Subscribe to Inc. magazine
STARTUP

Should You Build a Membership Site?

Want to launch a membership website? These experts explain what it takes.

iStock

Become a member today!
Learn success secrets from our panel of experts!
Join our community of experts!
Benefit from an entire library of information!

Sound familiar? Do a Google search on just about any topic and you are likely to stumble upon a number of membership-site "opportunities," where you can learn just about anything on a given topic, or join an exclusive club to purchase goods or resources. Some seem enticing, but don't live up to their promises; others are well worth the investment of your time and money.

If you're an expert in something (and you know you are!), and want to go beyond just blogging about it online, creating a membership site can leverage your time significantly—and, if done right, can be a sustainable online business. But is it worth it?

In order to scope out this proliferating business model, I consulted the experts: several creators of membership sites, as well as a firm that provides strategies, technology, and services to more than 1,200 associations with 4.8 million members participating in their membership sites.

One great example: Colin Klinkert met his business partner, Frank Bauer, online in 2007. They launched ViralURL four years ago and the site currently boasts 74,494 members with a total all-time membership count of more than 210,000. Since the launch, Klinkert and Bauer have seen a total income of $3.2 million. ViralURL is a membership site for online business owners with efficiency tools. This includes tools like a "link cloaking" system that allows members to protect their affiliate links and prevent commission theft, and a list builder, which makes it easy for members to grow their list.

What did they find to be the keys to a thriving membership site?

The most important step, they say, is to find a need or niche to fill, or a problem to solve. Klinkert recommends that you make sure your solution delivers massive value and keeps your member base coming back for more.

"Also make certain that you are the leading service provider in your niche, your content is easy to absorb and the membership site easy to navigate," he says. "It is important to make your new customers 'raving fans' as soon as possible. To do this, clearly illustrate the benefits of using your solution, provide the best customer service possible and remember that your customer is the life blood of your business."

The medium can be as important as the message, when you start out building a site. "It's important to know your audience and determine ahead of time whether your site should be mobile-friendly, mobile-ready, or responsive," says Adam Weedman, founder and chief strategist at Affiniscape, a company that helps organizations build their member sites. "A great site can take anywhere from six weeks to a few months to design, develop, test, and launch."

"Finally," Klinkert says, "ensure that your membership site has 'viral aspects.' Small businesses don't have huge marketing budgets and therefore need their new 'raving fans' to be able to go and champion their cause as easily and effectively as possible. This includes, providing social sharing options, having a social media presence and rewarding your customers for spreading the word. (Affiliate programs, recognition etc.) You need to leverage your customer base to attract new business."

There are many crucial components to a successful membership site, but Weedman reminds us that they're not all online. From the start, he says, you need to be considering how hosting events can help build and tighten your community. "Events, events, events. It's all about places to go, and to learn, and to interact," he says. "Members don't join to pay dues, or read a lot of content. They join to interact with other members and learn something."

Michael C. Podlesny started Mike the Gardener Enterprises, and today his main product line is a Seeds of the Month Club membership. The site currently has more than 20,000 members in 15 countries. Podlesny says customer service is the cornerstone of a successful membership-based site. His rules include:

1. Respond quickly to customer concerns.
2. Announce any issues or changes that will occur to the membership. In his case, he says, "once we became large enough to obtain a USPS shipping permit we made that announcement so customers would know." Podlesny ensures that you do not want any surprises for your customers.
3.  Ask for customer-feedback—and take it. For this membership site, simply asking "what would you like to see changed to make the club better?" is a great question and garners tremendous response.

Going out and getting new customers to please shouldn't fall short, though. Great public relations efforts have also been instrumental in helping the Mike the Gardener site grow. It's been featured on NBC, ABC, Fox and other top media outlets. The most popular section on Mike's site is an area of informative gardening articles and podcasts which assist its customers with their gardening efforts.

So what’s your idea for a membership site? Share it here and keep us posted!

More:
Last updated: Nov 21, 2011

MARLA TABAKA

Marla Tabaka is a small-business advisor who helps entrepreneurs around the globe grow their businesses well into the millions. She has over 25 years of experience in corporate and start-up ventures and speaks widely on combining strategic and creative thinking for optimum success and happiness.




Register on Inc.com today to get full access to:
All articles  |  Magazine archives | Livestream events | Comments
EMAIL
PASSWORD
EMAIL
FIRST NAME
LAST NAME
EMAIL
PASSWORD

Or sign up using: