Membership Site vs Online Course: Which One Is Right for You?

Maria A. — 

A lot of times people jump right into starting a membership site, without realizing what’s involved in creating one and actually making it work.

This can lead to a lot of wasted time, money and effort. There’s a huge difference in terms of the time, effort and resources needed to create either of them.

With this in mind, throughout this article, we’ll compare and contrast some of the differences between starting a simple membership site and an online course.

Hopefully, these points should give you some key questions to ask yourself as you think about which one you should start for your own business.

Membership Sites vs. Online Courses: What’s the Difference?


What’s a Membership Site?


A membership site gives a person access to certain content, and sometimes other added benefits included with their membership, as long as they pay their membership fee.

If their membership payment fails, or is cancelled, their access to the membership site is then cut off. Normally the content you give them is exclusively available to members of the membership site and isn’t available anywhere else.

To sum it up, the overall time, effort and resources needed to start a successful membership site is more intensive when compared to starting an online course.

There’s lots of different content you can potentially include inside of a membership site.

For example, you might have a lot of video lessons broken into sections, you can include live online training, “members only” articles, offer 1-on-1 online coaching time or you can also include other “members only” benefits for members.

You can offer tiered membership levels where higher paying members get access to additional content and benefits that the lower level members don’t get.

There are a lot of different types of membership site business models we could talk about. We’ll save that for another post.

Most successful membership sites with more than a few hundred members often also have some type of online community aspect involved that’s a big benefit to being a member of that program. Doing this successfully requires a big investment of time or resources from the owner of the site.

With membership sites, you have to either create new content on an ongoing basis, which can be exhausting without the right systems in place to create it. Or deliver value on an ongoing basis to your members.

In return, you’ll continue to receive a membership fee from your members as long as they’re happy and continue to pay for their membership.

One of the hardest parts of running a successful membership site is delivering consistent value to your members so they’re willing to keep paying you every month.

If you’re looking for other ways you can potentially add value to a membership site without having to create new content, check out our free eBook through the link below that will give you 9 ideas you can use….

Successful membership sites often have a strong, active community of members that engage with one another and often advocate the membership program they belong to.

Advice If You’re Thinking About Starting a Membership Site


There are different steps you should follow when you’re just starting a new membership site and a certain order you should execute them in as you grow.

For example, you don’t want to add any type of community aspect to your site when you’re just starting out in the beginning.

You wouldn’t want to add something like this until you have over a hundred members. Otherwise, your “community” will be a ghost town.

Likewise, you don’t want to spend a ton of time building your site if you don’t have any members yet.

In the beginning, you’ll want to focus on creating a basic, minimum viable version of your membership site, with a basic sales message in place to get some founding members to join so you can prove your concept will work.

As we had mentioned in the beginning, a lot of people jump into starting a membership site without realizing what’s involved. They also often jump ahead with what they should be focusing on with their site when they’re getting started.

It’s easy to get distracted with all the bells and whistles you can potentially do when it comes to building a membership site these days.

In the beginning, none of that fluff matters. Until you have roughly a hundred members that belong to your site, the only thing you should be focusing on is selling your membership site and not wasting too much time on overbuilding your site.

The same strategy applies if you’re thinking about starting an online course.

What’s an Online Course?


Online courses are goal-oriented. This means there’s a clear beginning and ending to the course with a specific end goal the student is trying to achieve by going through the course.

Meaning at the end of the course, the student has a clear understanding of the topic the course is about and has completed all of the content / requirements inside of it.

In terms of content, online courses focus on teaching a specific topic or skill through the content that’s included inside of it.

This can be as simple as access to a few videos that teach the topic that the course is about.

Or it could be as advanced as an in-depth course with over 20+ hours of content inside of it. You can also include things like 1-on-1 coaching and live online training with an online course.

Overall the emphasis of your course shouldn’t be about the number of hours of content included in it. The main emphasis should be about the value a student gets from learning the concepts that the course has to teach. Ideally the shorter the amount of time it takes to learn the ideas that the course teaches, the better.

Most of the time, an online course is purchased for a one time fee.

Depending on how you want your course setup, most course creators give access to the course content for a certain period of time or for a “limited” lifetime period.

A lot of times people offer complete “lifetime access” to their online courses. In our opinion, this is a bad idea for a few reasons.

A smarter way to position a course is to offer “lifetime access” to your course for as long as you’re in business or as long as you’re supporting the course.

You can also position your course being “as it is now”, meaning lifetime access does not include future updates made to the course.

If you are starting an online course, you definitely don’t want to include “lifetime access” for your students to be able to ask you any question they want, for the rest of your life.

