Online Course vs Membership Site: Which Should You Build?

It is easier now than ever before to reach a large audience online and create a massive impact using nothing but your own knowledge.

The two most common ways to monetize your passions and knowledge are membership sites and online courses.

But which of these options should you use? What are the pro’s and con’s of each model, and what should you know before you get started?

You’re going to learn all of that in this article, but more importantly I’ll share with you at the end the smart way to combine both methods to build a bullet-proof business.

What is a Membership Site?

Photo by John Schnobrich on Unsplash

A membership site can come in many forms, but I’ll give it an overall definition as:

A dynamic and growing community of passionate people of similar interests.

The keywords here are

Dynamic: membership sites should be continuously evolving, with new content every day, week, or month to continue to feed its members valuable content. And the content is often created by multiple people, whether that be multiple experts in the industry, the community members themselves, or other guests.

Community of passionate people of similar interests: The community aspect of a thriving membership site is huge. People may sign up for the membership for the initial education, but then often stay because of the relationships they’ve built inside the community.

Let’s dive a bit deeper into a few of these points.

Membership Site Features

At the core of a membership site is the ability to lock and unlock certain areas of the site.

Let’s take a very simple example of a premium forum community. There might be 2 levels to the membership: Free, and Paid.

Free Members would likely have access to read some blog posts, and might have the ability to read certain areas of the forum.

But in order to post to the forums and access the members only premium content, they would need to pay $17 per month.

Here are some common use cases for membership site owners:

  • Monthly Newsletters around a specific topic / industry
  • Social platforms where members can discuss in real time and create sub-groups and communities
  • Group Coaching with weekly or monthly access to a members only webinar for Q&A and industry developments
  • Premium content that is released on a regular basis like music tracks, photos, templates, downloads, etc
  • And many more…

As you can see, membership platforms can vary greatly in what exactly they offer, but there are a few common themes in each aspect:

  • Continuous Content
  • Community & Support

Let’s dive deeper into each of these aspects in the pricing section

Membership Site Pricing

Membership sites generally run on the subscription pricing model, like the example below:

Free Basic Membership
Bronze Membership: $9 per month or $90 annually
Silver Membership: $29 per month or $290 annually
Gold Membership: $49 per month or $490 annually

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

In this example, there are 4 different price points of the membership.

The free plan would likely have much of its content restricted from the users, but it would serve as a great taste test to help the visitor decide if they want to enroll.

The bronze membership would unlock a portion of the site, but there would still be areas that are locked down.

The silver membership might open up the remainder of the site as long as you maintain your subscription.

And lastly, the Gold Membership would open up everything to the members and would likely have some additional perks and features for those who are willing to invest the maximum.

Continuous Pricing for Continuous Value

In the examples above, there is a continuous stream of additional value provided:

  • Every month you get more time with the expert
  • Every day you can connect with the community
  • Every week you would get a new resource

With this model, it makes the most sense to subscribe on an ongoing basis. 

With membership models the biggest struggle for the creator is keeping users long enough in the community to the point that they feel like they belong and are family.

So offering annual discounts is a smart practice to help users commit to a full year so they get to know and like the community, increasing their chances of staying on for life.

Membership Site Time Commitments

Because memberships are all about continuous delivery of value, there is much less initial time up front to create valuable content for your members.

You can essentially set up your membership area in a day, and open it for sale the next day.

As members trickle in, you would start the process of delivering value to them in your specific way.

So a big win to membership sites for being easy to get started.

But remember that the effort continues for as long as you have members, so you will never be “done” servicing your members. It becomes more of a service vs. a product like an online course is – which we will cover next!

What is an Online Course?

An online course has many similarities to membership sites, but there are a few key differences.

Photo by Dylan Gillis on Unsplash

Again, let’s give it a rough definition:

A guided, outcome-focused series of steps that deliver a specific result to its students.

Now let’s break this down a bit:

Online Course Features

Like membership sites, the cornerstone feature of an online course is protecting members only content behind a purchase process.

But that’s pretty much where the similarities end.

In general, online courses focus on delivering a specific outcome to their customers, like:

  • Learn how to play guitar in 30 days
  • Get your first job interview in 7 days (and pass it)
  • Copywriting for beginners

These course ideas all promise a specific outcome.

As a result of this, there is a start and an end to the course, unlike the membership site that essentially is an ongoing relationship.

Pricing

Online courses tend to price themselves with individual price points or payment plans. For example:

  • Learn how to play guitar in 30 days – only $47 one time payment
  • Get your first job interview in 7 days (and pass it) – $97 one time payment
  • Copywriting for beginners – 6 payments of $97

So how do you price your online course?

Price According to Value Received

It’s important to remember that the customer is not buying a course…

They are buying an outcome.

They want to impress that girl with some mad guitar skills…

Or they really need that first job.

As a result, when pricing your courses, don’t set the price based on the length of the course, or the number of videos, or how beautiful the user experience is.

Price based on how valuable the result is.

For example, the Copywriting for beginners course is the most expensive option and it requires 6 payments… why would this be?

Well, the copywriting skill is one that can be immediately leveraged to make the student more money through valuable services or by increasing the profit of their own business.

And a course like this would likely have a support period (6 coaching sessions as you work through) so spreading the price point out over that time could make sense.

And when the 6 weeks are up? You have likely gained all the skills that you signed up for (if you did the work), so there is no longer a reason to continue to pay monthly. The course is complete, and you can move on to the next level if you are ready.

Time Commitments

Online courses are essentially skillsets in a box, so there is much more up front time invested in creating them.

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

You need to:

  • Plan
  • Draft
  • Beta Test
  • Edit
  • Publish
  • Protect
  • Sell

While a membership site can be launched in an afternoon, it might take you a couple of months to put an entire course together.

But the bright side? Once it’s done – it’s done.

You might need to make a few updates and tweaks along the way based on your student feedback, but there isn’t the constant demand of new content every month.

Combining the best of both worlds

So which is the winner? 

Not so fast.

I find the best solution is to actually combine both worlds. Let me explain.

Let’s say you have a course that teaches a business model. How to become a professional dog groomer and fill your bookings in 60 days.

Our first assumption is, “Oh perfect, that’s clearly an online course and not a membership!”

And you would be right – initially.

But these types of courses are very dynamic.

The dog grooming industry changes over time.

Students will inevitably encounter situations that are not taught in the course (you can’t teach every situation).

So do you do a payment plan? 3 payments of $97? 6 Payments of $47?

How long should you support your students?

Here’s my answer: let them decide by selling the course AND the membership at the same time.

Here’s how this plays out:

Sell the course for $397 (or whatever)

Include 30 or 60 days of complimentary access into your membership community.

Inside the community is where you offer all your student support.

You go live monthly, answer forum questions, and let your members chat and collaborate.

At the end of the 30/60 days, you give your student the option to continue their membership at the normal rate of $19 per month.

If they continue on, they continue to get support from you and the community for as long as they maintain their membership!

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Not sure how to set something like this up? Advanced shopping cart platforms have these types of payment methods built in, which takes a ton of the tech headaches out of the equation.

Which Method Will You Choose?

I hope this article has helped you understand the pro’s and con’s of the membership site vs online course decision.

Remember that you can always start with one, and add on the other over time as your business needs it!

Which did you choose? Leave me a comment to let me know!

John Whitford is professional digital marketer who specializes in helping business owners scale their marketing funnels using data-driven approaches. When he is not helping businesses scale their profits, he loves to blog at IncomeMesh.com where he publishes helpful tutorials and reviews to help find the perfect marketing solutions. John lives in Orlando, Florida and loves biking with his 3 kids and incredible wife.
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