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Course vs Membership – Which Is Right For You?

You’ve heard it over and over again.

Creating an online course or membership site is a profitable way to scale your business and serve more of your ideal customers.

Great.  So, where do you start?  Online course of membership site?  Guess what… we get this question all the time.

There are a lot of commonalities… but there are some distinct differences, too.

Before you jump into creating either one of these leveraged platforms, let’s talk about each one. T here are huge differences in terms of the time, effort and the resources needed to create either of them.

By the end of this post, you should have enough information to ask yourself some key questions about which one is right for you, your business, and your ideal customers.

What Is A Membership Site?

A membership site provides access to content, community, and (sometimes) other benefits for a recurring membership fee.  If the member cancels their membership (or if their membership payment fails), their access to the membership site is terminated.

Normally the content you give them is exclusively available to members of the membership site and isn’t available anywhere else.  The content may take a variety of different forms – audio, video, checklists, assessments – and is often related to an open-ended topic that can be expanded upon over time.

Since your members are paying on a regular basis, you need to provide new content or provide other value on an ongoing basis, to keep your members happy and continuing to pay for their membership.

You can create multiple membership levels (and payment tiers) to allow you to provide value to a broad spectrum of members.  Higher paying members get access to additional content and benefits that the lower level members don’t get.

Successful membership sites often have a strong, active community of members that engage with one another.

So, you will find that a typical membership site includes:

• Access tied to a recurring payment (monthly or annual fee)
• Release of regular new content
• Access to an ongoing community
• No set endpoint (membership continues indefinitely)

There are a number of topics around which successful membership sites have been built. Here are just a few:

Astrology Business Coaching Carpentry & Woodworking
Dog Training Gemstones & Jewelery Health & Wellness
Horticulture Sewing & Knitting Sporting Activities

What Is An Online Course?

Online courses are goal-oriented.  This means there’s a clear beginning and ending to the course with a specific end goal the student is trying to achieve by going through the course.

At the end of the course, the student has a clear understanding of the topic the course is about and has completed all of the content/requirements inside of it.

In terms of content, it can also be provided in a variety of formats. Audio, video, checklists, assessments or quizzes are comment content.

Most of the time, an online course is purchased for a one time fee.

A typical online course includes:

  • One-time fee or installments granting long term/life-time access to content
  • Defined structure – modules & lessons & topics
  • Defined content path or A-Z steps
  • Content drip fed or available all at once
  • Progress tracking, quizzes, or assignments
  • Group or 1-to-1 support
  • Recognition of completion – certificate, designation, continuing education credits

There is an endless list of topics for which an online course can be created. Here are just a few:

Accounting Anger Management Bee Keeping
Music Theory Project Management Stock Trading
Web Design Wedding Photography Yoga

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 membership 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?

  • While it’s still a good idea to have some element of community in a course, whether this is live calls, Facebook Group, or a community forum, courses can also be completely independent study.
  • 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.

Can you commit the ongoing time and energy to create content?

  • Creating a membership site or online course will both involve a significant investment of your time. Time into planning your business model and your content. Building your site, identifying your audience, and marketing.
  • The key difference between the two is the ongoing time to manage the platform. In our experience, this is the #1 thing membership owners underestimate is the time required to not only constantly provide new and valuable content but also to administratively manage a membership site.

Can you fund a membership site while it grows?

  • It’s important to consider how you’ll be generating revenue while you’re growing your membership site or online course. You are going to be starting from $0 in revenue per month and, likely, some expenses in content and platform creation. We always suggest that our clients have stable income before beginning an elearning or membership site.
  • It can take longer to reach your financial goals when selling a membership than it can when selling a (particularly one that is higher-priced) course. Courses typically deliver a large cash injection upfront that usually isn’t achievable with a membership.


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 yourself.

There are more things to consider and if you would like to chat further on this – we’d love to answer your questions.  Simply Contact Us.

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