You have probably heard about membership sites and courses before. These are two of the most popular ways to monetize your knowledge online.
Even though they both are digital products, they are two very different business models. They require you to take different approaches to revenue generation, content creation, marketing, and community building.
So, which is a better model for your online business?
In this article, we’ll compare the two models and help you answer the online course vs membership site question.
By the end, you should have a clear understanding of the key differences between these two models and which one is right for you.
Let’s get started.
Online Course vs Membership Site: What’s the Difference?
When you sell online courses, you need to create your content once, and a customer can buy the course by making either a single payment or paying in installments.
An online course has a set curriculum broken down into modules and lessons. The idea is to take your students from a starting point to an endpoint, and the modules/lessons are the steps in that transformation.
So, an online course must always have a specific outcome that the students can expect to achieve by the end.
As far as content creation is concerned, your online course can have different types of content, including videos, audio, pdf worksheets, quizzes, assignments, etc.
The important thing to understand is that while you may need to update your course content from time to time, you don’t need to keep creating additional content for your course on an ongoing basis.
However, your online course can start on a fixed date, or it can be an evergreen course available throughout the year.
Online Course Examples
My friend David Young from Drone Launch Academy sells an online course – Remote Pilot Exam Prep Course. The course sells for $199, and once someone pays the price, they get lifetime access.
The objective of the course is very specific. It promises to help students pass this particular exam, and the curriculum has been designed to help students achieve this outcome.
- Yogi Flight School teaches yoga students to nail master arm balances and inversions.
- The Psychology of Color Symbolism is an online course that helps people learn color and how to use it to the fullest.
- Amy Porterfield’s Digital Course Academy teaches entrepreneurs how to launch a profitable online course from scratch.
Now let’s discuss membership sites.
With a membership site, you create content on an ongoing basis, and your members will pay a recurring fee to access the content.
Unlike an online course, there is no defined ending point for a membership site, and you’re expected to keep adding new content to your membership site indefinitely.
As a result, the content requirement of a membership site is much more than that of an online course, so it makes sense to target a much broader topic/theme.
As part of your membership, you can offer your students online courses, live workshops, group coaching, 1:1 coaching, etc. So basically, your content can take many different forms.
Also, building an engaged community around your membership is critical for boosting member retention and thus the overall success of a membership site vs an online course.
While some open only a few times a year, most membership sites are evergreen in nature. Generally, one can join a membership anytime and consume the content at their own pace.
Membership Site Examples
At StationX, we run VIP Membership for cybersecurity students. The membership fee is $149/year, and as part of the subscription, the members get access to 200+ training courses and the community forum.
The key thing to note here is that we constantly add new courses and resources for our students. Plus, we have to regularly show up in the community and engage with our members.
- Nak Muay Nation is a membership site for Muay Thai students. It includes online courses, training videos, eBooks, etc.
- Harmonica School helps enthusiasts improve their skills at playing harmonica. The site offers in-depth guides, weekly live Q&A sessions, and a discussion forum.
- Kesler Science Membership offers a vast library of resources that consists of lessons, activities, subject plans, assessments, interactive notebooks, etc., for middle school science teachers.
If you want to explore even more memberships, check this ultimate list of membership site examples.
Advantages of Online Courses vs Membership Sites
Now that you understand the differences between the two models, let’s discuss the advantages of online courses over memberships.
Requires Less Commitment
Creating an online course requires much less commitment than creating a membership site. With online courses, you don’t need to commit to creating content on an ongoing basis.
You can create your course, launch it, and then move on to other projects.
On the other hand, membership sites require you to commit to creating new content and engaging your members regularly. This can be time-consuming and requires a lot of effort to maintain.
Easier to Create
It’s generally easier to create an online course than a membership program. Online courses have a fixed structure, so planning and creating content is relatively straightforward.
A membership site, however, doesn’t have a structure like that. You need to constantly develop new content ideas and deliver them in different formats.
Moreover, you need to build an active community to engage your members, which is more challenging.
