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Online Membership Communities: Success is About Service

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Recently, NMX launched a brand new online membership site, NMX University. Premium members have access to our 2013 Virtual Ticket through NMX University, but there is also a basic membership area of the site where people can access a handful of virtual sessions, our library of ebooks, and other content for free. Yours truly is managing the content on NMX University (with tons of help from the rest of the NMX staff).

I’ve run and been involved in membership communities in the past, and what I’ve found time and time again is that success hinges on how well you provide service to your members. Content might still be “king” online, but even the best content will fail in a membership community without great customer service.

The VIP Mentality

Members of a community are all VIPs, whether they pay for premium content or not. People are quick to complain and because everyone is used to getting so much free stuff online, there’s a real sense of entitlement online. I don’t say this to complain. Frankly, I think people should feel entitled. Whether we pay for something or not, we are all entitled to be treated with respect. So if you aren’t treating all of your members like VIPs, you’re missing the boat.

Now, this certainly doesn’t mean that you should bend to every demand. What it does mean is that you should promptly respond to questions, apologize for problems, and take everyone’s suggestions into account. When you give someone the option of being a member of your site – even a free member – you have an obligation to provide customer service. If you don’t want to service non-paying members, don’t have a free membership option.

At NMX University, whether you are a free member or a paid member, I will respond to your emails within 24 hours. If I don’t, that’s an indication that I haven’t received it. Everyone is a VIP in my book.

“Prompt” has a New Definition

It used to be that a prompt reply was six to eight weeks. You had to write to a company and wait for a response (if you got one at all), and often your problem was a moot point by the time a solution was proposed.

Today, people have a new definition of “prompt.” That’s why I do my very best to respond to all customer service emails for NMX University within 24 hours. Even that much time – yes, less than one day – can seem like a long time when it comes to online content, so I try to respond even faster when at all possible.

People have short attention spans, so you have to help them quickly if you want to maintain a good relationship. A response within the hour will get a much more positive reaction than the same response three days later. Not only that, but people aren’t afraid to complain in a very public way (on Twitter, Facebook, etc.) if they think they are being ignored.

Your Definition of Clear isn’t Everyone’s Definition of Clear

“User-friendly” means something different to everyone. What might seem really clear to you might not be clear at all to your members. That’s why I’m constantly tweaking the usability of NMX University (without making drastic changes that confuse people) so members have the best user experience possible.

People will have suggestions for you. Some people will not be nice about these suggestions. I’ve been called stupid, ignorant, and a host of others things from people who don’t like the design and usability of membership sites I’ve helped create. Don’t take it personally. I actually keep a folder of the emails I get from people praising sites so I can read them whenever I get the occasionally mean or critical email. You can’t please everyone, but what is important is that you set aside your ego and take others’ suggestions into consideration. Already, NMX University is better thanks to user suggestions and we’re only getting started.

You’ll Catch More Flies with Honey

Lastly, I’ll leave you with a piece of advice my mother gave me when I was young: You’ll catch more flies with honey than you will with vinegar. That is, even when people are being complete jerks, the situation will turn out better if you’re as nice as possible instead of mean or aggressive.

Even when your membership community is loved by 99.99% of people, there will always be that .01% who send angry emails for some reason or another. It’s easy to be angry right back, but remember: You set the tone for your company. If your reply is apologetic and sincere, you’ll be surprised at just how many people change their tune and even apologize for overreacting in their previous email. Because I listen to people, address concerns politely, respond quickly, and apologize for their frustration – even when they are in the wrong – over half the time, I get much happier email responses the next time around, even if the problem hasn’t been solved yet.

I hope you’ll take some time to check out NMX University and put my customer service to the test. For those of you out there also running membership communities, what are some of your best tips for success? Leave a comment below!

