Membership-based websites have the potential to not only produce subscription income for your business but also to help you build customer engagement and develop a tight-knit online community for your brand’s biggest fans. That’s because these types of sites and forums are typically frequented by enthusiastic members who are incredibly invested in the subject matter, product or community.

Members-only sites typically fall into one of three categories:

– Charge a recurring fee, usually monthly or quarterly, in exchange for regularly updated content. One example is Chris Guillebeau’s Travel Hacking Cartel, a site that helps travelers rack up frequent flyer miles and get travel rewards.

– Charge a fee for access to an ‘insider’ message board, forum or mastermind group such as Tropical MBA’s Dynamite Circle, a site for entrepreneurs looking to discuss search marketing, conversions and affiliate marketing.

– The most popular option is a hybrid of the first two: charge for content that’s regularly updated, along with an active forum or message board for audience members to interact. An example is Leo Baubata’s Zen Habits Sea Change Program, which includes a video webinar, email reminders and several articles on a new habit each month, along with a private forum for accountability.

Some membership programs are ongoing, and others last for the duration of an online course, allowing participants to communicate with one another about the material. Ongoing programs allow for more continuity, while short-term ones frequently generate more buzz and allow you to make improvements with each iteration.

Whether you’re considering short-term offerings or long-term ones, how do you know if building a membership site is a good fit for your business?

1. You generate new content regularly

There’s no real need for a membership site for just a single product, and it’s difficult to maintain a dynamic site around a static product. However, if you’re planning to release content on a regular and ongoing basis but don’t want to give it all away, a paid membership site makes sense.

“An educational product, whether it’s an e-book or a video or a podcast, can be sold or given away as a one-time product,” says serial web entrepreneur Rob Walling, founder of online membership site the Micropreneur Academy and author of Start Small, Stay Small: A Developer’s Guide to Launching a Startup.

Most businesses, even those that focus on providing great, original content, produce a relatively small volume of in-depth articles, posts and reports—the kind of added value that might make a subscription worth it for your readers.

2. You already have a large and engaged audience

If you’re creating an interactive membership site with a forum, Walling estimates that around 2,500 email subscribers or about 2,000 podcast listeners is the minimum number you’d need to get enough people to sign up. He recommends against using Twitter followers as a metric, however. “They’re not very engaged,” he warns.

And engagement is a big factor in developing a membership site, so if your site has indicators of a natural community forming “then you can take that community and tighten it and formalize it,” says Dan Himel, founder of Trainium, a platform for coaches looking to connect with and train clients online. “If you are blogging and you get comments immediately on everything you write,” and if your Facebook page and Twitter account have a similar feel, with lots of questions and comments and people interacting with one another, then that’s a good sign.

Your social media activity sets the stage for your membership site, and having a thriving community with lots of interaction is key.

Being inundated with requests for help via email and direct messages is another indicator that people trust you or your company enough to pay to be part of a membership site. Of course this is relevant for sites where all of the content comes directly for you, but it applies to sites with forums as well. If things get quiet, you can always answer user questions or provide that guidance your members are craving.

3. There’s a good reason for your audience to talk to one another

If you own a hot dog stand, your customers may not need to communicate with one another. However, if you’re selling craft beer, your audience may be very interested in discussing their favorite brews with other beer lovers. Any type of business built around a hobby that has a community would lend itself well to an online forum, so long as they have a desire to discuss their activity with one another. This allows them to create lasting connections and help one another, in addition to learning from your expertise.

4. You have adequate staff and resources to maintain a membership site

“It takes some time to nurture the community and even babysit it sometimes,” Himel says. “You have to come up with lots of stuff to keep the community thriving, especially in the early stages.” You’ll also need someone to moderate forums, troubleshoot any issues with the content, answer questions and deal with any problems that arise. If you don’t have the time or budget to maintain the site, a fan page on Facebook and engaging with your customers on Twitter and other social media may be the way to go.

Do you have a membership-only website, or are thinking about it? Share with us in the comments!

This post contributed by guest author, Yael Grauer. Grauer is a Minneapolis-based freelance writer and editor. Find her online at

© 2013 – 2018, Contributing Author. All rights reserved.

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