Building Your Email List Via A Free Membership: Why You Might Want To (And How)

By David Risley | Last Updated on May 11, 2021 |

In this post, I want to present a different approach to building your email list. It is especially suitable if you run a membership site.

See, the most typical approach to list building involves the following:

  1. Offer them some kind of free lead magnet. Often a PDF or something similar.
  2. They fill in the opt-in form to get it.
  3. They are added to your email list.
  4. You automatically send them the link to that thing in the first email they receive.

That's the usual approach. But, what if you take it up a notch?

What if they are actually getting a free membership in your site? What if they're getting access to a library of cool things rather than just one? 

This is what I do here at the Blog Marketing Academy.

I want to present to you the pros and cons of using a free membership site (or level) to build your email list.

I also want to show you what I think is the best setup to make this most worthwhile. 

So, let's get into it.

The Free Member Level Strategy Overview

OK, so here's the gist of how this works...

We all know that you want to offer up one or more lead magnets in order to build your list. That's 101-level stuff right there.

So, what we're doing here is delivering the lead magnet via your membership site instead of just sending them a raw download link.

You could also present the free membership as the lead magnet on its own. It really all depends on the benefits of your free membership.

The free membership offer presented on my own homepage as I write this

This is a matter of positioning.

See, one thing to know about lead magnets is that the closer that it matches the exact needs and wants of the person, the more likely they are to opt in to get it. This is why content upgrades work so well rather than only having one, central lead magnet for your whole site. A content upgrade is usually quite specific to a single blog post. It converts better.

The problem with a free membership is that it is a kind of "catch all" lead magnet and doesn't necessarily directly apply to people in context of why they're on your site to begin with.

So, we can apply the SAME ideas of all lead magnets. They'll get a free resource of some kind - just like normal. But...

They'll also get a free membership in your site.

And they'll log into their new profile in order to access their download.

The Pros And Cons Of This Approach

Everything has tradeoffs. So, let's present both sides of this issue before you go launching straight into having a free member level on your blog.

PRO: Higher Perceived Value

People are pretty used to grabbing free downloads. Unless it is a really compelling offers with good copy, it can blend right in and nobody will care.

Of course, that's the same for any offer under the sun - including a free membership.

However, if you're going to set up a free member level on your site, chances are you're going to give them more than just a single PDF file.

You may give them access to your community forum so your subscribers can interact. You may give them access to a whole library of cool things. You could do live events in there, AMA ("Ask Me Anything") sessions, webinars... or any number of things all within your own membership site. 

So, when they opt in, they get far more than just another PDF to litter their hard drive. And you can make that clear to them.

On that note...

PRO: Higher ACTUAL Value

It isn't all about just perceived value here. A free member level gives you the obvious ability to provide more value to your subscribers via their account.

This also gives them a reason to come back. Hopefully repeatedly.

For a PDF download, most will grab it and move on. But, if they have a membership account and you're continually giving them reasons to come back into their account, they're more likely to do it.

Now, this presents some interesting capabilities...

PRO: Easier To Customize The Site Experience To Them

When they enter your membership site, what do they do first?

They log in.

Which means... you know who they are.

You can address them my name. You can customize what they see on your site to them. In fact, using the right tools (which we'll cover below), you can literally turn your site into a personalized, optimized marketing engine on a personal level.

You no longer need to show everybody the exact same thing. One-size-fits-all doesn't work as well in marketing. You're no longer stuck beating that same drum.

PRO: On-Site & Email Retargeting

With the right tools, you can literally have your site become an extension of your automated marketing engine. After all, you know who they are and see what they're doing. So, check out some of the things you can do here:

  • Every few logins, you can automatically present a paid upgrade offer to them.
  • If they access or download another resource (which wasn't their original reason why they joined), you can still tag them as potentially interested in that. And follow up automatically with them.
  • If they're currently receiving an evergreen promotional campaign via email, you can make your site reflect the same thing. And once their deadline expires, the site goes back to normal for them. Automatically.

