Yaro Blog

How To Launch A Membership Site – Part 3: Technology

Read previous articles in this series:

Puzzle PiecesThe pieces of the puzzle to produce a successful membership site are coming together. Preeminence (credibility, reputation, key contacts) and marketing (an ability to communicate with your prospective members) are in place, or at least you know you need them to be in place, and now you can work on putting together the nuts and bolts technology to deliver your membership service.

To build your membership site you need to consider the following requirements:

  • How will you protect member resources from public access?
  • How will you take payments and process registrations/deliver resources?
  • What content features will your membership site contain (audio, video, forums, chatrooms, webinars)?
  • What email list service will you use to communicate with and how will it integrate with the rest of your membership site?
  • How will you handle affiliates – track referrals, offer promo tools, pay out commissions and ingrate everything with your email list service?

As is typical with web technology, you have quite a few options to choose from to satisfy all the above requirements. The challenge is coming up with the right combination of tools that meet your needs and work well together.

My process to decide what technology to use started a long time before I launched Blog Mastermind, in fact years before I even decided to produce a membership site at all.

Before deciding to produce a mentoring program for professional bloggers I was planning to release an information product, an e-book along with some videos. This was about a year into my blogging career and at the same time I made my very first technology choice, which (eventually) impacted the structure of Blog Mastermind. I made the decision to use AWeber as my email list provider (AWeber review is here).

Thankfully AWeber integrates with pretty much every mainstream membership site software program, so although I made my email autoresponder decision early, it had little impact on what software I used to meet the rest of my membership site needs.

Membership Site Software

Choosing a program to protect membership content was and still is the hardest part of the technology decisions you have to make. Eventually I switched from releasing a book to an online course, a course on building blog traffic called Blog Traffic School (I still have a no longer updated blog for the site and an 80% finished course I hope to one day release in the future in some shape or form).

With the decision to release a course I had to find a way to password protect the course materials using a membership system. I begun as always by researching online, checking forums to see what people were recommending and talking about, searching Google results and compiling a list of the market leaders in the online membership site software industry.

Some of the programs I considered were –

  • aMember Pro
  • MemberGate
  • VisionGatePortal
  • Membership Client Pro
  • iSubscribe

Some programs, such as MemberGate, were way out of my price range, so I disqualified them immediately. Others seemed quite good, but after research turned out to either lack the features I wanted, or the demo version had such complicated navigation that I felt it would take forever to install and configure the software.

In the end I settled on aMember (not because it sounds like AWeber!) mainly because it had plug-ins to integrate with common forum software programs, including the one I was using at the time, Invision Power Board forums, and even a plug-in to integrate with WordPress blogs. I liked the idea of using a blog to deliver a course about blog traffic, so my initial plans were to use the plug-in to protect a special members only blog and have an additional resources area as well.

Switching to Butterflies

I began the process of setting up aMember myself, a critical mistake given my tech skills were not up to the task. It took me so long to make any progress that I found my launch plans pushed forward month by month.

It was around this time that I took notice of Butterfly Marketing. Although Mike Filsaime had released his flagship product almost six months earlier, it wasn’t until I began to seriously consider releasing an information product and really delve into the Internet marketing world that Butterfly Marketing became a real choice.

I decided to purchase Butterfly Marketing, the full home study version for $997 (just before they raised the price to $1497), and use the 30 day trial period to assess whether it would suit my needs.

It was because of reading the techniques that Mike talked about in Butterfly Marketing and through watching all the various product launches that ALL seemed to do so well, which used Butterfly Marketing style tactics combined with Product Launch Formula strategies, that I decided Butterfly Marketing was the software to go with.

With the power of hindsight I can now tell you that although Butterfly Marketing is still my top choice to manage a membership site at this time, aMember is possibly a better choice if you don’t really care too much about having an integrated affiliate system.

The technical challenges and lack of a dedicated software company backing up Butterfly Marketing result in some nasty implementation issues. I still love the simplicity of Butterfly Marketing (in terms of user presentation, not installation and customization), but I don’t like how much time and money it’s costing to get it to work right.

