062: How To Launch a Membership Site with Mike Morrison from The Membership Guys

Welcome to episode 62 of the Food Blogger Pro podcast! In this episode, Bjork interviews Mike Morrison about launching and running a successful membership site.

Last week we had our first ever community podcast episode! We heard from so many great bloggers who shared their tips, tricks, and techniques that are helping them find success right now. To go back and listen that episode, click here.

How To Launch a Membership Site

While most food bloggers set their monetization sights on generating income through ads or sponsored content, there might be another good avenue to look toward.

Mike Morrison cofounded The Membership Guys, a website and podcast dedicated to helping people learn how to run successful membership sites. He has found that, when done properly, having a membership site can be a lucrative and reliable business. When membership sites are the last thing on the minds of most bloggers, it may very well be a fantastic way for you and your website to stand out in the crowd.

In this episode, Mike talks about:

  • What a membership site exactly is
  • What the important metrics are for a membership site
  • Whether you should launch without a following
  • How large your audience needs to be to be successful
  • Where to find your audience
  • How to validate your idea
  • What WordPress plugins your should use to build your site
  • What makes people successful in the membership arena

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Transcript:

Bjork Ostrom: Welcome to episode number 62 of the food blogger pro podcast. Hey, everybody. This is Bjork Ostrom coming to you from the thriving metropolis of St. Paul, Minnesota. I’m excited to share an interview with you today with Mike Morrison. He is one half of the membershipguys.com and they talk all about membership sites and believe it or not they also have a membership site for membership sites which is meta, but it only makes sense if you’re going to be talking about membership sites and that is membersiteacademy.com. Between those two sites Mike and his partner Callie have grown to have a pretty successful following in the membership site niche. I wanted to talk to Mike today about what goes into a membership site, how do people get started with membership sites. Obviously we personally, have a membership site in food blogger pro, but we get lots of questions from other people about wanting to start a membership site whether it’s related to fitness, or a certain diet, or maybe it doesn’t have anything to do with food or health at all. I think this is something people think about a lot but is really hard to know how to get started so that’s what we’re going to talk about with Mike today is what it takes to get started with a membership site. Not only what you should focus on but the details of how you get started so without further ado, lets jump into the conversation.

Mike, welcome to the podcast.

Mike Morrison: Bjork, thanks for having me on the show. There’s no where else I’d rather be.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah and before we start out here I’ll say this, I think that if we had a food blogger pro podcast award that you would win for this years best accent. If anything else it’s going to be fun to interview you because you have such an awesome accent.

Mike Morrison: I love it. It’s funny because so many people comment on the accent and I was really worried when we started our podcast that I’d be quite difficult to understand but people don’t seem to struggle too much. I do soften it when I’m actually with family, you should hear how bad this accent gets. It’s terrible.

Bjork Ostrom: It could be the same for Minnesota. The farther north you get into minnesoda … We were talking about this before we get started but like, the farther north you get to Minnesota the closer to Canada you get and the more o’s like “minesooota” so it’s just natural as you get closer home that that happens. Where is home for you, for those that are curious?

Mike Morrison: I live up in New Castle in the north east of England so it’s just maybe about 30–45 minutes south of Scotland. With all the political goings on in the UK at the minute, we very well end up out of Scotland, who knows.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. My goodness, what an interesting time to see how that all unfolds. We’ve been following along for sure.

Mike Morrison: Yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: We are here, not to talk about politics, although I would love to, because it’s very interesting but we’re here to talk about membership sites. You have two websites that you run or that I’m aware of. You have themembershipguys.com which is a site all about membership sites as you can tell by the name and then you also have naturally, a member site which is membersiteacademy.come and that is a membership site for people that have membership sites which is kind of an inception membership …

Mike Morrison: It’s keeping it meta. We like the whole meta thing. It’s a membership site about membership sites that happens to contain a course about courses. We really bring it on multiple levels there.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. Let’s talk about this, before we get in to talk about some of the stories that you have and details about membership sites, I want to take kind of a fifty thousand foot view here and really define what a membership site is. I think when people hear that, they probably understand in general, but how would you define it knowing that you’ve touched a lot of membership sites and been a part of them. What is a membership site?

Mike Morrison: I mean, essentially a membership site is basically just a site that has some form of premium content that requires a subscription or you know an account with access to use it, to consume it. Now, that’s very broad. Netflix is a membership site, technically a membership service. Plentyoffish.com, match.com they’re membership sites. Pretty much anything that requires an account where you need to login to access protected premium content is a membership site.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s interesting, even at something that I’d never thought about the idea that you’d need like a user ID and a password and that in itself can be this qualifier for what a membership site would be.

Mike Morrison: Absolutely. It’s access really. That’s what it’s about. It’s about access to content. That gives a very broad, broad strokes definition of what membership sites are. Facebook, twitter, they’re membership sites but when people are talking about membership sites in the context of online business and internet marketing there’s a particular type that they’re usually referring to which is the type that we deal with mostly and that’s where it’s primarily educational content with a community element. Whenever you hear someone talking about membership sites as an online business model, as a way of marketing, growing your business online, they usually mean there’s an e-learning aspect, online courses, there’s some sort of community element and of course, we talked about you need a subscription, you need an account to access it, usually you want someone to pay for that access too unless you are particularly charitable and your bank assets good will as mortgage payments.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Technically, it could be possible to have a membership site that wouldn’t require a payment, idea being that it’s premium content you need to set up some type of user ID, a password to get in, it doesn’t have to be that you pay for it but usually you’re going to find there’s some type of payment attached to that.

