How to Develop and Sell Membership Website Subscriptions

A 7-step process detailing how to develop, launch, and create a robust membership website subscription product that practically sells itself

membership website subscription

If you’re one of the hundreds of magazine publishers who are still giving away your magazine content, it’s probably time to stop and think about using that content to sell premium membership website subscriptions.

The evolution from print magazine publishing to digital magazine publishing has been accelerated by the pandemic. The trend has been in motion for a while, with more than 20% of America’s top magazines already deploying a metered paywall and actively selling membership website subscriptions for their premium magazine content.

Our consulting team has been advising these publishers for almost a decade to shift their emphasis from sponsorship to subscriptions as the best way to monetize their premium magazine content. Over the past three years, we’ve discovered a revolutionary marketing system that we believe all magazine publishers will be following in the years and decades to come.

Content-driven membership website publishing and marketing can be done on any software platform if you simply understand the steps required as a repeatable business process. The process revolves around focusing on your back-issue library instead of the next six or 12 issues. 

After much trial and error, we’ve been able to repeat this process for magazines across a wide variety of interests, including cooking, investing, crafting, travel, history, home improvement, interior design, and a growing list of hobbies and special interests. Here’s a step-by-step process that can help launch your own successful membership website publishing and marketing program.

Step 1: Inventory your back issue archive. Identify all the feature stories from issues that either have already been converted into HTML or can be easily converted into HTML. Next, a content marketing specialist will use keyword tagging and Google research data to categorize each of your feature stories into identifiable categories or collections. This is library science, and your goal is to create a topic-based taxonomy that reflects consumer linguistic usage so that your labeling will resonate with the largest group of consumers in your target audience. 

When done well, this first step will lead to a set of categories or collections that will correspond to digital books that can be read from front to back or cherry-picked based on the reader’s interest. This effort creates an alternative way for users to access your content, which is similar to how a library of books would be organized in comparison with a library of issue-based magazines. 

At the end of the exercise, we typically have identified 50 to 150 topics that can become either automated categories of content or carefully curated collections with their own tables of content and the ability to read through the collection in a linear fashion.

Step 2: Create content previews. Each of your categories and carefully curated collections can now be summarized in what we call a content preview. A content preview is typically structured into three parts where part one focuses on a particular article from the collection or category, part two focuses on other related articles from that same category or collection, and the optional part three focuses on the larger benefits of upgrading to a premium website subscription or membership and getting unlimited access to all of the issues, categories, and collections contained in the library. 

These content previews will be sent three times a week to premium website members with the goal of engaging those readers and retaining them over time. Based on data from our existing membership websites, these previews typically see open rates well above 50% and click-through rates ranging from 8 to 12%. 

Basic website members who have not paid for premium access receive a version of the preview that includes the optional part three described above that links to a sales letter or order page where the unpaid member can upgrade to become a premium member.

Step 3: Inventory your database assets. The type of membership website we’re describing here relies on other marketing channels beyond the organic website traffic that will arrive from unpaid sources. 

Most of the publishers who launch these membership websites already have an audience development portal that is wide open and optimized for search and social media. These audience development portals are typically sponsor-driven, and secondarily promote subscriptions and premium content. 

Subscriptions to free email newsletters for the audience development portal will typically be one of the two large sources of basic membership website subscribers. 

The other significant source of free email subscribers for your new premium membership website is sourced from your existing print magazine subscriptions. Most modern fulfillment services accommodate the capture of email addresses to facilitate customer service and print subscription renewals. For print subscribers and expires where email information has not been captured, an email append service can use postal addresses to identify subscribers and then append an email address to their record. This dramatically expands the number of email subscribers available that are associated with your active and expired print subscriber lists.

Step 4: Identify additional ancillary marketing channels. Your membership website should take advantage of other internal marketing programs like inserts in subscriber communications, space ads in your print magazine, cover wraps, and inserts that ride along with each issue; Even editorial mentions in your print magazine. External paid media sources like Facebook, AdWords, and Live Intent are also sources worth testing for both new free members and new premium website subscribers. 

All of the above sources should be tested and coded so that the economics of each can be quantified. It’s not unusual to see certain sources that can break even within the first 12 months, while another group of sources needs two years to break even. Your membership marketing team will be continually testing and optimizing existing programs and new opportunities as they become available.

Step 5: Develop a membership website. With your product and marketing programs clearly outlined, now it’s time to build your new membership website, including integration with your fulfillment systems and email marketing service provider. 

An experienced development team can design, configure, and test your website and its associated systems within the scope of about a thousand hours. This assumes your website development team is experienced in the processes, is leveraging a set of best practices and a software library of best practice components, and an existing content management system such as Haven WordPress

Our development team has been building and deploying successful content-driven membership websites for more than a decade, making a relatively quick development program possible.

Step 6: Groom content. Your new membership website will have been carefully designed using appropriate layouts, fonts, and a pallet of colors for your brand to create the standard templates that your article content will use. 

Your HTML content will be migrated into your new content management system and enhanced with metadata that will allow each article to fulfill its role as part of a magazine issue, an automated category, or a specially curated collection. 

An experienced usability engineer will groom each article to place photography and other visuals appropriately, and fine-tune layout, paragraph breaks, and spacing. An automated tagging system will index all of your content against your keyword universe, which will form an index similar to a book index that applies to all of the articles in your new digital media library. 

This process is repeated when new issue content is loaded as new magazine issues are published. Many of the digital media libraries we’ve developed also include content from books and several have a video component associated with television content or live event content that is being repurposed. 

One publisher we’ve worked with had an extensive catalog of DVDs that could be repurposed as video for their digital media library. Your specially and carefully curated collections will each have a collections index page where magazine article content, books, special reports, and appropriate videos are all grouped to provide users with an easy way to access content around a particular topic. These collection index pages are updated as new content is added to the library and its collections, which is also echoed into updates of content previews that are shared via web and email.

Step 7: Launch, operate, and optimize. Your new membership website will begin operations by onboarding free basic members who will be granted limited access to your premium content and who will also receive regular marketing messages encouraging them to upgrade to premium status. All marketing programs should be run on a Six Sigma schedule where new offers and creative are regularly tested with the goal of improving conversion rates and fighting back offer-fatigue. 

A steady stream of new basic members will be scheduled via both databases and other media sources. Direct premium promotions will also be launched using both internal and external media programs, which should also be regularly split-tested to maximize overall performance. New content will arrive as new magazine issues are published and other ancillary content sources are acquired.

Over the past decade, we’ve launched more than 30 successful digital media libraries as product extensions of existing print magazines and newsletters. If it’s time for you to generate more consumer revenue online, we’d love to share everything we’ve learned supporting, developing, operating, and optimizing these next-generation publishing systems.

Schedule a free 60-minute consultation with us today to discuss how we can help you double or even triple your online revenue with a new digital media library publishing and marketing program.

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