What Nobody Told Me About Member Subscription Models

At the end of 2020, Sistahbiz wrapped up year one of our membership program for Black women entrepreneurs!

It took me two years to even launch the Sistahbiz membership program because we had a lot on our plate running our existing programs for Black women in business and I suspected it was going to take a lot of work. I also anticipated a learning curve that I didn’t have the capacity to manage alongside some of our other initiatives. But! I finally buckled down and did it after the requests kept coming in from sistahs nationwide, asking:“How can I join your sistahood?” 

So in 2019 we launched the membership program MVP style (Minimum Viable Product, or the “bare minimum”), and the whole thing just snow-balled into a beautiful mess before finally evolving into the full-fledged mode that I was really hoping to see. And now that it’s been up and running for a year, I think it’s high time to share some of the many important things I’ve learned along the way.

Here are 9 things that nobody told me about member subscription models and how you can avoid the pitfalls. 


     1. Be clear about the benefits and value of membership. 

Any group worth its salt will have reasons why its members are there, right? Well, this goes double for online groups where people can opt-in or back out with just a few simple clicks, and where there are a thousand alternatives competing for everyone’s time and attention. So to really sell your membership subscription model, make sure that you’re clear about why people have already joined it and why your latest audience should join too. In other words, what benefits will people gain by becoming a member? What value will being a member of your group add to people’s lives and well-being? 

At the same time, too, be prepared to innovate in this area constantly. Especially when you’re just starting out, you might find that some things work while others don’t, so don’t feel locked into whatever you started out with! As long as you communicate clearly and consistently with your subscribers, showing them that the changes are still providing benefits and value, then you should be fine. At Sistabhiz, for instance, it took us some time to figure out how we could balance convenience with quality, plus deliver valuable services and activities. But it was just as important that we were thinking about how to make benefits and services accessible to busy entrepreneurs.


     2. Be intentional about membership requirements and clear about group identity.

When I was just starting out with the Sistahbiz membership program, I focused a little too much on sharing the myriad of benefits that came with joining our program. I fell short of defining the type of member I wanted in my community. So what happened is that I noticed that we attracted members who didn’t share our values, didn’t have an interest in being active and engaged, and didn’t want more than free downloads.

Eventually, I took a step back, taking the time to meet with my team and think about the type of members that we wanted in our community. After more thought and reflection, we realized that the right members would be the Black women entrepreneurs who contributed to the community as much as they gained from it. That is to say, we didn’t want a bunch of members who only logged on to download our digital products or access services, but never showed up for events, volunteered for activities, or poured their time and care into this community we were trying to build. As a result, we are reworking our membership requirements to clarify who our community members should be: active, goal-oriented, community-minded Black women who are ready to take bold steps to help and grow their own businesses, their sistahs’ and our power network!

From this experience I can confidently say that if you work on defining your ideal community, then chances are good that you’ll be able to attract more of the kind of community members you really want there. 


     3. Have a community manager who can really focus on engagement.

Now more than ever, people are trying to network and connect online—which can lead to a struggle, since that means both rising competition and increased demands on your time as a network member! So, if you’re looking to make your networking or connection opportunity stand out, then you need to have someone who can be available to drive interest and engage with prospects on a regular basis.  

Here at Sistahbiz, for instance, we quickly realized that we needed a staff person whose time would be dedicated entirely to connecting Black women in business with resources, services, and each other. Before this, we had been leaving opportunities on the table by not finding out what expertise our current members offered or how they could help one another. Once we brought a community manager on board, though, this changed quickly. Because we now had someone whose sole focus was the community, that community was better able to be engaged in opportunities to connect with, teach, and serve one another. 


     4. Have customer support systems in place.

Even though a member subscription model isn’t exactly the same as traditional sales, your members are still stakeholders and customers, and you’ll need to support them as such! For example, you might find that subscription members need customer support to help them activate or upgrade their membership, figure out how to access certain benefits, or discuss what subscription tier will bring their business the value that they’re looking for. Here, customer service systems can be a lifesaver.

It’s a little more complicated than that, of course. On the one hand, you should constantly be working to have a seamless shopping cart and onboarding experience for new members so that they don’t need you to walk them through every step of the way toward their purchase. On the other hand, though, the truth is that not everyone will read the information that you and your team have provided to guide them through signup or other membership processes. So, take the middle road here and prep that automated system, but also have a dedicated customer service rep or help desk system available to answer questions—and the more immediately, the better.