AMember is a solid membership system and although I think it tends to over complicate and create too many layers to get some things done, it does feel more “solid” than Butterfly Marketing, plus it has the backing of a dedicated software company updated and supporting the program.

These are the only two membership software programs I feel qualified to comment on given my own experiences and you shouldn’t follow my actions blindly with your membership site. Investigate all your options given your specific needs. There are new membership systems in development, so your options will improve.

Taking Payments

Paypal

I chose Paypal as my payments processor and while I love the simplicity and the fact that Paypal integrates with every membership software program you could think of (in fact you could use just AWeber with Paypal to create a membership service if you just want to keep things very simple), it has come with its own set of unique issues.

Paypal has a nasty habit of cancelling subscriptions if it thinks your customers may not be able to make payments, for example if their credit card has issues. I’ve had a few members who have had their subscription with Paypal cancelled without wanting to leave my program.

This has created yet another layer of support to get people back on to subscriptions and an annoying process of having to follow up every cancellation to see if they actually intended to cancel or not.

2CheckOut & Paymate

I also registered an account with 2Checkout.com as a potential emergency back-up option if something went wrong with my Paypal accounts, although 2Checkout does not have a subscription option.

I also have an active account with Australian Paypal clone, Paymate.com.au left over from the days when I used it for BetterEdit.com. Paymate is only for Aussies though and also does not have a subscription option.

ClickBank

Clickbank recently launched a subscription option, which I have not tried, but when I took a brief look the fees they were charging were quite scary. Clickbank has the advantage of an in-built affiliate program, so a good option is to combine aMember with Clickbank and you have the membership plus affiliate and payment components handled, just like with Butterfly Marketing (and there is a plug-in you can use with Clickbank to replicate the Butterfly Marketing style promo tools affiliate management features – it’s called EasyClickMate).

Clickbank also sends you simple payments that come from one source – Clickbank – not your individual customers, which makes accounting for the income a lot easier. I also have concerns about Paypal’s subscription integration with Clickbank (Clickbank can use Paypal as a payment processor), which might suffer from the same unwanted cancellation problem I mentioned above, and trying to recreate it with Clickbank would probably be a nightmare.

PayDotCom

Mike Filsaime’s PayDotCom.com is a Clickbank clone, and a good one, which also has a subscription feature you can use to take payment with. I’ve not tried it, but on initial inspection it looks good and I know Mike pours a lot of money into keeping PayDotCom going because last I heard it was his second biggest earner in his business empire. I also believe it’s Mike’s only real “business”, where a lot of his other income sources are information products that make a big splash upon launch, but do not sustain high cashflow levels like PayDotCom – the business model is just much better with PayDotCom.

PayDotCom can use Paypal as a processor, so you have the unwanted cancellations issue again, and there are fees, so like with Clickbank, you get the Paypal fee added to the PayDotCom fee, which adds up. I don’t feel qualified to rate PayDotCom, but I do think it’s worth investigating as it appears quite robust and again there is an in-built affiliate program, so that aspect of your membership site is handled.

Other options

The above providers are what I considered for Blog Mastermind and still consider for future membership sites. I’m also considering a fully fledged merchant solution with a local bank, which would hopefully eliminate unwanted cancellations. I’d offer it as an addition to Paypal because many people prefer to use their Paypal balance rather than their credit card.

I recommend you have at the very least two payment options ready to go, although you can run fine with just Paypal, which is what I am doing with Blog Mastermind as I type this article. Remember that people do not have to have a Paypal account to pay with Paypal, they can use a credit card without signing up. Also, for certain countries Paypal has a fully fledged merchant option, so the payment can be seamless and branded as your own.

Audio, Video and Forums

I’ve been a user of audio in my podcast and in streaming format on the blog for years, so it was natural for me to include an audio component of my membership site too. To do this I continued to use the combination of Audacity audio recording and editing software, with iTunes for conversion. We also added an embedded mp3 player by taking the code from Audio Player plug-in for WordPress so I could have a streaming version of the audio along with a downloadable MP3 version.

With the launch of Blog Mastermind I finally delved into video, capturing the content with my Logitech QuickCam Pro 5000 Webcam. I use Camtasia to do screencast video recordings and export video in a web safe format, usually flash.

