The membership site (a kind of “online club” where customers pay to join and access information) is the latest thing in online business opportunities at the moment. For quite a while now I’ve been thinking this is something we should examine more closely in What Really Makes Money.
The snag is, membership sites have always been quite tricky to set up and get off the ground for small entrepreneurs. This month, however, I’ve found a way that makes getting started easier and more practical than ever before.
Why a membership site?
Since the Internet began people have become used to using it to obtain information for free. But membership sites – where the information is charged for behind what is known as a paywall – are a phenomenon that is growing fast.
Apparently, in the USA alone Internet users spent over $2 billion on membership website subscriptions last year... and that’s with membership sites still very much in their infancy.
In some ways membership sites are a bit controversial. The jury is still out on how well they’ll do (with all eyes on whether The Times newspaper’s paywall site will succeed, for example). But since they’re a new, ground-floor opportunity just becoming available to the small entrepreneur it would be foolish to overlook them.
One of the most successful hobby membership websites to date - and you may have heard of it - is Ancestry.com. It’s aimed at people who want to research their family history. Ancestry.com is believed to have over 25 million users worldwide and charges each member over £100 a year for membership. (You’d only need your membership site to have a small fraction of those members to do very well from it indeed!)
Almost everybody has a hobby of some kind. Many people have several. And we spend a LOT of time and money on them. In fact, according to research by Sheffield Hallam University, in the UK alone, we spend £10.4 billion a year on hobbies, and hobby spending rose over 5% last year, despite the recession!
What’s more, hobby websites are an area almost untouched by big companies. So it’s not only a potentially profitable market but a virgin market waiting to be exploited too. Better still, businesses based on hobbies hardly seem like work, so they are (or should be) easier to set up and run.
There’s no doubt about it: video is the Internet media of the decade. Every week thousands more websites make use of video, and web users are coming to see it as an integral – if not imperative – part of a good website.
From a practical point of view, for most people at least, it’s easier to create and sell digital content, like video, than write pages and pages of copy or publish an eBook.
So let’s get started and look at how all these elements might work together...
What you need to get started
This opportunity is perfect for a part-time, home- based business: you won’t need any premises or staff, you won’t need any stock and you won’t need any products to sell.
You will need a PC or laptop. And you will need a digital camcorder so you can add video content easily and cheaply. (Consider borrowing one or buying a used one if you’re on a budget.) You won’t need a studio or any special production equipment.
Neither will you need much start-up capital. In fact, most of the tools you need to set up your site are available at a very low cost – and are in some cases free!
You will need a small amount of technical knowledge. However, you won’t need to be a website designer or Webmaster to set up and run your site. There are now software packages for setting up and running membership websites that are straightforward and non-technical (more details to follow).
Coming up with a great idea
As an a side, Hobbies aren’t the only possible subject for a membership site. Your membership site could be for almost any subject. It’s just that I think hobbies are a very practical, do-able and simple way of getting involved in membership sites.
Almost certainly, the best hobby to base your site on is your own
This way you’ll already be knowledgeable and passionate about it, which will make everything else easier.
Tip: If you’re a bit short on hobbies you could collaborate on a site or sites with friends or relations. You set up and run the site while they provide the video content.
While you can set up a site for more or less any hobby, it should ideally be:
• Fairly popular overall: something that a lot of people are looking for more information on.
• Fairly niche: something that it isn’t currently easy to get information on.
This is something of a contradiction in terms of course – so try to strike a balance. For example, fitness is a popular hobby. It’s one that lots of people search the Internet looking for information on. But it’s easy to find free information on fitness. Something like Pilates however, might be good for a fitness-related site. It’s more niche, and harder to find good quality free information on.
• Something that has a worldwide following: this way you can sell memberships not just in the UK but around the globe.
• Something that it will be practical and relatively easy to create informational videos on. I think you can see that it would be relatively easy to make videos about cake decorating on the other hand, scuba diving might be a bit more difficult!
Other than that, your hobby interests (and your imagination) are the only limit. Here are a few ideas for hobby areas you could think about...
• Sport, fitness and health: Football, golf, tennis, angling, running, gym, motorsports, yoga, ballroom dancing, martial arts.
• Arts and crafts: Jewellery making, painting, cake decorating, clothes design, pottery, toy making, candle making. Of all these ideas I really like crafts as a subject for a hobby membership site, because there will be lots and lots of opportunities to make good videos. But it is really up to you.
By the way, here’s an example of a crafting video- based membership site to show you what they’re like: www.yummyarts.com
• Animal and pet related: Dog training and showing, horse riding, bird keeping, equestrian, fish keeping, ornithology.
• DIY and home related: Home decorating, furniture restoration, gardening, plumbing, cookery and entertaining, textiles, property renovation.
