One of our regular readers recently asked us, “How do I get the first 100 paying members to my membership website, starting from scratch, with no pre-existing client list?”.
This is a very good question.
The first 100 paying members are always the hardest. Once you have this critical mass it gets much easier to attract new subscribers.
Every membership website is different but the process outlined below works well across most sectors.
Before we get started on the marketing, building traffic and converting browsers to buyers, it is important to outline the things you must think about before you launch your site. If you have a poorly designed site, weak content and an ill-defined audience no amount of marketing will make it successful.
Before You Start Your Website
- Know your audience – you must know who your audience are, what needs or problems they have (which you can help them solve) and most importantly know how to reach them.
- Know your competition – who are your online and offline competition, how much do they charge for their service and how are you going to compete?
- Be clear why your site is unique – Closely related to knowing who your competition is, is being able to clearly articulate what your value proposition is. Why should your target audience subscribe to your service? What will they get from you that they can’t get elsewhere?
- Make sure your website looks professional – great design alone will not sell your site, but a poorly designed site will greatly reduce your chance of success. Good design is always a good investment.
- Make sure it is clear what you do – Within two seconds of arriving on your site your visitors should know what you do and who the site is aimed at.
- Every page is a landing page – remember that your visitors can arrive at your website on any page. Can they easily find their way around from wherever they land?
- Freemium content – every membership website should have some free, premium content. By premium I mean unique, exclusive and regularly updated. Your visitor must feel very confident and comfortable with the quality and relevance of what you are offering. The amount of free content will be a decision you have to make, but as a generalisation it should be at least 20%
- Enough content for launch – Your first (complimentary) paying members are your most valuable. If they like what they see, they will tell their friends. If they don’t like what they see, they may still tell their friends but their recommendation will be very different. I have seen many sites with great potential ruined because they launched before they were ready.
- 90 days of content – Ideally you should write or prepare your first 90 days worth of content so it is ready before launch. This may not be possible if you cover breaking news, but do as much as you can. You want to free up as much of your time as possible over the first three months to focus on marketing.
Make them an offer they can’t refuse – a successful serial membership website entrepreneur once said to me, your offer should have a perceived value that is at least three times greater than the membership price. For example if you charge $100 a year, the new subscriber should perceive they are immediately getting $300 worth of value when they become a member. An example offer package could be:
- Four downloadable ebooks worth $20 each = $80
- 30 minutes of telephone consultancy = $60
- Access to the xyz database for three months = $30
- Three professionally drafted legal contracts you can use ($100 each) = $300
- TOTAL Value = $470
- Your Guarantee – The lower the perceived risk the higher your conversion rate. If you can offer a 100%, no questions asked, money back guarantee it will increase your sign-up rate.
- The early bird catches the worm – reward your first members with a special deal. Everyone likes a bargain.
- Set-up an affiliate program – an affiliate program is an automated way of paying people who recommend your service to their customers or site visitors a commission for any sales they facilitate. At SubHub we use a software program called iDevAffiliate. If you want other website owners to help you sell your service this is the best way to get them fired up.
Pre-Launch Marketing Activities
You must research and have a very good idea of who the movers and shakers are for your sector in both the online and offline world. Create a list of their names, email addresses and where possible, telephone numbers. You should cover:
- bloggers and specialist website editors
- magazine and newspaper journalists
- academics and colleges
- associations, societies and clubs
Ideally you should start building a relationship with the key influencers well before you launch. Offer the most important ones a complimentary membership. Make access to the site available after 80 days. You will see why in a minute.
- Get testimonials and endorsements – before you launch you should try to get some testimonials from well known personalities in your field. Make these clearly visible on the home page. Testimonials equal trust and credibility
- Establish a Twitter presence – Twitter has become a powerful marketing tool for every niche. Set up an account and start Twittering regularly about your subject. You should also use Twitter search or a tool such as Google Trends so you can monitor people who are talking about your area of interest. Join in these conversations to establish your credibility and to get people to follow you.
- Set up Google Alerts – This free service allows you to specify keywords you want to follow and Google sends an email every time they see the keywords being added to a site, blog, Twitter etc. The alerts are not comprehensive but they allow you to jump into conversations. Try to gather email addresses of people you come across who share your interest
- Use MeetUp.com to find relevant groups – Meetup.com has been set up to encourage people with a common interest to meet up. See if there are any local groups you can join.
- Prepare your marketing plan – It is important to write down your marketing plan before launch so you have a clear idea what you will be doing each day after you make your site live.
