Callie Willows

#157 How To Launch A Membership Site With Callie Willows

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Callie Willows, the co-founder of The Membership Guys, a membership academy that teaches its members how to create and run successful memberships.

She is on a mission to show entrepreneurs and small business owners how they can better leverage their time, knowledge, experience and expertise – as well as increase their income – by creating a successful membership site and online community.

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“It is a numbers game. So if you’ve got a hundred people on your email list, you’re not going to get a hundred members out of the gate. You need to be realistic about how many members you’re going to get.”

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Topics Discussed In This Episode:

  • How Callie went from being a nutritional therapist and naturopath to creating The Membership Guys with her co-founder
  • Launching their membership with a 30-day challenge and what they now recommend their students to do instead when launching a new membership site
  • Her advice for membership site owners struggling to get new members
  • Callie’s favorite way of getting new members into The Membership Guys
  • Membership retention tips to keep your members staying longer

Resources Discussed In This Episode:

How Callie went from being a nutritional therapist and naturopath to starting The Membership Guys.

So I had a natural health practice, and I also had an e-commerce business alongside that where I sold supplements, herbal remedies and things. That was kind of my first foray into the online space. So this was about 16 years ago now.

So I had the online e-commerce store and I had the natural health clinic, and my own health wasn't very good. I've got lupus, and I went through a really tough phase where I couldn't see with clients anymore. And it came to that kind of moment where I had to rethink my business and I didn't want to just shut everything down, but I needed to work in a different way.

So I then started looking at, well, how can I kind of use the knowledge that I have to help people without having to go and see people face to face and spending a lot of time with clients. And that was kind of when I discovered membership sites.

I already had the e-commerce side of the businesses, and as part of that, I'd already actually started a subscription box where I was sending people packs of nutrients every month. So I decided I'd set up this membership site that gave people all the nutritional support and information alongside that.

That's kind of what led me into memberships in the first place. But then I quickly discovered I loved the behind-the-scenes of the membership model, and I had a lot of friends in the health and fitness industry who started looking to me and saying, "hey, can you help me do the same thing? Can you help me set up a membership site? Can you help me do this?"

And so I gradually transitioned into spending more and more time helping other people setting up their own membership sites, so their own kind of training sites, and I loved it.

I eventually just started doing that, had a company where I was helping mainly health and fitness people set up their membership sites, and musicians as well.

At the same time, my partner Mike had a web and marketing agency. So he's a developer, he's a designer. He's clever like that. He's got lots of skills. So it got to the point with my business where I was getting more and more complex membership products where I needed to get somebody else in to help, and so Mike was kind of a natural fit for that.

So we started to working together on a few of clients and then we realized we worked really well together. We then started an agency together, and initially we were focusing on WordPress websites in general, but we were still getting mainly membership sites.

Because that was kind of where I'd been working and gradually, I got Mike interested in that. They're a lot more intricate than normal websites. So we niched down and down and down until we were solely focused on focusing on helping membership site owners.

But then we reached that point again, where with any client business, you've only got so many hours, you've only got so many people you can help and things like that, and we were getting more and more people coming to us. This was about six, seven years ago.

Now we're getting more and more people coming to us who wanted help with a membership site, but either couldn't afford our agency fees or just needed it done on a timescale that we couldn't work with because we were fully booked.

So we started looking for a resource we could send people to and there just wasn't anything about memberships out at that time. It was kind of the more internet marketing scummy kind of just leaves a bad taste in your mouth kind of thing.

So we sort of sat down and we thought, well, let's create something. So that's where Membership Academy was born and we started the membership at that point.

We'd been so focused on client work that we weren't an online business ourselves. So we didn't have an email list, we didn't have a big audience, we weren't well-known names in the online space at all.

So when we started The Membership Guys, we were essentially starting from zero. Obviously, we had all that background between us - over 25 years of business experience that we bought into it. So we started off from zero with The Membership Guys and Membership Academy, and it's just grown from there over the last five and a half years.

How many members does The Membership Guys have right now?

We've got about 2,500 to 2,800 members at the moment.

How long it took for The Membership Guys to hit 6-figure and 7-figure.

The 6-figure mark, we reached in about 12 to 15 months. The 7-figure mark took us about 3 to 3.5 years.

Launching The Membership Guys and getting their first members.

The first thing that we did was we started, as soon as we realized we were going to create the Academy, we started building an email list. We created an opt-in, we did all of the usual things - set up a wait list, which is one of the first things we always tell everybody to do.

Actually, as we were working on the membership site, we started blogging. We started podcasting on memberships and then what we did in the run-up to the launch was we did a 30 day free challenge. So we did a "30 day build your membership site challenge" with an exercise a day.

