we need to write for our readers and answer their questions. The same is valid for a membership program – it will only work if people are interested. In a membership program we don’t have as much time as we do have with a new blog as members expect activity right from the start – readers of a blog will notice the amount of activity but will not be “offended” if it is low – in a forum or membership program expectations are higher right from the start.

    Somehow I would say that everything which is valid for a blog is even more important for a membership program.

    You got it right in your post – it rocks :)

  21. Thanks for sharing all these great tips and a lot to think about here. I think the biggest take home point is making sure that you have the traction and enough readers or people who would be passionate enough to join up. It would be tempting to get it going earlier than you should but I guess you’d be better off spending lots of time on the content of your actual blog before you go off to do this because it will be massively time consuming and that will make your actual blog suffer which is never good!

  22. Mary, I love your advice to offer too much for too little. That can be applied to membership programs, products and services, and blogging in general. This suggestion by you and woven through the materials of the A-List blogger club has actually transformed my approach to everything I do to earn money – and allows me to enjoy what I offer so much more.

    This article is awesome – a comprehensive how-to, why-to, and whether-to filled with valuable information. Thanks!

  23. Who says you have to use WordPress to have a membership program? I deliver my online course through Moodle. Check it out at http://www.createasuccessfulblog.com/course/

  24. really great information as always Mary and very timely as well! we have in the midst of adding a free membership program to our business site, but now may have to sit back and rethink things according to your tips.

    one thing you didn’t mention that is somewhat related to “overdelivering:”
    i usually don’t pay for information online unless i trust the source and feel that the free information they have given prior is actually useful. i kicked around the idea of paying $20 for the A-list Bloggers Club for a year but never dove in until you offered the free week. once i was able to log in and test drive the information for a week and really see it’s value, I knew it was a no-brainer to join!

    • Oh! That’s really interesting, Marianne. I’m just writing a post about pricing and said that the enormous added work that 1,500 free participants created wasn’t really worth it. But you’ve proved me wrong in a delightful way :-)

  25. Hi Mary,

    You hit is right on the head with “create something that can change lives”

    My tips when working with clients is to make sure that you allow for plentry of opportunity for the members to practice what is being taught. THis could be worksheets, workbooks or tasks for the forum.

    Too often bloggers concentrate on the content, and not giving practical activities for the members to do right now.



    • Ainslie, I think writing tutorials etc is a specialist skill that only few bloggers possess. The skill lies in putting yourself into the shoes of someone who doesn’t have your knowledge, and to imagine what steps that person would need in order to learn a new skill.

      As specialists, we tend to forget what it was like to be a beginner.

  26. Great post, Mary. One of the things that stood out for me is that you were posting 10 times a day when you were getting the forum going. What’s equally important is that the blogger stay involved even after the momentum has caught. There’s nothing worse than getting sucked into a paid membership program to connect with your favorite blogger, and they’re MIA. It’s one of the things I truly appreciate about A-list Blogging–you’re always there to help. (Though I have no idea how you get any sleep!)

    • Sleep? Ah, yes – that elusive thing.
      I definitely don’t recommend creating a membership program if you’re a perfectionist, Jen. Because it’s the kind of thing where you could always ‘do better’. There are always niggly details to attend to, as well as a flood of comments to answer.

      One of the ways I keep (relatively) sane is through physical exercise. I go to 3 or 4 karate classes each week – and that just blows all thoughts of work right out of my head.

  27. Hi, I’m such a newbie, recommended to this site by Susannah Gardner in her “For Dummies” book. But it looks like just the place I need to be! Mind if I stick around for awhile? Ha! Have never had so much fun!

  28. is it OK for giving trial FREE membership in the beginning?

    • I’m just in the process of writing a post about pricing. FREE is a very attractive option for customers. But research has shown that it’s very difficult to move customers from free to paid. Even if you ask for a couple of $$, it will work better than a zero price point.

      • Mary,
        Would that be moving them from a program that was completely free to completely paid?
        Does that difficulty still apply when offering “One month free subscription” to a program that they would expect to pay for after that first month? I see a lot of subscription programs where you enter your payment details from the outset and can cancel, but the first X days are free.

