How to Start a Popular and Profitable Membership Website

There is something about any “members only” scenario that instantly intrigues people. They’re lured by the idea of something superior or exclusive and being a part of an elite community. That desire can pull people back to your website time and time again.

Membership websites that generate revenue usually revolve around gated digital content that paying members can log in to access. It could be as simple as offering access to a continuously-updated library of premium content, or include community features like a discussion platform.

This monetization and marketing format is suitable for any size or type of company that can offer continuous value, from the small, home-based business to large brands. It’s relatively easy to set up and run a membership site using WordPress plugins, which levels the playing field.

The Benefits of Starting a Membership Site

The effort required to start and run a membership site is usually rewarded with a range of benefits for your business, whether you charge for joining it or not.

  • Increase in website traffic, including visitors who are primed to convert.
  • Higher conversion rates across all marketing channels
  • Source of recurring income. Diversify your online revenue stream.
  • Repeat sales as members come back for the community and new, premium content. You can also start email lists for subscribers who have purchased a product, creating a funnel that upsells other related offers.
  • Engage your customers and leads on a whole new level, through discussion, a sense of community, trust, security and social proof.
  • Increase in positive reviews, referrals and recommendations.
  • Sell your own products or affiliate products to your perfect target market.
  • Increased revenue from advertising. Start with well-targeted affiliate programs. When your community is large enough, you can start pitching to individual companies targeting your niche.
  • Retain eMail subscribers, as members need to remain on your mailing list to access content.
  • Branding and brand loyalty.
  • Having a community at your fingertips provides easy access to feedback, ideas and product/service testers.

The biggest con of having a membership website is the amount of work it involves. Discussion communities take a lot of time to build, maintain and moderate. Creating content that is a high enough caliber to be paid for is tremendously time consuming. You can ask the community for volunteer moderators and hire talented writers to help relieve the pressure, but one way or another you have to deliver exceptional value on an ongoing basis.

“Members will only continue paying their subscriptions for as long as they’re getting value, and that means you need to show up and deliver on an ongoing basis, creating new content and interacting with your community,” writes Mike Morrison for Foundr. “They’re paying regularly, so you need to deliver value regularly.”

Should you start your community on social media instead? Never build your business on leased land. You can have a social media group in addition to your membership site, or you can use them to test the waters before you create your own. Some membership platforms make it easy to connect social media groups, allowing you to efficiently and effectively bring your community together.

How to Start a Membership Website

It’s relatively easy and economical to set up any WordPress blog with member-only content that you can charge a fee for. They’re often combined with private communities or forums, which can also be established with inexpensive WordPress plugins. If you don’t want to piece everything together with plugins, you may want to invest in a platform that is specially designed for it. Podia is a popular platform that doesn’t require a great deal of tech savvy and you can try it free.

There are two basic business models to choose from:

  1. Free memberships are offered because the benefits pay for the effort. It might be promoted as a bonus offer with a book or online course, for example. Additionally, it can be used as a lead magnet to build a mailing list and retain subscribers.
  2. Paid memberships provide two revenue streams, one generated by the membership or subscription fees, and the other through the same indirect benefits that the free option provides.

Note: If you’re starting without an existing website, read our Checklist: How to Start a Profitable Online Business in Canada. Following that will bring you up to this point so you can proceed with your membership site.

When you have a website ready:

✔ Choose a content management platform. Most small businesses create a membership website with WordPress plugins, but there are other choices out there.

✔ Check out popular membership sites that make money, especially those with content that is closely related to yours. You can learn a lot from their success and ensure you’re offering something unique. For example, Paleo Plan is a 7 figure membership site built using WordPress plugins.

✔ Outline exactly what the membership will include. For example, the types of content (video/webinars, in-depth articles, eBooks, studies, reports, software, printables, bundles, resources, interviews, directories, job listings, virtual events, or what have you), discussion forum or mastermind group, live chats, group coaching, experts, exclusive discounts, and so on.

✔ Select the plugins or platform that will form the infrastructure of your community. Consider how you envision your growth and if these plugins can support that vision. Are there compatible products to help you expand? For a membership site, you’ll need a platform that facilitates sign-up forms, member management, content management and scheduling, the ability to gate content for ‘members only’, payment processing, and marketing integration.

✔ Paid plugins usually come with more features, updates, tutorials, and access to customer support. Quite often, you can start with a free version and upgrade later. If you start with a free membership plugin, make sure there are options to facilitate your growth and expansion when you can afford to do so. Check how often it’s updated to ensure ongoing compatibility and security. The best WordPress membership plugin I’ve ever worked with (out of four) is MemberMouse.  WooCommerce has a membership plugin if you need one for that platform.

✔ Create enough content to launch. How much is enough? The easiest way to determine that, is is ask yourself how much value YOU would demand before paying the price your charging. You can also “fake it ’till you make it,” if you don’t mind working under pressure to fulfill your promises. For example, you can say members will receive a new video course every month without having those courses ready when you launch. That said, you don’t have to offer the most content, you just have to offer the most valuable content.

