Sam Greenspan of SkyVerge, an eCommerce software platform, evaluates common types of membership-based sites and explains how to set up a memberships site with WooCommerce.
If you’re thinking of launching an eCommerce website, or you already have a store and want to increase customer retention and average lifetime value, a membership program could be just what you’re looking for. Memberships sites are a win-win for the business and the customer: businesses gain a new revenue stream, while customers gain access to exclusive perks, discounts, content, or other benefits of membership.
As more of everything arises on the internet—more content, more stores, more voices, more noise—the value of exclusivity, expertise, and premium offerings becomes increasingly clear. And the memberships model is the perfect way to take advantage and stand out from the crowd.
In this article, I'm going to go over all of the basics you need to know to start your memberships website (or to add a lucrative memberships feature to your current WooCommerce store). First, I'll look at some of the most common types of membership-based sites. Then, I'll show you how to set up your memberships site through WooCommerce. And finally, I'll go over membership plans and benefits, and the key emails you’ll use to grow your business.
One quick note before we dive in. There are a variety of different software options out there to start a membership-based site. Our company, SkyVerge, is the developer of WooCommerce Memberships, the most popular memberships extension for WooCommerce, and the examples from this article will feature screenshots and references to that particular extension. However, the concepts we cover are universal enough that they should be applicable whether you ultimately go with WooCommerce Memberships as your platform or choose an alternative.
Types of Memberships Sites
While there are tens of thousands of memberships sites out there, they broadly fall into four main categories. Your business may even fall into multiple categories—Amazon Prime, for example, falls under both “purchasing club” and “publishing.”
The most famous example of a purchasing club is one of the most successful retail businesses ever: Costco. Purchasing clubs are stores that give members exclusive access to products, discounts, or perks like free shipping. They also include sites that offer subscribers benefits like metered downloads or early access to events.
Purchasing clubs are a great way to keep customers coming back and to encourage them to spend more at your site. They also add an aura of exclusivity to your eCommerce store and play on a customer’s psychological desire to be “in,” not “out.”
Online learning sites sell knowledge, generally in the form of courses or training. Many have a strong appeal to corporate customers, schools, and teams. You don’t need to be a prestigious university to create an online learning memberships site—as long as you have something valuable to teach and the expertise to teach it, you can find members who will want to learn it.
Associations and Communities
A memberships site is great for any type of organization that needs a centralized, unified spot online—whether it’s a community group that also meets up in real life, a distributed group like an alumni association or fan club, or a professional trade group looking for a place to share and cultivate ideas.
While some groups have set up their online base on a social media site like Facebook, many are moving to their own websites to recapture a significant amount of control, privacy, and autonomy.
Premium content is a natural fit for a memberships site. Regardless of whether the site features articles, podcasts, a newsletter, videos, music, all of those, or something else, a membership site serves as a great way to monetize content (and capture and cultivate a fan base) without reliance on advertising.
How to Set Up Your Memberships Site
You’ll need a WordPress website to get started, with WooCommerce installed. You can use a brand new, clean install of WordPress and WooCommerce or add a memberships extension to your current site; either way will work. Just purchase the Memberships plugin from WooCommerce.com and install it into your WordPress site, and you're off to the races!
Step 1: Determine How You’ll Sell Memberships
There are four ways to sell or assign memberships. The correct way for you may be intuitive based on your business model.
Manually grant membership access: You may not have any intention of selling memberships; instead, you want to manually assign them to closely guard who has access to your member perks. This also makes sense if you’re migrating from another platform or system; you can use the Memberships import tool to quickly add new members to your site.
Grant access upon registration: All site users should immediately be added to the membership when they register for an account on your site. If you’re working with an existing WooCommerce site, you can use the Memberships’ Grant Access button to give membership access to any existing users on your site.
Tie memberships to another product: Maybe you want to grant membership access when someone purchases any product, or a specific product, from your store. In that case, you’ll create a link between those products and a memberships plan. (We’ll cover how to do that in the next part of this article.)