  29. I think the key to creating a successful membership program is to be able to deliver, the most useful and valuable content to a target market.

  30. I launched my first membership site this time last year, and it required 10x as much work as I initially imagined, and twice as long (4 months vs 2), but I learned so much through the process. And it’s still going well a year later — I’m in the process of redesigning the format and doubling the content for a relaunch!

    • I visited your site, Dave. Your program ‘Travel Blog Success’ has a great name and tagline “Learn to earn while you travel”. I’m glad it’s working for you. And, yes – starting a membership program is much more work than one would imagine.

  31. Very interesting suggestion. I think that we could offer free and if the person is curious we could offer something for token price – as you write :)

  32. I am also agree with these advices. I also think that we should think very carefully about the mementum, with other words – when to do it!

    • Usually, I’m all in favor of the strategy ‘Just Do It!’. Because so often the problem is that we have a good idea and don’t actualize it. But when it comes to creating membership programs, it’s good to watch, wait, spot the opportunity, and then BANG! Create it fast.

  33. Hi Mary,

    These are insightful points with regards membership programs.

    On a psychological level, readers like to stick around and participate in blogs which have a vibrant community.

    When a membership program taps into the double needs folk have to: a) learn valuable skills and b) feel a sense of belonging, you know it’s going to rock!

    • Hi Scott, yes – sense of belonging and skills are key planks. It’s reasonably easy to establish skills training. But a sense of belonging is something elusive and intangible. I think the group culture is an important factor here. If you create a membership program, you need to set a friendly and helpful tone.

      In contrast, I had to google a technical problem yesterday. I was directed to a few online forums (fora?). The tone was mostly quite nasty and snyde. Beginners were put down and ridiculed.

      In order to avoid that kind of thing in your program, it’s important not only to keep your standards of integrity, but to also train your forum Moderators and give them guidelines.

  34. Thank you Mary, yes, yes & yes!

    I would like to add my 5 cents from my experience with a site, which started as a sandbox for my profession as a trainer for webdesign. When preparing courses like “Facebook, YouTube & Co.” I asked myself every time “What the hell is the hype with YouTube?!”. So one day in 2008 I uploaded an instructional video on how to knit a cast on. WOW – the feedback left me really stunned!

    Today my YouTube statistics show 7,2 Mio. total views since mid 2009 and I upload a video almost daily (391 up to now). Those instructional videos are the heart of my site, and bring new visitors constantly.

    Oh yes, I started all of my sites with a big advantage – I am creating websites since 1995 and I am trainer and author on HTML and CSS. So I am able to run my fav site (the former sandbox) with more than 150.000 unique monthly visitors and more than 2,5 mio. pageviews as a one woman show ;)

    Meatime I run a very successful membership program, the 1-2-3-Bonus-Membership. In spending 24,90 € per year you receive 1-2-3-advantages: 1) Choose one DVD with instructional videos for free, 2) get every PDF-pattern, that is availabe in my shop for free and 3) get 5% off, when buying in my shop.

    24,90 € p.a. may look far too low, but my target groups are mostly very young women, many of them mothers and on a very low budget.

    I never had any intention of monetizing the site, but after some time, when every third mail started with ‘please, I want to pay for some of the great work you give us for free’, I began thinking about membership. The actual trigger was the repeated request for written instructions. This is time consuming, which I told “my little sheep” (in German I call my members “Schäfchen”) and the answer was ‘please, we want to pay for it’.
    So, I was gently forced into starting a membership program >;o))

    The first year is over and people are already renewing their 1-2-3-Bonus-Membership, without being asked for it. I sell DVDs in my shop and you can buy PDF-instructions on knitting patterns for 1,99 € each.
    As I hate ad-cluttered pages, my site is absolutely ad-free. Recently I had been invited by YouTube to run a partner-channel and I allow ads in my videos (revenue did really surprise me).

    So here are my tips:
    I totally agree with Katie and I add: Whatever you do with obsession and from your heart (instead of with dollar signs in you eyes) will succeed.

    Build a strong community and find the right tone for your special audience!
    Last year I answered more than 5,000 comments (and I did not count the hundreds of mails) – even if it’s a one-liner, it makes a difference. This year I have help from a dear friend (one of the “little sheep”), who is handling all the communication pipes. My visitors love her and you couldn’t tell from her tone, if SHE or me wrote something.