Try doing any of that with a simple, boring link to a PDF file which looks the same for everybody.

RELATED: 14 Pro-Level Strategies Using ConvertBox To Grow Your Business And Make More Money (ConvertBox Review)

Now, to be fair, let's talk about the cons...

CON: Friction of Creating A Profile Could Lower Conversion Rate

Most standard opt-ins only ask for email address. And that's enough. In some cases, people ask for their name, too.

When one is creating a member account, you usually need a bit more. All of my opt-in forms ask for their name, for instance. It lowers conversion rate a bit to add that extra field, but I think it is important that I can address them by name inside THE LAB.

Also, there's that inevitable friction with them having to get or set a user password, get it via email, and then take the extra step to log in. Some people do get confused by this and never log in. From a user perspective, it is more work to create a membership than it is just to get a file.

But, here's the thing...

Having them work a little harder for it isn't a bad thing. It COULD lower your conversion rate, however the ones that get in there are likely to be a better lead.

The way I see it, if they're too lazy to log in, they're too lazy to do anything about their business. They'll still get on my list, but eventually they'll be purged out there for lack of engagement.

Plus, if you position it properly, you can actually ask for MORE information during opt-in than usual. You can collect useful information that allows you to better serve them and their interests. After all, they're creating an account, not just trying to get another PDF and then hit the unsubscribe button.

New members of THE LAB fill out a short onboarding questionnaire on their way in. I use Fluent Forms to power that form. And it spits out some nice data so I can know who makes up my list.

RELATED: Gravity Forms Vs WP Fluent Forms: Which Is The Better WordPress Forms Plugin?

For instance, I ask people what niche they are in with their site and here's a quick visual breakdown:

I ask several other questions that allow me to better understand who I'm talking to. This data is collected every day. Not every signup finishes the whole process, but the ones that do will almost always be more engaged members later.

CON: More Work Required

It is one thing to create a simple lead magnet and send it to them. It is a whole other level to have enough going on to justify a free membership site.

You'll need more in there for them than just one thing. You may consider including forums (which are themselves more work). It all depends on what you offer.

Also...

CON: More Tools Required

To send them a PDF, all you need is an email list host. Nothing else needed. It is simple.

A membership requires a little infrastructure. You'll need a membership site plug-in of some kind. You'll need to do the work to present member content differently than public stuff.

You could keep it simple, or get more involved. It really just depends on the kind of site you want.

Who This Strategy Works Best For

Not everybody would benefit from this the same. In fact, for some people, this is just going to increase your workload without a major benefit.

I use this lead generation strategy here at the Blog Marketing Academy. All new subscribers automatically get a Starter membership in THE LAB. It is free for life and gives access to a number of resources plus the member community.

But, I also have paid member upgrades. I have the LAB PRO membership as well as LAB PLATINUM. Also, a number of courses in the library can be purchased separately.

The point is... members can buy things. And I don't think a free member level would be worth it unless you have the same situation.

Membership site owners are best positioned to benefit from the free membership lead generation strategy. In that case, you want people to be regularly engaging with your membership site. This setup will give them more opportunities to do so.

If you're selling things on a third-party site (like Teachable), or performing services or coaching, then building a membership site only to be used as a freebie might be more work than it is worth.

You just need to consider your own goals.

Always consider the followup. What comes AFTER they get a free membership? What do you want them to do next? If that "next step" is inside your membership site, then a free member level can be the glue that helps bring people in the door.

How To Set Up To Offer A Free Membership To Build Your List

So, let's talk about the tech. How do you set this up?

At the simplest level, all you need is a basic membership site plug-in that integrates with your email list service. If you're using a plug-in already, chances are you can just use that and set up a new member level without any price tag.

Now, to really take this up to the next level and get the full benefit of this strategy, you'll need more.

Let me show you how I do it.

How My Free Membership Registration Works

WP Fusion forms the glue here. I have reviewed WP Fusion already and it remains the most valuable plug-in I use in my business. It is like the Swiss-army knife for WordPress-based marketers.