Mike Morrison: Yeah pretty much. I mean, some of the first membership communities I got involved with when I very first got internet access, this is going back like 20 years or some, there were forums. They were membership communities and they were free. I think as the years have gone on and the technology to facilitate online learning and to facilitate richer community experiences has developed, alongside the broader acceptance and understanding of using online tools for education and to connect with people. Those have sort of risen simultaneously, that made the membership model quite a big deal. Again, going back to those broader terms we’re seeing it across so many different industries that now have a membership element or a subscription element, people are more likely now to actually almost rent ownership or temporary ownership for the length of a subscription to a service, to a product, to cars, to movies, to books …

Bjork Ostrom: Software.

Mike Morrison: Exactly. Rather than paying big bucks for something that they own, that actually once you’ve consumed it, it just sits on a dusty shelf somewhere.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s an interesting observation in general about how the economy is shifting towards more of a rental economy as opposed to an owning economy and you hear that with … It’s like everything from cars to tools, you hear about people renting tools as opposed to owning it and using it once every five years and it makes so much sense but today we’re going to be talking kind of specifically around this niche with membership sites where you’re producing content you have information, maybe you are an expert in a certain area. For us we have a lot of people that are in the food space, so maybe it’s a certain diet or a certain lifestyle in terms of how you’re cooking or preparing food, for your kids for your family, for you individually, packing that up and putting it into some kind of product where people can pay to access that premium content. One of the things that I wanted to define right off the bat is membership sites but also to have a quick discussion about the difference between a course, you had mentioned courses, the difference between a course and a membership site. Are those the the same thing? Are they always different, always the same, how would you define those two?

Mike Morrison: Again, it’s one of those things where it comes to the semantics and technicalities so technically an online course will usually be essentially delivered as a membership site, it’s just that you pay once and you get access either for a fixed period of time or just lifetime access. We talk about online courses as well almost as a subset of membership sites in a way, they’re not necessarily a type of membership but they overlap in quite a few ways in terms of technology in particular, so that’s why they tend to get lumped in together. The actual marketing of courses, the mindset that’s involved I think in selling a course differs massively from selling a membership. If you’re selling a wad off product, essentially once you’ve made that sale, that’s the end point, you know tats the finish line. With a membership, once you’ve made that initial sale that’s actually a starting pistol. That’s the beginning of the transaction, the interaction, the member journey where as with a course, it’s a finished article, it’s a finished product, sure there’ll be some after sales sure there might be a little bit of a community element but by in large people pay for the course, they get access to it, they’ve got it, it’s theirs, they don’t expect anything else to be given to them, and as someone who sells courses you don’t necessarily need to worry about retention and so on.

Mike Morrison: Where as, if you’ve got a membership site, typically you’re going to have some sort of recurring payment element. You get that first sale, then that’s great, fantastic, but you’re going to be getting 30, 40, 50 dollars in the bank. You then have to get the sale again at the end of the month in terms of their retained membership and then the month after that, and the month after that. With one of products, like courses, like software, like eBooks, anything where it is just essentially a one and done, you just need to worry about acquisition essentially. You need to make sure that what you’re selling is quality but the focus is on acquisition. With a membership retention is as important, if not more important than acquisition. It costs you anywhere four to seven times depending on which stats you look at, four to seven times more to win a new member or a new customer than it does to keep an existing one. That’s usually the biggest mind shift that I find for people who are accustomed to selling products moving into the membership model, they get so focused bringing in new people through the front door that actually don’t see that the people they’re bringing in are just slipping out the back door straight away because they don’t have a strategy for retaining those members.

Mike Morrison: That tends to be the big difference in terms of how you structure and focus your business and in terms of what you’re actually delivering.

Bjork Ostrom: I was going to say, a great example of that I think is on pinch of Yum which is the food blog that my wife Lindsay and I run, but mostly Lindsay, she has an eBook, which isn’t a course, but I think is good example of what you said where, we created that, we have that there, and it’s very much hands off. Right? People come, they purchase that and we have to do very little customer service and there’s not any retention because it’s a one time thing as opposed to food blogger pro, which is the membership site and we have two full time employees, a part time person, managing the forums, we’re doing customer support via chat, we have all of these different elements that are part of retention, we’re creating new content and it’s much more involved but it’s because it’s a little bit different like you said. It doesn’t end when somebody buys, that’s when it begins. It’s such an interesting difference in mindset when approaching the kind of the marketing side of it, or even just conceptually, what is this product, and where does it start and begin and where does it end?

Mike Morrison: I think the work involved is what takes a lot of people by surprise.

Bjork Ostrom: For sure.

Mike Morrison: Exactly. That phrase. Oh my word. I don’t know, there’s this obsession with finding the golden goose of passive income, I don’t know if Tim Ferris is responsible but I don’t know too many people who read the four hour work week who only work four hours a week. Yet, people are still chasing this golden goose of passive income. Membership sites, they require work and it’s hard work but if you enjoy the ability to actually effect so many different people, if you enjoy teaching, if you enjoy being part of the community, if you enjoy knowing that your full range of skills have been tapped into to help other people then it’s work on your terms and it’s that old cheesy saying of “if you do something you love, you’ll never work a day in your life.” What we find with memberships, the more successful ones are run by people who care more about how they make their money than how much money they make and that is an absolute necessity because a membership is a value exchange. You are expected to keep delivering, to show up, to serve your members, to give them value, to help them achieve whatever result they joined your site.

