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I'm Mara — I help creatives create and launch digital courses and profitable products. I love chatting about online marketing, design and goal setting!
So you’re interested in creating a new digital offer for your business…you’ve seen a ton of people creating online courses and memberships, but how do you know which one is right for you?
In this episode, I’m spilling all the details about online courses vs membership sites! So many people get stuck on figuring out which one is the best option for their needs, so I made an episode to help with that decision! Today, I’m sharing the ins and outs of an online course vs membership site, the pros and cons, and who I think would be an ideal fit for each one. Plus, I talk about some strategies to help you to make the decision (and the first action steps to get you started, no matter which one you choose!)
Before we dive in – if you’re ready to just get an answer without listening to this entire podcast episode (though I still highly recommend you do!) I’ve created a free quiz that will help you uncover whether an online course or membership is right for you?
There’s so much overlap between these two options that deciding which way to go can be challenging. After all, both are usually about teaching people a new skill and creating an online community of students (or members!) working towards a common goal.
So, how are they different? Typically, an online course is longer in format and has several video-based lessons. Also, online courses are usually sold at a higher price point. While it’s not always the case, most users pay a higher one-time price to receive all that learning material immediately. In contrast, memberships have a lower month-to-month pricing and content release model.
Speaking of release models, online courses commonly come with lifetime access once you’ve made the purchase. In other words, you buy the course one time, and you receive access to the lessons for as long as that course exists. With memberships, students get access to more newly released content regularly. Still, that access is subject to a cancellation policy – once you cancel, you’ll lose access to members-only content.
There’s also a big difference in how often you should refresh content for each model. With online courses, you might update core content or overhaul the course every two to three years, but memberships release fresh content on a rolling basis. That difference in format also impacts how long it takes a creator to make content for an online course vs. a membership. Online course creators take more time in the beginning to batch content, but membership creators only have to plan their content one or two months ahead.
Now that we’ve worked through some of the basics, let’s talk about the pros and cons of an online course vs. membership so you can start thinking through which one might be a better fit for your business.
Full disclosure: as an online course expert and strategist, I’m more partial to online courses. There’s not a technical reason I think they’re better than memberships; I just personally prefer creating and taking online courses. That said, online courses have some standout benefits – so let’s talk about them!
Online courses are ideal if you’re working with one topic you know exceptionally well and would like to share that information with others. A course has one specific focus, goal, and result in mind. It’s your job to give students everything they need to achieve that end result, so online courses are usually a deep-dive look at one particular thing.
I’ll never tell you that an online course is entirely hands-off because there’s still a lot you’ll need to do for your students. Every course creator should keep up with what students need, answer their questions, and help them stay motivated to work through the course. Also, you should periodically update content and ensure lessons and resources are still relevant to your students as time passes. That said, online courses are less high-maintenance than a membership. You only have to make the content once; then, most of the heavy lifting is done.
People are getting all the information and value of an online course upfront, so they pay more for it in one large sum. That means your revenue can grow faster because you get more money whenever people press the buy button. There are some exceptions to this (like allowing students to pay in monthly installments), but monthly payments on a course are still higher per student than monthly membership fees.
Everyone has gone to school and taken classes before – many of us have even gone to college or taken continuing education classes. So, we already have a sense of how a course works and how to work through something as a student. Since it’s such a familiar format, people don’t have many questions about approaching an online course and working their way through it because the format already makes sense to them.
While you can reasonably expect dozens of students to enroll in your course, you probably will have few people (if any) leaving your course entirely. Memberships (as we’ll discuss in a moment) are more of a revolving-door situation, with members starting up or stopping memberships all the time.
Even though online courses are pretty great, some of the downsides could be deal breakers for you.
Okay, I know I said that was a pro 😂 but it can also be a con! From a buyer’s standpoint, an online course is a more considerable purchase decision, so enrolling a student will probably take more marketing and sales. At the end of the day, it takes more convincing to get people to press the buy button on a $500-$3000 course than it does to get them to sign on for a $30/month membership.
It’s not impossible to change your course without a major overhaul, but it’s also not the easiest thing in the world. You can replace a lesson or make updates to a handful of specific things, but there’s a point where things start to feel disjointed if you’ve only updated part of the course. So you might end up doing a complete rework at some point where you rework lessons and refilm the content – and that’s a big project!
You could end up spending quite a bit of time in strategy calls, coaching sessions, and talking to clients who are super excited to join your course…only to have them taper off and watch their engagement fade away. If that’s a significant concern, you can run your course via live cohorts with limited enrollment periods. However, if you go the lifetime access route, be prepared for seasons when some people don’t interact with your course as much.