So make sure whatever you include in access to your course, doesn’t involve any of your own time after the first year or a certain time period.

Another popular strategy among course creators is to have certain enrollment periods open and closed throughout the year.

This way they can either focus on marketing and selling their course. Or fulfilling their course by teaching it and making sure their students have a great experience as they go through it.

The other main reason they often do this is it gives them a sense of urgency to join before the deadline to join closes that they can leverage.

Most of the time, online courses will be self-paced, where students purchase and complete the course at their own pace instead of them having to complete it in a certain time period. However, how you want to structure your course is up to you.

Using a platform like WordPress and Memberium makes it easy to build your course, just the way that you want to.

Membership Sites vs. Online Courses


Overall, creating a membership site is much more time consuming compared to starting an online course.

Here, we’ll take a closer look at the key differences between a membership site and an online course.

Content


In terms of content, online courses are structured around a predefined goal. Whereas membership sites are ongoing and a bit more ambiguous as to what the exact end goal is for members who join.

What this means is that, for an online course, typically you’ll just have to create the content once.

With a membership site, you’ll have to figure out how to deliver consistent value to your members so they’re willing to keep paying you every month.

Whether that be by creating new content and delivering it to them every month, or delivering value in some other way.

Typically a membership site will have a lot more content inside of it when compared to the volume of content that’s included in a typical online course.

Access


With online courses, you grant students complete access to your course content after they’ve purchased it for a one-time fee, either for a certain period of time or an extended period.

With membership sites, you grant members access to the content inside, for as long as they continue to pay their membership. Once they stop paying the membership fee, they’ll lose access to the membership site and the other benefits they get.

Payment


In terms of payment, someone can purchase an online course for a one-time fee. Some online course creators choose to sell higher priced courses through installment plans.

Membership sites, on the other hand, charge members a recurring monthly or yearly subscription fee.

Structure


Online courses are divided into clear sections with individual lessons, and can also include assignments and quizzes. As we mentioned before, online courses are goal-oriented meaning they help students achieve a specific end goal.

Compared to an online course, a membership site offers a continuous path for learning about a certain topic or specific skill without a clear endpoint.

Most membership site creators focus on constantly adding new content for their members to consume in an attempt to get them to stay on as a member. This can be an uphill and really time-consuming battle (if you don’t have efficient systems in place for creating it).

The truth is, there’s a lot of other ways you can add value to your membership site. That doesn’t involve you having to create more content.

To find out nine ways that you can add more value to a membership site check out this eBook that you can download for free…

Now that we have a better understanding of how a membership site and online course compare to one another…

Let’s go through some key questions you should ask yourself when thinking about whether you should start a membership site or online course.

4 Factors to Consider When Deciding If You’re Going to Create a Membership Site or an Online Course


Time


Creating a membership site or online course will both involve a significant investment of your time. You’ll also have to invest your time into planning out your content, producing all your content, setting up your site, marketing it and managing it.

Membership Sites Need a Bigger Investment of Time & Resources


With a membership site, you’ll have to produce a lot more content than you would when compared to an online course.

Deciding that you want to start a membership site is going to be a much more significant investment when compared to starting a basic online course that just includes 6 to 8 video lessons.

For this reason, if you’ve never started an online course in the past and aren’t yet recognized as a well-known authority on the topic that your membership site focuses on, we recommend you start an online course first.

Keep Things Simple at First


When you’re just getting started, it’s always best to keep things simple.

Two of the main mistakes that people make when starting a new membership site is they create a boatload of content before they show it to a single person.

The other main mistake is they overcomplicate the process of building their site and spend way too much time building their site before they make a single sale.

The problem with both of these is if no one’s interested in the content you spent so much time producing and you can’t sell it to anyone in the first place, the idea for your membership site will flop and all the time spent ends up being wasted.

That’s why it’s important to validate the idea for your membership site in the early stages before you invest a ton of time in taking it to the next level.

A great way to do this is to create a simple version of your membership site as an online course first. Sell it. Then collect feedback from your first batch of students which will allow you to improve your site’s content and sales messaging over time.

Eventually, you’ll have enough content that you can turn it all into a membership site later down the line.

Another option is to pre-sell access to your membership site ahead of time before you invest any time in creating the content inside of it.

Worst case, if you don’t sell enough memberships you can just give the money back to anyone who did join and say that you didn’t get enough members to sign up. At that point, it’s time for you to go back to the drawing board and rethink your concept.

To sum it up, just remember in the early stages to keep things simple and stay focused on selling a simple version of your membership site at first.

