Marketing a Paid Membership Site: 6 Strategies for Building Your Audience

Editor’s note: I’m delighted to welcome my personal friend Judy Dunn (@CatsEyeWriter) to my Web site in this guest post. She and husband Bob Dunn are some of the savviest WordPress users I know, great resources you’ll want to add to your contact list. Today Judy shares some of her experiences as she and Bob set up Savvy WordPress (, a paid WordPress resource membership site, which I heartily recommend.

(P.S. Judy, I have a few friends I need to refer!) And with no further adieu, here’s Judy.

The paid, members-only website — a place where people pay to access password-protected information on high-interest topics — has taken the online business world by storm. It is one of today’s fastest growing Internet business models.

Membership sites are attractive businesses for several reasons. You can focus on a topic you are passionate about. You have a recurring revenue stream from content you create only once. And you don’t have to get thousands of customers to make a decent income (although there’s a good chance you will, if you do it right).

But even when you get everything right — the perfect topic, a laser-focused niche and a high-quality product or service — you can fail if you don’t have the right marketing plan in place.

Writers call it an author platform. I call it audience building. Simply, it’s how you are going to reach your group of buyers — and it’s one of your most important tasks.

6 Marketing Strategies for Developing a Membership Site Audience

1. Start building your email list early.

This, of course, is one of your most important tools for audience building. You need a platform for educating, informing and engaging people around the topic of your niche site. One to two years before launch is not too soon.

We sent out high-quality content weekly to our e-letter subscribers for two years and developed a small, but perfectly targeted list of 400. That allowed us to move those people over to our “3 free WordPress videos” offer and continue with regular emails with more good, free content. It’s all part moving them along the path to purchase.

2. Become a ‘go-to’ expert in your membership site topic.

After you have a base audience, start building credibility in your niche. We used social media platforms to find out where the people we needed to reach were hanging out. For example, on Biznik, the business networking site, we created a group called WordPress Chatter. It isn’t a huge group (402 members), but it’s exactly our target audience: people with frustrations, challenges and questions about creating or maintaining a WordPress blog or website. Through in-person meetups and the discussions in the forum, we learned so much.

On Twitter, we set up an account (@SavvyWordPress) and started sending out regular tweets with tips and links to WordPress resources. We created a column in TweetDeck with the hashtag #wordpresshelp, so we could track the questions and answer them, establishing our credibility and positioning ourselves as experts.

Some other ways to gain expert status are to start a blog, leave comments on other blogs and discuss issues on other social networking sites. For instance, we regularly go into LinkedIn groups and answer relevant questions. You don’t have to be the biggest expert in your field but you want enough people to recognize that you know your stuff.

3. Give freely.

You may be tiring of the advice to “give free stuff,” but all I can say is that it works. Two things happen. The more you give, the more people will see how much you know and how helpful you are. And your audience will think that if you are giving this much away, well, your paid content must be even more amazing.

Giving also kicks in the psychology of reciprocity. (See Joe’s post about reciprocity [opens separate window].) People feel a sense of obligation after someone treats them kindly. It’s why they buy the product they got a free sample of in the grocery store. And it’s why they will try to return the favor by making a purchase after they receive the gift of your time or expertise.

Of course, your product has to be high-value and you need to give consistently over time to develop trust and reciprocity.

4. Use social media wisely.

Social media was a particularly effective tool for keeping current with the needs out there — especially the concerns of WordPress users — for building our audience and for establishing credibility and social proof.

What is not effective — but I see it all the time — is sending out tons of one-way sales messages without any thought to engaging people in conversations and providing value. Don’t do that.

5. Select your partners carefully and develop collaborative relationships with other experts in your niche.

This one made a huge difference for us. It is a key strategy because you will need help from these people when you start promoting your site. If you don’t start building relationships now, you’ll just be another unknown who has created another (yawn) membership site.

We started talking to other WordPress experts early on. When we exchanged ideas on Twitter, our followers could see some of the conversations. We tweeted links to some of the WordPress blogs and websites we had designed and some of the CEOs of the large WordPress theme companies retweeted them so we reached an even larger audience.

We had Skype calls with some marketing people we had met online, who had expressed interest in our site. And we made a point of connecting with as many of these people as possible when we attended WordCamps and other conferences.

6. Don’t ignore your ‘offline’ marketing.

It’s tempting to market an online business totally by email, social media, and your website sales and landing pages. But because that’s the way everybody else does it, you are definitely going to stand out if you reach out to ‘live’ humans in real time.

