How do I get free users to subscribe to paid memberships?

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How do I get free users to subscribe?

It's a question I hear a lot. Just about every time I get into a conversation about membership sites. But before we get into the answer to that, we need to back up just a bit. Increasing your conversion rates is a fantastic topic. It's what we'll look at here. But it's a topic that logically comes after asking a couple other questions.

For example,

  • What caused someone to create a free account on your site?
  • Are the free users coming back often? Why? For what?
  • How fast is your free user base growing?
  • Where are you getting these free users from?
  • Do these free users have any intention of spending any money with you?

What we need to know here is what's going on with regard to your free user base. Because all the strategies in the world won't work if you're targeting an audience that doesn't plan to ever spend money with you.

I often talk about two membership studies done a couple years ago where these free sites changed their prices from free to $1/year. And what they saw was an immediate drop off of 15-30% of their users. Think about that for a second—it means that there was up to 30% of your free customers that never had any intention, any, at all, ever, of spending a penny with you.

If that's your current free user base, getting them to subscribe to paid memberships is a lost cause. And that's why it's important to know who your free users are.

But let's assume that we've talked through that and you have a nice mix between some folks who are willing to spend a little, and others who can spend a bit more, and some who are ready to give you larger amounts if you have the right offerings.

Then we're back to our question—how do you get free users to subscribe to paid memberships?

Now, before I get started, I want to make something really clear. This isn't a post with a couple of quick tricks like putting a money-back guarantee below the order form to drive conversions. Instead, I want you to do the harder work that really drives your conversions up.

By the way, if you're creating a new membership site from scratch, you should sign up for this free multi-part course on membership site creation.

Start with segmentation

The most important first step is to understand that not all your free users are the same. Some of them came and registered to download a single information product, with no intention to ever come back again. Other free users keep coming back and engaging. They're browsing, reading, watching, downloading or engaging with your content.

Beyond the difference between their behaviors on the site, they come from different locations, and where they come from may give you a glimpse as to who they are or what they care about. I had a client that was getting two sets of free customers. One was from a partner's promotion and one wasn't. The difference? The partner was doing a lot of pre-education and pre-qualification. Those free users were much more prepared to engage than the other set.

Imagine that your membership site is focused on health and fitness. You have content that is free and available to anyone. Then, you create a free membership level—that requires registration—and when people sign up for that, they get access to some protected content (like fitness training schedules, meal plans, etc). And then you offer a paid membership where members get access to even more.

Now, the question is, how many different segments of users do you have? Are you collecting data to help you understand these segments? Often this is done during registration.

How many, in this example, are fitness instructors? How many are trying to lose weight? How many are training for an event (like a marathon)? How many are focused on food and health more than exercise?

As you gather this data, you can group people in “like” groups. Those are the segments. And the point of segmentation is to be able to treat like people alike. The point of the segmentation is to be able to make different decisions and the next steps will leverage that ability because you have these segments defined.

Then understand lifecycle demands

In our imaginary example, we might break up the segments like this:

  • Short-term engagers (2 week programs)
  • Mid-term engagers (10 week programs)
  • Beach-ready focused (targeted exercises)
  • Cardio focused
  • Weight-loss focused

We could get more intense by adding gender or age groups. But since this is imaginary, we don't need to go further. The point of this list is to show you how it impacts the second dynamic—which is the lifecycle of these segments.

Let's say you're looking for a beach-ready body. You aren't doing that in October, right? You're likely doing it in April, or May. I can make that prediction (just a guess, I'm not a fitness expert) for that segment even if other segments would be different. That's because their lifecycle needs are different than others.

The folks looking at long-term weight loss will act differently than beach-ready folks. They may not be as short-term focused. Their needs over time will be different.

While they may start with some custom menus, as they lose weight they may need certain exercises, and over time, they may be ready to add other kinds of exercises.