    Mary is demonstrating all those principles perfectly.

    Do it every day!
    If not for your very topic(s), tell a little about your life, comment on something that made your day, introduce/interview one of your members…

    Be off-topic from time to time!
    Writing about OTHER topics than your visitors very interests gives you often surprising feedback and inspiration.

    Stay focussed!
    If you don’t have one yet, create a “claim” for your blog/site now. Stick to it! Mine is “knitting & crochet with eliZZZa”. Print a banner from it, hang it over your desk and memorize it, every time your attention is drawn off by a new idea.

    Reward for little tasks!
    Let your visitors help you in accomplishing tasks. This month I give away a Sony bloggie camera for the visitor that invites most friends to our (new) facebook group. Last month I asked them to comment on the new web design of one of my clients and raffled off 50 balls of yarn. My client was delighted over the distinctive comments and my “little sheep” just loved it!

    You see, I could write my next book about >;o) but I will stop now.

    Mary, thank you for this excellent article! It was very inspiring to read my experience in compressed form.

    Kind regards from Austria,

    P.S.: A few words about technique: Not very exciting – WordPress with appr. 40 plugins, SimplePress as forum, Dolphin by Boonex as a club site, ecwid for ecommerce, SendBlaster for newsletters. Private Page with Password for Downloads. Not Membership system yet, will think about one soon.

    • Thanks, Elizzza – what a lovely story. I grew up in Germany, so I can understand that ‘Schäfchen’ is term of endearment. You obviously care for your members, and look after your flock. I love the fact that you were ‘forced’ into starting a membership program :-)

      As to membership software, have a good look at Wishlist Member. There are some other contenders, but Wishlist is the best in my eyes. There is a cost, but you’ll find that it will make running your program a lot easier.

      • Thank you Mary, your kind answer is just what it’s about to build loyal followers ;o)
        I already took a look at your recommendation for Wishlist when I read the article and I will start using it soon.

        Kind regards,

  35. I accidentally discovered this forum and I am glad to be here. This is a wonderful place for discussion and share your thoughts.

  36. Mary, thanks for sharing your great tips!

    As one of the original 45 founding members of the Alist Blogging Club, I have watched your amazing growth and success from the inside.

    I would say that the key to your success is your endless enthusiasm and both you and Leo continually over-delivering.

    Anyone else looking to emulate your success must also be equally as enthusiastic and giving, as well as avoiding the five mistakes above.

    Wishing you and everyone else all success with their membership sites.

    • Hi Arvind, it’s great to see one of our ‘survivors’ here :-) You’ve got a lovely self development blog. Actually, I think it’s not that easy to create a successful membership site on a self development site. I think the trick is to have a particular focus and maybe start a challenge. So, it may be better to have a focus not just generally on ‘make it happen’, but on ‘make something specific happen’.

  37. This article came in just in time as I am in the process of redesigning my site. I am exploring the freemium model (as described here http://mashable.com/2009/07/14/social-media-business-models/).
    I think its a great way of setting up a membership site.

    • Hi Frank, I had a look at the Mashable article that you mention – thanks for the link. As for using the Freemium model for membership programs – I would be interested to hear how you go with that. Giving away some of the training for free is a great idea. But letting freebies into the forum – which is the heart of the community – doesn’t work so well. Leo and I offered the first week of our last Bootcamp for free – and suddenly we had an influx of 1,500 people into the forum. It meant that during that week our paying members got a lot less attention – which wasn’t so good.

      • That is correct Mary. I believe a balance has to be struck between the two groups of subscribers. One way to set it up in such a way that only the paying member have access to the forums and support. In a case where one was offering digital media for download or a service, this would work well. The non paying members would have access to some freebies but no support, forums or product updates. You can also restrict the number of features they get. I work mostly with open source projects and i don’t mind giving away software for free or at a very small fee.

  38. Mary,

    In this article, you demonstrated why your membership programs are a success. You provide freely a wealth of information and resources and deliver in an easy to digest tidbits that motivate the reader to get going and start acting.