More Revenue Upfront
With online courses, you can charge a premium price. Plus, you get paid upfront, so courses can generate much higher revenue for your business upfront.
With membership sites, you have a lower price point since people will be paying on a recurring basis. Since the user payments are spread over a longer duration, it takes more time for a membership site business to become profitable.
And, you need to work on retaining existing members constantly, or you won’t make any money.
You Don’t Have to Be an Expert
You can create an online course even if you’re not an expert. You can always pick a specific topic in your niche that you’re good at and create an online course on the same. So, anyone can create an online course.
However, a membership site requires you to cover multiple different topics in a niche, which won’t be possible unless you’re a ‘true’ expert.
Online courses are more result-oriented as they give your students a clear path to achieve a specific goal.
A membership site, on the other hand, is more open-ended. It’s up to the members how they want to use the resources and achieve their goals.
This means that online courses tend to have higher completion rates, which leads to better results for your students.
Advantages of Membership Sites vs Online Courses
Now, let’s discuss the advantage of building a membership site vs an online course.
Generates Recurring Income
A membership site helps you build a stable, predictable revenue stream for your online business, while the revenue in the case of online courses is more sporadic.
To make consistent income from online courses, you’ll have to create more courses or acquire new members.
Build a Loyal Community
A membership site is much more effective at creating loyal followers for your business, and believe me, there can be no bigger asset for your business than loyal fans.
With a membership site, you have the opportunity to engage with your members regularly and build deeper relationships.
On the other hand, online courses are generally a one-time purchase for most people, so it’s harder to turn them into lifelong fans of your business.
Flexible Content Creation
Membership sites are much more flexible in terms of content creation. Unlike online courses, you can start your membership site with minimal content and add more content to it as you move forward.
This is perfect for people who want to get started quickly without spending much time creating content upfront.
Moreover, you can choose from various formats, such as online courses, standalone videos, blog posts, podcasts, live calls, etc.
Memberships are generally more affordable as your students don’t need to make a large upfront payment. This means that membership sites have a lower barrier to entry, making them more accessible to a wider range of people.
With online courses, however, students need to make an upfront payment. This can deter some people, limiting your course’s reach.
Create More Impact
If done right, memberships can create a much greater impact on the lives of your members.
This is because membership sites offer ongoing support and regular content, which helps your members achieve their goals consistently over time.
Who Should Create an Online Course vs a Membership Site?
While both models are very popular, they might not be suitable for everyone. The right choice for your business depends on your expertise, audience, level of commitment, and end goal.
An online course is a better option for you if:
- You’re just getting started and don’t have much experience with content creation and online marketing.
- You’re teaching a specific topic where it will be difficult to create content on an ongoing basis.
- You’re more of a beginner/intermediate than an expert in your niche, making it difficult to cover a wide range of topics.
- You want to start a side hustle than commit to it full time.
- You don’t want to put effort into building an online community.
On the other hand, a membership site is a better option for you if:
- You want to add a recurring revenue source to your online business.
- You’re willing to commit to providing value to your members on an ongoing basis.
- Your niche is broad enough to let you create an unlimited amount of content.
- You’re willing to invest time and effort in building a strong membership community.
- You have prior experience in selling digital products or running an online business.
Both online courses and membership sites are great options for making money online. You just need to select the right model and then commit yourself to make it work for you and your students.
However, it doesn’t mean that you can’t offer both types of digital products. For example, many creators offer a premium course as their front-end offer, and then they offer a membership site to their course students in the backend.
And it makes sense because the two business models complement each other pretty well. But you should go this route only when you’ve prior experience selling digital products.
CHOOSING THE RIGHT PLATFORM
There is a great amount of overlap in platforms for building courses and memberships.
To create an online course site, you can use a hosted course platform, such as Kajabi or Thinkific. The same platforms are also used by many membership site businesses.
Some specialized membership solutions (e.g., MemberPress) are there as well, but even they have added learning management system functionality to enable course creation.
We hope this article helped you decide between membership site vs online course models. Which model do you think is better for your business and why? Let us know in the comments below!