You’re a solopreneur or small business, not a tech guru.  But you’ve probably fought your way to this point with a lot of self-learning (pulling your hair out), a couple contractors who left you nervous, alone and waiting for a return message and hope and a prayer.

Your email opt-in might be singing along and you might even have an ebook for sale on your website.

But membership.  This is a whole new ball game complicated by the wide variety of apples, oranges (clearly different from apples but still a fruit), tangerines (not the same thing as an orange right but so close!) and pineapples (has the word apple but nowhere in the ballpark).

First I want to tell you this…..don’t spend a dime on technology and worrying about this until you know your market, know your product is a fit and have good list building going on.    Be sure you have surveyed your audience, including about pricing and services they’d pay for, and know you can earn back your first months expenses with your initial sign up offer.   This can get expensive fast and depending on which tech guru you talk to, can begin to cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

What I like to recommend is starting with the right sized services for your market size and growth plans.

These decisions must be made carefully because changing your membership platform is not simple.   For example, once you get your members on a system with recurring charges, if you wanted to change to another membership system, you’d need to get everyone to re-subscribe again. Whoa!!!  Yes that’s a big hurdle.  Plus move all their data and access over to the new system and lose history of activity.  Soooooo…… choose wisely!

I hope this short guide of the tools you need and recommendation for your level of business is helpful!

The General Membership Setup

This overview is for someone who’s been doing online marketing for a season, has a decent sized list and engagement, is likely already making $3-10k per month online and is wanting to add a membership product line.

Read through this for an overview and if you are more of a beginner or more advanced, check out the next 2 segments.

Email Automation:

At this point you should have graduated away from MailChimp or ConstantContact to one of the more fully featured email automation systems with powerful rules engines such as Ontraport.  (If you aren’t there yet, here’s one of my favorite free list building programs.)

Website + Theme:

Hopefully you are already on WordPress.  There are themes that are highly optimized for more advanced membership sites where you want a forum, user profiles, etc.  It may be slightly advanced still at this level depending on your product price point.   Try to avoid changing themes if possible as it adds a lot to your project timeline and cost.   If you are feeling this membership product is going to be a mainstay in your business and you want a new brand and look and feel, start a new website with it’s own membership domain and a theme designed for membership sites.

Sales Page:

If you are using Ontraport, definitely create an Ontrapage sales page.  It so nicely tracks and integrates with all of your customers activity.  Every action they take is tracked in their contact record and you can automate abandoned cart follow up and more.

If you are not using Ontraport, there are many 3rd party sales page tools.  You must check that they include support for your member email automation and integration to your membership site.  Otherwise you will be watching for transactions and manually adding them to your membership system as well as manually checking for their payment failures and renewals.

Shopping Cart:

There is a lot of hype right now about SamCart and for good reason.  Any optimization on getting someone to click thru and buy is a good thing.  However it’s another $99 / month and another technology to integrate.  Consider the time and cost factor before adding it on.

Ontraport has an integrated shopping cart that automatically manages subscriptions, renewals and credit card failures.  Stripe is the payment system behind it which is super easy to setup with reasonable processing fees.

Membership Management:

What is this?   You need a tool to manage your list of paid, up to date customers, their logins and what materials they get access to on your WordPress website.    These are WordPress plug ins.   If you are on my favorite all in one path of using Ontraport, there is a simple plug in called Pilot Press which integrates seamlessly.

Pilot Press is not the most fully featured membership plug in but Ontraport integration really gets the job done well.   As a comparison, other tools like WishList Member include more advanced membership features which you would manage via Ontraport instead of Pilot Press.   My strong preference for Ontraport is to have one single dashboard to watch all of your customers interactions.  Their opt ins, email opens, sales transactions and membership activity.   Using a tool like WishList, you will go one place for membership activity, another place for email delivery and another place for sales transaction.

If I had to start today, I would look strongly at AccessAlly and it’s partner ProgressAlly due to their phenomenal user interface options, ease of use to set up a gorgeous course content and tag level integration to Ontraport.   (This comment bleeds into the next topic – Course Content).

Or……..you don’t put this on your WordPress site at all and use a completely cloud solution like Kajabi.

Course Content:

This exists on your WordPress site and means “how do you display member content to your members?”    At a basic level you can simply create pages of content and set them to the proper member level.   Some themes have template pages for video pages or 6 week courses with a video / content page each week and a nice navigation built in.   Optimize Press is a theme that has been nice for this.

The newest favorite on the market is definitely AccessAlly with ProgressAlly which add “gamification” in ways that increase engagement with your audience, show progress trackers, badges earned and integrate directly to your email automation systems like Ontraport.

Cost Estimate to Build:  $0 DIY – $2500

You can totally DIY this if you want to spend the time.   Or hire a “done for you consultant” who can setup some or all of these components including things you may not be thinking of…. abandoned cart email sequences, reminder sequences for credit card expiration dates, etc.

Ongoing Monthly Cost:  $300 – $600

This the level of the online marketing game where it moves from hobby to business as the ongoing monthly costs begin to creep up.  But for good reason.  You are now using very scalable and advanced data management tools for your small business….which growing mountains of data!

For the more advanced online business owner

You’ve been there, done that, already have a team and are here to make some strategic decisions about technology and then get that project kicked off.

I first did a membership program analysis in 2012 when I implemented a BuddyPress website using S2Member and Aweber and Authorize.net.  It worked.  It was clunky and had many check in points but I’m still bearing many scars from those years.  Technology has come so far.   In 2015, I did a new assessment of membership systems with one of my biggest pain points being ease of use for my customer support team to be able to assist with things such as upgrades, cancellations and lost passwords and access.

