What is a Membership Site?

Wondering how to run a successful online business? You’ve come to the right place. Want the flexibility to work from your laptop and earn some income at the same time? A membership site is one of the best ways to form an online business.

If you’re just starting out, you may be blankly staring at your screen asking, “What is a membership site, anyway?” Lucky for you, we’ve got Membership Sites 101 right here.


A membership site is a gated part of an online business where only members who subscribe can access the content you’ve placed behind the gates. Your membership site can be paid, free, or a mix of both.

A “gate” is simply a barrier you build into your website using a plugin, like the one we offer here at MemberPress. Once you’ve got that barrier in place, members can log in and access exclusive content, special offers, and even be part of a community of other members. They can also interact directly with you.

When we talk about “content,” we mean digital products like ebooks, webinars, online courses, and podcasts rather than physical goods that require shipping.

That’s not to say that if your business offers physical goods you can’t expand to the digital products side. For example, if you’re a photographer and you own your own studio and camera store, you could offer digital products like webinars on how to shoot at night or sell your photos in ebooks. There’s your content!

Pretty simple, right? We think it is, and we can help you build it when you're ready. For now, we'll go over the foundational aspects of a membership site and give you a general idea of how you go about convincing customers to pay for your content.

Example Membership Sites

For starters, take a look at some MemberPress customers running successful online course membership sites:

  • Callie Willows and her partner, Mike Morrison, started Member Site Academy, a successful business that offers training, coaching, and courses for those who want to build their own successful membership sites (and they use MemberPress to run it!).
  • Jack Coble and Alisa Wyatt run Pilatesology, a membership site that teaches the art of Pilates to everyone from beginners to pros.
  • Kara Bullock operates an online art school that offers a large variety of courses for anyone interested in embarking on a creative journey.

If you're at the place where you're looking for your own membership site ideas, you should check out our blog post, 24 Ideas for a Killer, At-Home Membership Business.

Building a Membership Base

The first step toward building a membership site is establishing a membership base. You do that by first finding a niche in your industry. That is, identify a specific area where you can offer something specialized enough that customers will be willing to pay for your content and services.

Consider the photographer example above: What does this photographer offer that no one else can? An e-course on shooting your own portraits? A webinar on starting your own photography business? A membership of fellow photographers who look to this photographer for expertise in landscape photography and want to learn from him or her?

Once you've found your niche, a surefire way to start building a membership base is to offer free content on your site…

The Power of Free Content

Why start with free content? Well, for one, it’ll help you build a solid customer and membership base like nothing else.

That's because those who experience your content firsthand will be more open to paying for premium content in the future. Once you’ve built up a base, it’ll be easier to sell memberships to those who already want to learn from you.

Additionally, if you mix content—free and paid—you can draw new members with your free content. The more members you draw, the greater your chance of securing buyers for your paid products.

As always, consider your audience. A struggling student might not be able to afford your content now, but once they graduate and get a high-paying job, they’ll remember how your content helped them, and they might be willing to become a member once they can pay the dues.

The same can be said for entrepreneurs just starting out and building their businesses (perhaps just like you!).

The Importance of Expertise

Regardless, make sure you present yourself as a trusted, credible source with plenty of information. Your content should be of value to your customers and illustrate your knowledge.

Members will quickly leave your site if they discover they’re paying for content that’s repeated, recycled, or easily accessed by a simple web search.

You’ll be juggling a lot of things as you launch your site, but be sure of these three things: (1) demonstrate that you're an expert in the field, (2) show that you’re passionate about what you’re doing, and (3) convince the world that you want to share what you know.

Kinds of Content

For detailed information, check out our blog on what kinds of content to post.  Also take a look at our post, 7 Tips for Standout Content, to get you started. In the meantime, know that membership sites typically feature the following types of content:

  • Ebooks
  • E-courses
  • Webinars
  • Podcasts
  • Virtual conferences
  • Evaluations


You should now have a basic understanding of where to start when you're thinking about running a membership site. What else would you like to know? Let us know in the comments section below.

Categories: Advice Business
About Lindsay Flanagan

Lindsay Flanagan is a senior editor and project and social media manager at Eschler Editing. She earned her Master of Arts in English and Creative Writing and spent over a decade working in higher education before joining the Eschler team. She and her husband are the proud parents of two brilliant daughters and make their home in Heber, Utah.