How to Plan All Your Site’s Content Before You Build It


Once you are confident that you’re ready to invest the time needed to start a membership site, before you start creating any of your content, it’s a good idea to plan it all out first.

An easy way to do this is to follow along with our quick and easy exercise that just involves a pen and a stack of 3×5 cards. This exercise can also be used to plan out course content.

You can include video content as the lessons, or you can mix things up and produce audio-only lessons, written articles, quizzes, downloadable resources, assignments or 1-on-1 online coaching.

What’s also important to keep in mind is that you don’t jump in and end up creating a bunch of content that no one is interested in watching.

Having actual members in your site, while you’re producing your content gives you a valuable feedback loop that you can leverage.

For this reason, you should pick a topic that you can create content around for at least a year. You should also be an actual expert on this topic and actually, want to help people. If you’re thinking about starting a membership site as a scheme to get rich quick, you’re better off not wasting your time.

It’s good to create your content not all at once before you’ve sold any memberships.

So, instead of putting in a ton of effort producing all of your content in the beginning, you’ll be putting in a sustained effort over time and be able to collect feedback from your existing members as you release it.

This can help you make your content better and keep your first group of members on as paying members longer as you release new content slowly over time instead of all at once.

Online Courses Will Take Less Time To Get Going


Creating an online course takes a bit of an initial investment in terms of the time it will take you to create the content and get a simple site up for your course.

Compared to the amount of time needed to create a membership site, creating a simple online course is much less time-consuming.

Once you’ve planned out the topic for your course and planned out your course content, you can use our same content planning exercise to plan out all of the content of your course.

Then you just produce all of your course content, which is easier said than done, and then you can focus on marketing, selling and improving your course over time.

If you’re unsure about the topic of your course and whether it would be worth your time to invest that much time in producing it, a great way to validate your concept without spending that much time on it is to pre-sell access to it before you create any of the content for your course.

Again, worst case, if you don’t sell it to enough people, you can just give the money back to anyone who did join and say that you didn’t get enough people to sign up. At that point, it’s time for you to go back to the drawing board and rethink your idea for your course.

Memberium has a set of 24+ pre-built page templates that makes it really easy to quickly build and launch a simple online course. You can check them out here to see what they look like and find out how they work.

Marketing and Sales Expertise


When you’re creating and running a membership site or an online course, it certainly helps to have a bit of marketing or sales experience. Aside from producing content for your site, you’ll also have to be focused on selling it.

If you don’t have any interest at all in doing this yourself, we have a list of Certified Memberium Partners who can help you with everything involved in building, marketing and selling your membership site or online course.

Membership Sites


As a new membership site owner, the most important thing you’ll want to focus on in the beginning is selling your membership site and attracting new members.

Without that focus, your membership site will ultimately fail if you’re not generating any revenue from it.

If you don’t have that much experience with sales / marketing or aren’t that established as an authority figure in your niche yet, it might be smarter to start an online course first as it will be less of an investment, and easier to sell in the beginning.

If you do have a good amount of marketing experience, you have an existing email list, an established website with some traffic, and you have an established business already, starting a membership site will be a lot easier for you.

It also helps to be a recognized authority in your niche. This gives you a lot of authority you can leverage in your sales messaging and will make it a lot easier for you to sell your membership.

When you don’t have that much experience with marketing online products, you should be ready to spend the time mastering how to do it, or be ready to pay someone to do it if you want your site to be successful.

In the early stages of your membership site, your biggest challenge is going to be finding enough leads and making enough sales. You need to find a way to convert, and convince people to buy your membership and try it out. Then you need to find enough of them.

Again, if you’re looking for help doing this, we have a full list of Certified Memberium Partners who are available to help you with building and marketing membership sites.

Online Courses


The key benefit of creating online courses is that most of the time you can set it and forget it.

Once you’ve produced the content and set your site up, you can then solely focus on marketing and selling the course.

Just like starting a membership site, in the early stages of starting a new online course the most important thing you should be focusing on is sales and marketing.

Selling an online course is simpler than selling a membership site. Often times a membership site isn’t that clear about what its exact value proposition is because there’s a lot of different pieces included with it and it’s a bit more ambiguous as to what the exact end goal is for members who join.

When you’re selling an online course, there’s a clear beginning and end. This makes it a lot easier to state the benefits someone would get from joining your course.

As a tip, if you don’t have any past experience in selling info products online, you might want to consider creating a small online course first as a minimum viable option of your product to prove that you can get it to work. We’ll cover that later in this post…

Generating Revenue


As a business owner, it’s important to consider how you’ll be generating revenue while you’re growing your membership site or online course in the early stages.