Get out there and talk to people. Go to industry conferences, present workshops, join social media groups (and attend their events). You are reaching fewer people, but you will need these evangelists to create a buzz around your launch. They will be the ones who go back and talk up your site — online and off.

An outstandingly successful membership is within your reach — if you take the time to develop the right idea, build your audience carefully and apply the right marketing strategies.

Have you thought about creating a membership site? Have you joined a site as a member? Do you have questions about marketing one?

Join us in the comments below. Ask your questions and add your ideas. I’d love to hear from you.

Judy Dunn is a blogging coach, copywriter, and co-owner of Savvy WordPress (, a WordPress resource membership site. She blogs at CatsEyeWriter (http://www.catseyewriter).


  1. Great article, Judy. Thank you.

    I especially like the #wordpresshelp “sub-brand” you created. Love the idea, thinking how I can incorporate it.

    A follow up question for you: I imagine most content producers will have a hard time deciding where to draw the free sample/paid content line.

    How did you decide where/when to tell a follower, “I’m sorry, but for that you’ll have to pay?” What kinds of reactions do you get?

  2. Judy- Good article and you made lots of excellent points. I have also discovered that the “giving value,” is an important way part of marketing. I give tons of tools to people and it has hugely paid off.

    I opened my membership site last, It was in my business plan early on, and like you, I needed to wait until I had built my list large enough to be able to successfully launch this product. It is important to know exactly what you want to accomplish via your membership site as it makes a difference in how it is built. I wanted to offer an intimate on-line community for solo business owners to share and also offer and receive support. The forum was the most important piece for this reason. In order to get it going I brought in the first group of people for free, in exchange for them being actively involved so new people would arrive to a warm, fuzzy place that was alive! That has worked really well.

    I also offer lots of tools and teachings. I love it. I haven’t really actively marketed it yet but I am getting ready to do that. Most of the people who have joined are people who have met me at an in-person event or through articles. Many people come from reading my book, as I invite people at the end to visit “The TeaHouse.” I agree that off-line marketing is still essential.

  3. Hey Judy…thanks for this info. It’s extremely timely…and you’re prompting me to start building The List.

    Yes. I’ve thought about creating a membership site. And yes…I’ve joined a few of them over the years.

    I’m at the point now where I don’t really *want* any more information. I have information overload. What I’m looking for is community and support. And this is the type of membership group I want to build – one where the emphasis is on interaction instead of information.

    Do you have any advice for building that sort of group? The ones I belong to tend to have either too few members or too many – the forums are either abandoned or overrun.

  4. @Patty K, thanks for joining the conversation. The only membership sites I presently belong to are financial: and I would discontinue those if I lost interest in personal investing.

    You say you’ve joined a few membership sites. Which ones have you discontinued and why? I wonder what reasons are beyond “not worth the money” and “not what I expected,” etc.

  5. Joe,

    I was waiting for Bob on the #wordpresshelp question because that is definitely his area. I’m going to have him pop into the comments when he gets back. : )

    On the free-to-paid issue, it can be tricky. You certainly don’t want to all of a sudden to start charging for the same stuff you were giving away. Unless, possibly, you want to get some initial users in there who will become part of your promotion efforts later on.

    With our WordPress membership site, we approached things by just being very helpful with as many small things as we could. On Twitter, when Bob found something someone was stuck on and it took him 2 minutes to send them an answer, it not only built up huge amounts of good will but it showcased the talent he has for explaining WordPress things in ways people can easily understand, which is the whole purpose of our site.

    So, yes, don’t give away too much but enough to show how good you are at what you do.

  6. Hi Joe, to clarify the #wordpresshelp. Actually what I have done is a search for any tweets that include “WordPress” and “help”. There’s a ton of people out there giving it, but also asking for it. Really builds our brand and credibility when I can easily provide a solution for someone, in 140 or less characters, that is. : )

    But at the same time, it certainly wouldn’t hurt us to use that as a “branded” hashmark, thanks for the idea!

  7. Kaya,

    Thanks for leaving such a thoughtful response. Seems it’s the thing people are most afraid of: giving “too much” away. But, in my experience, you almost can’t give too much away. What your prospective customers need to see, in order to follow with their dollars, is high value and high quality.

    And, yes, a forum is very appealing in terms of a place to let your hair down and get help from both the community’s staff and fellow members. And that’s a very good thing.

    Good to see that the membership site business model is working for you, Kaya.

  8. @PattyK,

    Glad to see you here. And I hear you on the information overload issue. But sometimes, if you can find a way to deliver that information so it is filtered, highly niched and easy to digest, you have something people are willing to pay for because it saves them so much time.