- Put together some interviews – some high quality (which does not mean expensive!) interviews with a few key sector personalities will be a very important part of your launch plan. The interviews should focus on some of the really key issues your potential subscribers will be concerned with.
How To Get Your First 100 Members
Before I go into the practical steps of how to recruit early members, I want to remind you of the typical process that your prospects will follow before signing up. Understanding the steps they take will influence the marketing tactics you will use.
Your target audience will find your site either through your marketing activity or through referral from a third party. When they first land on your site, within 10 seconds they will have decided whether it is of interest and relevant to them. Those that like what they see will explore several pages. If they still like what they have seen they will sign up to your email newsletter, add you on Twitter or subscribe to your RSS feed. Once they start receiving emails or information from the site they will decide how relevant it is to them. People who like what they get will carry on receiving it. Those who don’t will unsubscribe.
The people who remain engaged are the qualified prospects. They have declared their interest in what you do and say; some percentage of these followers will eventually decide to become paying members
It is very rare that people go to a membership website and on the first visit reach for their credit card to subscribe. They usually want to build trust over time before making a longer term commitment.
Bearing this in mind, your 90 day plan should have two phases:
- Phase 1 should last 80 days during which time your focus should be on driving traffic to your website and building a relationship with visitors who show an interest in the service you are providing. You build this relationship by getting interested visitors to sign-up to an email newsletter or other service which will enable you to proactively communicate with them. One very important point, which is counter intuitive, is you you should NOT allow people to become paying members during this phase. Let me repeat you should make it clear that there is a membership area of the site and list all the benefits that members get, but you should NOT let people sign-up until Phase 2. People want more what they can’t have.
- Phase 2 should last 10 days and your focus should shift from traffic and relationship building to converting your most loyal followers into paying members. You do this by building excitement, momentum and an irresistible offer which your most loyal followers just won’t be able to resist.
Phase 1 – Driving Traffic and Building Relationships
When you first launch your website you won’t have the benefit of getting a lot of free search engine traffic. It takes time to get on page 1 of Google. Therefore you have to build traffic the hard way through links and recommendations from other people’s websites. This is very achievable but you will need to be focused and persistent.
Alternatively you can pay for traffic.
Usually a combination of paid and free is best during the early days.
Once people arrive on your site you should have one over-arching goal…to get their email address…or get them to sign up to another way that allows you to keep in touch with them (Twitter, RSS, Facebook friend, YouTube friend, etc). If a visitor leaves without signing up for at least one communication channel there is a 96% chance you will never see them again.
The only reason they will sign up to receive information from you in the future is if they think the site is relevant to their needs and the content is valuable to them. It is critical that you provide these early visitors with some really great information to get them excited about what you do.
You should also make them an irresistible offer to get them to give you their email address. Give them a free ebook, research document, software, copyright-free images, access to videos or discount vouchers for other goods or services. Do whatever it takes to get this vital bit of data.
Once you have their email you should send more valuable information and gifts during the 80 day relationship building period. Your goal is to get them to the point that they look forward to hearing from you. Only then will they be ready to pay.
So, how many email addresses do you need to achieve your goal of getting 100 paying members in 90 days?
The answer is it comes down to two conversion rates.
The conversion rate of visitors who become email newsletter subscribers, which is typically between 1%-15%.
And the conversion rate of email newsletter subscribers who become paying subscribers of the membership site. Typically this conversion rate is between 0.5% – 18%. Business to business conversion rates tend to be higher than consumer sites.
When doing your planning you need to assume a conversion rate.
For this case study I will assume that the conversion rate for phase 1, the percentage of visitors who give me their email address, is 7% and the conversion rate for phase 2, the percentage of my email list who I convert to paying customers, is 10%. This means to get 100 paying members I need to get 1,000 email addresses from 14,500 unique visitors to my website.
So let’s get on with it!
There are hundreds of ways to drive traffic to your site, but you have a limited amount of time so you will need to be selective. You won’t have the benefit of getting search engine traffic for a brand new site, so you will need to work with other siteowners in your niche to hook into their audiences.
Set yourself a traffic target for the first 80 days after launch. It could look like this:
Month 1 = 4,000 unique visitors
Month 2 = 7,000 unique visitors
Month 3 = 4,000 unique visitors
Note: Month 3 is lower because you will be turning your attention to converting email subscribers to paying members which will take up much of your time.
90 Day Marketing Plan
I’m going to recommend you look at some paid ways and some free ways of generating traffic. Let’s deal with the paid marketing first.