So that was really how we grew the list and we launched on the back of that. So when we launched, we had about, neither of us remember very well, but it was about 350 to 500 people... less than 500.

Initially we still had the agency, so we were quite happy for the Academy to grow slowly. We weren't really expecting this to be a full-time job. We kind of went into it thinking, well, we'll give it a year and then we'll see how it's going and what we want to do with the agency. But it took off much quicker than we expected.

So after about three months, we already started winding down that client work and just moving fully into the Academy.

How long were they creating content for before they actually launched, and if they launched at a special price.

I'll be completely honest here. When we first had the idea for the Academy, it took us about six months before we actually got serious about it.

We kind of went back and forth like a lot of our members do about... do I actually do this? Should I do course instead? We had about six months where we were half in kind of doing bits and pieces, but not really.

Once we made that decision that actually, no, we need to focus on this, we need to do this, it was about three months from making that decision and launching. So I think that was kind of April and we launched in August or May and August, something like that.

The first thing we did was set up a Facebook group to build our audience alongside our email list. As I said, we did that 30 day challenge, and on the back of that, we had a special launch price for two weeks.

So that was a discounted price. It was $29 or 290 annual, and that was for two weeks. We then went up to $39 and went from that. We stayed at about $39 for a year and then we moved up to 49, and we've been there for four years.

Advice for those who are struggling to get members when they launch.

Just to go back to the numbers there because I want this to be accurate for people... we had about just under 500 on our list. We got about 150 people in the first two months of the membership, and then I think we were about 400, 500 members by the end of the first three, four months... by the end of the year, just to be transparent about that.

And yeah, we have a lot of members who start small and that's fine. So the one thing we always make sure kind of our members are aware of, or anybody who wants to start a membership, is aware of is that it is a numbers game.

If you've got a hundred people on your email list, you're not going to get a hundred members out of the gate, you need to be realistic about how many members you're going to get.

We just had a member this morning who was celebrating her 40 member goal for her launch and that's awesome. It's a great start. Once you've got those first members, it becomes more more easy to keep growing that as well.

Is a smaller closed beta launch better or try to get as many people as possible into a new membership?

It really depends on you, your audience and the kind of membership.

If this is a brand new audience to you, so this is a market that you're not known in, or maybe you're only just building your email list, then doing that closed beta can work really well.

If you've already got a large audience, you've been running your business for ages, you've already sold other products, then you're far more likely to just do a big launch and get as many members in the doors as possible.

So if you look at somebody like Amy Porterfield, when she launched her membership on the back of her course, it was open to thousands of people that had already done her course, because why wouldn't she?

But if you've got a small audience, then doing that soft launch or a closed beta is a much easier way to get started. And that's also to familiarize yourself with running a membership as well.

Are there certain sales funnels for someone who is brand new to creating a membership and they don't have an audience that they can tap into?

Sales funnel, not necessarily. This can come down to your market a little bit.

So we have members who do really well with a webinar based funnel. We have members who do really well with the challenge. I would say challenges are probably the most consistent thing for a membership site.

I wouldn't recommend most people do a 30 day challenge, but something more like a 5 or a 10 day challenge can work really well as a funnel into a membership because it gives people an experience of what being in a membership with you would be like. It gives you that content and community element that they would be getting in the membership.

So that can work really well for not just a launch, but ongoing promotions of your membership as well.

In general, honestly, the best thing, we're big proponents of an open membership model. There's places where a closed membership model works well, but for us, you know, the Academy, you can join any time. That's the way we want to keep it and that's what the majority of our members do.

And absolutely hands down, more important than a sales funnel is consistent content marketing, having this marketing flywheel where you're just consistently putting out good content is the best way to get members.

Do you have a favorite platform for content marketing?

I would say podcasting is definitely our number one driver of membership growth.

For a lot of our members, it's either podcast or video, again, depending on their niche. We have a lot of people who are music or art-based niches and things like video and Instagram work brilliantly for them.

I would say the channels where people can get to know you a little bit. So things like podcasting, video will convert better than just blogs.

We used to do blogs and podcasts and very quickly, we realized the podcast was what was bringing people to us., so we stopped blogging and just focused on the podcast.

In terms of social channels, it really sounds like a cop-out answer, because it depends, because memberships have so varied audience and the market and things like that.

We've got members who do brilliantly just on Instagram, just from sharing their members' results. And then we've got others who do well with Facebook groups, with LinkedIn or different kinds of things.

But I would say that probably if I had to pick one channel where most people get success, it is Facebook still.

Any advice if they have been creating content online, trying to get members coming in, but it's just not working?

Usually when we see that, if you're building up an audience but they're not converting to your membership, there's some kind of mismatch there.

Either you've not quite got what your potential members are looking for, so your messaging isn't right, or maybe it's just not the right membership for them. It's not what they're actually looking for.

