How to start a successful membership business without a huge audience

Feeling overwhelmed? It doesn't need to be that way. Here's some tips for getting started.

There’s a good reason why creators and entrepreneurs want to start a membership business. It generates predictable recurring revenue and presents the opportunity to stake one’s work on a sustainable business model.

This trend is everywhere. Brands, publications, communities, and individuals are adopting premium membership models in one form or another, including:

However, there’s one thing that deters other people from starting their own membership business. Overwhelm.

Making a membership site can feel like a tall order — and it is — which is strange, because gaining success on your membership business doesn’t require you to have a massive following. For as long as you have the curiosity, the innate stubbornness to push through, and a couple hundred ‘true fans,’ you have everything you need to start a successful paid membership business.

A less stressful approach to your membership business

Membership businesses make money from members. Naturally, you’d want as many members to sign up as possible. More members mean more revenue, right?

To get more members, you need more traffic. To get more traffic, you need a bigger audience. However, there’s a better, far less stressful way.

Finding your 1,000 true fans

According to Wired’s executive editor Kevin Kelly, you don’t need millions of dollars or millions of followers to become successful. To make a living as a creator, you only need 1,000 true fans. And in a lot of cases, even less.

True fans are fans who buy whatever product you produce. They hold onto your every word. They consider you their ride-or-die and regard you with a tonne of respect and trust. They pay for your course, your e-book, and your newsletter.

By honing in on your ‘superfans’ and their wants, you’re eliminating the need to capture more people who are less likely to sign up. When you serve your true fans, your membership business becomes more informed and fun, too. You’re no longer serving mere statistics and demographics, but actual people who support you and your work.

Remember, you only need to find a thousand — or in many cases — far less.

Making your membership unique and more intimate

Starting with a small audience is an advantage. You’re able to tailor a more intimate experience for your members, something that you’re unable to do at the scale of 10,000–100,000 members.

Take your time to build a unique experience for your members. Reach out to your new members, send them a personal note, or get them on a phone call with you — anything and everything that will make your true fans’ membership experience that much more special.

It’s worth noting that your true fans will do sales and marketing for you. Keeping strong relations is just one of the many ways that can keep your members happy.

Lessen your members’ overwhelm (and yours!)

Having a paid audience is a great motivator to produce great work. However, it can be easy to fall into the trap of focusing too much on quantity over quality, which can overwhelm your audience.

There’s an excellent reason why services like Instaread and Blinkist are popular. They deliver value swiftly and straightforwardly, and the same should be the case for your membership site. Think strategically about how a specific piece of content will help your members.

Take after membership sites like The Listener. With a clear value proposition of curated podcast episodes, they streamline the content they provide their members with daily emails that deliver a simple promise.

What success looks like for membership sites

The concept of 1,000 true fans posits that you don’t need a massive audience to gain momentum with your membership business. You just need a small tribe of people who will support you, come hell or high water.

That said, you don’t need to stop at 1,000. Many successful membership businesses started with a small audience — if they even had one in the beginning.

Faye Cornhill propelled her membership business forward

Business coach and strategist Faye Cornhill soft-launched to a meager sample of 77 creative business owners, ten of whom bought lifetime access to her membership (priced at $500 each, totaling $5,000 at launch). The revenue from this early win helped her propel her membership forth to some sweet returns.

The Correspondent ‘unbreaks’ the news to more than 50,000 members

The Correspondent funds its journalism by its members. Following a “choose what you pay” model, the site builds immediate trust with readers and unmoors itself from the clickbait-y nature of reporting its peers had adhere to. As of writing, they have more than 50,000 members who pay varying monthly rates.

The Listener shares interesting podcast episodes to paid members

The Listener sends hand-curated podcast episodes to members’ emails every single day. If the offer sounds simple, it’s because it is. Caroline Crampton, the one-woman team behind this wildly successful newsletter, sends three podcast episode recommendations directly to your inbox. Priced at $5/month, The Listener impressively attracts a passionate community to rally behind the paid newsletter.

How the membership business model works

Memberships give creators and brands alike the unique opportunity to make a sustainable income. Your membership site’s success depends on the value your members get when they sign up.

Many membership sites find success regardless of their offer — be that blog content, an email newsletter, podcast episodes, courses, videos, the whole nine yards. Still, it all boils down to how much value is there waiting for members when they jump over the paywall.

Content is what makes or breaks membership sites. For a while, creators and entrepreneurs try to find what works for others and replicate their results. That doesn’t fly as well when building a successful membership business.

You’ve got to ride on what makes your community stand out, what makes your offer something only you can offer. That’s the very start of the membership lifecycle, which you can see pictured above.

