Should You Create an Online Course or a Membership Site?
Information products are near-perfect applications of the Internet – allowing you to get your knowledge out to a much wider range of people than you ever could working one to one with clients; while still enabling you to earn income in the process (and maybe even achieve that elusive ‘passive income’ dream).
Online courses and membership websites are two of the most popular and comprehensive types of information product you can create; however often the terms ‘course’ and ‘membership’ are used interchangeably, causing no end of confusion.
As such you may find yourself asking: “What’s the difference between an online course and a membership site?’
Or, more specifically: ‘”Which should I create – an online course or a membership site?”
The truth is, online courses and membership sites share many similarities and overlaps, which only muddies the matter further.
So what are the actual differences, or is it really just a case of semantics?
A typical membership site includes:
- Access tied to payment (i.e. monthly fee)
- Release of regular new content
- Access to an ongoing community
- No set endpoint (membership continues indefinitely)
The content in a membership site may take a variety of different forms, including courses, and is typically an open ended topic that can be expanded upon over time. For example in the Member Site Academy, we include a variety of different content types and there is enough information around the topic that we could be creating new courses and content for years!
Membership sites will also typically be open all year round so that you can join anytime and progress at your own pace, although there is an increasing trend in ‘open/close’ membership sites.
A typical online course includes:
- One time fee or installments granting long term/life time access to content
- Module & lesson content structure
- Defined content path or A-Z steps
- Content drip fed or available all at once
- Progress tracking, quizzes, or assignments
- Group or 1-2-1 support
Online courses will often have a fixed start date so that a group of people work through the course content together. However self study courses and Evergreen courses are also popular.
The content of a course usually has a clearly defined start and end point, unlike in a membership – for example a course on Facebook Ads would take you step by step through the Facebook ad process, from start to finish, with the end result being the creation of your own campaign.
As you may have noticed from the above, both online courses and membership sites are based around paying for access to exclusive content. The main difference though is the kind of content and how the access is controlled.
A course is typically finite (for example 8 weeks or 6 modules) whilst a membership site is ongoing. With a membership site you will also typically lose access to the content once your payments stop, however with a course you are typically granted long term access to the content after your payment.
A membership site also provides regular recurring income, whilst a course may be more sporadic depending on the model that you use.
There is plenty of crossover between courses and membership sites though and both will typically use a membership plugin in order to protect content and provide access, hence why a course is typically also referred to as a membership. (For more on the differences between course and membership plugins read ‘Should You Use a Course or Membership Plugin’.)
Deciding which to create
Often it will be obvious whether you are creating an online course or a membership site, but if you’re not sure which option is best for you ask yourself the following questions:
Does your chosen topic have a set A-Z path that leads to a defined result?
If you’re teaching a very specific topic that can be broken down into a set number of steps, especially if it’s one that people are likely to want to learn quickly, then a course may be the best option.
Does the topic have enough to it that you could create continuous ongoing content?
A good rule of thumb here is to write a list of all the possible subjects that you could cover. Is there enough to release one piece of content per month for at least a year?
Can you commit to an ongoing site?
A membership site is much more of an ongoing commitment than a course and it’s good to be aware of that from the start and make sure that it fits with your future plans.
On the other hand a course can be created and sold with very little ongoing work involved depending on the course model you choose.
Do you want to run an online community?
A community is much more important to the success of a membership site than to a short course. Whilst it’s still a good idea to have some element of community in a course, whether this is live calls or a Facebook group, courses can also be completely DIY.
A membership site on the other hand will typically require a strong community element for increased retention, and this takes time and energy to create and moderate.
At the end of the day there isn’t really a right or wrong answer when it comes to whether it’s better to create an online course or a membership site.
What’s important is that you choose the best approach for your topic, your audience and you.