This is why one of the things that we advocate so much is getting feedback from your audience and actually finding out what they want, what they need, what the problems they have are, so you can create something that is going to be something that they can't see your content and not think I want more of that. This is what I need to help me go to the next level with whatever it is.

What's your favorite way of getting feedback from your audience?

I'm a big fan of surveys. So, anonymous surveys are great because people feel a bit freer to kind of give you that feedback.

We always say, there's three audiences that you should be surveying. You need to survey your members once you've got them. You need to survey the people that have left your membership, and you need to survey your audience that haven't joined as well.

So you need those three different audiences that you're surveying, and that feedback is going to allow you to create something even better.

How do you recommend inviting guest trainers and guest speakers to come in and train your audience?

This is a tricky one, because if it's a B2B market, it's usually a lot easier. Most people in B2B, they might want to get in front of your audience. They might want to be able to showcase their experience, their training and get that exposure.

But for somebody in a B2C market, so a hobby market for example, or a music market or a craft market, then there's not necessarily that. So it's usually done more on the basis of building up their own profile or it's done for a fee.

We have a lot of clients in the music industry, and a lot of the time there, they have people come in and create full courses for them and they pay them for that. It's done as an exchange.

But for B2B, most of the time, there's not normally money involved. It's normally a quid pro quo kind of thing. I'll come into your membership, you come into mine or just for the exposure and things like that.

So usually with B2B as well, you'll have people asking you if they can do trainings once you're established, and not necessarily you going to people and saying, can you do this for me? Which I think always feels a little bit odd, especially initially.

And actually in terms of getting guest trainers, it's very similar to how you would approach somebody about getting on a podcast or something. It's just that if you're asking them to do something, the equivalent of a webinar for example, for your members, it is that similar approach to getting people on a podcast.

It's just that it's going to be behind closed doors and it's a bit more exclusive. So you might also decide that because it is that bit more exclusive, they can offer a freebie or they can give an offer to your members as well.

Let's talk about membership retention. What is the average retention rate? How long on average do members usually stay for before they leave?

It's interesting because you always hear that one of the issues with memberships is churn, but actually for a well created membership site, that shouldn't be the major issue at all.

We always recommend that our members are aiming for below 10% churn, 10% of members leaving each month. Usually if you can get that below five, then that's awesome, and that's what a lot of our members managed to achieve.

But even with a 10% churn rate, that means your members are staying on average 10 months say, so if you're charging $49 a month, that's $490 that that member isn't paying essentially. So that's your lifetime value. But for ourselves, for a lot of our members, people stay for years as opposed to a month.

So there is the myth of the three-month membership, because a lot of people think, well, people only stay for three months, but that actually came from porn. Not to get too graphic, but the initial research on membership subscriptions which said that people only stay for three months, it was based on adult sites.

And so we actually did a big survey last year and looked into all of these stats and we have that available kind of as a free, not even any email needed, you can go and download this and see the most recent stats.

We tell people to aim for 10% and below, and that way you're going to grow really effectively.

What is The Membership Guys doing to retain their members? Do members leave once they have their membership site up and running?

Well, no, because the thing with a membership site is getting the membership up and running is actually in hindsight, the easy part. So you get to that launch and that's great, but then you've got to run the thing. Then you've got to improve your marketing, then you've got to improve your retention.

There's always things to learn with a membership site, there's new things to try, there's new tools to use and things like that.

We've had members that have been with us for five years now and that they're growing and growing and growing. Some people don't need that, but for other people, they like using us as a case study. They see what we do, they see how we've evolved over the years, and then take that into their own membership.

We're also providing new training all the time. We do bi-monthly masterclasses that are on latest topics. We've just done one on holiday promotions you can run and things like that, so there's always new things to learn and challenges.

And also just that support element of being around other memberships site owners, so community can be such a huge part in keeping people around on a membership, even if they're not really using your content anymore.

Do you do gamifications or point systems for retention?

Yes, and retention in terms of gamification can be great, but it does depend on your audience.

For us, we focus on just providing as much support as we can for our members. So we are available in our community, if somebody asks a question, then we're likely to answer it personally, as opposed to, it's not somebody on our team or something like that. We're in there every day.

So your community plays a big part in that retention, in terms of giving people support, answering their questions. Not just you, but your other members of that community, where people are sharing and helping each other is really important.

Little things like actually making sure that your members know what's going on in the membership. So one of the biggest things that people kind of don't think to do is actually email their members - a weekly email telling your members, this is what's happened this week. This is the new content you've got access to. This is what's going on in the community. This is the calls that are coming up and actually just reminding members that you exist and what the benefits of the membership are and what they can get access to when they log in.