Google AdWords remains the most effective online advertising tool because you have so much control over how much you pay for each lead.
There is too much to cover in this article about setting up a successful AdWords campaign, but you can get some excellent free guides from Google.
When setting up your account the single most important thing you should focus on is choosing accurate and highly relevant keyword phrases. Use very specific phrases that only apply to your niche and avoid broad words which could apply to many niches within your sector. For example if your site is about fine wine, avoid using the word ‘wine’. Instead list all the fine wine producers like Petrus, Dom Perignon, St Emillion, etc. This will ensure you are only paying for people who have a real and deep interest in your subject…and also you will pay much less for these highly specialist phrases.
With AdWords you will quickly be able to work out how many leads you are getting for your money. If you are paying $0.20 for every person who clicks on your AdWord’s ad you will get 500 leads for every $100 you spend.
To hit your target of 14,500 would cost you $2,900, although I don’t think you should rely solely on AdWords.
For this project I would plan on spending $100 per week which should generate 6,000 leads over the 90 days at a cost of $1,200
Another effective way to reach a targeted audience is to pay for an ad in someone else’s email newsletter. If you find a website or blog with a really good email newsletter that is relevant to your audience, contact the owner and ask if you can pay to advertise in it. Many will let you. You will either pay a fixed amount or pay per thousand email sent. Ask the list owner for their stats which should include numbers of emails sent, open rates, un-subscribe rate, etc.
A reasonable clickthrough rate for an ad at the top of a page is 0.5% – 6%.
Buy An Email List
One way that many websites make money is to sell one-time use of their email list. If you find a site which is relevant to your audience ask if they sell their email names for marketing. You will probably be asked to pay per thousand emails. This will enable you to market directly to their customers
Expect a click through rate for a well targeted, offer driven ad on a good list to be 4%-8%
Now onto the free stuff.
Free Press Coverage
The launch of a new website focused at a particular niche is newsworthy. It is an excellent opportunity which is usually over looked by new website publishers.
Also send the release to the list of contacts you should have built prior to launch.
My target would be to get 100 visitors/week from the press release distribution, which will be 1,200 of your 14,500 visitors.
Using your list of bloggers, industry personalities, academics and influencers that you have created approach the key people, to ask whether you can interview them for your new site. Offer them a free subscription in exchange for their time and input.
Ideally the interview should be video, but failing that a recorded telephone conversation is fine. We use Freeconference.com to record audio interviews or an inexpensive Flip HD camcorder to record the videos.
There are two reasons for doing the interview. One is to create great content. The second, and more important reason, is to get the person you interview to link to it from their site…or better still to email all of their followers to go and have a listen on your site.
I’ve seen one good interview generate tens of thousands of visitors for a site. For the sake of this plan, I will set my target at doing three interviews which I release on the first day of each month and estimate each interview will generate 200 visitors per week. Over the 90 day period that would be 4,800 leads.
Write three killer articles which you can publish on third party sites to drive traffic. You have three publishing options that you can consider.
My preferred option is to contact the publisher of your sector’s leading website and offer them one or more of the articles for free in exchange for getting an acknowledgement and link to your site. This will drive well targeted prospects directly from a highly relevant site.
Second you can use the article to publish pages on third party sites such as Social Media Today (www.socialmediatoday.com), Hubpages (www.hubpages.com) and eHow (www.ehow.com) . If you go this route create pages on all three but slightly change the content so the search engines don’t discount it for being duplication.
My target would be to get the articles on a leading website or blog which would generate 400 leads a month over the three months, or 1,200 over the 90 days.
We have always found that a good, highly relevant forum can generate a lot of interest in a new site. You can find forums for most niches by going to Google and typing in your subject +forum.
The way to generate clickthroughs is to join relevant forums and write a comprehensive profile. Then create a signature which appears at the bottom of every comment you make. Ensure you have a link to your site and a mention of your special offer. Start participating in relevant threads. DON’T use the threads to directly promote your service. Instead provide really valuable advice and readers will automatically click your link to find out more about you.
The traffic from forums is not huge, but it can be high quality and lead to other traffic generating opportunities. My target would be 100 unique visitors per week or 1,200 over the first 90 days.
How Do You Get An Email Address
Now you have a good idea about how to drive traffic it’s time to turn your attention to persuading these visitors to give you their email address (or sign-up to one of your other communication channels).
