Membership Sites Made Easy

August 3rd, 2009 by - Posted in Blog, Plan, Design & Build

More and more bloggers, small businesses, publishers, and organizations are realizing the benefits of adding subscription capabilities to their websites through subscription software.

There are a number of reasons for introducing a free subscription aspect to your website.  For one thing, it is a way to restrict access to certain parts of your site.  Additionally, you may want to charge for access to premium content.  Either way, you need subscription software or a subscription service to make it happen.

If you still haven’t set up your website, you should know that it’s easier to build it with integrated subscription software from the start, rather than add on the software at a later time.

The following checklist is based on 4 years of experience with building free and paid subscription sites, and should help you set up your subscription-based website.

The checklist is divided into two sections:

Part 1 lists the features your subscription service or subscription software needs to have.
Part 2 lists the features your website needs to have if you are creating a subscription site from scratch.

Subscription Software / Service Checklist

1 Integrated Login and Password Access

The benefit of having a subscription site is the option to protect some (or all) of your content from the view of non-subscribers.  This usually means placing the subscription-only pages in an area where they must be accessed through a login page.  This sounds simple enough, but the challenge is how to link password protection to the subscriber database and the content management service.  With full integration, you have control over who has access to what, and for how long.

2 Member Database

At the heart of all subscription software and subscription services is a database that collects information from subscribers.  The quantity of information collected will vary from one site to another.  For example, a free subscription site may only collect email addresses, while an expensive business site may collect data including name, address, company, position, or association subscription.  Regardless of what your short-term plans are, I highly recommend that you choose a subscription software that allows you to customize the amount of personal data you can collect.  The subscriber database should also have a search feature and be easily customizable.

3 Integrated Payment Processing

Even if you don’t plan to charge subscribers, I recommend choosing subscription software or a subscription service with integrated payment processing because you never know how your site will evolve.  Good subscription software will integrate with PayPal and offer a choice of at least two other payment gateway providers in more than one country (like Authorize.net or SagePay). SagePay allows you to use your own merchant services account and credit card processing to sign up subscribers.

4 Multiple Subscription Levels

The subscription software or service you choose should enable you to assign content, subscribers, and password protection to multiple subscription levels.

5 Free Trial Subscription and Paid Subscription

The most successful subscription sites offer limited-access, time-restricted, free trial subscriptions to all premium content, and long-term full access to this content with paid subscriptions.  You should ensure that your subscription software or service has this flexibility.

6 Multiple Payment Plans

Even the simplest subscription sites require multiple payment plans.  For example, a site with bronze, silver, and gold subscription levels that offers monthly, quarterly, or annual subscription plans to customers paying in Dollars, Euros, or Sterling potentially needs 27 different payment plans.

Your subscription software or service should have the flexibility to establish and manage multiple payment plans.  More advanced software should allow you to receive live foreign exchange data as well, but this is only important if you want all of your subscribers around the world to pay exactly the same amount at all times.

7 Content Security

One of the biggest challenges with adding third-party subscription software to an existing website is how to protect the content on your existing pages.  Plug-in software usually places a login screen between the existing content and the website visitor.  Savvy internet users can usually find a way around these barriers, and sometimes it’s as easy as typing the URL of a protected page into the browser.  Website platforms with fully integrated subscription management can build a wall that completely encircles your content, making it impossible for hackers to access it.  So when choosing subscription software or a subscription service, you need to know how your content will be protected and under what circumstances it could be accessed without authorization.

8 Automated Customer Messages

Your subscription software or service should have the capability to send customized, automated email messages to your subscribers when they join your site.  For paid subscription sites there are legal requirements to send customers an invoice, cancellation policy, and your contact details.

9 Automated Renewal or Subscription Suspension

Once your website grows to dozens, hundreds, or (hopefully) thousands of subscribers, it will be impossible to manage renewals manually.  Your subscription service or subscription software should be able to fully automate the process of renewing subscribers’ accounts, automatically take payments, notify you if a credit card fails, send out renewal reminders, and suspend the passwords of those who don’t renew their subscriptions.

10 Showing “Teaser” Content

A useful functionality for your website is to show your visitors the titles of all your articles along with brief descriptions, and once they click on an article they are prompted to subscribe to view the entire content.  Your subscription software or service should be able to work this into your site.

11 Forgotten Password

Since it is common for subscribers to occasionally forget their passwords, your subscription software should be able to automatically verify users and email new passwords to them.  If you choose to do this manually, you will waste a lot of time and end up with very frustrated subscribers.

12 “Remember Me”

Another feature that your subscription service or subscription software should be able to implement the ability to remember users who log in using a particular computer for a particular length of time.

13 Member-Chosen Passwords

Some of the most basic subscription software or services will automatically generate passwords for subscribers and not offer an option to change that password later.  Research has shown that if subscribers have to use a password that has been assigned to them, they will log in less often and will be less likely to renew their subscription.

