If you want to create an information product business, should you sell individual courses or create a membership site?

The answer seems simple: go for the membership! After all, who doesn't want to get paid every month, forever more?

In reality, things aren't quite that straight forward, though. Read on to find out what the best solution really is...

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Understanding Membership vs. One-Off Courses: Key Differences

Before we dive into the comparison between memberships and one-off courses, let's take a moment to understand the two business models and their respective approaches to delivering value to customers.

The Membership Model 

In a membership model, customers pay a recurring fee (usually monthly or annually) to access a library of content, resources, or services provided by the business. This model often offers ongoing value and support to members, fostering a sense of community and loyalty.

Benefits of the Membership Model

  • Predictable recurring revenue stream for the business
  • Opportunity to build a community and cultivate ongoing relationships with members
  • Flexibility to provide regular updates, new content, and exclusive perks to keep members engaged

Drawbacks of the Membership Model

  • Requires continuous content creation and maintenance to keep members
  • Potential for content overload, leading to overwhelm or decreased engagement
  • Members may cancel subscriptions if they feel they're not receiving sufficient value over time

Common example of the membership model: Netflix offers a membership model, where subscribers pay a monthly fee to access a vast library of movies, TV shows, and original content.

Example of a membership model

The One-Off Course Model 

In contrast, the one-off course model involves selling individual courses or digital products for a one-time fee. Customers purchase the course with the expectation of receiving specific knowledge, skills, or outcomes outlined in the course curriculum.

Benefits of the One-Off Course Model

  • Clear and tangible value proposition for customers, often addressing a specific pain point or learning objective
  • Opportunity to generate immediate revenue from course sales without ongoing membership commitments
  • Easier to manage content creation and updates, as courses are typically self-contained and finite

Drawbacks of the One-Off Course Model

  • Limited to one-time revenue per customer unless additional products or upsells are offered
  • Less opportunity for ongoing customer engagement and relationship-building compared to memberships
  • Requires effective marketing and sales strategies to attract new customers and drive course sales

Common example of the one-off course model: Udemy operates on the one-off course model, where instructors create and sell individual courses on various topics, with customers purchasing courses based on their interests or learning needs.

example of one-off course model

5 Reasons One-Off Course Are a Better Business Model

A membership is an alluring option, but my recommendation is to sell one-off online courses instead. Here's a summary of the 5 reasons why online courses beat information based membership sites:

Reason #1: Averages

Let's say you have a membership site and members pay $50/month for access. This should mean that every time a new member signs up, your income increases by $50/month, right?

Wrong.

The reality of any subscription business is that you'll have an average customer lifetime value (CLV). Some members will sign up and stick around for a long time. Some members will sign up and cancel immediately. On average, members will stick around for a limited, predictable number of billing cycles.

For the sake of simplicity, let's say your average is 4 billing cycles. That means every new member at the $50/month price tier is worth a total of $200 to your business.

Sometimes you'll earn more, sometimes you'll earn less. But on average, when a new member signs up, you get $200.

This isn't much different from selling an online course for a one-off price of $200, except that it takes longer to get the full amount.

Averages: The Bottom Line

Charging an ongoing subscription price doesn't translate to getting paid forever.

Reason #2: Content Churn

"Okay", I hear you say "but what if I improve my membership business to get members to stick around for longer? Then I'll earn more!"

An aspect of any subscription business is your retention rate and you can do various things to increase it. For an information based membership, this is more of a downside than an advantage, though.

To keep people sticking around, you can do things like:

  • Create new, member-exclusive content on a regular basis.
  • Host member-exclusive live events, group coaching calls etc.
  • Provide new benefits to members on a regular basis.
  • Create and cultivate a community of some kind, which is exclusive to members.

The problem is that all of these are a lot of work to maintain. What's worse, you have to do at least some of these things, otherwise there's no reason for members to continue paying.

The Secret to Long Term Subscriptions: Pain of Disconnect

Most successful subscription businesses we see online are SaaS (software as a service) businesses. They retain members not so much by continually adding value as by making it painful to quit the service.

Take an email marketing service, as an example: once you've started using it, you're tied in.

Sure, you can move to a different system anytime, but it's a pain in the arse to do so. Especially if you're a power user, it would probably cost you several days to migrate all your contacts, follow-up emails, automations, opt-in forms and so on. Who wants to deal with that?

So, even if your email marketing service doesn't continually add new features and new value for you, you're compelled to remain a member and keep paying, just to keep using the service as is.

Here's the crux of the matter: with an information based membership, we don't have the luxury of pain of disconnect.

Content Churn: The Bottom Line

You have to give members a reason to stick around, which means continuous, ongoing work. Because there's no real pain of disconnect, increasing retention in an information based membership business is difficult.

Reason #3: Scope

So, you've got your membership and you have to keep churning out new content and creating new value, to keep members sticking around. This creates another problem: your membership becomes this infinitely expanding monstrosity.

Counter-intuitively, this actually makes it less valuable, not more valuable.