     5. Beware of the churn rate.

This one’s a big one for subscription models! “Churn rate”, also called the attrition rate describes the number of customers who drop or stop subscribing to your service over a period of time. Churn rate is something to keep an eye on because if it gets too high (that is, if people keep signing up for your subscription and then dropping out after just a short period of time), then that can threaten your return on investment (ROI) as you’re continually needing to pursue both new and exiting members. 

Now, it’s good to keep in mind that there are a multitude of reasons why people exit memberships, and that it’s not all just on you. People might decide to clear out their email inboxes by unsubscribing from certain mailing lists, or they might have moved past the need they originally signed up to meet, and this is just the start of the list. Regardless, it’s just smart to have a good process in place to monitor your subscription model’s churn rate and to gather feedback from canceling members. By learning why people are canceling memberships, you can address problem areas, add further benefits and values, improve the customer experience for future members, and over time, lower the churn rate again. It’s also good practice to have a strategy and funnel in place dedicated to getting former members to return. 


     6. Get ahead of technical issues regarding recurring payments and gifted memberships.

This item follows on from #4, where I recommended having customer support systems in place. Here, though, I’ll go a step further and tell you: have plans in place for when money gets involved! When it comes to handling payments, logins, and the like, people prefer finding quick, simple, and easy processes already in place so that they can deal with these issues themselves instead of contacting live customer support. 

So! For dealing with the inability to log in or remember a password, or for signing up for recurring payments or learning how to cancel memberships, make sure that you have these processes in place and ready to go. Make sure that you troubleshoot a password reset system, a payment system, and a cancellation/refund system before even your MVP goes live. These items are critical, and you don’t want your days to be taken up with resolving these kinds of issues manually, or things will get backed up quickly!


     7. Provide structures for members to lead and help themselves.

As you set up your membership subscription model, make sure that you’re keeping an eye on the structure you’re creating. It shouldn’t all come down to you! Don’t become the bottleneck in the system just because you’ve built it so that everyone needs you to sign off on everything. Instead, it’s important to create and test your online processes to be automated as much as possible, and to plan for initial issues to be routed to a trusted delegate—perhaps that customer service rep or that community manager we’ve already talked about—before things get escalated to you only as a final appeal. 

Likewise, troubleshoot your systems and remove any bugs or kinks you find so that customers can self-navigate their experience with minimal contact required from you or your team on the “little” things like signup. Save your time, energy, and direct customer service for the big questions and deliveries as much as possible!


     8. Be ready to meet a diversity of needs and members who need different levels of support.

The better you get at selecting and developing your chosen community, the more likely it is that your community members will share similar needs and requests. However, there will always be members who are looking for more support or different services than your average customer, so it’s also important to have additional processes in place for communication with these customers who may be a bit more high maintenance. After all, they are still a part of your community too, and they deserve the full experience just as much as their peers!

As you work on this step, keep in mind that some of these processes are about limitations and boundaries (i.e., how can you keep a picky customer from derailing everyone’s experience) while others are about systematizing access to commonly requested resources (i.e., what are some alternate ways to reset passwords or download resources if the usual processes don’t work for everyone). However, there should also be a limit to what you’ll create to appease a single, high-needs customer. Pouring your time into these kinds of requests can quickly suck up excess, undercompensating work-hours from you or your team, causing you to lose time and money if you take on too many out-of-scope requests for unusual services or support.


     9. Get communication down solid and have a plan for a private access platform as you grow.

The more you grow and the more members you bring on board, the more people will be communicating with one another and thus, the more important it is to get that communication right! As you onboard your own team, from customer service reps to the all-important community manager, make sure that everyone is clear on how to handle questions, comments, and complaints; check in that everyone knows how and where to report unusual communication situations, too. Keep a list of commonly asked questions with scripted responses so that a team or chatbot can help out with volume.

Then, in your public spaces, Facebook groups, and/or other social media, make sure that you have the frequently asked questions (FAQ) all posted and answered for new customers to see. If you answer the right questions at the right time via the right method, for the entirety of the entire customer journey from discovery to sign-up, then you can save a lot of time and hassle for everyone involved! Sometimes you can even answer them before customers have a chance to wonder, and that’s just the best feeling. 

Well, Sis, these are the things that our team has learned while building the Sistahbiz subscription model and getting it running through its very first year. And hopefully by sharing this, I’ll be sparing some of you from going through the worst of the growing pains yourselves! To learn more about the Sistahbiz membership experience and sign up, visit www.sistah.biz/membership.  


Makisha Boothe

Makisha is Head Business Coach and founder of Sistahbiz Global Network. She specializes in rapid improvement and innovation, and helps women with business startup and design.

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