When you are starting a membership site or online course you’re going to be starting from $0 in revenue per month.

As you’re growing your site in the beginning stages you’ll need to keep your existing business going.

Be it through the services you offer, consulting, coaching or whatever else your business does, to help subsidize your membership site or course until it’s able to support itself on its own.

Whether you’re planning on starting an online course or a membership site, the first and most important thing to focus on is going to be getting a selling and marketing your site.

It’s also important to remember that you want to launch with a very simple version of your program at first. Without investing that much time in building your site.

Once you have that, you’ll want to focus all your energy on generating traffic and convincing people to buy your course or membership so they try it out.

Once you’ve found some people to buy you’ll need to find more of them and remain focused on that. If you can create enough sales momentum, that can help push your site into the next stage and beyond where it will start generating a real amount of revenue.

Let’s take a look at the business models membership sites and online courses follow.

Revenue From Membership Sites


If you opt for a membership site, you’ll generate recurring income from monthly (or yearly) subscriptions. What this means is that your site’s members will pay a monthly membership fee to gain access to the content and other things you give them with your membership.

You’ll want to stay focused on just selling to new members until you have over 100 paying members. After that stage, focusing on retention becomes more important.

Revenue From Online Courses


Online courses, on the other hand, are sold as one-off products. The revenue generated by online courses depends on the number of transactions made. Simply put, the more courses you sell, the more income you’ll generate each month.

As you get more sales over time, collect feedback from your students about what they enjoyed most about your course or what they think would make it better.

You can use this feedback to improve your course, and course sales messaging for future customers.

Consider Taking a Minimum Viable Approach When Starting Your Membership Site or Course


Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of people think they need to build the perfect membership site or online course first before they even begin selling it.

The problem with this is if no ones interested in the content you spent so much time producing and you can’t sell it to anyone after you’ve made it, the idea for your site can flop and all that time spent ends up being wasted.

The truth is starting a membership site, or an online course doesn’t have to be that complicated.

That’s why it’s important to first validate the idea for your membership site in the early stages. Before you invest a ton of time in taking it to the next level.

That’s why we recommend taking an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) approach first and keep things as simple as possible at first when you’re just starting out as you prove the concept for your course or membership.

Here are a few ways you can take an MVP approach to start a new course or membership site:

Pre-sell Access

Pre-sell access to your membership site or course ahead of time, before you invest any time in creating any of the content that will be inside of it.

If enough people do buy it, you’ll know it will be worth your time to create your new course or membership site and you’ll have some revenue generated that can help you build it.

Worst case, if you don’t sell enough you can just give the money back to anyone who did join and say that you didn’t get enough people to sign up. At that point it’s time for you to go back to the drawing board and rethink your concept.

Keep it Simple

You don’t want to build the Taj Mahal of membership sites before you make a single sale or have even proven the idea for your site will work in the first place.

What’s also important to keep in mind is that you don’t jump in and end up creating a bunch of content that no one’s interested in watching. Release your site with the minimum amount of content that’s needed at first.

Having actual members or students in your site, while you’re producing and releasing your content gives you a valuable feedback loop that you can leverage. Don’t overbuild. In the beginning, you can offer other bonuses, besides content, to add value to your site as you build up the content.

Focus On Selling And Marketing A Minimum Viable Version Of Your Site First

Focus on selling and marketing a minimum viable version first of your site until you have 100 members or 100 sales of your course. As a new membership site or online course owner, it’s easy to get distracted with everything you could potentially do. The most important thing you’ll want to focus on in the beginning is selling your membership site and attracting new members.

Without that focus, your membership site will ultimately fail if you’re not generating enough revenue from it.

If you want to get some more advice on how to take a minimum viable approach to start a new online course or membership site, you’ll love this past video we had recorded with our friend Kim Snider: How to Create a Successful Membership Site Without a Blog, Email List, Team or Huge Ad Budget…

Conclusion


Hopefully, that gives you some good food for thought about whether you should start a membership site or an online course.

We covered the differences between membership sites and online courses. We discussed the factors you need to consider when deciding between both options. We hope that now you’re in a better position to make a more informed decision.

If you’re still on the fence between creating a membership site or launching an online course, consider taking an MVP Approach by following some of our suggestions mentioned.

By doing so, you will be able to prove that your idea is a viable concept and will be worth investing more of your time and resources in it.

If you found this article helpful and want to find out ways you can add more value to your membership site or online course, you’ll love this free guide we’ve put together titled, “9 Ways You Can Add Value to Your Membership Site… Without Creating More Content.”

The same nine ways can also apply to an online course. Check it out through the link below to see for yourself!

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