5 Steps to Launch Your Membership Model

We’ve tried all these things in attempts to grow our digital ad sales:

  • Hire a “digital” sales person.
  • Create packages that bundle print and digital.
  • Restructure sales compensation plans to motivate more digital ad sales.
  • Shoot more videos and create more email newsletters to increase inventory.

Some tactics work. Some fail and leave us frustrated.

There is a better way. You can break the cycle and thrive in this new “digital” environment.

Now I’m not saying that growing digital ad sales is bad, but I am saying that there’s an opportunity to diversify your income sources so you aren’t so heavily dependent on ads. You wouldn’t put all your money into one stock, would you? Why would you bet the future of your business so heavily on just one source of revenue?

The solution? Create products that your readers are dying to pay you for. Here’s the thing: If you’re a niche content creator, you’re sitting on a gold mine. You have two huge assets in the digital world: great content and a thriving community. Nearly everyone is trying to generate those two things. If you have one or both already, you’re way ahead of the game. All you need to do is monetize them. And the best way to do so? A digital membership.

In A Member Is Worth a Thousand Visitors, I detail the five forces to do exactly this. Here’s a summary to get you on the path of launching or growing your digital membership.

Force #1: Focus on Your Whales

Your first priority should be finding your whales—your most engaged and enthusiastic customers. Forget about the “barnacles” that will consume your content and never pay you a penny. About 20% of your readers are superfans and will be willing to pay you for access to your quality, curated content that solves a real problem for them. Find them and treat them like royalty!

Force #2: Be Conversion-Oriented

Because the ad model rewards eyeballs and clicks, most media websites contain a hodgepodge of links to click on, pop-up ads, auto-playing videos, site takeovers, etc. It’s enough to give you a headache. If you want to sell something, you need to have a clean user experience, with only one call to action per page, and a clear demonstration of your value proposition (what problem you solve, for whom, and why you’re better than anyone else).

Force #3: Upsell

You’re attracting and converting large numbers of whales into paying customers. At this point, many businesses want to move on to new customers. But you shouldn’t stop focusing on your whales yet. Why? It’s five to seven times easier to sell to an existing customer than to find a new one. So, the question becomes: What else can you sell your whales?

Force #4: Measure and Experiment

Leveraging Google Analytics, A/B split tests, data dashboards, and other metrics can help you maximize and optimize what you’ve built. I like to ask clients: What is our learning agenda? In other words, what would we like to discover about our customers that we should test? What’s the right price? What’s the right trial period? Which content should we give away to generate leads? There are many free or low-cost tools that can get us easy answers to these tough questions. Take advantage of them!

Force #5: Create Bandwidth

You might be saying, “hey, Rob, this all sounds great, but we don’t have the time/people/resources!” My response would be that in today’s environment, between software tools, freelancers, employees, agencies, and consultants, you can find the resources. Use external resources to get your membership program up and running – you can always bring it in-house once it’s a proven success.

In the end, I’ve found that publishers who successfully launch membership programs realize a 50-600% increase in digital revenues and feel freer and more focused. So…what are you waiting for?!


Rob Ristagno is the CEO and Founder of The Sterling Woods Group, a firm that builds new revenue streams for media companies and publishers. He is an expert in direct monetization of content. Prior to creating The Sterling Woods Group, Rob served as a senior executive for several niche media and e-commerce companies. He most recently was the Chief Operating Officer of America’s Test Kitchen, considered to be the gold standard in the niche media world for building diversified – and often digital – revenue streams.


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