I use the very popular vBulletin forum software, although in the past I’ve used Invision Power Board and PhpBB is a good free open source forum script, but decided this time to go with the industry leading software vBulletin.

Unfortunately the forum is not integrated with my membership site directly and members have to create a second user account to use the forums. I also use a basic password protection feature to protect the member’s only forums, creating yet another password.

The lack of a single sign-on has caused a few of my members some problems, although it’s a very small percentage. This is primarily the fault of Butterfly Marketing, which unless you custom hack it, does not speak to other software programs. AMember currently has the advantage of a good selection of plug-ins to integrate with popular software packages, so you can establish a single sign-on process for your members, but be aware it’s not foolproof, I had problems getting it to work perfectly back when I was using aMember with Invision Power Board.

You can also offer features such as live webinars and teleconferences (try GoToMeeting), chatrooms (most forums have a chatroom plug-in or you can get standalone software) and provide downloadable software (if you provide custom software it can be a huge competitive advantage and value-add).

The sky really is the limit when it comes to the technology you can use to deliver membership features, but I recommend you definitely consider using audio and video whenever feasible. The tools are free or very affordable and you don’t have to be a professional. Camtasia screencasts are particularly powerful, easy to produce and your members will appreciate the multiple media formats. I think a forum is also a must have as it allows your members to create a resource and meet each other in a community format.

Affiliate Management

I spent a lot of time searching for an appropriate affiliate script to manage my affiliate program. Before I committed to Butterfly Marketing I was going to do like so many other Internet marketers do – find a standalone affiliate program and run it separately from my membership site script. Eventually I realized how much more powerful it was if the two systems could be integrated, which is THE single biggest reason I went with Butterfly Marketing, but for the sake of helping your research process, here’s what I looked at before making a decision.

In hindsight, I would recommend Butterfly Marketing only if you think the integration is critical and you want the one time offer feature. The affiliate module in Butterfly Marketing is simple, that’s an advantage in terms of usability, but it’s a disadvantage in terms of features. Every affiliate script listed above has many more features and statistics, since they are dedicated affiliate scripts.

Of the list above I seriously considered Clickbank and iDevAffiliate as my first two choices. Clickbank for reasons I have already stated (the huge affiliate marketplace) and iDevAffiliate because I’ve seen many products use it, including Aaron Wall’s SEOBook.

Lately many of the big Internet marketers are moving to a full CRM (customer relationships management) system to manage their affiliate program and the service of choice is Keap.

Perry Marshall, Richard Schefren, Andrew and Daryl Grant and according to the Keap website, Dan Kennedy and Michael Gerber are all users of the software. Besides offering a robust affiliate solution, the integrated user management features allow you to carefully track a person through all stages of your business, which is great for your sales funnel.

I have no back-end experience with Keap, so I can’t say how good it is, although I hear it’s quite challenging to get working due to all the features. It’s also not cheap, in the vicinity of $300-$500 a month but it does everything – salesforce integration, email list marketing, shopping cart, contact management and of course – affiliate management too. If you are serious about your tracking then Keap could be the all in one option you need, but if you are like me, just getting started, it’s overkill.

1ShoppingCart is worth considering as an option for a shopping cart and affiliate program. It also has a digital delivery service, ad tracking and a host of other features. It’s not the best at anything, but it does everything reasonably well and if you like all in one solutions, this might be just the ticket, however it doesn’t handle membership management, but it should plug straight into whatever membership script you choose.

Putting It All Together

As you can see, constructing your membership site is no easy task. You face a lot of options for each component of the system and you have to be careful when making a decision that you get the best combination of tools given your requirements.

There are a lot variables to consider with each decision, many of which I have touched upon in previous articles and many more that I could talk about, but this article is long enough already.

Once you know what you want your membership site to do, the technology decision process can begin. When you do decide upon the tools you will use, from there it’s just a matter of putting the pieces together and your tech team should be able to do it for you. This is a task that has to be done, but once set up, tested, and functioning correctly, you have the foundation you need to deliver a successful membership site.

Next up in this series on how to launch a membership site we will look at the prelaunch and launch phase.

Yaro
Membership Technologist

 

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