It’s what will help you build a small but mighty audience (a.k.a. Your 1,000 ‘true fans’), compel them to join your membership, and foster a long-lasting relationship.

Pro tip: Our extensive guide shows how creators can set themselves up for success in building their membership site. Read it here.

Many platforms help get your membership business up the ground, including Ghost. It’s crucial to stake yours on one that has essential features, such as:

  • Elegant editor for pleasant content creation
  • Easy-to-use backend to manage membership
  • SEO, email newsletter, and social media support
  • Custom themes and custom domain support
  • App integrations to automate workflows

Click here to see how Ghost stacks up against other membership platforms.

The exact steps to launch a thriving membership business (with only a small audience)

Understanding that having a small audience is no deterrent for your membership business’ success is one thing. Making it happen is another.

It will look different for different membership sites, but the five steps listed below are consistent in every process.

Step 1: Validating the offer

The first step is also the most crucial. Determine whether there’s a demand for what you offer. Validate with data and real-world evidence that people want what’s inside your membership.

The simplest way to do this is to find any other companies or individuals that offer something similar to your membership. But remember, you still need to determine what makes your offering unique and play to that.

Another way to validate your offer is through Google search. Use tools like Ahrefs (paid) or Ubersuggest (free) to find out if enough people search for it on Google. The more people searching for that keyword, the bigger the demand. You can apply the same principle using social media communities, other search engines (Reddit, Quora, YouTube, etc.), and relevant forums.

If you have any size of an audience, ask them questions related to what you offer through your membership. Listen carefully to their feedback. It will inform your decisions hereafter in a significant way.

Step 2: Finding your first true fans

Once you’ve validated that people indeed want what you offer, it’s time to find people who’d rave about it — your true fans.

Determine where your true fans hang out online. If your membership is about self-publishing, you’d want to get your feet wet on communities like Goodreads or author-specific groups on Facebook and LinkedIn. Are you looking for serial founders and makers? ProductHunt and AngelList are just two of the largest communities you need to tap.

Keep in mind that you’re only looking to build a small-sized audience at first. The concept of quality vs quantity applies.

Focus on building these relationships, taking extra care to garner as much trust, respect, and authority in your chosen niche. It will pay big dividends in the long run.

Step 3: Showing up in meaningful ways

There’s a false impression that membership sites become more successful by feeding their members more content. Members don’t pay solely for content or information. They pay for one or more of the following things:

  • Progress — Insights essential to help your audience achieve a specific goal
  • Utility — Useful information presented in a way your audience simply can’t find anywhere else
  • Community — An easy way to find other people who are interested in the same niche topic as them

You don’t sign up for a weight loss membership to watch courses or read e-books. You sign up to get access to helpful tools, a supportive community, and most crucially, lose weight. Make sure that your content will help your members achieve what they seek.

Spend time to understand their needs better and wants by making your membership more interactive and participatory.

Step 4: Utilizing tools to scale

Running a membership business isn’t easy. Using tools to help scale your efforts is a great way to keep the needle moving forward in your membership.

It all starts with the right platform and tools to do the job. There’s quite a lot to choose from so it's important to do your research and find the tools that are suitable for your needs. One thing to look out for is how extensible your chosen platform is. No matter what platform you choose, make sure it will allow your business to grow.

For example, Ghost is a CMS for creators and entrepreneurs that comes with built-in features that help you manage and grow your membership business, as well as integrations for extended functionality for community-building (Discourse, Slack), e-commerce (Shopify, BigCommerce), email marketing (Mailchimp, ConvertKit), and more.

Step 5: Sustaining growth

Starting with a small audience gives membership business owners the rare advantage of making the experience more intimate, personal, and unique.

But as ever with all other business models, the list of tasks you need to complete grows as your business does. Outsourcing work on smaller tasks helps much to buy you time to focus more on membership strategy growing your business.

Final thoughts

Starting a successful membership business does not require a massive audience — if you don’t have one already. Sometimes, starting small or even at zero is as much an advantage as it is a challenge. Take to heart the concept of 1,000 true fans. Knock any false beliefs that you need millions of people to be successful.

Everything we’ve covered today should help you progress into starting your own membership business. And as tools that enable subscription-based business models, it’s easier to turn a membership business idea into a reality.

Whether you’re just about to start this journey or looking for tips to make your membership better, subscribe to our email newsletter below to receive email alerts when posts like this are published.

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Create your brand: Launching a publication Start publishing: Creating content that works Grow an audience: Finding your true fans Build a business: Earning revenue from your work