This one really depends on how you set up your business, but most online courses have well-defined launch or sales push periods, followed by seasons where they bring in fewer sales. Some people consider this a huge pro because they like knowing when they need to be “on” and in sales mode. Others consider it a con and struggle with inconsistent sales or encouraging evergreen enrollment.
Now that we’ve discussed both sides of the online course model, let’s discuss the ups and downs of building out your digital offering as a membership.
When you’re trying to appeal to students, this can be a huge pro! If an online course is $2000, but you can join a membership for $30/month, and they teach you the same thing…which one do you think will sound more attractive to potential students? Generally, that lower price point is a sweet spot for people looking for a lower barrier to entry on learning new skills.
While an online course is a deep dive into one subject, membership creators have much more freedom to cover whatever they want. For example, let’s say your topic is “How to do bookkeeping in your business.” A course would be focused entirely on bookkeeping, but an online membership might focus on bookkeeping one month, graphic design the next, and passive income the month after that.
To launch a membership, you really only need a sales page, a checkout page, and at least one month’s worth of content. With a course, you’ll need all that…and then some! You’ll need to have ALL course content ready before launch day. Technically, you could do a live delivery model (which is where you create the course content gradually and release it in batches after the first sale), but that’s still a big content creation commitment!
Because it’s so much simpler to set up and has a lower price point, getting a membership up and running successfully is much easier. I’ve seen so many people come up with their membership idea and get the basics up and running in just a few weeks. That would be virtually impossible with an online course.
Now it’s time to talk about the potential downsides of building a membership-based product.
Most memberships are structured for people to pay a monthly or yearly fee for enrollment, but they can cancel whenever they’d like. There are all kinds of different terms you can set around cancelation, but ultimately, some people will walk away. Managing all those cancellations, payments, and fluctuations can cause more customer service and backend work for you and your team than you’d have to do with an online course.
Just like with online courses, this one is a double-edged sword. The price point is a pro for the buyer (and in a way, a pro for the buyer is a pro for you!) However, making money at a lower price takes longer because you’re not getting a large payment from each student like you would with a membership course.
So many times, people dip out of membership before they’ve had a chance to really implement the things you’re teaching and see results. That isn’t the case with a course. Besides the initial refund period, you can’t bail out of a course (though if you’re offering payment plans you probably will have to navigate people not paying their full plan at times). People are more likely to do the work since the financial stakes are higher with a course.
After going over the pros and cons of an online course vs membership, you’ve already started to form an idea of which is the standout choice for you (and which one sounds like a total headache). But how do you actually decide? I’ve put together some questions that are helpful to work through.
Are you more attracted to memberships or online courses? Consider the things you’ve thought about joining lately or those on your wishlist to join later. What you personally like is important! It’s easier to keep up with producing content and promoting a product that is like something you’d want to join yourself.
Think about if you’d rather do more work on the front end to batch content for an online course or come up with something new for subscribers each month. Some people find the thought of constant content creation fun and exciting, while others would feel SO burned out in a constant cycle! Choose the one that fits what you want – that way, you’re more likely to do it.
Are you working alone, or do you have a team helping you? If you’re low on bandwidth for customer support, then a course might be the better fit. But a membership could suit you if you have a larger team or are okay dealing with more issues, payment questions, and cancellations. Side note: consider how it might feel to deal with the higher customer volume of a membership and how that could impact your mindset or mental health. It can be tough, and it’s not for everyone!
This is huge because they’re your warmest leads and will likely become your first students or subscribers. All it takes is a quick poll via email or Instagram (or both!) You could ask the simple either/or question of what your subscribers would like to see, or you can dig a little deeper and lay out some of the details you’re thinking of for each option and how they’d look. Either way, you’ll get excellent data on what your ideal customers would be excited about signing up for.
Test things out for yourself to see which one feels better. For an online course, you can host a small cohort of five to ten students with a firm start and end date. If you want to test a membership out, choose a three to six-month window and do a limited membership release at a set monthly cost. The most important thing with test periods is that they give you a well-defined hard-stop date where you can walk away if you find out it’s not for you.
A test period allows you to re-evaluate and pivot if needed – and that’s a perfectly okay thing to do! If you end up loving it, then you’ve also learned something super useful about yourself and what you like doing. Plus, you’ll have practical experience and data to use when you relaunch the course or membership for open enrollment.
I hope this episode and blog have helped you choose between launching an online course vs membership site. You might fall in love with one format and choose to relaunch to a larger audience…but so many people pivot, and that is okay (really!) Just experiment and figure things out as you go. The most important part is getting started.
Take my Online Course vs Membership site quiz! Answer a few questions about what you’re looking for, and you’ll get an answer to which one is right for you.
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