    I believe this is the key to your success. You are a motivator and a mentor. People are looking for guidance and expertise. So I’d say for anyone starting a program, be willing to not only provide information but show people how to use it.

    Thank you for this insightful article.

    • You’ve raised an important point, Manal: “Be willing to not only provide information but show people how to use it.” The thing is, it’s not so easy to do. Lots of people struggle to provide tutorials that work well.
      I’m an educator, so I get a kick about getting people to learn new skills. And – even more important – I love getting people to catch a glimpse of their inherent talent and hidden potential!

  39. Woow. It looks like you have placed a lot of effort into your blog and I need more of these on the net these days. I do not really have a large amount to say in reply, I only wanted to sign up to say great work.

  40. Excellent information, Mary! I think the numbers of users to create that tipping point from a dead forum to a lively one are especially important. Which begs the question — what about making it free for the first 30 days to get the members registered, then start charging after that? With full disclosure up front, of course.

    • Hi susanna, I’ve been studying the psychology of pricing recently. Dan Ariely has a lot to say about zero pricing in his fantastic book ‘Predictably Irrational’. He makes the point that it’s very difficult to move a costumer off a zero price point. He explains that the difference between, say $0 and $19 is perceived as infinite. Whereas the difference between $1 and $19 is $18.

      I’ve tried quite a few experiments with a zero price point. For example, I ran a Virtual Zen Retreat (for free) with over 1,500 participants. But it didn’t convert to paying customers.

  41. Dear Mary,

    I love this post and have printed it out for future reference for two reasons.

    It’s so loaded with great info — you really do walk the extra mile and give such value in all you do.

    And you speak (write) with such authority, because you write from experience, your own hard-earned experience of what works. I have all I need to know now on this important and very interesting topic.
    Thanks so much.

    • Hi Chris, the interesting thing about creating membership programs is that you never come to the end of learning. At each stage of growth there is a new problem that you need to solve.

      For example, right now I’m looking at how to display all the richness of information in a way that people can find what they are looking for with ease. I used as a blueprint the way Teaching Sells displays their content with dropdown lists. But that’s a very linear way of displaying content. These days I’m scratching my head to find a more dynamic form of content display – like in a mindmap. But I haven’t figured out how to do that within a WordPress framework.

  42. I’m a happy member of A-List blogging and Mary knows her stuff. Mary and Leo have created a true resource that has great value for money but they never sit on their laurels and just watch the coins come in. Oh no! They offer more and more to members with regular Masterclasses, a forum, interactivity with both Mary and Leo involved and added content full of tips and insight all the time as well as doing affiliate memberships so that you get a share in a growing community. Setting up a membership is hard graft but always keep that member in mind and give them plenty of reasons to stay. Mary talks how she walks and how she works so follow her tips and you could have an A-Plus membership programme like A-List.

  43. I have an information product website that I’ve considered turning into a membership site, but I can’t see just adding a forum and start charging for it when there would only be a few posts in it to start off. Do you think it’s a good idea to open the forum for free for a few months, and then when there is a lot of content inside, start charging new members? I would let people that had already joined keep using it for free. What do you think?

    Thanks for the post by the way.

    • I think there needs to be a substantial benefit to joining a program. One way to go about this is to create a course, and then – when you have enough momentum – to start a membership program. I’m not so keen on ‘free’. It really doesn’t convert well.

  44. As another happy member of A List bloggers club I would just like to add my tuppence worth to the membership programme debate. I would say that to carry it off successfully any blogger would have to carefully consider how much time and energy is available to them before they start. Mary and Leo give an irordinate amount of their energy as well as their own personal experience to their members at A List bloggers club on an ongoing basis. The terms over delivering, real value and insanely useful are no exageration! Mary is the consummate educator…the minute she learns a new tip or an easier/fresher way of doing things we hear about it…and she is always available to help. Someone else commented on whether she gets any time to sleep…I honestly don’t know how she does all she does and still manages to be a black belt in karate! A generous heart coupled with superhuman levels of energy and drive…this is why Mary’s membership programmes are all a huge success. :)

    • Rosemary, your comment made me blush …
      It’s true that I have drive galore. If I wanted to follow up on all the ideas that my brain generates, I’d need at least 3 parallel lives :-)

      My tip for busy bloggers – especially for those who run membership programs – is to have something in your life that makes stress fall off your shoulders. In my case, karate classes do just that.

