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8 membership models to consider for your online business


Feb 12, 2021
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If you haven't yet explored a membership site for your business, you could be missing out on a great opportunity. A membership website lets you offer your product or service for a fee, often set up as a recurring subscription. Active members can log in and enjoy the features that are behind your site's paywall.

There are a ton of benefits of a membership site. Crucially, membership sites can give you consistent and scalable income. How you achieve that depends heavily on your chosen membership model. So which model is right for your business?

Let’s take a look at some of the most popular membership business models on the web to find one that fits your needs.

What is a membership model?

A membership model is the specific business plan you set up for your website. It consists of the service or product you're selling and the way that you sell it. 

Details of your membership model include:

  • What you provide to your customers
  • What subscription options you offer
  • How often you charge your members
  • How you communicate with subscribers

You'll want to pick your membership business model based on the type of product or service you're offering.

Subscribers to a content library, for example, will have different needs than those seeking personal coaching. Let's take a look at some examples of membership plans, along with some companies that use those models to perfection.

A combination of offerings

Kajabi hero Allison Hollinger offers a membership service on her website that offers: 

  • Online courses
  • Live weekly coaching calls 
  • A recipe vault 
  • Weekly meal plans 
  • Shopping lists tailored to the meal plan
  • Bonus videos for Q&A and inspiration 
  • And much more.

We’ll deep dive into different models below but it’s important to remember that you can include various offerings with your membership.

Online course

An online course membership model provides access to specific lessons or course content.

An online course membership can be set up in a number of ways; you can:

  • Provide access to a full library of courses and lessons. 
  • Release each lesson individually after a member passes the previous one. 
  • Create a subscription-based site structure, which is good for businesses that often add new content or lessons. 
  • Have members pay for lifetime access to individual classes.

A membership business model can include both free and paid content. Interested users can try a free membership trial, which is an excellent way to get potential students in the door and transition them to a paid subscription.

If you’re creating online courses, consider offering the first few lessons for free so interested users can get a feel for your content before purchasing a membership.

Personal coaching

Online membership sites are particularly beneficial to service-based coaching (e.g. fitness coaches and nutrition coaches) because you’re able to:

  • Offer your unique skill set to a larger number of clients compared to in-person coaching.
  • Maximize your time and create more flexibility in your schedule.
  • Make a passive income via membership site subscription fees, even when you're not directly working with clients.
View of Kayla Itsines' personal training membership website

Take Kayla Itsines, who is now an uber-famous online fitness coach. Before regular appearances on the Today Show and in Women's Health magazine, Itsines was a personal trainer in Australia.

She started with a standard in-person client base. After embracing the opportunities in online personal training, Itsines' digital fitness membership model helped catapult her reach to span the entire globe.

Itsines' Sweat app and Bikini Body Guides (BBG) are available as monthly or annual memberships. There's a 7-day free trial to check out the program and workouts. Paid subscribers get full access to eBooks, multi-week training programs, and more.

Her membership model includes access to a community forum on her Facebook group page. Members have also created location-based BBG groups to connect and work out together.

For fitness coaches especially, it’s important to create a sense of community for members. Whether it’s on social media or on your website, give your clients a way to share wins, questions, and encouragement with each other. 

View of Kayla Itsines' community page highlighting local fitness groups

There are a couple of things Itsines does not offer, however. You won't find the option for customized training plans. She doesn't offer virtual personal training sessions (aside from live Instagram workouts).

That's where your own membership plans might differ! Based on your skills and passions, you might sell memberships that offer custom workouts, weekly check-ins, and other personal touches.

Content library

A content library membership model is, well, just what it sounds like: a library of on-demand content that members pay to access. A subscription allows members to see your entire collection of content, from blogs to videos to eBooks.

There are different ways to offer access to your library. You could: 

  • Provide full site access to all members as soon as they subscribe. 
  • Create different membership tiers, where premium content is reserved for the highest-priced subscription. 
  • Offer a small portion of your content for free to draw people in.
Image of NYT Cooking home page depicting Recipe of the Day on a white plate, which is holding cooked sausages, shallots, and apples

A prime example of a content library membership model is from NYT Cooking.

A free account offers limited access to a small portion of NYT Cooking's full library. Before committing to a paid membership, users can explore recipes and videos via a free trial. Subscriptions are offered on a monthly or annual basis, with a year-long membership slightly discounted.

Image of splash membership sign-up page

Once you subscribe, you have access to the site's entire library of recipes, cooking tutorials, and more. You can add recipes to your own personal Recipe Box, host a grocery list on the site, sign up for a weekly newsletter, and more.

If you’re a content creator, a content library membership model is a great way to generate revenue. Consider using a tiered pricing model so subscribers with differing budgets and needs can access your library of offerings.

Content feed

A content feed membership site offers regularly published pieces on an ongoing basis. Instead of getting access to an entire library of old content, members look forward to fresh content on a regular cadence.

Content feeds often use the "drip feed" membership model. With a drip content feed, you release your content to members on a time-delayed schedule. The cadence can take many forms based on your product or service. You can schedule a fixed date, like a weekly exclusive newsletter, or base it on member activity (like if they complete a lesson or challenge). 