    Our goal is to 1) give people exactly what they need to get “unstuck” so they can move on with their WordPress blog and website set-up and management and 2) to provide that community of support you talk about. Now, if you just want a site with that second component, you can probably create just a forum. It would need to have enough value because, frankly, there are a lot of free forums out there so that would be a challenge. And forums do take staff to keep up with them. Bob and I are fortunate because there are two of us.

    Great questions you have, Patty!

  9. Thank you Joe, for featuring Judy Dunn on your blog today. Judy always gives great, right-on advice.

    I appreciated seeing your own process described here. Marketing strategy is definitely where a great membership site or organization can have a breakdown. As you said, spending all of your time online rather than face-to-face can slow the process. Collaboration and partnering are so vital in my opinion, so I’m happy to see you mentioned that as one of your top 6 tips.

    Next, I’d love it if you could address how to keep members coming back to the membership’s site on a regular basis. Thanks!

    Krista Dunk
    Koinonia Business Women

  10. Well Done, Judy!

    This is timely for me because I have several membership sites on my to do list.

    I especially like number 6. We tell folks in our Business Launch program that you need to get out and “Tell Everybody”! That starts offline.

    I’m hoping you’ll do expanded versions of all six points.

    Have a Great Day,
    Rusty Lee

  11. Judy, your tips are universal – you can use them even if you don’t have a membership site! It is so important to build your email list, establish your “smarts,” and then reach out to engage with people and let them know how to find you. So often we create the perfect product/service and then sit back and wait for people to come to us. That simply doesn’t happen these days. In fact, I’m pretty certain it never did!

    Good advice, Judy.

  12. Krista,

    THAT would be great topic for another post: how to keep members engaged and coming back!

    I love the comments because they are always food for thought. Thanks, Krista.


  13. Well, @Joe…seems you asked 🙂 I won’t name names, but I joined a pro speakers group that didn’t live up to the advertising. They offered lots of content – audio files and such – but I bought based on the promise that the members critiqued each others speeches and that there was an active forum. The forum had tumbleweeds blowing through it…and the critiques were pretty much non-existent. The few that were there were months old and were just transcripts. I was expecting youtube and activity. Mainly it was a disconnect between what they were offering (content) and what I was looking for (community).

  14. Oh…and Judy – I’d love to read a post on keeping members engaged and coming back.

  15. This is an excellent article by Judy. Certainly a “must read” by anyone interested in building trust while developing a membership site audience.

  16. Good, common sense approach to building a client list as well as developing a paid membership site, I think. #6 is so important to remember as it’s easy to get caught up in the virtual world. People like having personal contact, having us become real.

    Kudos on your thoughtful planning and vision in building your business, and Thanks for sharing your information here!

  17. @Patty K: Yes, keeping members coming back. That is key. As we grow in our first year, I will have more to say about that. Right off the top of my head, in addition to incredibly valuable content, I think it will come down to how easy the site is to use, how supported members feel, if there is a sense of community (members interacting with each other in the forums, etc.), motivating topics, our responsiveness as a staff to member needs, and (for us, anyway), the level of “helpfulness” in terms of getting their WordPress problems solved. Whew! That’s a tall order, isn’t it?

    @Rusty: So good to hit someone when they are already thinking about the topic of your post. Yes. it was tough to keep the length of this post down and I could have easily made separate articles from the 6 points. Hmm. Thinking about that idea. Looking forward to seeing you in Portland next Friday!

    @Betsy: Yes! That’s the beauty of a solid marketing plan! Applicable and transferable. I think that #s 2, 4, 5 and 6 (well, actually, all of them) are particularly crucial to an online business’s success. Thanks for stopping by, Betsy. I know that things must be crazy-busy for you with your big, life-changing adventure just days away.

    @Gary: Thanks for reading. Looking forward to seeing you again when we come to Portland for WordCamp next week!

    @Rock: You know, the things we really worked on was #6. So many online companies are faceless—high-tech, with no personality. I think that we might have the advantage here because we purposely created a personal brand. Thanks for sharing your wisdom, Rock.

  18. Judy,

    As always you are a wealth of info. You and Bob have done such a great job creating buzz around your own business and your new member site. I truly believe in the “give” factor and that building a list is one aspect but we must give back too. I know I’ve seen people go about building their lists incorrectly and it just feels awful. You guys always do everything so professionally! Thanks for the tips.

  19. Diane,

    Thanks for taking the time to read and comment! The buzz is definitely key to success.