Mike Morrison: Even if that’s just a tiny inconsequential result like if you’ve got a knitting membership and someone joins just because they want to be able to knit a sweater for their grandchild or something for this Christmas, it’s not a life changing result but they have joined because they expect you to help them get to that point. There’s a lot more pressure I feel in terms of the need for you to turn up, and the need for you to actually validate and justify being a member, but again if that’s your bag, if that’s the sort of stuff you enjoy doing, then it can be so rewarding in terms of fulfillment but also financially as well because this is the big big difference for people who just want to cut down to the numbers for a membership of versus a course. When you’re selling courses, you have to deal with that feast or famine, peaks and troughs of the launch period for your course, you get that big hash injection and then it dips the next month because you don’t have any recurring element. If you are launching a course two or three times during the year and you have a bad month, you have a bad quarter and the only sales you’re getting are coming from new customers buying your course, that can cripple your business. That can put you out of business because you are so reliant on those cash injections.

Mike Morrison: With a membership site that recurring income man, it just builds and it builds. It’s stable, it’s predictable. You have a bad month? It’s barely going to affect you.

Bjork Ostrom: The idea of being that … You might not have those huge peaks but you also won’t have those valleys because it’s like a snowball down a hill, it might not be a very steep hill but none the less the snowballs building and it’s going down the hill and you’re picking up momentum and over time, if you continue to work hard and dedicate your energy and focus on it and truly serving that community you can build that snow ball up which I think is such a cool thing. Maybe that’s a good transition into talking about a story or an example that you have of somebody that had a passion or an interest, maybe they had a following and they started a membership site and found success with it. Can you think of one that you could share?

Mike Morrison: Absolutely. It’s a favorite project still that we’ve been involved with. We started working with this guy three or four years ago. It was a guy named Scott and he was a base player, a base guitarist who played in various different brands, he was kind of a session musician. I worked with him for three or four years, I still know nothing about base guitar so anyone who is a bassist out there who’s thinking “hang on, what the hell is he talking about” when I use musical terms, forgive me. He played kind of in the bands for musicals and stuff like that. He’s just typical gigging musician, very good at what he did and he taught students locally on a one on one basis and he was diagnosed a number of years back with a neurological condition which meant that over time he’ll lose a sensation in his fingertips. It’s such an oddly specific condition and there’s other elements to it but the part that was always going through his brain was the fact that he’s not going to be able to play bass guitar in 10, 15, 20 years time. For him that had been his life, that is everything he’d done so passionate about it, he lived and breathed this thing so he thought, okay I need to create something.

Mike Morrison: I need to create some sort of legacy, something lasting, something that means that even when I can’t pick up a bass guitar, I know that one: from a business point of view I kind of got something that can pay the bills and two: that I know has made a difference to people and has allowed me to really take my passions to a new level before it’s too late. He just started recording bass lessons and put them out on youtube for free and he set up a blog and of course he’d put them on there and put on a Paypal donation button on and because anyone else in the music space and the music education space who would do anything online, they were charging for the sort of stuff he was putting out for free. These weren’t massively in dept stuff, these were like six or seven minutes on a particular technique or playing a particular song, or something like that. He started building up a following of people who were obviously getting a lot of value from this stuff.

Bjork Ostrom: Do you know how long he had been doing that for? The video on youtube and …

Mike Morrison: I think he had been doing it for maybe a year or so and it got to over one hundred thousand subscribers on youtube I think he tipped over one hundred thousand or just before one hundred thousand on Facebook when he came to us to say all right, this is what I’ve been doing, this is the vision that I have, I essentially want to be the place for bassists to learn how to play online. We plotted that out, got the strategy in place, mapped out that journey, pulled everything together for him and we created Scottbasslessons.com so this was a business where he was getting a couple of thousand dollars per month in pay pal donations which obviously made him think there’s potential in this as well.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s proof of concept and if people are willing to donate money, they’d probably be willing to pay money for a product or a service.

Mike Morrison: Exactly so we worked with him to shape that vision, to piece it all together and create this membership site scottsbasslessons.com after 12 months, he’d have seven figures in turnover, now he turns over just over two million dollars a year. He’s got 15,000 members.

Bjork Ostrom: Wow. That’s obviously a really big jump going from …

Mike Morrison: Yeah it’s a big big jump but it all started just from a guy who was called into action just from something that was going on in his life and he just followed his passion. Just created something.

Bjork Ostrom: Let’s chat a little bit about that story because I think that will be very fun for people to hear maybe a little bit about what the details look like. One of the questions I was going to ask specific to people that are starting is can you start a membership site without having a pre existing audience? In Scott’s example he had that. Would you recommend people build for a while and then launch or can you launch side by side?

Mike Morrison: Technically you can launch without a following. I tend not to recompensed that because you’re going to cause yourself a lot more work and the reason, the main reason I don’t recommend it and this is going back to what you said about the snowball rolling down the hill, you know you can start with nothing and you can get in members one at a time and yes it’s going to be slower and obviously if you’d had that following up front then maybe that initial influx of new members would get you further down the road quicker, but essentially you can start with nothing. There’s no pressure in terms of having to hit a certain threshold. What we tend to find though when people start that slowly, they lose heart, they lose the motivation because it’s very difficult to deliver the kind of value and the kind of input that membership sites typically require of you when you’re only making 30 bucks from it a month because you’ve only got one member. That said though I’m not sure if you’re familiar with that Nathan Chan from Founder magazine, great guy, awesome guy. I spoke to him a while back for our show and he was saying he started with no following.