Building Your Subscription Site From Scratch

As mentioned in the introduction to this article, it is easier to build a website with subscription capabilities already integrated. Adding third-party subscription software to an existing website is never seamless or completely secure.  If you are building a website from scratch, here are some additional features that it needs to have:

14 Simplified Control Panel

The more time you spend on administrative tasks, the less time you have to build your online business.  To minimize the time you spend on administrative details, make sure that your website has a single, simplified control panel from where you can accomplish routine tasks – like adding content, changing payment plans, accessing your subscriber database, and viewing your web stats.

Unfortunately, when you add third-party subscription software to an existing website, it is almost impossible to add the subscription administration interface to an existing control panel. However, if you go with an all-in-one subscription site service you should get this single dashboard.

15 Excellent Content Management

Content management must be at the heart of your website, and a content management system (CMS) can help you easily add text articles, images, and video clips.  The CMS should also allow you to edit your site’s navigation.  As an online publisher you need to have complete control over your site’s content without having to know HTML or any other technical web coding.

16 Customizable Design

Because you want to be able to constantly adjust your website’s design, you should have access to a design interface where tweaks can be made or a completely new design can be added.  The most flexible way to manage your website’s design is using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS), so make sure the website software or platform you choose allows CSS.

17 Image Library

Images are an important part of your website, so your CMS should have the capacity to manage images so they can be inserted into any page with clear labeling (alt-tags) and can also be linked to content within your site or third-party sites.

18 Multimedia Content

Multimedia content is the biggest advantage that an online publication has over its print competitors, so make sure your website is enabled to publish content in multiple formats (text, images, audio, video) even if you don’t plan to use them all immediately.

19 “Plug-In” Functionality

When you build your subscription site you won’t know exactly how it will evolve, so you need to have the ability to easily add new functions.  You might want to consider using a managed service that is constantly being upgraded with the latest features that you can enable as needed.

20 Enable Multiple Revenue Streams

Most successful subscription sites have multiple revenue streams, so don’t focus only on charging subscription fees while ignoring other revenue-generating opportunities like:

– displaying advertisements on free content pages;
– adding affiliate links related to your site’s subject matter;
– selling physical or digital products via an online shop; and
– promoting and selling offline events.

Consider the different ways you can generate income from your website and make sure the functionality can be enabled or added later to make it possible (for example, a shopping cart, adserver, event booking form, etc).

21 Download Library

Most content websites provide their subscribers with downloadable reports, e-books, software programs, video clips, or audio files.  Your website should make it easy to upload and manage downloads.

22 Search Engine Optimization

Your website must be easy for search engines to index, and any good web developer should be able to optimize the code to make it easy for Google and other search engines to find and index all the pages on your site.  The best managed website platform should be highly optimized from the outset so you don’t need to worry about anything other than adding quality content.

23 Relationship-Building Applications

As your site begins receiving visitors, you need to establish relationships with them to encourage them to keep coming back.  The most useful applications for building online relationships are email newsletters, RSS feeds, forums, comment fields under articles, and member profiles.  The best website platforms should have these applications integrated.  Some subscription software will come with additional plug-ins so the applications can be added.

24 Web Stats and Management Information

You should be able to access all the data on your website’s performance in a single web statistics report.  The data should include the number of visitors, number of page views, time spent on the website and its most popular pages, where your traffic is coming from, and more.  You can integrate web statistics software on your server (using AW Stats, for example) or plug in a third-party service (like Google Analytics).

25 Monitoring, Security, and Backup

A common mistake made by new website owners is that they underestimate the work involved in managing, hosting, security, maintenance, data backups, and upgrades to the site.  They often use free open-source software on a cheap host to launch their site, which usually results in a lot of down time, lost data, and wasted time.  Non-technical people should avoid managing the technical, security, and back-up side of their website because these tedious tasks can consume a great deal of time for very little gain.  You should either use a fully managed service or a development company that can handle this work for you.

26 Future-Proof

Your website should grow with your business, so the design, function, and scale of your site should be flexible enough to evolve with your audience’s changing needs.  When purchasing new software, make sure you know how often it needs to be updated, how much the updates will cost, and whether new releases are backward-compatible with the software you have.

27 Support

Even though support is the last point on this checklist, it should be one of your highest priorities.  As the owner of a subscription website, your time is the most valuable resource you have.  You should focus your energy on creating content, marketing, and managing your subscribers, not worrying about hosting, bandwidth, backup, upgrades, and fixing bugs.  You need excellent support from people who have an understanding of the technology as well as the online publishing field.

Conclusions

Running a subscription site is one of the most exciting business opportunities on the Internet today.  Even though it is still in its infancy, there are enough resources available so that you won’t have to reinvent the wheel to get started.  Everything you need to be successful is available to novices and experts alike.  If you invest time and thought into the early planning phase, you should quickly have a thriving online business built around a future-proof website.

You should refer back to this checklist while shopping for subscription software services.  Make sure you take the time to look at a hosted and fully managed subscription site service (like the SubHub Subscription Service) that can accelerate your launch and make your day-to-day work a pleasure.

Good luck!

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