• Collecting: Antiques, stamps, coins, etc. • Technical: Computing, electronics, photography,
gaming, motor maintenance.
• Miscellaneous: Bridge, darts, chess. Keyboard or guitar playing. History. Wine appreciation. Music. Fashion. Train spotting or aircraft spotting. (There’s even a very popular membership website for fans of the Eddie Stobart transport firm! Could you start a membership site for a similar, highly niche hobby?)
How to be sure your idea is viable
Now, hopefully, you will have a few ideas for what your hobby site could be based on. BUT... don’t rush off and start it without doing a little research, because there are ways you can get an indication of whether or not hobbyists will be interested in your site (and what information they are looking for) before you commit anything to it.
You can do this using a fairly new technique known as trending. The widespread use of the Internet has made trending much easier than in the past. Trending is basically looking for what’s rising in the popularity stakes out in cyberspace at the moment.
Here are a few simple trending techniques:
Visit forums and chat rooms: Do a search to find all the Internet forums and chat rooms on the hobby you’ve chosen to focus on, if any. Find out what people who are interested in that hobby want to know about.
Blogs: Do a search for blogs on your chosen hobby and monitor them. Sift through to find the best ones. This will reveal what the real experts on the hobby in question are currently talking about.
Social networking sites: Like Facebook, MySpace and Bebo. The easiest one to monitor is probably Twitter – see what’s trending there. Search for people who are interested in the relevant hobby and follow them. Later on, you can also use social networking to market your hobby site too.
Wordtracker: A very useful trending tool, find it at freekeywords.wordtracker.com (this address offers a free trial). Type in your niche idea, such as ballet dancing or war gaming and see how many searches there are each day for that keyword. Ideally your hobby should have at least 1,000 searches per day which means there is a good-sized market for your hobby site. (Any less than that and you should probably think of something else.)
Google Trends: A very good way to spot trends on Google is to use Google Trends. It shows trends in Internet searches over time. Go to: www.google.com/trends. Type in any hobby or subject area – anything from quilt making to snooker – and it will tell you if it is becoming more or less popular as a search over time. That should give you some clues as to whether a video membership site for this hobby will work.
Tip: Spotting trends using Google Trends isn’t an exact science. But use it as a starting point, add information from other sources, plus some common sense and it can be a very handy tool for testing the market.
Setting up your membership website
Setting up a website is easier and cheaper now than it’s ever been. Here are some pointers to get you started:
First, you’ll need to choose and register a domain name (www.address). This should, ideally, include the hobby in the name and be catchy, yet short and simple too.
You’ll also need hosting for your website. Fortunately, there are lots of hosting providers around nowadays, so shop around for the best deal. Most of them offer packages which include domain name registration, website hosting, email and templates for your website (but you won’t need these, see next). A few to try include GoDaddy at www.godaddy.com, Easily at www.easily.com and 123 Reg at www.123reg.com
For example, with Go Daddy a standard site will cost about £40 a year for domain name registration and hosting. However, rather than using their website templates I’d suggest you use the WordPress blogging platform and then use plugins (more about these later) to turn your site into a membership site. WordPress is very well regarded and powerful yet needs only moderate technical know-how to operate. It’s also available FREE. Details here: www.wordpress.org
We have a great book by Internet entrepreneur Sam Goodall. It’s called Your Brilliant Website. It shows anyone how to create smart, user-friendly websites without a lot of jargon. If you’d like to know more about Your Brilliant Website details are here.
The technical side of running a membership website... simplified
In the past, one of the problems with setting up a membership site is that the technical aspects of setting it up could be complicated for a non-tech savvy person... and it could also be expensive. But this doesn’t have to be the case anymore! As I mentioned earlier I’d suggest you use the WordPress blogging/web publishing platform. Although using a blogging system might seem a strange way of doing things you can use what are known as plugins (basically software add-ons) to turn it into a very professional membership website.
Setting up a site on WordPress is very simple, and turning it into a membership site is even simpler with the right plugin.
I’ve asked members of the What Really Makes Money team to research the plugins currently available on WordPress which can turn a simple site into a paid- for membership site (i.e. a site where people have to pay to access certain pages). And this is the one they recommend: The Magic Members Plugin. Details here: www.magicmembers.com
As the name suggests, Magic Members is a WordPress membership site plugin where anyone who knows how to install a plugin (don’t worry, we’ve got a download to walk you through that part) can easily set up and run their membership site.
Basically, Magic Members is a WordPress membership plugin that converts any new or existing WordPress site into a fully automated membership site by following simple and easy-to-understand instructions. For those of us who aren’t web designers this is definitely a good solution, considering the features and support it offers.