So gamification can be great as an add-on. We have things like a leaderboard and we have a member of the month and all that kind of thing, but it's really to amplify the smaller, less sexy things like actually just keeping in touch with your members, providing a good experience and actually giving them support and access to you as well.

What are some of the biggest and common mistakes that you see your students make when it comes to membership retention?

Making it difficult to leave. I know that sounds counterintuitive, but we're big fans of make it easy for your members to leave.

The decision to cancel should be difficult, but not the process. You don't want somebody who's made up their mind to cancel, to have to jump through hoops because actually that's just going to leave them with a bad taste in their mouth when they go.

Whereas actually, if you make the experience easy and nice for them, they're more likely to come back later. So we have about 25 to 30% of our members returned to us within six months after they've left, because we make it easy. We support them in that decision.

So you want to make the decision to cancel difficult and not the process, and that means that your members will come back later and you can do win-back campaigns and things like that.

But in terms of actually big mistakes in retention is not listening to their members. It comes back to that member feedback again.

Sometimes we get so in love with the idea of something that we want to do in our membership that we think is awesome, but actually your members are telling you something different. Maybe they're not turning up to this call or they're not watching the training, or they're not doing XYZ but you carry on regardless because it's what you want to do. It's what you think is needed.

Whereas actually, if you listen to the feedback from your members and you tweak things, a lot of the time it makes it easier for you as well. So a lot of the time when you're getting member feedback on something that you're working quite hard on, it might be that like, well, actually we only want that every couple of months or we only want XYZ instead.

And so not listening to member feedback and just being really bullheaded and sticking with what you want to do regardless, is probably one of the biggest mistakes I would say.

What are some of these tools that you're using within your membership site to support all these things?

Our tech stack is Wordpress with Memberpress for the membership side of things. We use a forum called IP board or envisioned community for the forum side of things and that links with WordPress, so it's a seamless, not multiple logins.

And that is a more traditional forum, but it has things like leaderboards points, reputation and things like that or built in. So we keep that side of things as simple as possible.

We also use some tools like Intercom to give a more personal service to members with onsite messaging. We use active campaigns. We use a lot of tagging to try and personalize the service as well.

And we have things like a recommendation engine. So if a member comes in, who's already got a membership site, one of the first things that they'll be asked to do is let us know what you want to work on and they'll choose that and we'll then send them to the content that's best for them.

Base tech setup is quite simple, but then we've customized it a lot to add in more of those custom elements that allow us to personalize things as much as possible. Because going back to your question before about good ways for retention - adding that personal element and things like personal welcome videos, recommendations and all that kind of stuff is one of the best things for retention, rather than people just feeling like another number.

Share a student's success story that has left the biggest impact on you in terms of their success.

One, I would say is a lady called Jody who has a membership site for early tutor. She's in Australia and this is a membership site that helps people with nurseries and things like that to bring in more clients and serve their clients better, and she had great success.

She was working with a closed model initially, and she kind of got up to about, I think, 500 members with the close model. And she then decided to go evergreen and started working on evergreen webinars as part of her process.

Now she's got this evergreen membership site, which has thousands of members doing really well, but most importantly, she's been able to retire her husband. He's at home now looking after the kids while she is working. I just love that story because she's just doing what she loves, her family is getting more time with her, with their dad who previously had a job where he had to travel a lot and he's now home.

So I love that she's in the space of a couple of years, being able to retire her husband and have this great family life whilst working a lot less.

And then the second one I would say is a long-term member of ours, John, who has a blues guitar site and he's been a long-term member. He started off with DVDs and courses and moved into the membership model.

He spent quite a bit of time refining his marketing, working on his niche, building up how he's doing things. And this year, he hit his thousand member goal - so his thousand active member goal.

That was lovely to see because he's well known in our community, and so when he shared that he'd hit that goal, just the reaction from everybody was awesome to see.

And it's lovely because we've known John for ages, we've managed to meet him, he came to our event. And so just being able to see the ongoing growth and progress from 250 members to 500 to 550 to 1,000 and just the tweaks he's made to get to that point. It's just such an awesome, awesome thing to see.

What is the 2021 plan for The Membership Guys?

We are in a big process at the moment. We're expanding the business this year, so we've just taken on two full-time employees. We've got another third employee that we're hiring for at the minute.

Going into 2021, it's really a lot about refinement for us. We're doing a big overhaul of the Academy content and our roadmap, we're just going all in on making our content as useful and as practical as it can be for everybody, and then providing that ongoing content and support.

We're really helping the community side of things with mastermind calls and so the next few months for us are really about just taking the Academy even to the next level.

We're really happy with our growth as it is. As I said, I think 2,800 odd members now. It's already a 7-figure business, but we're just wanting to continue growing that and helping as many people start memberships as possible. We have a really great rate of people starting memberships and growing memberships, but we want to improve that even more.

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