Mike Morrison: Obviously his isn’t a membership site but it’s a subscription based business and he would’ve thrown in the towel after the first issue if not for the fact that he had maybe five or six people who bought it.

Bjork Ostrom: Sure. There’s that obligation to continue. Its the psychology on either end right? Part of it could be … Maybe it’s a self awareness piece for people to know. Are you the kind of person that’s motivated out of obligation to fulfill a promise and if you are maybe it makes sense for you to offer that membership site subscription right away you have two or three people, you know you have to continue doing it, or on the flip side you know that you’re discouraged by a lack of progress or by a lack of reward for your work and that’s who you are, then maybe you wait until you have proved that concept a little bit.

Mike Morrison: I think some of it’s personality as well. You know, if you’re all the time a person who can really rally people, if you can cultivate a kind of the atmosphere of those initial two or three members, they’re part of an upstart movement and you can really galvanism people that way so that you’re almost turning that negativity into a positive by extenuating the fact that hey we’re small, we’re just getting started we are the kind of select few who were smart enough to get in at the start. If you have that kind of personality, you can make it work for you. The thing is with audiences, building a following in advance, when we decided we were going to plant our flag in the sand and we were going to move away from just working one on one with clients and focus on building our membership we initially had no intention of doing that. We were perfectly fine just working one on one with people but just in response with how many people were asking us just for broader advice you know, is there a blog or a podcast we can listen to, is there a course or a membership we can join to learn about this stuff because we can’t hire you to do it for us.

Mike Morrison: We were kind of nudged toward this by people who would just randomly send us emails but we didn’t have our audiences per say really. We had obviously friends, and we had our business network but they weren’t really the kind of people who were appropriate for what we were doing. We did the audience building first but we did that over a span of three months, so when we talk about building a following it doesn’t mean you have to delay plans for your membership by two or three years, you can build enough of an audience and enough of a swell of support to give you that starting point. Some of that may involve tapping into other peoples audiences, finding out where your audience are, getting in front of them and essentially making them your audience, putting out authority content, just grinding it out, we put out a blog and podcast every week which we still do, we created a really cool opt in resource that got us a lot of attention, that got people on our list. This is all in the space of a few months so you can accelerate the audience building side of things, you don’t need to wait until you’ve got a list of 5000 people, you don’t even need to wait until you have a list of 1000 people.

Mike Morrison: I think this is often when people play the numbers game and compare what they’re doing to the so called gurus online recommend and what they’re doing. You set your bar too high and you set your expectations too high. There’s a great piece by this guy called Kevin Kelly, he wrote something I think it was in the late 90’s of this concept of having 1000 true fans.

Bjork Ostrom: Mm-hmm (affirmative) it’s a great post.

Mike Morrison: I read it every few months just to kind of, to reign in that stuff. You know when you see all those people talking, I just had it, eight figure launch and it’s like yeah, but 90% of that is affiliate commission refocused. Failed rebuild and exaggeration. Sometimes you need to kind of remind yourself of actually most of that, but yes that 1000 true fans, the principals behind that, you don’t need this enormous audience, you don’t need to sell a membership and have 5000 members on day one. We talked about Scott there, he’s got 15,000 members and he turns over about 2.5 million dollars per year. Now, a lot of people would be perfectly happy with the .5 of that 2.5. A lot of people would be happy with even less than that and again this comes to caring more about how you make your money than how much money you make. That’s not to underplay the potential into how much money you can make but 15,000 members if that’s getting Scott 2.5 million dollars, you don’t need a huge amount of people in your audience and in your member base to make enough for you to switch away from working one on one for clients, ditch the job that you hate to pursue your passion, or change your lifestyle completely. You can do that in a few thousand dollars a month.

Bjork Ostrom: Can you explain the concepts, just the high level review? We’ve talked about it on a few podcasts but I know people don’t listen all the way through with all of them. The idea of 1000 true fans, kind of the basic premise with that.

Mike Morrison: It’s just the idea that with most people, like we were saying before, most people don’t need to make crazy, insane amounts of money. They really don’t. Even if you do want to do that, that doesn’t mean you have to go out and find one million people to find you a dollar each, you can find 1000 true fans, and we mean raving fans, fans who lap up everything that you do, who advocate for you, who will read every piece of content you put out, who will listen to every podcast, who will travel to meet you, and who will pay for what you’re selling.

Bjork Ostrom: The example he gives in the post, he talks about musicians and he talks about you don’t need to be signed to a record deal and being played on all the most popular radio stations, what you need is, if you want to make it as a musician 1000 people who absolutely love what you’re doing, who are willing to buy a ticket when you come into town or when you’re in a 200 mile radius, or buy your CD once a year. Not CD that dates myself, your cassette tape when it comes out. I think it transitions so well into the idea of building a membership site, which we’re talking about today because if you can find 1000 true fans that are willing to come on board with what you are doing and love what you are doing, and appreciate the content that you’re producing then you can, it’s not easy, but it’s easy to see how you can make that transition into this thing being a sustainable way of life.

Mike Morrison: Exactly. You don’t need to build the ocean. There is a big old world out there, there is a lot of people around, so you don’t need to worry about pleasing everybody or having this homogeneous offering that is going to be good for all time zones. You can focus in on your people, your tribe, who speak your language, who love what you do. That example of musicians that Kevin uses is the perfect fit. You don’t need to play music that’s fit for pop radio, that’s going to make every body happy, if you’ve got 1000 people who love your particular weird style of music. With a membership site if you’ve got 1000 people paying you $50 a month, that’s $50,000 a month.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. Which is incredible.