✔ Have more content ready to go live on an ongoing basis, so you always have something new (AKA dripping content). It will also serve as backup in case your ill or on vacation.

✔ How often will you add new content? Will you use ghost writers or PLR content? A plan and schedule for content is an absolute must for this type of website.

✔ Decide on the length of membership(s), price per month or subscription term, membership tiers, and any introductory offers or free trials. Consider expenses like web hosting or writers.

✔ Compose community documentation, such as rules, terms and conditions.

✔ Enable and test payment processing and your on-boarding process for new members.

✔ Build your digital sales funnels. They’re perfect for membership sites and they work wonderfully with relevant lead magnets, in my experience. Beyond that, funnels can be built on both sides of a membership in an almost endless cycle of upsells. If you’re using WordPress, the most popular and economical choice for building funnel landing pages is Thrive Architect. The Systeme suite of tools has a free level that includes a website builder, funnels, email list, affiliate program management, memberships & more.

✔ Choose a launch date and have your launch marketing plan ready to go.

✔ Offer enough free content to draw people in, prove your expertise, demonstrate value, promote premium offers, and for SEO.

✔ Consider launching an affiliate program to encourage others to promote your outstanding, premium community.

If it all sounds like a ton of work, it is. However, compared to a decade ago it’s downright simple to make it all happen.

How to Keep Your Members

Turnover (or churn) can be a big problem for membership sites, especially if you aren’t continuously offering something that users feel is highly useful to them. A solid plan and schedule is the number one way to keep your subscribers coming back for more, but it’s really just the beginning of member retention.

Retention is every bit as important as acquiring new members, if not more so. You won’t get far if you’re signing up 500 new members each month with a churn rate of 450 cancellations. Start your retention efforts from day one, especially if you offer a free trial. Guide new members to where they’ll find the most value, such as your discussion forum or a particular course module. I actually track and analyze the churn rate for paying members separately from free trial dropouts, because the solutions for both can be quite different.

>> Use your “thank you for joining” page to start new members off in the right direction. Send them a welcome package that shows them how to get the most out of their membership, with simple step-by-step instructions and links to where to start. A video guide for new members can be very effective as well. Don’t overwhelm them, point them in the right direction so they start walking. Then, let those links/resources take them further down the road.

“Onboarding is so pivotal. Now that somebody is inside your membership, you want to get them to value recognition as fast as possible,” suggests Amanda Northcutt. “Once your members know the benefits they can receive from the features inside your membership, the onboarding teaches them how to actually recognize and achieve those promised benefits.”

>> Don’t assume members will discover the value of your subscription themselves or know how to use what you’re offering for their specific needs. Tell them – guide them – show them – engage them. Focus on what their expectations are and the problems they expect to solve. Tap into their dreams of how they’ll feel when they’ve solved the problem or otherwise reached their goal, because you can bet that’s where their mind wanders most. Bring them to the realization that you are a critical part of their journey, and constantly nurture that belief by giving them what they need.

>> Building a community where members can interact with each other (and you) is a powerful way to keep subscribers engaged and addicted. Once they consider it to be their networking community and they build relationships, they’ll be that much more likely to stay. You can encourage that addiction by sending regular emails that tell members what’s being discussed.

>> Don’t miss any opportunity to applaud member accomplishments and acknowledge their progress along the way. You can even automate it to a certain extent. For example, a congratulatory email can be sent and a “leveled up” badge could be added to their profile when they reach a certain point in your program. Additionally, it’s a great opportunity to suggest their next step. They’ll be so wrapped up in their progress, it won’t occur to them to question the value they’re receiving.

>> Feature members who have found success to encourage them, and to show other members it’s possible. That can be a simple mention your discussion forum, an email, or a full case study that can also be used to convert new leads.

>> Announce plans and provide “teasers” so members are compelled to stick around for future benefits.

Above all, make sure the member always feels like they’re progressing and accomplishing their goals. They need to be clear (and excited) about how you are going to help them get there. Provide instant gratification, along with the promise of ongoing success.

This is a little vague because the actionable ideas are very specific to each community. These tips should put you in the right frame of mind to customize your own plan for obtaining and retaining members for your specific community.

Gated Content is the Future

As more people block online advertising, more content will end up in membership communities and more of them will require a fee. That will mean a higher rate of acceptance of this information delivery format, but it will also mean more competition for a portion of limited budgets. Like anything online, you don’t have to be the only person doing something but you have to do it better than most.

??? What’s holding you back from starting a membership site with free or paying members? Let’s talk about it in the comments below, or discuss this and other online business topics in the Online Business Canada Facebook group!


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Digital Business & Marketing Manager at Online Business Canada | Website | + posts

Melody McKinnon's formal education is in business management, which she enhanced with more than 60 certifications revolving around business, marketing, health, general sciences and writing. In over 20 years of working online, she has owned or managed both educational and eCommerce websites.

Melody has worked with many businesses & brands in a multitude of capacities. She can often be found on, and, as well as other quality digital publications. Her content has earned reference links from highly-respected websites, magazines and university textbooks.

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Loved this article! Some really useful and insightful information. Thanks for sharing 🙂