That’s when I landed on Ontraport.   Yes Infusionsoft can do all of these same things as well, very nicely, but Ontraport’s user interface was much simpler and more intuitive for my team to navigate.   Their addition of OntraMail and Ontrapages has allowed my admins to create gorgeous emails and pages from templates without the time and hassle of adding a designer.

This is why I’m a raving fan (and implementer of this system for many).   So this recommendation leans heavily towards the value of the all in one Ontraport solution, with just a couple “best of breed” choices where it makes a big difference for your clients.

Email Automation:

Everything is in Ontraport.  Your opt-in funnels, member email sequences and all the logic for follow up emails, including knowing when was the last time they logged into your membership site to send them a nudge to get back in there as well as tagging their personal preferences to further personalizing their email content delivery.

Website + Theme:

Recommendation is to build your membership site into it’s own domain and website.   This allows much flexibility, releases the burden off of your main blog / opt in site and allows for great expansion (or the ability to sell off a product) in the future.   Even though it’s multiple sites, they can be branded in a way that feels very seamless to the user.

Sales Page:

Everything in Ontraport.  You’ll probably even get good enough at whipping together a sales page on your own if you’d like!  Often I’ll do template pages allowing my clients to copy and tweak them for a special audience or offer.

Shopping Cart:

If you are at this level, and already closely watching your analytics and tweaking with A/B testing and tight copy changes, SamCart could be a good add on but not necessary.

Ontraport has an integrated shopping cart with easy to add upsells and cross-sells.

Membership Management:

Ontraport with Pilot Press is very simple and effective.  For more bells and whistles that also help with more course content management, I’m really liking AccessAlly and ProgressAlly as mentioned in the previous section.   Note…..this feels a bit “girly and fun” to me when I visit their website.  Trust me when I say your branding can make this as tough guy, professional or glitter covered as you’d like.   Yeah for good design!

Course Content:

This should be top notch at your level of the game.  Great usability makes a huge difference in getting people to access your content and how they feel about the quality of your product.  Every link working.  Intuitive ways to find the course overview, modules and where they left off.  Quizzes and engagement.

If you want to do an online forum, this is the level to introduce it.   There are many opinions and options on this topic in the world laden with Facebook Group addiction.  Don’t get stuck on this point.  If you really want it, pick an additional add on, with nice integration to your theme and membership module to offer forums on your website.   (Note that a 3rd party cloud forum may require a separate login for your users which isn’t ideal)

I’m still cheering for AccessAlly with ProgressAlly as my tool of choice in this space with integration to Ontraport.

Cost Estimate to Build:  Don’t DIY This $2000 – $10,000

Lots of logic here, many pages, designs and email sequences to write.  Hire a professional and use good project management practices to keep it all organized and on track..

Ongoing Monthly Cost:  $300 – $1000

This will very totally depending on the size of your list and number of emails you are sending.   If you want to keep your tech guru on retainer, expect another $600-1200 / month.

Measuring ROI

At this level of cost, you should be closely monitoring your metrics.   It could get complicated with so much data and so many sources.  Consider a dashboard reporting tool in addition.

Don’t Fear.  There is a Beginner Path Still Packed With Customer Value

The value of your membership program is in your content.   You just don’t want the technology to get in the way.  If you are just starting out and totally overwhelmed, this path is for you.   

It doesn’t list every last detail, nor all the options.  It’s an overview.

Email Automation:

At this level you can still get by with a tool like MailChimp or ConstantContact   (If you’re still list building, here’s one of my favorite free list building programs.)   If your list is big and this is your moment to step up the game, consider an intro level to to one of the more fully featured email automation systems with powerful rules engines such as Ontraport.  Plenty of room to grow!

Website + Theme:

Hopefully you are already on WordPress.  If not, nows the time to make the leap.   To keep things simple, consider that you could deliver an entire membership program via email and not worry about member plug ins or website updates.  Simple huh?

Sales Page:

This is one area not to skimp because it’s an important first impression and where conversions happen.   But don’t get hung up on the tool  The copy and the design are what’s most key.  There are a lot of free sales page plug ins for WordPress if you want to start there.

If you are using Ontraport, definitely create an Ontrapage sales page.

Shopping Cart:

You could start with a paypal button on your website 🙂  Just saying it could be that simple!   I’m not a huge fan of paypal for those moving big sums of money (I’ve been one of those people who’s had their paypal account frozen for 3 months before due to a big sales cycle!)   But for this level of starting out, you’re safe.  Call them just to be sure.

Membership Management:

Keep it uber simple with an email content only delivery system.   Go completely cloud based (but pay monthly fees) or just do a simple Ontraport / Pilot Press solution.   Take a recommendation from a trusted development guru (like you’re reading here) instead of taking a chance reading reviews on a random plug in.  You should definitely have a tech resource in your back pocket who has used the membership plug in you choose because you will have questions.   This is one area to NOT DIY and pay someone to setup for you.

Course Content:

Keep it simple at this level.   The hard part will be deciding because there are so many players in this market.  Again, pick a solution for whom you know a trusted developer.

The newest favorite on the market is definitely AccessAlly with ProgressAlly which add “gamification” in ways that increase engagement with your audience, show progress trackers, badges earned and integrate directly to your email automation systems like Ontraport.

Cost Estimate to Build:  $0 DIY – $1000

You can totally DIY this if you want to spend the time.   Or hire a “done for you consultant” who can setup some or all of these components including things you may not be thinking of…. abandoned cart email sequences, reminder sequences for credit card expiration dates, etc.

Ongoing Monthly Cost:  $100 – $300

You may still be operating at the hobby level but at these costs, consider if it’s really worthy of business mode.   Membership sites are such a good product but a little heavier to manage and operate.  So consider a simple, low key solution at this stage of the game.

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