How to Separate Free and Paid Content for Your Membership Site

by ada on November 10, 2011 · 16 comments

How to Separate Free and Paid Content for Your Membership Site

When you run a paid membership site, you need to find the healthy balance between free and paid content. Your free content is the bait that attracts new users to your paid membership site and you can’t do without it but your paid content is the stuff that (supposedly) makes you money. How do you decide which content goes into the free section and which is only for paid members?

This could be a tricky question – you need to know where to draw the line. While there are no rules fixed in stone, here are some basic principles to keep in mind when deciding how to separate your free and paid content.

If It Is Really Precious, It Ought to Be Paid

Your free content must be valuable but it obviously shouldn’t be more valuable than the paid content. This is easy in theory but in practice you might frequently have problems to sort what goes where. Needless to say, your paid members deserve the best, so you’ve got to keep the tastiest bites for them. But how do you this while still keeping your free members (and would-be members) well fed?

First, you need to decide which is the most valuable part of your content. This varies from site to site and from one business to another. For instance, a client of mine used the following strategy with his ebook site: he had a pair of ebooks for each topic – a 20 page one that was free to download and the full version (100+ pages) for the paid members.

The shorter book was a standalone product and you could benefit from it even without getting the 100+ page one but the thick book was where the secrets were hidden and the strategies that were just briefly mentioned in the short one were discussed in more detail. Essentially, the 20 page book was an abridged version of the full edition and even though it was valuable in itself, the really precious stuff was in the larger book.

The Bait Is Free

The example in the previous section is just one of the many strategies you can use to stimulate the interest of your users. However, if you feel you need a real bait, you need to modify the strategy a bit.

If we continue the example in the previous section, we could have done this. Just list the Table of Contents (i.e. the points that constitute the solution of a problem) and add that the real advice isn’t free. However, this isn’t much of a bait because your users aren’t getting a preview of what the real advice is and they are right to think you are just making promises you may or may not keep.

This is why it is best to modify the strategy a bit. You can give parts of the 100+ page book (i.e. Chapters 1 and 2 in their entirety) for free and mention that the rest is for paid members only. It goes without saying, that the quality of the rest of the book must be the same or even better than the quality of the bait; otherwise your paid members will feel scammed.

If you have more than one membership level (i.e. paid membership, free membership, and content that is generally available to everybody online), you can make the following division. For instance, if the membership site in question is a job board, you can have the first one or two paragraphs (without the name and the contact info of the employer) of the ad visible to everybody (and indexed by search engines, of course), the rest of the job ad (i.e. the requirements and the compensation but not the contact info) visible to free members and the full text (with the contact info) visible only to paid members.

This feels fair because everybody can see what you have on site, register for free, if interested, and upgrade to a paid membership to contact the employer, if he or she meets the requirements and wants to apply.

If You Can’t Sell It, Give It for Free

This isn’t exactly the situation an owner of a paid membership site dreams of but since it is not an uncommon scenario, the best you can do is take advantage of it. In other words, when life serves you lemons, make lemonade. If you have good content that despite your efforts and all the promotion you are giving it still doesn’t sell well, consider using it as a promotion tool and start giving it for free. If you are lucky, it could go viral and bring you many more visitors.

However, you need to be cautious with this because if you are doing it on a regular basis, this can seriously cut your profits. In a sense, it gets similar to discounts at stores – if you discount good recent stuff, your customers will soon learn that if they wait a bit they can get it for a fraction of the price or in your case – for free. Therefore, use this strategy only occasionally, otherwise it will turn against you.

Once you become more experienced in managing a membership site, you will learn what works for you. Till then don’t fear to experiment to discover which content you can sell and which content you’ll have to make free – either as a bait, or as a promotional resource.