The headline tip is to give them something of real value in exchange for their personal data. Here are some examples:
1) Offer A Free Course
2) Popover Sign-up Box
You may loathe them, but pop-up sign-up boxes which appear over the top of a page dramatically increase the number of email addresses you collect. Darren Rowse of Problogger uses it great effect on his Digital Photography School website.
3) Offer a Free Downloadable eBook or Report
Offer a simple downloadable reward for signing up. This is the most common tactic for increasing your email list. At SubHub we use this technique and it works well.
4) Provide Part of A Video for Free. Require An Email Address To Get The Rest
This is becoming a common and effective tactic. Create a video course, interview, game, etc which you divide into two parts. Let people see the first part for free without sign-up. Offer the second part for free, but require an email address. Jeff Walker, who has a subscription site called Product Launch Formula, is a master at using video to gather email addresses.
5) Run a Competition
For example, you could offer a years free membership to your site as a prize…or think of something else which would really fire your audience’s imagination. Travel Intelligence offer a free nights stay in a hotel as a prize (which has probably been donated for free).
These ideas are just the tip of the iceberg. Be creative when thinking about your offer. Try to give away something that has zero or near zero cost to you, but provides your target audience with real value.
Phase 2 – Converting Followers to Paying Members
Once you have a strong and growing list of followers who regularly receive your news and information you need to start planning how you will convert them into paying customers.
Everything you will have provided so far – the email sign-up giveaway, the content on your site, the email newsletter, Tweets, etc – has been free. In phase 2 you must turn your attention to packaging up your paid membership service in such a way that your most dedicated followers are very happy to pay.
Just as a reminder about what I said earlier. You should not allow people to sign-up for paid membership until Phase 2. You want to build the excitement and desire over the 80 days. This will get a much higher conversion rate than allowing members to signup whenever they want.
You must create a very compelling offer for the first 100 members. I would strongly recommend that the offer is based around giving them downloadable stuff for free rather than a discount on the membership fee. You should try to preserve your income as much as possible. As mentioned above create a package of services which have a value much greater than the cost of the subscription.
The Big Event
To launch the 10 day sign-up period you should arrange a big event.
A very popular thing to do is have a webinar where prospects can dial into for free and listen to a talk by you, or better still, a really well known industry personality.
A webinar is easy and cheap to arrange but has a high perceived value to attendees.
The content of the webinar should not be a sales pitch for your membership site. You need to be more subtle than that.
The content should provide really good information about a particular subject, but the information should be incomplete. The additional information should be available within the membership site.
Let me give you some examples:
- A wine tasting site – the webinar could be hosted by a recognised master of wine and cover how wine tasting is done. The membership area of the website could then reveal their actual tasting notes for dozens of wines
- A site about launching an Internet business – the webinar could cover the 15 things you must do before launching an Internet business. The membership area could list all the resources you need for a successful launch
- A site about educating children at home – the webinar could cover how to plan a home-based curriculum. The membership website could provide all the templates for the parent to fill-in
You get the idea.
The webinar must offer really valuable information for free from a trusted source, but for listeners to really benefit from the advice they must become a member of the website.
At the end of the seminar you should add a sales pitch for the site outlining all of the benefits and bonuses for early subscribers. Make sure you put an expiry date on the offer to force people to make a decision.
Finally you should tell the listeners that you offer a 100% money back guarantee so if they are unhappy with your service for whatever reason they will get all of their money back. This completely de-risks sign-up and if your site is good, the refund level should be low.
The Sign-Up Process In Summary
- Get your site ready with some really excellent content
- Create additional content for the first 90 days so you can focus on marketing activities
- Create or source some gifts that can be given away to incentivise email sign-up and paid membership sign-up
- Launch the site with membership sign-up turned off
- Focus on driving traffic to the free content on the site and getting visitors to sign-up for the email newsletter (or other communications channel) using a free offer. Keep building interest and momentum for 80 days
- Work with other bloggers, online publishers, journalists to get them to drive traffic to your site
- Plan a big event (webinar?) to launch the start of membership sign-up
- Create a very compelling offer which gives value well beyond the cost of the subscription
- Host the big event. Provide real value but give listeners a compelling and irresistible reason to sign-up for your service
- Look after the early paying members and they will do a lot of the future selling for you
This technique for getting 100 paying members in 90 days is tried and tested. The skill is building the excitement about your service to the point where your followers can’t wait for it to go live. At all stages you try to put yourself in your prospects shoes and think about “what would REALLY make me want to sign up for this service?”. What is the unique selling point that would get you salivating about being a paying member?