There are many reasons why you might want to build a membership site. But, in this post, I want to share one that goes beyond money.
In fact, it seems incredibly relevant right now as we begin 2021.
Even if you never intend to charge a dime for your membership, this might be something you want to consider. No, that's being too nice. Truth is... you're being straight-up short-sighted if you don't take this into account.
Current events have made my case.
Censorship And De-Platforming Becoming Normalized
I've talked about the dangers of over-centralization and "big tech" before.
Recently, we've seen things really ramp up. And none of it is particularly good for internet freedom.
First off, Parler was removed from the App Store and Google. But, then Amazon unceremoniously booted them from their cloud hosting. Parler was removed from the internet. In a very coordinated fashion, among multiple companies.
The Trump campaign - and the President himself - was removed from social media. Stripe turned off the campaign's ability to process orders. Their email provider turned off the ability to send email.
It isn't just Trump, either. Thousands and thousands of people - basically anybody that said anything about election integrity - was booted from Twitter and Facebook. Godaddy (who is a partner of Amazon now) removed hosting from a site focused on gun rights.
Cancel culture is now in full bloom. Modern day digital "book burning". It amazes me that they don't see history repeating itself.
Now, bear with me here. I know full well that there are likely people reading this from all political persuasions. That's totally fine! In fact, I welcome it. I love you all.
My concern over this has nothing to do with partisanship and my fear is that the gravity of this escalation is being lost on some because they happen to dislike the targets and are caught up in the emotion of it all. I mean, many in our media are now celebrating censorship. There are serious calls for entire media networks to be disallowed from operating - by other media organizations. Think about that.
They just de-platformed the President of the United States. Even many leaders from around the world are calling out the dangerous precedent of that. And it is indeed very dangerous.
Unfortunately, this escalation affects us all. Even if what you discuss on your blog has nothing to do with politics (and I assume that's most of you), this is something that we cannot be blind to or write off as inapplicable.
If they will de-platform the sitting President, think about what that means for anybody else.
Thousands and thousands of accounts have been disappearing from Twitter. Pages have been disappearing from Facebook. I've seen numerous reports of Facebook Ad accounts being turned off and they literally had nothing to do with politics whatsoever.
These social media companies have gotten themselves into a monopolistic position over social media conversation and marketing. And once a monopoly is a monopoly, they are not accountable.
They don't even need to provide customer service. Most everybody who has an account banned has no recourse. No idea who to even contact to ask them why. If you do have a contact, it is only because you spend a ton of money with them. Most are not in that position.
Sadly, this is not just about social media. Now, you can be turned off my your email list provider, your web host... your payment provider. For practically any reason.
What This Has To Do With Your Platform
So, the question is... what do you do about it? And what does any of this have to do with membership sites?
I firmly believe that all of these recent events should be a big wakeup call for us all. I think it is time to have your eyes wide open in terms of how your internet presence is structured.
Simply put, if your online presence is overly reliant on any of these companies, you're at risk. To a degree, it definitely depends on what your niche is. But, you'd be ignorant of history not to understand how these things creep and eventually backfire.
I firmly believe that the prudent thing to do is design your online presence to be as self-sufficient as possible.
I know of large membership sites that still run their communities exclusively as Facebook groups. To me, this seems like the epitome of idiocy. With Facebook's history and lack of accountability, what would you do if suddenly that group... disappeared? Who do you call?
What about building an email list? Many blog owners build their "community" this way and, indeed, an email list is very important. But, is that it? Who hosts your email list? Do you ever back it up and download your email list for backup purposes? What would happen to you if, suddenly, your email list provider decided they didn't want to host your list anymore?
My point is...
So many blog owners and online entrepreneurs set things up in such a way that they are overly reliant on third-party tech companies. And in some cases, they just have this blind trust that that company will always be there and will never screw them over.
The way I see it...
The membership site is not only a superior business model. It is also a superior self-sufficiency model and a safer structure for your online presence.
Your turf. Your rules. Your data.
Properly set up, your membership site can be self-sufficient. While you may use outside services, you would have a backup plan should a third-party provider decide to have an unannounced hissy fit.
- You could host your own online community, right on your own site. You make the rules. You make it look however you want. The whole thing is on your turf.
- Your entire member database is right there, on your own server. Even if you're using a third-party email host for your email list, you've got your own central database as a backup.
- Your ability to communicate to your audience cannot be throttled, since you own the platform.
Even if you don't intend to sell anything on your membership, you can still set up your platform this way with a free membership. Let it be that people don't just opt into an email list (hosted elsewhere), but they create a free membership. They get access to some cool stuff in a private community.
Your turf. Your rules. Your data.
It is a little tough to call it your own asset if it can be so easily "switched off" by a third party company.
The times we're living in are no better testament to the importance of building your own platform that you own.
Don't blindly put third-party companies in between you and your community... and then just trust that nothing will ever break that connection. These companies are in it for themselves. They are self-protecting. They're not your advocate. And even if what you discuss is totally non-controversial, I think it is a mistake to build your online presence on the assumption that that makes you exempt.
Specific Strategies & Tips For Self-Sufficiency Of Your Online Presence
Here's some specific actions and things to consider if you'd like to more intentionally set up your blog and online business to remain independent.
Membership Site Owners - Build Your Own Community
Don't build up your community on a big social network. You didn't pay for that, did you? It means it can be taken away from you anytime.