So while we start with segments, we move from there to understanding those segments and mapping out their lifecycle demands so that we can correctly predict not only their pain, but the timing of their needs over their entire engagement with our membership sites.

Now shift to targeted messaging

You likely already know that if you have a deep understanding of particular segments of your audience, you should message to them in a way that reflects that.

So what I'm telling you here isn't new or shocking.

Creating custom landing pages that reflect not only who they are, but what challenges they face, and how you meet those challenges is what helps you drive an increased conversion dynamic.

How you message to someone who is looking to get in shape after recently delivering their new baby is really different messaging than how you talk to someone else who needs to loose 100 pounds, and that's different than how you message someone who wants to fit into a new bikini (and therefore lose 3 inches) this summer.

The segments drive the predicted pain and timing, but this all comes together on your targeted pages where you'll make your offer. When these offers are generic (“get more info” or “buy now”), the conversion rates will be low. When you can be specific (“Spend less than 30 minutes a day, for 2 weeks and lose up to 3 inches”) and targeted (“It's time to buy a new swimsuit”), you can get free users to subscribe to paid offerings.

Create compelling offers

A lot of people simply create a free and a paid plan when it comes to their membership site. As you can see, I don't believe that's always the right call. What I care more about is a product creation process that maps well to specific segments and their changing needs (pains) over a specific timeline.

That means I'm not selling everyone on the same generic upsell from free to paid. And that may be one of the most important things to understand. You can get free users to subscribe to a paid offering if it's the paid offering that makes sense to them and that they want.

I know, there's nothing fancy about that logic. But most people don't design their membership systems this way (and that's likely because all of this is a bit more work).

In order to create compelling offers, let's get clear on why most people buy. I'm sure there are more than nine reasons people pay for things, but these are my go-to reasons that help me shape the products I create.

  1. People pay for core needs. This is why you buy groceries.
  2. People pay for improvements. This is why you pay for counseling.
  3. People pay for pain reduction. This is why you pay the doctor.
  4. People pay for risk reduction. This is why you buy car insurance.
  5. People pay for goal acceleration. This is why you buy books, or courses.
  6. People pay for longer-term savings. This is why people pay for Costco.
  7. People pay for larger payouts. This is why people invest in stocks.
  8. People pay for entertainment. This is why you go to the movies.
  9. People pay for experiences. This is why you go on vacation.

Every time I create a product, especially if I'm going to charge for it, I know that when I sell it, the story I tell will be tied to one of these core reasons people spend money.

The one you should think about here, when it comes to converting from free to paid, is number five. It's the most effective one to help people shift from one pacing to another.

What you're doing is saying that if they work hard, with the free edition of your membership, they can get results. If they want to accelerate their results, they can purchase a different offering. And by now you know, different segments will want to accelerate different results.

Lastly, leverage feedback loops

The last step in this process is to make effective use of feedback loops. Did someone sign up for something free? What did you do with that? How did you follow-up? What did you learn about their behavior on your site, and how does that provide enough feedback to help you know what's next.

Say you read a post of mine about blogging. That takes you to maybe a form to sign up for my free course on blogging. If you open all four emails over four weeks, maybe I offer you access to my paid course on generating revenue from your blog.

But should I sent that email if you haven't opened any of the emails from my free course? No.

So learn to use the behavior you can monitor to create feedback loops that shift and shape the follow up emails you send. In the same way that you wouldn't want to send someone an upsell, imagine the kind of feedback that would cause you to send the upsell offer. If you bought an ebook of mine, read it quickly, came back and filled out the feedback form, and then browsed another page that shows you reader's reviews of another book of mine—wouldn't I want to make you a special offer to help you close the deal?

What are you waiting for?

My overall point here is that getting people who haven't spent money with you to do so isn't impossible. You can get free users to upgrade to paid plans. But it takes some planning and some hard work. Hopefully, these steps have helped. If you want to talk more, you can always reach out via my Clarity account.

About Chris Lema

Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.

Chris Lema

Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.

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