I ran a successful membership site for two years. During this period I closely monitored and tested the various aspects that affected conversion rate.

These tips are most applicable to membership sites, but any website that needs to convert visitors into buyers will find very valuable tidbits here.

Read on as I spill the beans on the secrets of membership site conversions.

#1: Distribute Most of Your Content Freely

free

Share openly. I'm not saying don't have a membership site with protected content. But if all of your content is restricted, you'll have a hard time marketing your site and demonstrating your expertise in the niche. That's why having free content has many important benefits.

Getting search engine traffic

Free content is search engine indexable, so it generates organic traffic to your site. When publishing and structuring your free content, keep basic search engine optimization principles in mind.

Getting free referrals

Just because you're giving away content, doesn't mean it should be subpar. Aim for your free content to go viral and become a valuable public resource that will be referred to.

Also, look into implementing Google's First Click Free for Web Search. Basically, you allow Googlebot to index all of your restricted content and include it in search results. Then give free access to the first article to which Google sends the visitor. If after that the visitor wanted to see more articles, you can ask her to subscribe.

Without this free content, you can completely forget about organic traffic and non-affiliate referrals. But the best part of having free content is that it will give you a chance to demonstrate your knowledge in your field. (More on showing off expertise later.)

#2: Create an Easy or Incremental Registration Process

register

When a visitor clicks on "Register Now", don't take her to a sign-up page that looks like a government tax form. Design a straightforward sign-up form.

If you must collect a lot of data from your buyers, then make an incremental registration process. I mean, a multi-step sign-up process that starts very simple. Start with an easy two-fields form that just asks the subscriber's name and email — like an email opt-in form.

When they submit that opt-in form, create their account in the database, and move them to the next step in the registration process.

Now — since your registration form is as simple as name/email, why not show it on every page of your membership site (including the free content section)? It could go in the header or the sidebar of your site. Use a strong call-to-action with it, like "Enough scratching the surface. Enter your name and email to get access to professional tools now."

#3: Intelligently Follow-Up and Nag Non-Payers

follow-up

I said a sign-up form should be as simple as an email capture form. In fact, it should actually act as an email capture form. If a potential subscriber abandons your sale funnel after completing one or more steps of your registration process, follow up with her.

Personalize your follow-up message as much as you can. Obviously, if she didn't provide more than a name and email, you don't have much information to go on. But if she completed step two and provided her fields of interests and goals, then you can and should send a more targeted follow-up email — a series of emails actually, no just one.

Oh, and there's no need to show your site-wide sign-up form to someone who's already submitted it. Your site can remember user submissions with cookies. If the user has already subscribed, hide the form completely. If they abandoned the sale funnel, show a nag message instead. Something like "Jane, you're only a few steps away from gaining access to world-class ninja tools. Complete your registration here."

#4: Offer a Free Trial (Not a Money Back Guarantee)

free-trial

When you offer a money back guarantee, you're asking subscribers to trust you with their money. But with a zero-cost trial, you're telling them to keep their money and truly try your service risk-free. That's why a free trial converts better than a money back guarantee.

But, of course, you don't want to give a free trial to anyone with an email account. You can ask subscribers to provide credit card details and then charge them automatically when the free trial expires. This aspect of the process should be made clear to buyers — and hopefully they'll understand it without confusion since many other membership sites are using the same model.

The challenge in implementing this model is finding the right payment processor. Payment processors, which have more lenient approval policies, like ClickBank and PayPal Express usually don't support this free-trial model. Authorize.Net and PayPal Pro do support such features. They even give you control over whether to send a payment notification email with each recurring payment. *wink wink*

#5: Focus on "Easy" and "Effortless" in Your Sales Copy

simple

When it comes to selling a subscription service that solves a problem, saying it's easy is better than saying it's powerful.

When a potential buyer thinks "subscription", she thinks she has to commit to continuous hard work and action. So, she resists. To overcome this objection, emphasize the instant benefits that subscribers gain in your sales copy. Position your premium content and tools as easy and effortless.

And it's important to deliver on this promise because providing immediate results to your subscribers will give them the needed encouragement to continue to use your service and explore it deeper.

#6: Keep Subscribers Hooked

stairway

To keep your subscribers converting month after month, they must feel they're gaining a recurring value. The value can be in the form of continually updated content or new content. It can also be in access to personal support forum or one-on-one consultation.

A popular way of providing real, yet automated and continuous value is by the use of content drip-feeding tools. This works best for content that's meant to be consumed sequentially, like a training course. Basically, you setup a series of articles that build upon one another and deliver them weekly in the span of six months or one year. Most membership scripts nowadays are equipped with this functionality.

#7: Establish Your Expert Status in the Niche

expert

Having an expert status in the field will really boost your conversions. Here are a few ways to cement your expert status:

Put a commenting form on pages that provide free content. Interact with commenters and answer their questions. Participate in forums where people talk about topics relevant to your membership site (don't forget to include a link back to your site in the signature). Setup Google Alerts for relevant keywords to find blogs and sites where you can post your own comments and create profiles. Last, but definitely not least, submit guest posts to popular sites in your niche.

Doing this will also positively impact your search engine rankings. And having higher search engine rankings is perceived as having higher authority, so it's a win-win for you!

Those were some of the most important lessons I learned in running a membership site. Of course, my knowledge and advice here are not comprehensive. For example, I didn't say anything about Twitter, Facebook, or LinkedIn, which I'm sure are very powerful conversion and authority building platforms.

What are some of the tips that you can share with us regarding improving conversion and revenue in a membership site?

M.K. Safi

M.K. Safi is the co-author of WinkPress -- a web resource dedicated to pushing WordPress as a CMS to create membership, review, shopping sites, and more.

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