Unfortunately, Magic Members isn’t free – it costs $99 (around £60). But for the amount of difficult work and consultancy fees it will save you I think it is a small price to pay.
Just to give you an idea how easy it is, once you have downloaded the plugin, you install it. Then you upload and activate it.
Once you’ve activated the plugin you will see the admin panel that controls how your site looks and works. You set up the different membership levels, payment options, content control, create coupons and so on. For example, to add content such as videos you go to the admin panel, go to the content control option, select download, upload anything you want, select the appropriate level of access and you’re done!
Here’s some more information on the key features of the Magic Members WordPress Membership plugin:
• Unlimited membership levels. Magic Members Membership software allows you to control access to various levels of your membership site to specific membership levels.
A good way to take advantage of this is to have different classes of membership at different membership fees offering different levels of access. For example, “silver”, “gold” or “platinum” and so on. This is a good way of widening your market and maximising your profits.
• Controlled access to content. Obviously this is an essential feature of a membership site. This enables you to control what content different membership levels get access to. So you will be able to give different members access to different parts of your site.
• Multiple billing options. You can set various membership billing options with varied subscription amounts. Your members can pay for their subscriptions on a daily, weekly, monthly or an annual basis. Or set things up so that lower- cost “standard” memberships pay monthly subscriptions while higher-cost “premium” memberships have annual subscriptions.
You can also offer free access to a limited amount of content if you wish. (This is good for “teasing” visitors with a “taster” of what is available if they pay!)
• Wide range of payment modules. Most of the popular payment options are included: PayPal Standard, PayPal Pro, CCBill, 2Checkout, ClickBank, Authorize.net, SagePay, etc. You can use them all or select only those you want. This feature makes it easy for you to receive subscription payments from your members.
• Integration with autoresponders. Magic Members integrates well with email broadcasting and list building services like AWeber, GetResponse, Constant Contact, iContact and MailChimp. So you can use these (mostly free) services to build mailing lists and send out information and newsletters to your members and would-be members very easily.
Creating your videos
Creating hobby videos is much more fun than writing books and manuals. You don’t need to be a writer or editor, don’t need to pay for any printing, nor have much technical expertise. This means anybody can now create information-rich, video-based membership websites. It’s no longer the preserve of highly experienced Internet marketeers.
There is also now a huge demand for online video information products. This is the most modern Internet media format... it’s what everybody wants. People don’t have time to wade through wordy books anymore (and audio is often insufficient for giving out detailed information). They can learn more about their hobby just by sitting back and watching the videos on your site.
Equipment: You don’t need any technical expertise or sophisticated equipment. You see, with hobby websites that “homespun” feel can be very popular.
Buy or borrow a simple digital video camera if you don’t already have one. Some mobile phones can take video footage of course, but a video camera will be easier to use and produce better quality material.
Tip: Once you have some members ask if they’d like to contribute videos, perhaps in return for a small fee or commission.
Video ideas: Now you’ll need some ideas for your videos. Sit down and brainstorm a list of things people might want to know about your chosen hobby. A good theme is “how to”. So come up with video ideas for “how to” do various things within that hobby.
Tip: Use the Google “Video” search facility to look for existing videos on that hobby. Think of ways to make yours better.
For example, let’s say your site is devoted to crafts – specifically jewellery making. You could produce “how to” videos on the following: Basic jewellery- making skills/ How to use tools/ How to choose stones/ How to make a ring/ How to design/ How to make earrings/ How to thread a necklace/ How to make a bracelet/ How to work silver.
When you first start out it’s a good idea to write a simple script. This doesn’t have to be word for word. In fact, this can sound a little wooden. But a good set of notes will help you avoid the awkward silences and umming-and-ahhing that can spoil a video.
Recording your videos: You don’t need a TV studio for your videos. You can record them in your home office, workshop, kitchen or really any location that’s relevant to the subject in question.
Tip: If appropriate record your videos outside because natural lighting is best.
Whilst talking don’t hesitate to refer to any tools, equipment, products and so on that are relevant to your subject. This will help make your video more interesting and useful, as well as easier to present.
Tip: Do a few practice takes. Take plenty of footage to give you editing choices later. Check the quality of the video and audio before you finish the recording.
Editing and publishing: Most “raw” videos will need some editing. Simple software like Windows Media Player will allow you to put music or other audio over the video. Or you could use Camtasia which has a few more functions and is really simple to use. (You can sign up for a free trial of Camtasia at www.techsmith.com). The length of each video will depend on the subject in question, but they will most likely be between 10 minutes and an hour.
In order to upload and publish your video to your site you can use a specialist video service such as Viddler. More details here.
There’s no hard-and-fast rule, but I think you’re going to need about 20 videos to get your hobby site started. In the first few months try to add several every week – with the aim of eventually having an extensive and valuable library of videos.
