If you have a web site to which people pay a periodic member fee, it's likely that you belong to other member web sites and have done so for at least a year or two. Thus it's easy for you to overlook the fact that to the average person, member web sites are either a relatively new phenomenon or a completely new phenomenon. It follows that you can't afford any sloppiness or hanging back in making clear to your web site visitors that they are looking at an opportunity to sign up for a paid membership in your web site.
Several member web sites that I've been asked to review were sowing confusion in this regard by using both "Join" and "Subscribe" in inviting readers to become members. These words are not interchangeable, however, since we associate "join" with becoming a member of an organization, which normally costs money, and on the web, "subscribe" most often accompanies a invitation to sign up for a free newsletter.
Confusion deepens when the member site offers a newsletter that is free for non-members at the same time that membership costs money. In such a case, it's absolutely crucial that you use the word "Subscribe" strictly for the free newsletter and reserve "Join" or "Become a Member" for the paid membership option. If you don't have both free and for-fee signups, consistency and clarity are still very important. Use the same word all the time to refer to the process of becoming a member.
The second common problem I see in member web sites is skimpy or hidden sales copy. Hidden sales copy occurs very often in member web sites that are using a modifiable template program to run their site. Whatever the template appears to advise, it's essential to have a navigation link called something like "Why Join" or "What Members Get" placed as prominently as possible with the other major navigation links on every page of the public portion of the web site. Having the sales page come up when someone tries to access members-only material is not a substitute for such a prominent link. Sometimes I have had to hunt hard for the sales page when doing site reviews, even though I knew it had to be there somewhere.
The heart of your sales page should be mouthwatering bullet points that make your ideal targets salivate to sign up for your site. Usually what I see on this page are weak generalizations that can't hold a candle to the treasures that are actually inside the site. For instance, bullet points like the following don't evoke the "gotta have this!" feeling that leads people to commit themselves as paid members:
? Weekly updates on the latest snowshoeing techniques
? The most comprehensive, unbiased reviews of equipment you'll find anywhere
? Exercises that keep you in shape for snowshoeing
? All back issues of the "Snowshoes Forever" newsletter
Compare the more specific, more tantalizing bullet points below:
? Articles on climbing, descending, speed-shoeing, following deep woods trails and avoiding injury from Certified Maine Guides and other outdoor experts ? a new such article each week
? More than 35 no-punches-pulled reviews of snowshoes and poles from more than 16 different manufacturers, including five "absolutely do not buy this!" recommendations
? Exclusive, easy-to-master exercises that keep you in shape for showshoeing whether you are a spry and limber 22 or an aches-and-pains-everywhere 62
? Instant access to more than three dozen back issues of the "Snowshoes Forever" newsletter, containing backwoods journals, trail recommendations, discounts on guided trips, classifieds for equipment, resorts and tours, safety tips, great winter camping destinations, even snowshoe construction and modification diagrams!
Make sure it's unmistakably clear from your marketing copy who should belong to your site and why. What will they be able to do or avoid that benefits them? Why is this member site a better value than equivalently priced organizations, books, consulting, etc.? Be hard-hitting, precise and believable.
The third common weakness is feeble testimonials. Owners of member sites tend to be passive in collecting testimonials, relying on what comes in and posting quotes as is with only first names or initials. Unless your member site concerns highly private information, such as living with herpes, then most people who have written complimentary comments are willing to sign their whole name if you ask them for permission.
What you need in testimonials are quotes that name specific things learned, pounds lost, health regained, more money made, marriages saved, tournaments won, new clients attained, etc. Don't be afraid to ask those who've sent you enthusiastic comments for further detail. Approach members whom you know have renewed three times to ask why. You can shorten and clarify members' quotes as long as you get approval from the member for your revision.
The fourth common error I see at member web sites is confusing signup options. One site had four membership options that differed from one another in such complicated ways that even with my advanced degree, I couldn't be sure I understood the choices correctly. Simplicity is golden. Stick with two or three options, tops, explain them clearly, and always present the most expensive option first.
If you haven't updated the public portion of your web site in a while, or if you're not satisfied with the rate at which visitors to your site sign up to become members, it might be time to commission a site review from an objective professional or do some informal user testing. In the latter case, recruit some people in your target market who have never seen your site and sit them down at the computer to perform tasks like figuring out why they should sign up and how much it costs. When they talk their thoughts out loud while exploring your site, you're bound to hear surprises about flaws in your presentation, wording and design.
With strong, specific testimonials and sales copy and clear signup procedures and options, your site will surely convert a gratifying number of visitors into members. Good luck!
Marcia Yudkin is the author of Web Site Marketing Makeover and 10 other books, as well as a five-time judge for the Webby Awards. Find out about her web site review service at http://www.yudkin.com/sitereview.htm and sign up for her free weekly Marketing Minute newsletter at http://www.yudkin.com/markmin.htm.