    And, though building a list organically takes more time, you end up with the right people on it—the ones who are eager to consume your content. Because what good is it to have 5,000 names when most of them don’t read your stuff and don’t even remember how they got on your list? So I agree with you there.

    And good luck on your Saturday event!

  20. Hi Judy. Thanks for sharing your insights and experience with this post. You are a walking example of how to do “things” right. You have earned your reputation and “expert” status and are continuing to add to your reputation by sharing what you have learned with others. My hat’s off to you 🙂

    I particularly agree with your point about “giving freely” and have seen first-hand how that works both by Joe’s “Psychology of reciprocity” theory (which i just bookmarked to check out) and by enhancing one’s reputation as someone who knows what they are talking about.

    BTW I also just joined the WordPress Chatter Group on Biznik. Wish I had known about it before from all the times I was pulling my hair out with unexplainable (at least to me) WordPress glitches!

    Best of luck in your new venture and I look forward to more networking with you!

  21. Thanks, @Julie. I especially enjoy Cialdini’s book covering reciprocity. It’s an easy read.

    @Judy, you’ve really delivered value here, thanks for your article and thoughtful comments … so many that I have to come back later when I have more time to absorb them all.

    Good conversation!

  22. @Julie: Good to see you here. Thanks for the thoughtful comment. Glad these pointers make sense to you. And, yes, the WordPress Chatter forum is a great place to get those seemingly small, but impossible to figure out questions answered. Because those are the ones that often get you stuck.Thanks for the well wishes, Julie!

    @Joe: Thank you! Coming from the “marketer extraordinaire,” it means a lot. And rich conversations in the comments? That’s the special part. : )

  23. Judy,
    All great points – and I agree that these are very universal relating to “build your well before you are thirsty” – when it comes to building up your list, growing connections, and adding value.

    Thanks for mentioning the “one way sales messages and tweets” – those are so irritating. you’d think people would figure out that they are pushing people away when they do that.

    And finally – agreed on the in-person aspect of really getting to know others and be present with them to learn more ways to collaborate or refer them.

  24. Joe, thanks for having Judy on your site. She’s one of my favorite bloggers, and the reasons why are clear with this excellent post. Judy, I have virtually (ha!) no experience with membership sites. The closest I’ve come is being a member of an organization (ICF, for example) and having exclusive content access… which is a slightly different animal than what you describe here.

    What I’m taking away from this post is that quality is more important than quantity. You and Bob essentially built a tribe and are taking it all to the next level (ooo, sorry, I know that one hurt) of enhanced interaction, service and investment.

    So, does your membership site include techy info about how to build a membership site in WordPress!? 🙂

    And what do you think about bridging the free-to-fee gap by making the difference excerpts vs full content and/or basic vs multimedia (video, audio, interactive)?

    OH, and I love the hashtag idea! Brilliant! Like Joe, I thought it was branded… either way, super smart, Judy and Bob!

  25. Lori,

    Really good observations coming from someone with such skills and experience. We have been so focused on launching this online membership site that I hadn’t given a lot of thought to the “universality” of these strategies. They really do apply to all businesses.

    Thanks for sharing your insights and wisdom!

  26. Beth,

    Thanks for stopping by. I jumped at the chance when Joe offered me a guest post because I love his blog.

    On the “how to build a membership site” question, it’s funny you should ask. On Savvy WordPress, we stay close to the needs of people who need to learn to manage, update and improve their regular WordPress websites and blogs.

    But an interactive Build Your Own Membership site workshop is in the works, probably scheduled for sometime in November. We have had a lot of people ask us if we would offer one. Will keep you in the loop on this!

    On the free vs fee (i remember the excellent article you wrote on Biznik on this topic), you are totally on the right track with your comments. I would just say that you should give them enough in the slice of content (you mentioned excerpts?) to make it helpful and valuable to them. Bob and I were recently asked to give a 20-minute presentation on blogging at an all-day event. When we questioned why we were given so little tim, the organizer said, “Oh, the point is to whet their appetite and get them to hire you to get the stuff they really need.”

    We turned the offer down because we strongly believe that people should walk away with something they can use and implement. Today. So I would just say, give them enough to help them do something better, faster, easier. Most of them will come back. And the ones who don’t probably aren’t your target audience, anyway.

    And on the multi-media/multiple learning styles suggestion, yes, another excellent way to offer value-added to your premium members. We also throw in for our top level members, among other things, a monthly home page check-up and a personalized Q & A session with Bob each month.

    Great questions, Beth.

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