Things to Consider Before Building a Membership Website

The life and times of the Membership Website business model

Literary perfectionist Gustav Flaubert once said “our ignorance of history makes us slander our own times”. He was right on the money here and not just in his never-ending quest to find “le mot juste” (“the right word”) in a sentence. Finding the perfect word, he believed, would lead to the Nirvana of written quality. Dramatics aside, the main lesson here is one that we all know well: history is important.

Again, putting aside the theatrics, we turn to perhaps the farthest subject from a deceased French writer: Membership Websites, specifically on the subject of the historical print business model. Creating a Membership Website tied in with a magazine, newsletter or book series is a lot of work. They are usually more expensive to build than other website models and their success requires a lot more than just an archive of old issues.

However, sometimes having a 24/7 online encyclopedia of information available to your users is worth it. If you’ve already decided to make a Membership Website a part of your online publishing strategy: that’s great. But before you move on, take a moment to finish this post, and see if you’ve remembered your lessons and can pass this history test.

(The ah-ha moment when you realize that this is all connected? Pencils at the ready…)

First, a review: Every story is an asset, whether that story was published in a magazine, newspaper or book series. Of course, a publisher wants to take as much advantage as they can upon that asset, and if in the past they have capitalized on the asset by selling advertising, it’s not too far of a leap to see that the economics favor an ad-driven online publishing strategy.

So we turn to history, the economic history of the existing print publishing business, that is. The amount of available content doesn’t matter here, only the moneymaking economics that worked in the past matters. In order for an advertising-driven website model to work, the content in most cases must be given away free to generate the largest audience for the advertisers.

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Fortunately for free sites, delivering the content for free maximizes page views, which leads to better advertising and sponsor revenue. When the content is only available if paid for, it limits page views significantly, not to mention leading to a decrease in advertising opportunities and competitiveness.

The conclusion here is that a free site attracts the most advertising revenue because it will get the most viewers through search engine traffic and any type of “members only” membership website is likely to lose that advertising revenue but can prevail if the product is valuable enough to be supported by the wallets of its users.

None of this is to say that the pay-wall model does or doesn’t work though. It’s an ever-growing work in progress that even The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal haven’t been able to perfect yet. But don’t ignore history here, as many things that have worked in the past may be used to your advantage here in the future. And if you want to be as much of a perfectionist as the author of Madame Bovary, then be our guest. And if you’re considering launching a membership website, be sure to catch up on our Membership Website Mistakes while you’re at it.


    I wonder if someone has built a subscription website where the MIUs are articles by dead French writers…

    And if they did, would it be user or sponsor driven?

    Amanda, I got a real chuckle out of your post. 🙂



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