Mike Morrison: That’s not bad at all. If you can get them paying you $20 a month, which technically should be a lot easier. Sell a $20 membership to 1000 people that’s $20,000 a month. That’s plenty for a lot of people. Again, it’s just putting things in context of what you actually do need to do in real terms to make a change to your own life, and just ignoring a lot of the flaw from a lot of the over top pressure that comes from seeing what other people talk about online. No one posts online about the fact that they’re having a crappy month, really.

Bjork Ostrom: I think a good example is for the first year of food blogger pro, I was working on it maybe I would say an average of 40 hours a week, it’s not like I was doing 100 hour weeks, I had some type of work life balance, then was also working on Pinch of Yum, the food blog that Lindsay has, kind of in the extra time that we had but it was like on any given month on that site was earning anywhere from 1000 to 3000 dollars. Which is a really good start, but also it’s like when you average it out, it’s not like it was the worlds best paying job especially when you subtracted expenses from that and it’s not something that people I think would normally talk about but it’s such a normal part of the process to have that early stage of growth, or those stages where you’re working a lot and not necessarily getting an equivalent hourly salary in exchange for it. You’re building your castle in the sense that you’re laying the bricks and the foundation for something that can be a sustainable business.

Bjork Ostrom: One of the things I think is important to talk about is the how do you know phase. You talked about with Scott’s bass lessons he had been getting some donations and he was getting a couple thousand dollars a month in donations and that kind of was like okay this is a little bit of a proof of concept. For you, you had been consulting, is that right? You had been working on an individual, partnership kind of one on one level?

Mike Morrison: Yeah, we had been yeah.

Bjork Ostrom: Then started to hear from people who maybe didn’t have the budget to do the high level consulting and/or you didn’t have enough time to do it so you said okay we can see that there’s this niche here, how do you recommend other people go through the discovery process of learning if their idea or the concept that they want to apply to their membership site is actually viable.

Mike Morrison: I think the important thing is you’ve got to get out there and you’ve got to talk to your audience. If you don’t have an audience, you’ve got to find where your audience, or the audience you want, where they are. Are they in Facebook groups? Are they in existing communities? Are they local to you, do you actually have to get out and go to a networking meeting? Talk to these guys. The biggest mistake that I see people make when it comes to membership sites is skipping over this phase so I’m so glad you’re talking about this because so many people have an idea, they ask their wife or their husband. The worst person to ask unless you work in business with them which I know you do and I do with my other half Callie so we’re a different breed but even then you want to actually talk to the people who you expect to give you money, not your best friend, not your family members. So many people they rush past that and they jump right into asking the wrong questions. What technology should I use? Should it be a course or a membership? Should I do this that and the other? That idea of validation is so key and it all does come down to talking to your audience.

Mike Morrison: Find where they are, get in front of them, if your audience follow a particular influencer, speak to that person, let them kind of know what sort of information you’re trying to find. See if there’s a way of partnering up of accessing their audience in exchange. A little bit of give and take so you just need to find out where your audiences are. If you don’t know who your audience are, who you could potentially be selling this product to, then you need to actually spend some time dissecting your idea. If you just got an idea but you don’t have an idea of who could potentially want it or benefit from it, then that’s a pretty good sign that the ideas not right because you should be focusing on solutions to problems.

Bjork Ostrom: With those conversations, do you recommend reaching out via Skype or phone or anything that works essentially? Having face to face conversations?

Mike Morrison: Yeah. Pretty much anything that works. If that audience are local to you, get out in front of them and see them, have coffees, get people together, organize a little networking event, it’s almost a little focus group. See if you can get people into a little private Facebook group. Provide something for them, you’re going to probably need to invent the values of them somewhere otherwise you’re just relying on their generosity of their time. Obviously it’s just the case of whatever medium works. Whether it’s one on one conversations with some of the most seasoned people within a particular market you’re trying to enter to pick their brains. Quite often influencers they’re just not going to dump on an hour completely free unless you start a podcast which is one of the best things no one talks about.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. For sure.

Mike Morrison: I’m at free consultation with some of the biggest names in the online marketing world under the guys who are podcasting you so there’s a holding fee.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s seriously like the perfect match of … Me I get to have significant conversations with you about significant things like this, get to share it with an audience that’s thankful to have that content, then also get a connection like how much more connected do we feel after talking for an hour than we would if we shot a couple emails back and forth or something like that. You get to know somebody so much more which is such a huge benefit.

Mike Morrison: Exactly. You can fold this into your audience building. When it comes to membership sites in particular a lot of them are centered around authority content so you’re going to need to have something out there that demonstrates your credibility in terms of blogging or podcast, bake that in. You either by bringing in influences and picking their brains about the industry, or you can even interview the very people in the audience that you’re trying to go after. Do little case studies with them. Have an episode where you literally talk about the frustrations and the challenges faced by people within a certain market, people with a certain condition, people in a certain industry or something like that and that just gives you gold dust in terms of finding out what things cause pain, cause problems, cause frustration for your target audience because your job, you’re not a membership site order, you’re not an educator, or course producer, a blogger, a writer, a pod caster, you’re a problem solver.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s a great reminder.