Image of Quartz business news membership site home page

Quartz is an example of a successful content feed membership model. The business news site offers a unique take on the issues of the day targeted toward business leaders.

Non-members can access a few pieces as freebies before signing up for a paid membership. Members can access fresh content every day, along with a "Daily Brief" email that aggregates the top pieces for easy reading.

Quartz Field Guides page showing three niche topics that lead to multiple content pieces

Quartz also offers a Field Guide library updated weekly. These guides dive into niche aspects of the workplace, with collections on work-life balance and the skyrocketing pet care industry. You can also access on-demand tools, like their topic-based presentations to use at your next board meeting.

Frequent, predictable content drops offer a way to continually keep your members engaged.

A content feed also gives you a bit of flexibility in how you produce and schedule your content. You can even create a ton of pieces up front, then take a breather as you schedule them out for release over a longer period of time.

Group education and community

One of the most popular features of a membership site in recent years is an exclusive forum or community space. You can create your own membership organization with:

  • A members-only Facebook group 
  • A gated comment forum on your website
  • Exclusive meetups and workshops (video and/or in-person)

Tip: Many group education models combine a product or service with community membership.

View of The Run Experience's training page offering 7-day trial, featuring male coach running with Golden Gate Bridge in the background

A great example of a successful community membership model is The Run Experience (TRE). This virtual training club connects runners all over the world with professional run coaches, athletes, and most importantly, each other. 

Both the program's app and TRE's private Facebook group, The Run Experience Community, are members-only spaces that offer perhaps even more value than the company's training products and videos. 

Image of The Run Experience Community members-only Facebook page

In the TRE Community page and app, the program's coaches are readily available to personally answer member questions. Experienced runners help newbies with everything from choosing the right shoes to achieving faster splits. Members even set up their own running and nutrition challenges among themselves.

It's also a great example of a content library membership model. A subscription buys immediate access to TRE's full library of running programs, including marathon training and injury prevention series. New programs are included in the cost. But arguably the biggest perk is the decades of experience housed in the TRE community.

Product or digital download

This membership model offers a digital product as a one-time purchase with the potential to buy more or upgrade in the future. After purchase, users receive access to protected downloads like:

  • Templates
  • eBooks
  • Online courses
  • White papers

This could be through a one-time login or even a custom access code. Though buyers don't pay a regular subscription fee, their purchase places them in a "membership" pool, which often takes the form of an email list. That way, the site owner can send updates to new or related products that members might be interested in purchasing for another one-time fee.

Image of Light & Airy mobile preset page with examples of photos with presets applied

The makers behind the Light & Airy Photog have perfected the product-based membership model. These photographers sell photo editing presets and photography courses as one-time purchases and downloads. Once you buy a preset package, you're automatically added to their newsletter. There, you'll get info on new product releases and photography tips. Returning customers often receive discount codes when L&A launches new products.

Their "one-and-done" model is actually a great way for L&A to open the door to potential repeat business. Happy customers are more likely to return and purchase a different preset pack. They may upgrade to a photography course to put their presets to better use. L&A also sends out regular surveys on new product ideas, so they know exactly what products are in demand (and therefore will sell!).

Single-sale product membership sites are a great way to build a large customer pool, especially if you plan on selling multiple products. Purchasers aren't scared off by a recurring fee, and you have an instant way to build an email subscriber list to advertise your future products. It's also a great way to offer product bundles and get more items into customers' hands.


With a software site membership model, subscribers pay a fee to use software you've built. 

Typically, these membership plans offer unlimited access to your software. Users are charged monthly for continuous access. It's an excellent way to get recurring revenue without having to create multiple products. And if you do have multiple products, higher membership tiers can open access to multiple pieces of software (at a higher price!).

View of Microsoft Office software membership home page

Perhaps the most widely known software membership is Microsoft Office 365. A subscription to Office 365 gets you unlimited access to the entire product suite. This includes the most popular productivity tools like Word, Excel, and PowerPoint. Depending on your subscription, you can access your products on multiple devices. MS Office also includes value-added perks like security features and cloud storage.

View of Microsoft Office subscription options for personal and family, work, and education subscriptions

There are membership plans for family, personal, and business subscriptions. Students and teachers have access to special discounted memberships. Microsoft offers monthly and annual memberships for unlimited access to their technology.

Build your membership site

With the product or service you offer in mind, which membership model works best for your business? If you offer:

  • Online courses, the online course model, content library, or digital download model could work best for you.
  • Professional coaching, the personal coaching or group education model may be best.
  • Written or video content, the content feed or content library might work.

Part of finalizing your membership model is deciding on a pricing structure. Will it be tiered or a single flat rate? Recurring payments or lifetime access? For more info, check out our full guide on how to price your membership site.

After choosing a membership business model, it’s time to build your membership site!

Whether you have years of experience or are a total beginner, Kajabi can help. Create digital products, landing pages, and marketing campaigns designed for all types of membership models.

Ready to get started? Try it for free today.

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