RELATED: WPFusion Review (2021): Turning Your WordPress Site Into A Marketing Powerhouse And Membership Site

WP Fusion is what creates their member profile and auto-generates their password. That last thing is important because I didn't want to present the friction to new subscribers of manually setting their password.

So, it works like this:

  1. A person fills out one of the many opt-in forms across this site, asking for name and email. Those opt-in forms are powered by ConvertBox.
  2. The person is added to Drip. In addition to being added to the list, they're added to an automation to set them up as a new member.
  3. Drip then tags them as a member as well as sends a web hook back to my site to create the profile. WP Fusion receives that data and sets up their profile.
  4. Drip sends them their welcome.

That's basically it.

When people submit an opt-in form on ConvertBox, I add them to an automation in Drip. I also tag them with the lead magnet they're requesting. AND... I use the "NEXT" tags to control the call to action they will see when they first enter the LAB.

Tags are applied... and it sends a webhook call back to WordPress. Where WP Fusion intercepts it and creates their member profile automatically.

WPFusion is set to auto-generate their password and sync it to Drip so that I can send them their password.

From then on, WP Fusion maintains a perfect synchronized connection between their WordPress profile and their information in Drip. I can perform any automated marketing or followup I want. because my site is now a direct extension of my marketing automation CRM.

I can now present individualized messages to them inside THE LAB to show them where to get the exact download they originally entered on. Everything is as personalized as I would want it to be. Really, my only limit is my own imagination.

RELATED: How My Membership Site Is Built: The Tools & Plugins I Use To Power THE LAB

Now, what if you weren't using the same tools as I am?

Alternative Setups

If you use Infusionsoft (Keap) or Active Campaign, you could do the exact same thing using tools like ActiveMember360 or Memberium.

ConvertBox is what I use (and love) for opt-ins, however you don't need that. It makes life easier when your membership site is separate from your blog, but ultimately any opt-in tool will do the job.

RELATED: ConvertBox Review: The Good And Bad Points Of This Opt-In Software And How It Compares (UPDATED)

Any membership site plug-in will work. The main difference is that most plug-ins do NOT offer full synchronization with your CRM. You can add people to your list, but you can't go the other direction.

To really have the FULL marketing power of this setup in the followup, you need full site integration with your CRM.

WP Fusion does that. 

Final Thoughts

If you are already running a membership site - or selling online courses via a membership that you host and control - then this strategy for list building just seems to make all kinds of sense.

Or cents, as it were. 😉

It is truly an "all roads lead to the membership" kind of situation.

When coupled with proper followup marketing and your membership site designed to present upgrade opportunities, this can build your list and make sales for you all at the same time.

Here's one other benefit to keep in mind...

It keeps your community on your own turf.

I know Facebook is popular for free member groups for the distribution potential. But, Facebook can delete it anytime they want. Plus, Facebook is constantly distracting all your subscribers with stupid ads and distractions.

RELATED: 7 Reasons NOT To Use A Facebook Group For Your Membership Site (Facebook Vs Forum)

When they're on YOUR site, it is all a strategically designed environment. Designed to provide value - both for you, your business and your members. There's no contrary intentions as you would have with Facebook. Facebook doesn't give a crap about your business.

So, something to consider. 🙂

Perhaps test it out.

As I said, you may or may not see a conversion rate drop. It is possible. You don't know until you try it. Thing is... it isn't all just about opt-in conversion rate. It is about what happens AFTER that.

And a membership site provides a whole lot of power on the followup. 🙂


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About David Risley

David Risley is the founder of the Blog Marketing Academy, a veteran blogger and online entrepreneur. He founded this site in 2008 after growing his initial technology blog into a commercial success. He has taught and/or coached multiple thousands of students, across a wide variety of niches. He also has a keen skill in the technical side of Wordpress and helps clients build their own platform. He is based in Florida, loves RVing and crypto, and an occasional cigar. Oh, and sushi. Read his full story.

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