Mike Morrison: We are all problem solvers, that’s all any of us do so your membership site needs to exist to provide a solution to a problem. The first step is identifying just what those problems are. There’s so many different activities you can do just a whole episode on this. I would recommend if people haven’t come across this already I’d recommend checking out the book by Pat Flame called Let it Fly.

Bjork Ostrom: We did an interview with Pat talking about some of those concepts, it’s a great book.

Mike Morrison: I mean Pat … Yeah that books fantastic. The exercise contains that help you flesh out your idea and test whether is viable. Everyone considering a membership site, online course, anything like that, really that should almost be curriculum before you get going.

Bjork Ostrom: Let’s say you’ve gone through the process, you have an idea, you validate it in some shape or form and now you’re moving into the actually doing it stage which is such a hard stage because …

Mike Morrison: The worst.

Bjork Ostrom: Not only are you producing the content but you’re also needing to build the thing that the content lives on. I know that, to do a plug here, your membership site covers all of the stuff and if you’d be willing I’d love to do kind of a high level overview of the different ways that people can start to build out their membership site. Just to start, I’m guessing that people would start with word press. Is that what you would recommend or what is that content management system that you’d recommend?

Mike Morrison: We tend to work mostly with word press. Word press powers … I don’t know if they’ve tipped over the 40% mark yet, but I’m sure they’re actually getting close to actually being the engine that powers 40% of …

Bjork Ostrom: Enough to say like, an insane amount of the web.

Mike Morrison: Yeah. You know a hefty chunk of the web runs on word press. Now, there’s a lot of scare stories, there’s a lot of nonsense out there about word press and it’s level of security, all that sort of stuff. The reason there’s so much out there about it is because of how prolific word press is. When you’ve got one system that powers 40% of the web, you’re going to hear a proportionate amount of horror stories compared to systems that two people in Utah use. Word press is easy to use, it’s well supported, you don’t have to worry about, if you hire someone to develop your web site, using word press and then you fall out with them, you don’t have to worry about the ability to find someone else who specializes in word press. If you go anywhere in the world and throw a stone, you’ll hit about 10 word press developers. It’s just a nice easy to use platform and there’s a lot of really solid membership plug ins that are built to work on word press.

Bjork Ostrom: Can you talk about that specifically? The plug in side of it. I think that’s, I would guess and I don’t know, but 50% of the questions you answer are which plug in. Which is the question that I’m going to ask but …

Mike Morrison: I’m going to give a frustrating answer to that. The best plug in to use is the one that best suits your needs. That’s it. Before people get into that, before people get shopping for plug ins, first and foremost never go into a Facebook group and say can anyone recommend a membership plug in. It’s horrid.

Bjork Ostrom: Why do you say that?

Mike Morrison: Most of the advice is unqualified that comes back. People recommend stuff that they’re affiliates for, they’ll recommend the plug in they use despite never using any other plug in, they’ll recommend something that someone told them four years ago was the best on the market and that’s it, so you get a lot of really unqualified and obviously bias feed back. A lot of the time its just because you go in and outright say what’s the best membership plug in. You can’t ask that question without providing a list of what’s the best membership plug in that does this, this, this, works alongside this and so on. The first step to finding the best membership plug in is really writing out a shopping list. What are the absolute essential things I need this plug in to do. If you know that what you want to do with your content is you want to drip feed it, so you want to release one modulate time over six months rather than just give people access to it all upfront, that one requirement is going to be the difference between a plug in that may actually be suitable for you, being the best choice, it could make the difference between that being the best choice and that being the absolute worst choice.

Mike Morrison: One of the most established plug ins out there is by the name of wish list member, it’s a plug in that’s showing it’s age a little bit now but is still widely recognized as the first plug in a lot of people think of when they think membership plug ins. That is by larger a solid plug in, it works with most of the email providers, payment providers and so on but when it comes to drip feeding it’s one of the worst there is. If you don’t need drip feeding that could be in your top three, if you do, that’s in your bottom three. This is why just sitting down with pen and paper writing down everything you need this membership plug in to use to be able to do. Looking at what email service you’re using because integrations tends to be where they differ a lot. If you’re using active campaign or convert K which are more popular recently versus some more old school email marketing services, you’re going to have a far smaller selection of plugins that actually work alongside those versus something like mail chimp. You need to sit and map this stuff out, decide what’s a deal breaker in terms of functionality, what’s nice to have and what you’ve just listed just because.

Bjork Ostrom: Those things would be how you want to deliver the content, if you want forums within the membership site, what email service you use.

Mike Morrison: What payment provider you use, whether you want to offer trials, whether you need multiple membership levels. Whether you’re going to have two or three different membership levels and if you are whether you’re going to need people to be members of multiple levels at any one time. Lets say you have three or four different programs, whether you want people to be able to enroll in several at a time, or just one at a time. Whether you want to do things like very specific features like enable members to pause their subscription instead of having to cancel and stuff like that. Drilling down this sort of stuff and there’s articles out there that will show you the type of features you might want to think about.

Bjork Ostrom: I want to do a plug for you guys, you also have this incredible plug in comparison chart.

Mike Morrison: That’s your next step, it really is. We’ve mapped out I think it’s 12, we’re going to update it and add some more in soon, of the leading membership plugins out there for word press. We just run through all the key features we think you might use, put a check or a cross as to whether that plug in supports it as well as providing forum pricing and stuff like that. Once you’ve got your shopping list, you then refer to our comparison chart or something like it. It’s a lot of effort to keep up. Something like that will probably help you to narrow down probably two or three membership plug ins then you start to test things like is their support team any good.

