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How to Create a Successful Member Website

14th July 2022
Reading Time
10 minutes

What is a Member Website?

In the broadest sense, a member website is any in which sign-up with an email address to establish a registered account is required to gain access to features that are not available to non-members. This may be free sign-up or paid membership registration.

Free sign-up for membership status can be an attractive option to many websites seeking to grow engagement because they give users who become members a sense of community belonging without any cost attached, and at the point of sign-up, websites can also normally obtain permission to add them to their newsletter mailing lists, further keeping them in the loop in a way that promotes repeated engagement with the website.

Member websites with paid sign-ups must offer recognisable benefits to the member to justify the cost of sign-up. Many traditional membership organisations that existed before the Internet have annual membership fees to cover their running costs; and member websites serving their members will generally benefit from including exclusive members-only areas and content that helps to justify the payment of the annual membership fee, although there may also be offline benefits included in the offering such as magazine subscriptions, eligibility to attend conferences, or discounts on lectures and conventions.

We do not count account sign-ups for e-commerce sites as constituting memberships, because the purpose of the sign-up in that case is simply to store a record of a customer’s name, contact details and transaction history.

Features of a Member Website

Member landing page / membership sign-up page:

To be functional, any member website that requires logged-in credentials will need an easily accessible page from which it is possible to sign up as a member or log in. This should ideally be a top-level element in the navigation bar for the site, and also linked internally from the home page and any other relevant pages that are likely to see a significant volume of public traffic.

System tracking of logged-in or returning members

A system that records registered member emails and passwords and can recognise when a member has logged in is also essential. It will be found necessary for the system to track members while they are logged in to ensure that they continue to be recognised as deserving of access to member-only areas. Cookies in the legitimate interest of recognising logged-in members for the duration of their session will be required, and it can be helpful if log-ins do not automatically expire and browser cookies then recognise when members return to the website at a later date from the same device – provided that it is not a shared computer that therefore runs the risk of compromising account security.

Customisable Member profile area

Many member websites allow individual users to create a personal profile that is visible to other members as well as to the administrators. Depending on the nature of the member community, this is likely to include the ability to upload one or more photographs, a brief or more detailed personal statement, and lists of hobbies, interests or aptitudes. It may also allow the member to provide contact details such as telephone number, email address and physical mailing address if there are not good privacy-related reasons to restrict their visibility to other members.

Themed community discussion forums

One of the most popular feature of member websites since the very early days of the Internet has been forums. Unless the community is a small enough one for all posts to fit neatly on a single message board, these will normally take the form of multiple message boards, each with its own distinct named theme.

It will be found necessary to spend regular time moderating the message boards for vulgar, threatening, insulting or otherwise inappropriate content in order to avoid offensive users frightening others away and potentially tarnishing your entire brand. Thriving web communities can usually attract volunteer moderators from among their active membership in time, so pay attention to who is most active and seems to enjoy getting attention for their posts at the same time as posting responsibly, and consider offering voluntary moderator roles to such individuals.

Exclusive member-only discounts on products and services

It is often effective to incentivise paid memberships by offering discounts on the regular cost of your paid products and services to members. This may take the form of offline benefits or of ones that can be processed through your online environment. Coupon codes may be issued from time to time to give members exclusive discounts on particular products or ranges of products in your online store, if you have one. The important thing here is to make it apparent that these benefits of membership exist, even to non-members who are exploring your website and need to be persuaded of the value of membership before they sign up.

Exclusive premium (member-only) resources and content

In addition to, or instead of, providing discounts on products and services, you may choose to prioritise the publishing of exclusive content that only members are allowed to view. This may include expert articles written by you or your colleagues, video guides, music, or photography and artwork. By making this exclusive to members, you will not optimise it for search engines, but you will give them a reason to pay for a membership, and this can be the basis of a business model whereby you constantly create new high-quality content which members can only access for the duration of their paid subscription.

How to Attract Members to a Member Website

Clear public visibility of membership benefits

The most important way to attract members to your member website is to prominently display the benefits of membership on a dedicated web page that is both optimised for search with appropriate headings and meta-tags and well-served by internal links from other pages in your site.

