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Wednesday, February 2, 2011

How to Create a Membership Program that Rocks

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.

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

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.

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).

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.


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