Bjork Ostrom: Test it by emailing them and see how long it takes them …

Mike Morrison: Yeah a few test query see how long it takes them to answer you. You’ll look at things obviously like pricing is going to be important, then you might go into a Facebook group and the question you ask is has anyone had experience with this plug in in particular. You might find a Facebook group or community specifically based around that plug in. That sort of stuff will help you narrow things down, hopefully to the one you will use. It’s so important though again, same as validating your idea, membership plug in. If you expect your membership to be a five to ten year business minimum, you’re going to be with this membership for a long time because it’s very difficult to switch from one membership to another once you’ve got recurring payments set up. It is a nightmare.

Bjork Ostrom: For sure. Food blogger pro, for those that are curious, we’re not built on word press, we’re built on a CMS called express engine and the plug in that we use is called an add on in express engine, is actually one that is started and is no longer maintained. We’re paying the original developer like an hourly rate to maintain it for us which is just a huge cost associated with it. I would affirm what you’re saying and do your homework and test those out and know that even though it doesn’t feel like your making progress by testing things and taking your time with it, it’s time well spent.

Mike Morrison: That actually is another big check in the box for word press as to why we like it, because the licensing system for word press because open source means that a lot of these plug ins are also open source. The particular license means that if the guys who run wishlist member, I keep picking on the guys who run wishlist member, if they decide tomorrow that they no longer want to support this plug in, the licensing means that somebody else could take it.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah because of the open source nature you could technically fork that and then create your own version of that. I know it depends and there’s nuances to the copy right and stuff, but word press in general because of the nature is more open source than other platforms would be.

Mike Morrison: That just minimizes the risk that you end up in that kind of situation where someone just abandons a plug in because actually if someone were to abandon paid memberships pro, wishlist member or one of these popular plug ins, people would jump on it, they really would because these are powerful systems that you change a few things around, keep it updated, put your logo on and start making money from it, just a little bit extra.

Bjork Ostrom: How does that work because wouldn’t, I don’t know details about it and this is a little bit of a rabbit trail but wouldn’t that happen all the time where people would be forking these? Isn’t there some type of creative copy right that they have?

Mike Morrison: There’s kind of … It’s tricky. If you go from Matt Mullenweg, the guy who created word press says, he firmly believes every derivative of word press is open source and you know, there’s been a lot of the word press community, development community, they’re a dramatic bunch. I consider myself a reformed developer so I’m allowed to slag them off. There have been cases where people have literally done that they have forked an open sourced plug in, literally change nothing and then just stick their logo on it and then the most scandalous cases have been where they’ve given away that plug in for free where no body will be charged for. There was a one fairly recently involving the guys at elegant themes, where they created a lead generation plug in for their subscribed members and a very big company just stole in and gave it away. They just changed the name of it. This has got nothing to do, which is the biggest platform, it was actually bought out by word press fairly recently, same thing happened with that. People do it kind of all the time, but it’s not an every day occurrence. It tends to be frowned upon and because of word press there is a level of leaders I think in the community which I think is kind of a good thing that if you are known to just rip someone off then …

Bjork Ostrom: You’re not going to have a lot of friends.

Mike Morrison: You’re not going to have a lot of friends, you’re going to have a hard time getting any publicity for your plug in from the sites that actually spread the word about new plug ins and so on. You’ll probably get a lot of negative stuff written about you and you might even get Matt Mullenweg on a video call laying into you as has happened to a few people I think. It hasn’t even happened, I mean optimized press for example, is soft ware you build member sites with and they in the version two of their software, they bundled in a membership plugin which was basically a reskin of S2 member which is a free open source membership plug in. It happens, but it’s not in your favor to do that if you’re ripping off an existing paid product. This is really going down the rabbit hole.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s interesting though. Maybe not for everybody else but for me it goes back to the consulting thing. It’s a good conversation.

Mike Morrison: Some companies actually ignore the GPL licensing so they’ll put a more restrictive license on it and others use split licensing so some parts of the cord are GPL other parts aren’t. It’s an odd environment.

Bjork Ostrom: It’s interesting the whole idea of open source and building a business on open source and all that is fascinating. Curious for your membership site, what is the plug in that you guys ended up using for member site academy?

Mike Morrison: We use member press. We love member press. Member press is one of our favorite plug ins because first of all it integrates with active campaign which is software we use and we love it.

Bjork Ostrom: Yeah same.

Mike Morrison: So awesome. As one of the few membership plugins that actually integrates with it we almost had to do an 11th hour mind change on our membership plug in because they hadn’t got their active campaign support out yet. That just shows the one thing in terms of support for your email provider can totally change what plug ins right for you. We love member press just because some of the features it offers like the ability for members to pause their subscriptions, we love that ability. We love that feature because somebody is cancelling their membership, it’s very easy to take it personally, it’s very easy to think if someone cancels their membership it’s because they think you’re the worst person in the world, your content is terrible, your site is hideous and all that sort of stuff when actually a lot of times it’s people might be cancelling because they’re being deployed overseas to be in the military they’re going to be overseas for the next six months it doesn’t make sense for them to continue paying a subscription, it might just be they’re having a little bit of a hard time. Maybe its Christmas and you know they’re on a tighter budget or maybe they’ve left a job its going to be two months before they start their next one, something like that.