No-obligation trial membership

You can go further than this to offer a free no-obligation 14-day or one-month trial, with no charge unless the member decides not to cancel after this cooling-off period. In this case, consider carefully whether you require payment details up-front in order for the new prospective member to be automatically charged when their trial expires. If you do, it may put some prospective members off, but if you don’t, you will need to have a procedure in place to nudge the prospective member for payment as soon as their trial expires or is close to expiring.

Exclusive new-member offers

Another option is to offer one-off or time-limited discounts, deals, free gifts through the post, and / or exclusive online content as a thank you for initial sign-up. These offers will not be repeated further into membership, but may help to justify the initial sign-up cost. It is important to consider whether they make economic sense for anyone who is paying on a month-by-month basis, or whether they should be reserved for members who have prepaid for a full year’s membership.

Exclusive content and discounts for ongoing memberships

Examples of such features were already outlined in the Features section above. Here we will limit ourselves to defining the principle of offering such exclusive content or other benefits to members. Simply put, unless there is a defined set of benefits to membership, there is no conceivable reason for anyone to become a member. This is true even of free member websites, but it’s particularly obviously true for those that require a paid membership.

Profile pages, communities and forums

These features, described earlier, are the lifeblood of what keeps member websites socially engaging. In these cases, the attraction is not any product you are selling but the opportunities you are creating for networking and interaction between members.

How to Engage and Retain Members of a Member Website

Nurture and grow your community

It is important to be aware that there is a huge amount of competition for online communities from big social media sites and very well-established special-interest websites that established their own forums a long time ago. To grow a new community in a crowded online space is not going to be straightforward and may be problematic unless you represent an established organisation that already has thousands of offline members.

To grow a community, you or colleagues of yours will need to actively start new discussions themselves to begin with, as well as responding encouragingly and welcomingly to strands started by other members. You will need to bring plenty of positive energy to the tone of your posts so as not to put off members. Sometimes, established communities are unwelcoming to ‘newbies’ as jaded members tend to look down on them while seeking to conserve their own perceived senior social position within the community, so make sure you don’t allow established members to post in a way that is unwelcoming to others either.

A regular stream of new content

Nothing causes member communities to fade faster than a lack of anything new. Alongside nurturing the forums and message boards (if applicable), you should aim to create and post new content at fairly regular intervals. Depending on the size and scope of your community and the amount of work that has to go into each piece of content, this may be at the very least monthly, but preferably at least once a fortnight or ideally weekly. In the cases of the most active communities, daily posting of new content may be justified.

Community status perks for longstanding and active members

Many member websites with forums have status systems built into their software, which reward members with an upgrade to their rank or title each time they reach a certain threshold of posts. This psychologically encourages frequent posting as it gives visibly higher status to those who have built up a track record of numerous posts.

You could also implement a system based on the length of a paid membership, so that members who have more than one year’s continuous membership get a new visible rank, and those who have more than three another one, and so on, spaced out at intervals.

Exclusive benefits for longstanding and continuing members

You can also promote continuing membership by the promise of exclusive benefits each time a member reaches a milestone in length of membership, for example, exclusive virtual chat lounges or for veteran members of more than five or ten years’ standing, or special offers and / or free gifts for each new accumulated year of membership.

Special enticements for those ending their memberships to change their mind

Where a member has recently discontinued membership or failed to renew it in time, it may be found to be effective to offer enticements for their return, such as one-off special offers that are not available otherwise, if they rejoin within say seven, fourteen or 28 days: for example, a discretionary reduction in the next year’s membership fee. Be careful how you use such enticements, however, as savvy members could get wise to them to the point of deliberately allowing their membership to expire every year and then waiting for the special offer before they return. You might have to balance it against whatever bonus they would have got if they had continued without letting their membership expire, and not reward them twice over or otherwise seem to be rewarding them over and above loyal members for their temporary lapse of membership.

Are you looking for help developing your membership organisation online? Need a new or improved member website?
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