17 Tips for Starting a Membership Website

What should you consider when starting a membership website?

The answers are not always obvious, even to a seasoned print or digital publisher. Starting a new website is very different from running an existing property. Over the past 10 years, our team has worked on over 100 successful digital publishing startups, as well as several that were not successful.

Our understanding of website publishing is rooted in the world of print, which has given us insight into the similarities and differences between the two types of launches. These tips will document the best practices we’ve seen, and been part of, over the past decade. These tips are geared toward a website that will generate $2 to $5 million per year in total revenues after three to five years.


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Starting a Membership Website Tip #1:

Focus Your Membership Website Product Idea.

Your membership website should be targeted to a specific group of readers who share very specific information needs, and are willing to pay a premium price for that information.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #2:

Profile the Information Needs of Your Target Customer.

Your goal is to locate a target market focused on people who:

  • Have established an interest in what you’ll be writing about,
  • Are proven membership website users and subscribers,
  • Are part of either a growing or very stable audience,
  • Are not adequately served by existing membership websites.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #3:

Prepare an In-Depth Competitive Market Analysis.

Search for competitive sites, request sample copies or purchase competitive publications, request media kits (which often contain a wealth of information about the market) and understand advertising and subscription pricing policies for your competition.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #4:

Select Your Membership Website’s Competitive Position.

Use a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats) analysis to evaluate your closest competition. How will you be different and how sustainable is that difference?

Starting a Membership Website Tip #5:

Quantify the Economics of Your Membership Website.

Make assumptions…how many free members, how many paid members? How much for an annual subscription, what about other revenue sources, how much does it cost to obtain a new member, how long will you keep members?

Starting a Membership Website Tip #6:

Grade the Membership Website Concept – Pass or Fail.

You understand the competition, how does your concept stack up? If most of your ideas already exist, you probably need to rethink everything and go back to stage one.


Learn how to choose the best subscription pricing & single-copy pricing strategy for your subscription websites & subscription apps when you download a FREE copy of How to Use Contrast Pricing to Increase Subscription Revenue.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #7:

Determine the Pre-Launch Start-up Budget.

Start with the test phase and determine how much money you’ll need. A complete business plan usually requires you to perform a complete market test and to line up key personnel.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #8:

Raise Membership Website Test Capital.

There are many different ways to raise capital that depend on your resources, your company’s resources and the size of your idea.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #9:

Identify Key Personnel.

Your personnel and your subscriber base will become your two key assets. Find the people who can make your idea happen and don’t forget to search for strategic partners as well.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #10:

Perform a Membership Website Market Study.

This study lets you catch users who have searched using a keyword that indicates interest in your website idea.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #11:

Create a Functional Membership Website Specification and Wireframe

A good functional specification and well-tested prototype will help you produce a website that is customer friendly.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #12:

Prepare a Detailed Membership Website Content Plan.

Outline your editorial content in as much detail as possible and make sure you have enough content to publish at your chosen frequency.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #13:

Create and Test a Non-Working Membership Website Prototype.

During this stage you’ll build web pages that link and explore the paths a user might take to do all the things they can do at your website.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #14:

Conduct a Search Engine Marketing Test.

Use email and/or pay-per-click to test your concept with the goal of generating 100 to 500 gross orders that will help you make the decision to launch and move you to profitability when regular publication begins.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #15:

Prepare the Membership Website Final Business Plan.

Pull all of your findings together into a professional compact format, projecting five years of operations.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #16:

Raise Membership Website Launch Capital.

Start with media companies, they may have been interested in a similar product but didn’t have the manpower to start it. If your idea is a good one, they would be silly to “steal” it. People are the key to this business, not ideas.

Starting a Membership Website Tip #17:

Execute Your Membership Website Business Plan and Let It Go.

You’ve planned and organized and are ready to go. Stay true to your editorial mission and let the product be what its subscribers want it to become.

Do you agree with these tips? Are there some that we might have missed? Post comments below.

This article was originally published in 2006 and has been updated. Peter A. Schaible contributed to this article.


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