With a one-off course, you have a much easier time controlling the scope of the product. You can make a course that is focused on a simple promise or outcome: "How to Get Six Pack Abs", "How to Create Engaging Videos" or "How to Resolve Back Pain".

These are simplified examples, but the principle is: you can make a course that aims to deliver one specific outcome and then streamline the course towards that goal. You can make a focused, valuable, simple course. A course that is finished once you made the final lesson.

Scope: The Bottom Line

A one-off course has a clearly defined, limited scope. You can neatly package a product, which makes it easier to create and easier to sell.

Reason #4: Resources

How do you split your time and resources between creating and improving your product and marketing your product?

This is a crucial question for any business owner to answer. If you focus only on your product, you may end up with an amazing offer... that no one knows about. And of course, all marketing and no product doesn't work, either.

If you're trapped in content churn for your information membership site, you're basically forced to spend a lot of time and resource on the product side. You have to keep producing value to retain members, after all.

And that means you have less time and resource available for marketing.

The worst case scenario is that you have a membership with few members. In this case, you aren't making a good amount of income and what you'd really need to do is focus more on marketing. But no matter how many or few members you have, you need to keep creating value for them, to justify an ongoing subscription price.

In other words: content churn in a membership model steals the resources you'd need to invest in marketing.

Resources: The Bottom Line

Selling one-off products allows you to limit the time you spend on product and then focus fully on marketing. Launching 2 or 3 courses in one year is likely going to lead to far better results than spending the same amount of time building out a single, recurring membership site.

Reason #5: Sticker Shock

When we analyzed some of the most successful information businesses on the web, we noticed that they all have something in common: they do limited launches of one-off courses at a high price.

Typically, they will have a course priced between $500 and $2,000, with enrollment only open for a limited period, once a year.

Why is this?

If you have experience selling something for a one off price vs. selling a subscription, the answer is obvious: subscription prices cause massive resistance.

It's generally easier to convince someone to give you a large amount of money, once, than it is to convince them to give you even a small amount of money, over and over again.

Let's go back to our customer lifetime value example: $50/month with an average retention of 4 months = $200 value per new member.

If you keep the product exactly the same, but you simply change the price from $50/month to $300 one time, you're likely to see equal or higher conversion rates as a result. That's how much of a difference that "/month" part of the price can make to your conversion rates.

Sticker Shock: The Bottom Line

People are motivated to avoid ongoing costs. In many cases, you can easily increase revenue in an information business by charging one large lump sum instead of a much smaller, recurring subscription cost.

When Does the Membership Model Work?

It's clear that my recommendation is to sell one-off courses. All things considered, it's an easier and faster way to build a profitable information business.

But that is not to say that subscription prices are never the right choice. There are a few cases in which the subscription model can be superior:

  • For software and service businesses (all of the above applies to information businesses).
  • For coaching and group coaching businesses - especially if your strength and passion is to work with people directly.
  • For established personal brands and "fan" businesses - if people are happy to pay just to be part of your club or are fans who want to support what you do, even if they don't get anything directly in return (see Patreon).

What's your take? Have you tried launching an information membership? Has this post changed your mind on anything? Let me know by leaving a comment!

Next Steps: Selling Your One-Off Courses

I may have convinced you that the one-off course model is the best option, but I'm sure you've still got plenty of doubts. 

  • How do I deliver my one-off courses?
  • Can I deliver enough value that people will pay what I'm asking?
  • How much should I charge for my courses?
  • Isn't it complicated setting up all this software?

These are natural doubts, but I've got some great news for you - it's actually very easy. 

With a great online course builder like Thrive Apprentice, lots of the hard work is done for you. 

You'll be able to access templates for all your lessons, modules, assessments, course overviews, and student dashboards, and then simply add in brand details like your colors and logo. With this starting point, you can then use the visual drag-and-drop editor to get each page looking exactly how you want it. 

Then it's just a case of sharing your knowledge in a logical, engaging way, and before know it, you've got a great online course. 

Your students will able to pay for your courses and access will be restricted only to enrolled students. 

The best part is (unlike with online course platforms like Udemy), you own all your data, you're in complete control of your site, and we don't take any cut from your sales. 

So what are you waiting for?

We've made it quick and easy to scale your online courses, so it's time to act. 

Get Thrive Apprentice and sell your one-time courses!

Choosing Between Membership and One-Off Courses

We've given you an overview of both the membership and one-off course model and delved into the benefits are drawbacks of each. 

For me, one-off courses have a distinct advantage, but remember, every business is different. You might find you agree with me and go the route of selling one-off courses, but equally you might choose to go with a membership. 

Either way, we've got you covered with more great content:

Oh, and one more thing. 

If you want the best platform to sell memberships or one-off courses...

Get Thrive Apprentice today!

About the Author Shane Melaugh


Shane Melaugh is a co-founder of Thrive Themes. When he isn't plotting new ways to create awesome WordPress themes & plugins, he likes to geek out about camera equipment and medieval swords. He also writes about productivity here.

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