How I started my first membership site and what I’ve learned 6 months on

This is the story of my first membership site, the Online Business Club. In this post I’ll take you through the ups and downs of my first six months as the proud owner of a membership site, plus what I learned along the way and where it is now.

In this video I talk about what I’ve learned, and all the details about what I actually did are in the post below:

Why I started a membership site

I’d wanted to start a membership site for a few years. I saw lots of solo business owners struggling with things like social media and SEO and I knew I could help. A low-cost membership seemed like a good fit because I could offer up-to-date training every month in small bites.

From my point of view, a membership site meant that I didn’t have to sell a ton of one-off products every month. I could make one sale and get a regular income every month after that, which freed me up to make more training. Of course I would always need to be promoting because people would leave, but a subscription-type of product is still a very good one to have.

The barriers to getting started

The problem is that membership sites are actually pretty daunting – the thought of creating content every month indefinitely is quite scary! What if you get to busy one month? What if you run out of ideas? The flipside though is that you have a great big fat incentive to create content every month. If you’ve got paying customers waiting, you have no choice. And the more you create, the more you learn and the better and faster you become.

My other challenge sprang from me being a trainer. All my work before this had started with an objective, which means defining exactly what the delegates would be able to achieve at the end of the training. But now the training had no end!

(OK, I could have had a membership that lasted say, six months, but that didn’t really fit the need that I saw.)

How I set up my membership site

So I did what I always do and started with a minimum viable product. I made a membership that wasn’t perfect with the intention of putting it out there and adapting it once I had some feedback.

And so my Online Business Club was launched in October 2014.

I already had a WordPress blog plus the plugins WP eStore and WP eMember from a previous project. I knew how to use them and was happy with them so they were a natural choice.

At that stage my challenges were:

1) The sales page

This is always a challenge. Getting the copy right, including the benefits, features and grabbing the attention of your reader takes time, attention and a lot of editing. (Here’s the sales page as it is today.)

2) Whether to price it in pounds or dollars

This is a huge pain if you’re a Brit. The VIP members of your audience who have known you the longest are likely to be local to you and – in my case – used pounds. I surveyed them and they actually thought Brits using dollars was a bit weird and off-putting. On the other hand, the closest thing to the currency of the Internet is the US dollar, so I knew I’d be alienating a lot of potential non-UK customers who didn’t know what a pound was worth. In the end I started with dollars and switched to pounds a couple of weeks later. As I said, this was a minimum viable product!

3) Getting people to join (or as we say in the training profession ‘bums on seats’)

This is harder for a membership site than for a one-off payment because people are naturally more cautious of buying something with no end point. So I offered a 7 day trial costing just £1 or $1 and made it very clear there were no commitments – members could leave any time just by cancelling the subscription in their own Paypal account.

The rest was fairly straightforward, I had lots of content ideas, I already had the right software and knew how to use it.

If you’re thinking of starting a membership site, researching and setting up the platform (website, shopping cart and the way you’re going to protect the content in your membership site) takes a long time – it took me months the first time. So I would definitely factor that into your plans, or better still have a budget to pay someone else to do it for you.

So it was all set up and I got my first few members. I was feeling pretty good because I’d finally done it after all these years.

I refused to be defeated by the EU VAT

Then in November 2014, disaster struck. The dreaded EU VAT.

I’d been vaguely aware of the changes to the European sales taxes for digital products earlier that year. But the whole idea seems so ridiculously unworkable and restrictive I assumed they’d come up with a solution before it actually happened.

I was wrong.

So in late November, the community of UK micro-businesses that sell digital products panicked because we realised we’d need to either break the law or close our online stores.

I won’t explain the finer points of this tax here, because I put it all in the video a few paragraphs further down this page. (Tip: it also works as a good cure for insomnia.)

I came this close to shutting down the Online Business Club because I couldn’t see how it was worth me continuing with it with all that red tape, but something inside me refused to bloody give in to bureaucracy and so I started researching.

It turned out there were a handful of shopping carts that could collect the VAT for me and distribute it to the relevant government, but only two that could handle subscriptions at that time (there are more now – I’ll share these in the club) – Fastspring and Clickbank. As I already had a product with Clickbank and was familiar with it plus I had very little time to move it all over, I chose Clickbank. This video gives you more detail on that –

So just before Christmas the Online Business Club was EU VAT –friendly and the members barely spotted the join. Although I did keep them fully up-to-date with what was going on as some of them had their own products to VATMOSS-proof too. Disaster averted.

Incidentally, I made that video out of frustration and the hope that it might help someone else rather than for marketing purposes. But it’s turned out to be my most popular YouTube video ever.

What happened next…

The next few months were very calm and peaceful in comparison. I was very happy to have my video included in this spectacular monster of a post on starting a membership site by Steve Brodsky – and yes I do refer to this post sometimes, too!

By April 2015 I had a good six months of solid content in the Online Business Club including how to set up a simple sales funnel, how to get started with paid advertising, how to create shareable social media images, what’s working now in Facebook and more. I was quite proud of it, actually.

But there was a problem. It was hard to promote because it wasn’t targeted enough. The tough lesson I learned here is that if you can’t explain what something is for and what it does in one sentence then it’s hard to get people interested. Just because they don’t understand. And getting them to understand the benefits was my job, not theirs.

At the same time I’d started to create courses on Udemy. My intention was to get myself out in a bigger audience and do it on a platform that would handle the EU VAT for me. And it was going well, but the Online Business Club modules weren’t different enough from my Udemy courses and it was harder to get across the benefits of the club.

I’d promoted the Online Business Club to my list, on social media, on hangouts and a podcast and I wasn’t getting many new members. It was time for a change.

Changing the focus of the Online Business Club

People kept asking me to do presentations on creating information products and online courses. Online learning is booming right now and it’s easier than ever to create a course, but the options available to do it are bewildering.

Then, when I looked at the Online Business Club I saw that it was all based on my experience of promoting my online content. Not only that, almost all of the OBC members were working on information products too

The Online Business Club had involved into a training club for people creating and selling information products.

So there was the focus I’d been missing!

From there it was just a case of changing the sales page and the back-end at Clickbank to reflect this focus. Then to start promoting it as a training club for information product creators.

What I learned for the first six months of running a membership site

And what did I learn from this?  For one thing, to expect change. That even with the best plans you never can quite tell how it’s going to pan out. The Online Business Club also reinforced what I already knew from my earlier products – that you have to do your best, then put it out there and see how people respond. Then adapt and update based on the feedback you get.

If you’re going to be that flexible, you need to pick a simple system. The more complex your technical set-up is, the harder it is to change it when you need to. The Online Business Club is just a few web pages, protected by a WordPress plugin and the shopping cart is managed by someone else entirely (Clickbank). I pay slightly higher fees than I would if I had my own shopping cart but it’s worth every penny.

It’s also taught me to run with what I know – and do- the best. The Online Business Club started out as a general marketing club for micro businesses, but what I enjoy the most is creating information products and teaching online.

To find out more about the Online Business Club, click here…

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