Photo Credit: Bigstock

Jennifer Wilson Shares Niche Membership Site Secrets

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Yesterday, I wrote a bit about some questions to ask yourself before becoming a full-time niche blogger. One of the things you have to consider is whether or not you can develop your own products to sell as part of your blog, which is often a more profitable choice than affiliate sales or advertising alone. Recent, Jennifer Wilson from Simple Scrapper sat down with me to answer some questions about a type of product that she’s developed for her niche site – a scrapbooking membership community.

Allison: For those who may not know you, tell us a little about yourself and Simple Scrapper.

Jennifer: I am a water scientist by training, but I’ve always loved writing and creative hobbies. I started my first online publication in 1996, an e-zine on AOL, when I was still in high school. Fast forward to 2008, where I was recently married, relocating to a new city and starting a new full-time position in my industry. I worked full time for 3.5 years while launching my business. I’m now home with my new baby, working 75% time for myself and 25% for the local University. I’m the type of person who needs to keep a foot in both the scientific and creative worlds to be happy.

Scrapbooking seems like a small but crowded niche. How did you initially differentiate your site to find readers and build an audience?

In the beginning (2008), I set out to develop a site that was entirely about digital scrapbooking. At that time there were very few sites in this niche, but I sensed it was about to explode. (It did.) Over the first year, I spent a lot of time further defining my unique offering and looking for specific customer challenges I would address. What I figured out was that people struggle with finding time to scrapbook, with getting over their hangups when it comes to their photos and their memories. I wanted to help those people and thus focus on productivity in scrapbooking. Scrapbooking with your computer (i.e. digitally) became just one of the skills and shortcuts we recommend at Simple Scrapper. Broadening our market to scrapbookers of all styles and approaches was an important decision for the growth of the business.

Why did you decide to build a membership site rather than running a traditional blog?

I didn’t, at first. Simple Scrapper began as just a blog. I knew I wanted to monetize it though, so I focused the first six months on building a readership. Then I added advertising, directly sold to other businesses in my niche. After nearly two years, I saw that this model was not going to take me to the next level (particularly as businesses were cutting back on advertising with this economy). I would need to begin developing my own products.

I launched my first class in August 2010. At the beginning of 2011, I launched a product line that was available individually or by subscription. I also developed a few more classes in 2011. However by the end of summer 2011, I was struggling to keep up with the administration of running a shop with a growing number of products and self-paced classes (not to mention in my third trimester of pregnancy). I didn’t feel my business model (or my lifestyle) was in keeping with my own mission statement of simplicity. I began making plans to convert to the membership model we have now. It was launched in November 2011, just 10 weeks after the birth of my baby girl.

The bottom line here is that I no longer consider a blog to be a viable business model. A blog is an excellent marketing vehicle for building a customer base, a community around a particular niche. However, it is very hard for a blog in “soft” niches to be sustainable on advertising alone.

One of the things a lot of bloggers have trouble with is making money from their readers. How do you build a community when you’re also making money from that community?

It is important to set the expectation that you are a business owner, not a hobby blogger. If you own that title, refuse to apologize for it and accept the responsibility that comes with it, you should have no trouble making money. There is nothing that says businesses can’t fill a market need while being friendly and community-focused. I would even argue that is the best way!

If you could go back and do things differently, what are some of the things you would change?

I wouldn’t have waited so long to begin introducing my readers to the idea of becoming my customers (no longer than six months). I could definitely see some resistance in the beginning, because they had been getting so much for free over the previous two years. I think it is important to have a solid business model in mind before starting your blog, even if it is part of your marketing plan to not launch your membership (or other product offering) until later in your first year.

I also would have signed up for an email service provider from day one.

Thanks for all of your awesome advice, Jennifer! As a way to wrap this up for our readers, can you give us your top three tips for growing a niche membership site?

1. Plan out how all the parts to your program (and your site) integrate, then try to make it simpler. You don’t want users to get lost or frustrated by the experience.
2. Know from the start the content and marketing mechanisms you will use to keep your members renewing.
3. Emphasize (and support) the “community” benefits of your membership, rather than treating this as an add-on.

Head to Simple Scrapper to see Jennifer’s membership site in action!

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