subscription website model - step by step guide

The subscription-based business model is everywhere these days. In fact, it’s rare to find products and services on the internet for sale in any other way.  Some vendors still offer resources for a one-time fee, but many find the subscription model to be more lucrative and less labor-intensive. And setting it all up is easier than you might think.

There are hundreds of different examples of how subscription services are being utilized, but if you really examine all of them, the vast majority can be catalogued into four types:

Product sales such as a subscription box, software application or downloadable resources

An example might be a box of goodies every month, a small sample of the “spice of the month” with a recipe card, meal kits and vitamins for subscription ‘boxes’. Software such as graphics programs (think Canvas, Photoshop) are now completely subscription-based, and downloadable resources such as prayers, lessons, educational ebooks are extremely popular.

Services sales such as group or one-on-one coaching services, financial advice

Examples are any kind of coach (life, health, business, investment) who delivers workshops or sessions, either online or in person.  In return for a set amount paid every month (or every year), the coach provides a certain number of calls or sessions in that time frame. 

Membership content sales such as access to premium content, videos, publications or courses. 

There are multiple software platforms on the market that are geared to helping non-technical entrepreneurs set up a subscription-based website that delivers both free, paid, and member-only content. Some of these platforms have been in the website business for a while but have only recently started offering membership website services, usually through an add-on or plug-in, such as Squarespace and Wix.

Other of these platforms are more of a ‘business in a box’ type, offering marketing tools, funnels, sales pages & landing pages as well as a membership aspect to the platform, such as Kajabi and Kartra.

Still others are more streamlined to focus on courses and member-only content, and have been doing so for quite some time. Wild Apricot is a membership platform geared to associations, and SubHub, which has been in the membership website arena for over 20 years, is geared to courses and membership tiers, as well as ease of use and payment processing.

Membership community access, usually offered as part of membership content.

Most of the platforms mentioned above offer some form of community sharing, either as a member forum or access to discussion groups. There are some platforms that are geared specifically to building communities as well, such as Mighty Networks, and Circle.

Now that we have identified the various types of subscription-based businesses, let’s look at the steps to getting one up and running in the shortest time and in the most efficient way possible.

Here’s a step-by-step guide to help you create a subscription-based membership website:

Choose a Platform

We already talked about platforms to some degree.  Here are some popular choices, being used for different specializations.

WordPress

There are many plugins that make WordPress a viable membership website platform, including WooCommerce’s subscription extension, and a variety of other choices that offer varying degrees of features. 

Most have the ability to stop non-members from viewing member-only content. The only caveat with WordPress plugins is that they are in fact, plugins.  That means more management on your end, and more pieces of the puzzle that could go wrong, with less than adequate or minimal support offered.  Free plugins will usually not offer any significant support options.

Shopify

The Shopify platform isn’t just for e-commerce anymore. There are now apps like ReCharge that provide subscription management capabilities to Shopify.  This option is not intended for member-only content access, however. The Shopify platform is first and foremost a product sales platform.  The subscription angle allows customers to purchase their favorite products on a monthly basis, which can certainly be handy for those who use certain products on a regular basis.

Squarespace

Squarespace has recently got into the membership functionality game with an add-on that works with the core platform. You don’t necessarily have to pay extra for the add-on, but you have to purchase a certain tier of service with them to be able to use it.

Wix

Wix offers subscription functionality through apps like Wix Membership or Wix Stores.  These come at an additional cost apart from the core platform.

SubHub

One of the few membership platforms that has been dedicated to a framework for membership content since its inception, and has in the past few years added a functionality for online course creation as well.

Choose the platform that best suits your needs in terms of features, flexibility, and ease of use. You will likely want to open free trials of several and take them for a test drive. It might seem like a lot of work, but the research you do at the outset will pay off in the end.

Lastly, be sure to check out each platform’s support offerings. When it comes to managing recurring payments, you will (almost 100% guaranteed) have some questions at some point. Make sure you have a 5-star support team to turn to anytime for help.

Plan Your Subscription Model

The first items of business is to ask and answer the question, “What am I selling?” Sounds simple but it can be quite complicated if you haven’t gone through the process of developing a business plan. We always recommend having a business plan in place before embarking on a membership business launch.  You’ll find it a lot easier to design and build your membership site once you are clear about what you offer, to whom, and how you want to deliver the products, services, or content.

Then decide on your subscription model, including pricing tiers, billing frequency (monthly, yearly), and types of subscriptions (e.g., product-based, content-based, service-based as discussed earlier). Consider offering incentives such as discounts for annual subscriptions or free trials to attract subscribers. 

Set Up Payment Processing

Integrate a payment gateway to accept subscription payments securely. The most popular payment gateways for subscription-based website are Stripe and PayPal. Most of the membership platforms comes with integrations with those processors, so set up to get paid is a simple matter of copying an pasting a few settings into the backend of the website. Ensure that your chosen platform supports your preferred payment gateway and set up recurring billing options for subscription renewals.

Build Your Website

Website design is a big topic, and has been discussed here and many other blogs. We won’t get into the details like fonts and colors here, but there are a few fundamentals you should keep in mind when designing your membership website (that are different than designing a non-subscription based site.)

Most importantly, design your website with a focus on user experience and conversion optimization. Going back to that business plan, make sure you clearly communicate the value proposition of your subscriptions. Customize the design to reflect your brand identity and make it easy for visitors to sign up for subscriptions, receive confirmation emails, and can easily get access to the content they have paid for.

Subscription Management

This is often overlooked – until you start selling your memberships. When someone signs up for a membership on your platform, you want to make sure you know that this has happened, what they signed up for, what membership tier, and how much they are paying. 

Make sure the membership platform you use has a member management tool built in so you can always be assured that your purchases are being tracked. You’ll have to also handle billing, cancellations and subscription renewals. Your platform should enable subscribers to manage their accounts, update payment details, and modify their subscription preferences (including cancellations) easily, without you having to be involved. 

Develop Content or Products

Now you can start creating your content, whether it’s video, audio, Zoom calls, coaching services, products, subscription boxes…the list goes on. A rule of thumb to alway keep in the back of your mind is to create the most engaging content you can for your audience, and develop products/services that provide value to your subscribers.

Always ensure that your offerings align with your subscription model and cater to the needs and interests of your target audience.

Launch and Promote Your Website

Once your website is ready, launch it and start promoting your subscription offerings. The most popular (and effective) marketing channels today are still social media, email marketing, content marketing, and paid advertising to attract subscribers and drive traffic to your website. Offering promotional deals or collaborating with influencers to generate buzz around your subscriptions can also help bring potential customers to your subscription website.

After you’ve launched your site, it’s time to sit  back and have pina colada, right? Well yes, but don’t get too comfortable. Your job is only beginning because now that you have paying subscribers, you need to deliver on your products and services. That’s why it’s so important to choose a platform that is going to be a willing partner, not an adversary that you end up fighting with to get it to do what you want.  Knowing your audience, planning your subscription model in advance, and having a platform that’s in your corner can provide the kind of peace of mind that can keep your business thriving for a long time to come. 

It’s time to build your membership website

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