I am a BIG fan of the BuddyBoss platform. This is what I built THE LAB on. The community features are very professional and you can build your own social community - right on your own website.
You may be concerned that you'll lose participation if you host your own community rather than host it on, say, Facebook. But, I disagree. Keep in mind...
- A self-hosted community is WAY more brand-centered than anything you can do on Facebook.
- If your community is on Facebook, your stuff is showing alongside a TON of noise and distraction. And ads. Personally, I'd MUCH rather have less activity that is focused.
- You can do all kinds of things with your community in-house that you'd never be able to do on Facebook.
If you're going to build a community, it simply makes no sense to build something that valuable... on a platform that cares nothing about you. You're not even their customer. You're a data packet for them to stuff advertising into. That's all.
Build An Email List Backup Plan
Most bloggers subscribe to a third-party email list host. We send our leads over there. And... that's it. We don't think much about the data because we just trust them to take care of it.
Perhaps you want to be a little more strategic about this.
While chances of your email list being throttled or removed by your email provider might be low, they're not zero.
I recently talked about FluentCRM as a viable option to self-host your own email list. This is definitely an option. While you will do your actual sending through a third-party, your actual list is self-controlled. If, for some reason, your sending service takes a dump, you can always set up a new one and keep on truckin'.
But, what if you don't want to (yet) fully self-host your email list? Well, consider some ideas:
- You could still set up something like FluentCRM as a backup plan. Make use of webhooks so that when somebody opts in, they are put on your main email list AND your local list copy at the same time. This would be a form of real-time backup.
- Set up a strategy and schedule to routinely export your email list from your chosen email provider and back it up locally. More than likely, you'll get a CSV file of your email list. Then, safely store that on your hard drive as a backup.
Your email list is pretty much your most valuable asset in this business. Protect it. Don't just blindly trust your email list host.
Consider Your Website Backup Plan & Web Host
When's the last time you thought about the backup for your whole website? Are you just blindly trusting your host to always be there for you?
As Reagan said, "trust but verify." 🙂
It is just smart to spend a bit of time looking into how your site is backed up - and where. And ultimately, I think you need to have local backups of your site that do not rely on your web host.
Most web hosts will do automatic backups of your site. This helps protect against things from getting screwed up, but it won't protect against the company itself just deciding to be uncooperative for any reason. So, you don't want to 100% rely on your web host.
Do you routinely log into your web host and download a local backup copy of your sites to your hard drive? If not, you definitely should.
If you like, you can also take some additional steps to automate the download of site backups. There's a good chance this will require either some geekery... or some additional paid software.
One option (if you're up for it) is to use some local automation to automatically log into your server via FTP and download backups. Some people set up such an automation to run overnight. Their computer will just do it while they're sleeping.
Another option would be to take backups into your own hands rather than just rely on your web host. Use a solid WordPress backup solution that also has the ability to automatically backup to the cloud (such as Dropbox).
Control Your Own Monetization
First off, building your own membership is a far more reliable business model than building up on a third-party platform. This we know.
I've seen too many people build up big platforms on Youtube only to have it removed. I've seen Patreon come in and de-platform folks.
Building your monetization around a third-party company as the middleman is just... dangerous. You're playing with fire.
A MUCH better approach is to build your own membership site. Control your own community. Your own revenue infrastructure.
If you're going to centralize your monetization, centralize around yourself, not a "big tech" company.
Unfortunately, though, recent events have proven that even this isn't enough in some cases. We just watched Stripe turn off the Trump campaign and banks are closing his accounts. The free speech social network GAB has long ago been banned from most order processing platforms. Even Visa/Mastercard disallowed them. It is all utterly ridiculous.
The days of financial services de-platforming people are only just beginning. In the long run, there's simply no solution outside of building new financial gateways and supporting decentralized finance.
Beware An Overreliance On Third Parties
This is pretty much the theme of this post.
Be careful not to get too overly reliant on third party companies - especially the "big tech" companies - to power your online presence.
Have redundancy plans. Have backups.
In our business, it is pretty much impossible to avoid these companies. In fact, it would be self-defeating. Not to mention, most of us aren't going to be operating in markets like, say, Parler.
That said, what has happened here should be a wakeup call. It has nothing to do with politics, really. This is a slippery slope. And if you just sit there in lala land and acting like it has no impact on you, or cheer it on because you don't like the targets, you're being stupid. Full stop.
This is a wake up call to put some thought into the potential over-centralization of your own online presence.
It used to be that self-hosting things was normal. That was the only way. But, as the years have gone on, so much software has moved to a SAAS model. So much of what we do is now hosted elsewhere. Our data is now, more and more, hosted by other companies.
It's convenient, in many ways. But, if you're not careful, you put yourself into a potentially compromised position where....
You could be throttled. You could be turned off. Like a switch.
And don't think for a minute you have to be engaged in politics for this to happen. Like I said, I've watched many people complain about their ad account being shut down when they never even touched anything controversial. I've heard stories of people's email accounts being shut down because of an affiliate link. Or even just a misunderstanding, or an algorithmic "fluke".
Shit happens. 🙂
So, for every reason under the sun, this is something to pay attention to.
The membership site as a model goes beyond generating revenue.
It is also a great model for having control of and ownership of your own presence, your own community, and your own data. It is YOUR platform. Self-contained. And even if you use third-party services, at least you have the option of switching it out without being more than just a pain in the butt.
I hope you'll heed this advice.