What else should you add?
While the lynchpin of your hobby membership site will be video, there are also a few other things you can add to your site if you want to. This will help make it a sought-after resource for your hobby. Here are some ideas. All of them can be added using WordPress and a suitable plugin:
A newsletter: Include a box where visitors can sign up for a free weekly newsletter. This not only adds value, but it is a way of keeping in touch with those who have visited but not yet subscribed to your site.
News: About the hobby in question. You can add these by using a news feed or with curation tools.
Reviews: Of relevant products and services. Ask your members to contribute to these.
Articles: Write articles about the hobby in question, or source them from article directories or public domain material. You can also add material to support your videos here, e.g. recipes for a cookery website.
Discussion forums or chat rooms: This is a great way of giving your membership site a real “clubby” feel. It is also user-generated content that calls for very little effort. All you need to do is moderate it.
Questions and answers service: Members can send in their hobby questions and receive a personalised response. A very good selling point for your site.
Shop: Selling relevant products and services. You can add a shop without needing to buy any stock by using affiliate schemes. Amazon’s Associates scheme is one of the easiest to use.
Another way of doing this is to link your site to online sales platforms – such as eBay. (Tip: Folksy.com and Etsy.com are good if your site is about arts and crafts hobbies.)
Promoting your site
Don’t forget you’ll need to attract traffic to your site. There are lots of different ways to do this but it’s much the same as any other website. Here are a few tips:
Offline advertising: In newspapers and magazines related to your hobby. Send press releases. Most hobbies have several magazines devoted to them.
Article marketing: Write lots of relevant articles. Submit them to article directories such as www.ezinearticles.com and link them back to your website.
Google AdWords: Here’s the clever thing... you have already checked earlier that plenty of people are searching for your subject. So you just bid on those keywords and others related to them.
Social media: Such as Facebook and Twitter. Look for existing communities and users who are already interested in your hobby. Post some of your videos as freebies on YouTube and link back to your membership site.
Joint ventures: Do deals with conventional offline hobby clubs to promote your site to their members, perhaps using an affiliate scheme.
What to charge for membership
I have to say this is slightly tricky. As hobby membership sites are fairly new it’s difficult to give exact recommendations on what you can charge for them.
Do a bit of research and a bit of experimenting to see what pricing works best for your site. Typically, membership websites charge in the region of £5 to £15 a month, but it will probably depend on how niche your subject is and how much video material you have available.
Also experiment with different payment options to see what works best. For example, make your site entirely members only. Or price all the video products within your site so anyone can buy them. But offer free access to members who pay a monthly membership fee. Or offer a tiered range of memberships. Only members on the top level receive free access to everything. While budget memberships offer more limited access. (The Magic Members software makes it easy to do this, by the way.)
But this is one of the best things about membership websites: they produce a regular, recurring income for you – month by month, year by year. Also, because members pay on a (usually) monthly basis they are very attractive to customers too. They don’t have to shell out a large lump sum all in one go. So they are very affordable, and customers are much more likely to sign up.
Verdict... how much could you make from hobby membership sites?
I’ve already run through a few reasons why I think hobby membership websites are worth considering as an online opportunity. But here’s what I think is one of the best things about them...
They are a fantastic way of leveraging your efforts. Look at it this way. Once everything is set up and running you can maximise your turnover with very little extra work.
Once a video has been produced it can earn for you year after year for no extra work. Your hobby membership site might just have 100 members in the first year. If, over time, you expanded that to 1,000 or 10,000 members you would be turning over 10 or 100 times more. But you would not need to do 10 or 100 times the work.
It’s tricky to say how many members you might recruit. Chances are it won’t be as many as 2.5 million users worldwide like Ancestry.com (but who knows!) But even with a much smaller membership the figures certainly stack up:
A small membership website would still represent just a part-time, home business. And the running costs would be relatively low, offering strong potential profit margins.
Long term, as well as expanding the initial site you could also look at taking your basic template and duplicating the same format to create more membership websites for hobby subjects, either related or unrelated. If you don’t have enough hobbies to base other sites on then hire enthusiastic hobbyists to provide the videos and other content for you on a commission basis.
I think this opportunity is well worth looking into further. It combines a promising new business model (the membership website) with the upsurge in video and something relatively easy and fun to do – hobbies. Although to some extent membership websites are unproven this is a ground-floor opportunity that could just turn into something big.
If you’d like to know more about membership websites or video-related businesses let me know and we could cover them again in a future WRMM.
PS. Don’t forget your free download. It explains how to install plugins to your WordPress membership site.
by Mark Hempshell
Business Opportunities Expert
Mark Hempshell is a regular contributor to What Really Makes Money. You can sign up for the free weekly eletter here: