Keeping your valuable information behind locked doors and only giving access to those that pay you for the privilege is the basis of the membership or subscription web site business model.
As the owner of a membership site, you will have to determine how to best handle the security of your information and still make it convenient and easy for your paid members to get access.
Here are the usual approaches that I’ve seen and dealt with in my Internet experience.
1. Create your own platform.
You can hire a software programming firm plus a web designer or a freelancer to create the platform you want for your membership site. You can have them include exactly the features and functionality you desire.
The cost of this alternative, though, will be well beyond most small business capabilities, and therefore, I do not recommend this approach. Why reinvent the wheel when there are so many excellent applications and packages available on the market right now at a reasonable cost?
2. Application service provider platform.
There are software companies that offer to host, upgrade, and trouble-shoot a subscription web site for the business owner. Often they charge a one-time setup fee and then a monthly or yearly license to maintain and host your web site on their server.
Often these providers (ASPs) have varying levels of products depending upon the features that you want, the number of subscribers that you anticipate, and the comprehensiveness of your information and offerings. The more members you have and the more information you place on your site, generally, the higher the fees will be.
The advantages of this model are that the ASP will handle the installation and maintenance of the platform, usually give you free upgrades when they are available, and most often offer customer support when technical problems arise.
Disadvantages include a high cost over time, design and feature constraints based upon your choice of the offerings they have, and you may be tied into a long-term contract.
3. Software that is sold and self-installed on your own server.
You can purchase off-the-shelf products that you (or your own technician) install on your server. You set up and maintain the platform and are responsible for its operation in every way. You are simply buying a license to use the codes developed by another company.
This alternative offers increased flexibility in design, options that you choose, and the ability to run additional software in conjunction with your site if you desire.
It is generally less expensive than a hosted application because you are responsible for every aspect of the software’s operation and upgrading. Because of that fact, more of your time (or your technician’s time) will be required with this alternative.
Some software products come with the option of getting technical support from the company during setup and maybe the first year. Some companies will sell you “support” packages that give you extra help when you need it, often sold in either monthly or annual installments.
It’s important to find a product that is not beyond the sophistication of the web master to operate. There are many choices in this space depending upon the features and “bells and whistles” you desire in your membership site.
4. Regular web site behind a locked gate.
There is software (and/or scripts) that will require registration with user names and passwords that can lock certain areas or sections of a typical web site. Some even come with the ability to charge members recurring fees for locked content on the site.
This subscription model will typically not have all the usability and features of a full- blown membership site. It is an easy and simple way of restricting access to certain parts of a regular web site.
This is by far the least expensive option, but it is also the least professional and probably not a good solution for someone that wants to be taken seriously in the membership site business.
There are so many features available that address specific site function, usability and convenience with dedicated membership ASPs and software packages (as explained in numbers 1 and 2 above) that to offer anything less with this approach will make customers wonder just how serious you are about having a real customer-friendly membership business.
5. Membership list and email or downloads.
I should mention this 5th alternative to membership platforms. It’s probably the simplest and most cost effective alternative. Some subscription businesses don’t maintain a membership web site per se. Instead, they communicate via email or snail mail with their list of members.
You, as a customer, pay to be on the list and receive regular communications. You might get a weekly or monthly newsletter, a regular email, or something physically delivered to your home by a carrier or the Postal Service.
This approach works well for companies that provide time-sensitive alerts or notifications or maybe monthly written products like a magazine or book.
This is the least private or “secured” method as the member can easily share or forward your content to whomever he chooses.
Your choice of platforms to deliver your membership site will likely depend upon three things:
- Your own skill or that of an employee in setting up, operating or managing the site software,
- The financial resources you commit to this part of the business as there is a wide price range of possibility, and
- The type of format that you choose based upon the features and benefits you want to deliver to your paying members.
Membership sites are a great way to make money and the alternative ways of executing this business model are many.
Go into this business with your eyes wide open.
To your online business success!