  45. Mary that was helpful. I think I’m not quite ready to start a program yet-your thoughts on getting the initial readership up to a certain level make sense. I’ll keep working on creating quality content and getting it out first. Then my blog will sustain a community of like minded folks who are in transition from heartbreak or fear into living their dreams.

  46. Hi Mary,

    This is an extremely helpful post. I have also just started reading through the content in the A-List Blogger Club, and I am BLOWN AWAY by the value you are offering there — it is a perfect example of a membership program that “over-delivers.”

    There and here, I am particularly interested by the distinction that you make between people’s reluctance to pay for information on the Internet versus their willingness to pay for new skills. This is not something that I had ever thought about in quite those terms, but I think it is true.

    Many thanks for everything!

    • WOW! I’m glad Leo and I are making a difference to your blogging journey. The distinction between ‘paying for information’ and ‘paying for skills’ is an interesting one. There is a move on the Internet to start charging for information as part of a ‘freemium’ strategy. That is, basic info is free, but you can subscribe to a premium product with extra info. It’s going to be interesting how that works.

  47. I think that many people get very excited in the beginning about blogging and all of the opportunities it presents, including monetary benefit. But providing VALUE that can be substantiated over time is hard. That’s where I think most people fail.

    I joined the A-List Bloggers Club at a point where I was floundering – not knowing where to go next, sick of being on Blogger with its limitations, tired of my blog going in so many directions at once. I thought, ok, 20 bucks a month – I’ll give it a go. I learn quickly and knew I would be motivated if I were paying something.

    I would say there are several benefits to the way you and Leo set up the club. First of all, there is a huge DEPTH of information that takes time, real time to go through and absorb. Second, there are options presented – for monetizing, for building subscriber numbers, for improving content, writing skills and clarity. There are others there to help. There is the possibility to directly connect with highly talented people. I remember that when I was learning to play tennis, my game improved if my partner was better than I was. I like associating with people one or more notches up the experience and expertise ladder from myself. It makes me stretch to learn.

    Credibility and integrity are super important to me and has to be earned. I love your and Leo basic “life” philosophies concerning blogging and income generation – it feels honest to me and that’s why, even if I need to step back a month from actively participating in the club, I still pay. Because in the end, I want to be able to come back and get right onto the vibration again that you guys have. It think that’s huge, because it implies trust.

    My main blog revamp is now complete, I am getting tons of comments, my readership is quadruple where it was in November and my subscriber count is climbing. I am starting to do meaningful guests posts, and I am now entertaining where I go next with the blog. None of that would have been the case with out the A-List Blogger Club. 20 bucks a month? It’s a total no brainer.

    • It’s great that you’ve now got direction in your journey of blogging, Andrea. I love what you say about the A-list Blogger Club. However, I think it takes a certain kind of person to make the most of the opportunity that we offer. You’re the kind of person who soaks up and assimilates knowledge. And then you take action. That’s perfect! It means you’ll succeed for sure.

  48. Great and to the point explanation that after reading it sounds easy to set one up. However one first have to think things over, especially if you are willing to do the extra work. This extra work already scares 99 percent off.

    Secondly one has to have a rock solid program that like you said in your post fits the momentum. One blog post about it isn’t enough, one must have atleast 10 and more up your sleeve before the start. Something most casual bloggers dont have.

    Also one must already have a reasonable commenters base otherwise this membership program will never come of the ground.

    Anyway, gonna back browsing all the stuff at A-list blogger club to read all marvelous stuff. Once i have all that under my belt i might have the knowlegde and know how to start thinking about a membership program. Until then i just have to keep improving my blog the best way possible.

  49. Mary,
    Great article. I am thinking of creating a membership site on my blog analytics.net.in. Currently I am offering online programs for a fixed duration and fixed fee. However,I think, instead of charging afixed sum upfront, let people use it for a small fee for a month and if they like it they will stay. This way, people would atleast like to try for a month and I after reading this article,I am motivated to make it vibrant and keep it fresh.

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