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Jasmine November 11, 2011 at 2:33 am

Good tips, Ada. It is a great idea to use some of our content as a “bait”… and to see more the user will have to sign up the membership.
Jasmine@Top Web Hosts´s last blog post ..Malaysia Web Hosting TheGigabit

Brandon November 11, 2011 at 2:33 am

I have the unlimited magic members plugin for Wordpress which is great and handles all that good stuff. I just haven’t gotten around to finishing my membership site yet.
Brandon@Make Money Blogging´s last blog post ..Tips for Establishing Partnerships With Clients

goa carnival November 11, 2011 at 6:42 am

Nice One,

I think it’s not necessary paid things will be always good but yes if we will run with the help of both options paid and free then may be prove good for us.

I like #2 point “”The Bait Is Free”" this option will give so much advantage to us.
goa carnival´s last blog post ..Goa Carnival 2012

Online Marketing November 11, 2011 at 8:46 am

Having a members only area on your site is a great way to monetize your site but you should have top quality content on your paid area since you want your members to feel that it really worth to pay a fee, thanks for sharing these valuable tips…

Kostas | Opportunities Planet
Online Marketing´s last blog post ..Tips to Become a More Versatile Freelance Writer

Aarti November 11, 2011 at 4:46 pm

Agreed with your points, but you need to decide as per your requirements which membership suits you for free or paid. I mean paid membership is obviously great but sometimes low budget don’t allow you.
Aarti @ Seo Services´s last blog post ..SEO Company

ada November 11, 2011 at 9:37 am

@Jasmine – this is what baits are for. :D
@Brandon – you are up to a good start, then. A membership site does take time but this applies to any other type of sites as well.
@goa carnival – no doubt there is a lot of paid crap around but if you want to run a successful membership site, lots of crap, paid at that, isn’t the road to success.
@Online Marketing – more than true. Even when content is free, it must be of good quality but for paid content top quality is the bare minimum. )
ada´s last blog post ..Setting Up Amazon CloudFront CDN in WordPress is Really Easy!

Robin November 12, 2011 at 2:37 am

If you want to start a paid membership site, the quality of contents and video whatever you are planning must be of highest quality otherwise you will loss the readership as well as reputation.
Robin@Samsung Tablet´s last blog post ..Samsung Tablet PC- Features of Entertainment Hub for Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1

ada November 12, 2011 at 8:17 am

Hi, Robin,
You are absolutely right about the reputation – it is much more precious than the income you can make from a high-earning site.
ada´s last blog post ..Setting Up Amazon CloudFront CDN in WordPress is Really Easy!

tires November 12, 2011 at 9:30 am

Yea, I have to agree that if one does have a premium members only section, the content should be truly valuable and worth it otherwise those members will leave in a hurry. I guess the best thing is do like most sites do and lure people with some quality free content so they know what they can expect before paying.

tires´s last blog post ..How to stay safe while driving on wet roads

Mat November 17, 2011 at 5:57 am

I agree that if you are provide quality free contents, more and more members will come for paid membership otherwise you won’t be able to reatin those members.
Mat@Carports Kits´s last blog post ..Metal Carports Kits or Timber Carports

ada November 17, 2011 at 9:03 am

In both cases – i.e. for free and paid content you need quality content. The problem is to figure out which of this quality content is really valuable and make it paid. If you know your members and their interests, it is easier to decide but still it is always a huge problem to solve.
ada´s last blog post ..Setting Up Amazon CloudFront CDN in WordPress is Really Easy!

William November 19, 2011 at 12:32 pm

Ada, thanks for this info. My dream has always been to have a membership site but the real hindrance has been the business model. I don’t know what to build in contents

ada November 21, 2011 at 1:23 pm

Hi William,

You are lucky – your dream isn’t that difficult to implement. :) As for contents, first you need to decide what niche your membership site will be in, whom it will be targeted at (i.e. beginners, pros, etc.) and then it becomes much easier to figure out what content to include.

Mukundan Srinivasan November 28, 2011 at 1:57 pm

Running a membership site required great quality content. It’s better to sell it for a price if the work has taken lot of time and effort.

ada November 29, 2011 at 11:47 am

Hi Mukundan,

Selling your membership site once it becomes more or less profitable is also an option. I too would do it, if I get a good price and if I see that its maintenance is taking me too much time and effort. However, if the price you get is equal to or less than what the site makes in just a couple of months, then I’d rather keep it than sell it for peanuts.

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