Mike Morrison: Not every cancellation is from someone who wants to leave so offering the ability to temporarily put their subscription on hold, I think is a fantastic thing and we see this reflected in a lot of sites that would be devoted. It’s a fantastic thing for retention and every now and then it does make you think if someone pauses, you do think of it as pauses is a cancel you know, they’re active members that are not paying but any time you slip into that you get an email from someone that reminds you why you do it and we had an email from one of our members essentially apologizing for the fact that she was pausing her membership but she fell ill, she was in hospital having surgery. Of course we were like, listen this is the absolute last thing you should be worrying about. Listen, its fine if you’re not working on building your membership site right now. It’s understandable. Features like that with member press and it has some in built reporting which is one area in particular most membership plug ins don’t have. Stats and reports for membership plug ins are terrible.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s been so helpful for us we actually had to have that custom built into our setup, again going back to that custom work that we have done because it’s so important to have that information but if you don’t, it’s so hard to know if what you’re doing is working or not. We’re coming to the end here but a couple more questions I wanted to ask real quick. You’ve obviously worked with a lot of sites, both consulting and individually on a one on one basis and now on a broader scale as you’ve started to see this pool of people that are becoming members of your academy. What are some of the common traits that you see with people that have built successful membership siteS?

Mike Morrison: I think mindsets the big one. Mindset and expectations. Knowing that this isn’t a get rich quick scheme, it’s not a marketing tactic, it’s a business model. That tends to be fundamental to a lot of sites that we see and help come successful. They’re in it for the right reasons, their expectations are balanced, they’re realistic, they know that showing up and actually serving is crucial, they understand the importance of retention as well as acquisition and to a degree on a higher level than acquisition. That focus on retention, that’s the difference maker it really is. Recognizing that from the second somebody has confirmed their purchase and paid you money, it’s your job to work towards retaining them the next month to the next month. That is fundamental to successful memberships. Again, mindset, understanding the importance of turning up, showing up, serving, providing value, and caring as much or caring more about the members you have than the members you don’t have.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s great. I think tats a great little line and a great little phrase. One of the things that I’ve been thinking about and talking about occasionally is i think that so often in our space and I’m sure you run into this a lot is that, there’s a potential for people to like the idea of doing it more than doing. I think membership sites are such a great example of that where people really like the idea of a membership site where it’s so easy to play with numbers and crunch numbers and say ooh I can build this business and be like this, but then they get into it and they might not actually like doing it or they might not like the niche that they’ve picked even though they think it might be one they can get traction with. I think that you emphasizing this idea of really leaning into it and serving and putting in the time and energy is an important one.

Mike Morrison: I think you can’t start a membership site without accepting that the first goal you have for your membership site is to turn it into your full time job. That has to be the mindset you go into. If you don’t like the idea of that, if you don’t like the idea that what you do for a living day to day, will become centered around your membership site creating content, interacting with members of a community, if you’re going to events over seas, if you’re going to conferences, arranging member meet ups and going out and taking some of your members for dinner. By the way that’s my favorite part of business without doubt, deep dish pizza in Chicago with a bunch of our members, absolute highlight. Tax deductible, love it. You have to know that going in. If you don’t want your membership to become your full time job, you’re probably going to fall into that trap you talked about. You liked the idea of it, you liked the idea of being someone who has a membership site rather than actually being someone who has a membership site and runs a membership site.

Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome Mike, we could talk about so much more stuff and I know that there’s hundreds of areas that we haven’t covered but the good thing is you have sites for that. Could you share with people where they could follow along with the work that you guys are doing?

Mike Morrison: Absolutely. We blog and we podcast over at themembershipguys.com we make that nice and obvious there’s no confusion over what we do and we have a free facebook group as well @talkmemberships.com if you hit that address it will redirect you through to the Facebook groups, we’ve got about 2000 membership owners and experts in there for any questions you might have an of course if you want to get really serious about planning, launching, building, growing a successful profitable membership site head over to membersiteacademy.com we’ve got pretty much everything you need. We literally take you step by step from that hey I’ve got an idea all the way through to figuring out what you do once your sites been up and running ten years and you’ve run out of ideas for content. Membersiteacademy.com themembershipguys.com that’s all I think. That’s all my shilling out.

Bjork Ostrom: No I’m glad and you’ve done such a good job with both those and I think people will see that when they go there and experience that and obviously you have a lot of experience and history you put into that and you can tell. Mike thanks so much for coming on the podcast and I know people really appreciate it and I know that people will get a lot out of it so thanks for your time.

Mike Morrison: Hey, thanks for having me.

Bjork Ostrom: Appreciate it. Alright that’s a wrap for episode number 62 Mike, thanks so much for coming on to the podcast and sharing your insights on building membership sites. Really appreciate the information you shared but also how you share it, you do it with a spirit of openness and kindness and cool accents and I think all those things are great so thanks for coming on the podcast today and sharing that. If you want to check out any of the sites or recommendations that Mike had you can go to the show notes for this episode which is foodbloggerpro.com/62 you can just type in the number there and that will redirect to the show notes as well as the transcript if you are somebody that likes to read as opposed to listen, which probably isn’t you because you’ve listened all the way to the end of this so maybe in the future if you want to you can go ahead and read those on the show notes page for food blogger pro. Thanks so much for tuning in, really appreciate you guys. That is a wrap, make a great week. Thanks guys.

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  1. Enjoyed this episode, especially Bjork’s line about people loving the idea of a membership idea more than actually doing it πŸ™‚ Trying not to fall into that trap atm.