Tie memberships to their own product: If you plan to sell memberships on their own, you’ll need to create membership products. Go to WooCommerce > Add New Product and create your membership as a new product. For now, set up the basics, like a description and a price. You can add more granular detail later.
Also, it’s important to note that the WooCommerce Subscriptions extension seamlessly integrates with WooCommerce Memberships, if you want to set up recurring payments.
Step 2: Create a Membership Plan
Now that you know how you’re going to assign memberships, you’ll need to create the memberships themselves.
Head to WooCommerce > Memberships > Membership Plans and choose “Add Membership Plan.” Give your plan a name, then fill in the details in the tabs below.
Choose how you plan to grant access to the membership. If you’ve chosen to tie it to a product purchase, you can select which products to grant access to in this tab. This is also where you’ll designate the length of the membership.
Here’s where you’ll designate what content will be exclusive to members. You can choose categories, tags, pages, or individual posts. With WooCommerce Memberships, you can also drip content—this is a popular feature for publishing and online learning sites where members slowly gain access to content over time, to reward them for sustained membership (or to avoid a scenario where someone becomes a member, reads or downloads everything right away, then cancels).
When you add a restriction rule, the corresponding content will automatically be gated to members only on your site—you won’t need to make any manual changes.
If you’re planning to limit viewing or purchasing for some or all of your products to members only, here’s where you can select which individual products or categories you plan to restrict. You can drip products like you drip content—where members only gain access to them after a certain amount of time.
You can set up discounts on products or categories of products here. If a discount is active, it will automatically be applied to the corresponding products for your members who are logged in.
This is where you set up your member area, which members can see by going to My Account > View Membership. You can use this page to display perks (like a directory of exclusive content or products, and a list of the discounts members receive) as well as notes you want to share with your members.
You can use the email content section to customize three emails for your members: membership ending soon, membership ended, and membership renewal reminder. While these are a quick option, we recommend opting for a more robust email solution to ensure your emails have the maximum effect. We’ll cover more about email in the next part of this article.
Use Email to Maximize Your Memberships Site
Email is a powerful, reliable channel for communication with your members. As we just discussed, there are a handful of emails built into your memberships extension—however, to get the full benefits of email (and to avoid potential deliverability issues), we recommend using a third-party email service provider. For instance, Jilt is the recommended companion for WooCommerce Memberships, as it has a native integration that allows you to fully sync member info and your emails. It’s also made by the same company as WooCommerce Memberships, so you’ll benefit from a support team who are experts in both. There are workarounds for other email service providers, like setting up a custom tagging system, but that can be quite time-consuming, and still can’t sync some details like membership expiration dates.
Here are some of the most important emails to send to keep your members informed and happy, and to grow revenue for your site.
Welcome emails are a way to introduce your site (and your company) to new members. They’re a good place to reiterate the perks of the customer’s membership and are important for getting members in the habit of reading your emails. They also help you keep a new member’s excitement level high—welcome emails reiterate that the person made a great choice by becoming a member.
While your memberships plugin can send a single pre-expiration notice, it’s most effective to send a series of emails leading up to the membership expiration date. A well-timed sequence will help you reduce churn, which is extremely important for memberships sites. We recommend sending an email a few weeks out letting a member know their membership is expiring, then sending another one right before it expires.
If a member still lets their membership expire, that’s where win-back emails come in. Much like pre-expiration notices, a series of win-back emails can help you recover some of your lapsed members. We recommend a two-email series here. Make sure you offer some sort of incentive for coming back—whether that’s a discount, or just reiterating all the perks of membership the person has lost.
Newsletters are one-off emails to members featuring content, sales, or both. You can use newsletters to keep your members informed about new perks, share interesting content, become a thought leader in your space, offer exclusive discounts, and more. You can even use segmentation to send different newsletters to people on different membership plans.
We’ve covered the basics here of figuring out what type of memberships site to run, going through the initial setup steps, and putting together an email strategy for member communication and retention. And while there’s plenty more you’ll learn as you continue to grow and experiment with your memberships site, you should now be ready to get started. Good luck! (And if you have any questions, just let us know—we’ll be happy to help.)
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