Highlights from WishList’s Membership Website Awards – the Wishies for Self-Publishers

Spurred on by the recession and ease of self-publishing, thousands of small-time self publishers have been entering the paid membership site arena in the last 24 months. I thought it would be fun to take a break from examining mainstream paid content publishers’ businesses to take a look at what the self publishing crowd is doing these days.

Out of a field of a dozen or so, WishList is one of the better-known software firms selling a paywall plug-in to WordPress bloggers. Unfortunately the plug-in doesn’t include any sort of cart or customer database, you have to integrate with a 3rd party cart such as 1shoppingcart.com or Paypal to handle that. And the process is jarring during the subscription process… first you’re on a paywall being seduced into buying a membership, and next click you’re in a generic-looking cart. I bet that hurts conversions, plus it must make useful marketing analytics close to impossible.

Reservations aside, I was definitely inspired by WishList’s Wishies Awards, which they run annually to celebrate the best of their customers’ sites. The voters are other site owners. “Thousands” of votes were received apparently. None of the sites voted on revealed sales data, and I suspect some will never hit the five-figure mark, while others will be out of business by this time next year.

That said, it is awfully fun – and yes inspirational – to look over some of the sites that the amateurs are coming out with. A few of my favorites:

CBI ClubHouse: terrible name (because acronyms are always rotten brands, especially for SEO), but fabulous marketing on their homepage. The site’s about how to land a contract for a children’s book, and everything on the homepage reinforces this fact pointedly, including photos of members who landed contracts as a result (in part) of the info they got through their membership. Published by a husband-and-wife team in CO, this site was a print subscription newsletter in the ’90s and has transitioned to online now. These guys are pros and it shows.

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LifeMeetsWork : Aside from a paywall “why you should join” page with far too much copy in teeny type and buttons so far below the fold you need cave-diving equipment to find them, this is a fantastically professional-looking site. You really feel like you’re looking at a site for a large company. This impression is enhanced by Fortune 500 client logos above the fold on the homepage. This is a good example of a site run by a specialist business consultant to promote her services while offering info by membership on the side.

Online Personal Training is an idea that could fly if it were better branded by a particular individual trainer. It’s a slick-enough design (identical to University of Makeup, which reveals the flaw in using off-the-shelf templates) and I love the Livechat plug-in that appears in the lower-right corner… very web 2.0-y. But it feels too generic. Who is the trainer, why should I trust him/her, what’s his/her specialty, what personal attention will I get, etc, etc? Anyway, it’s a cool idea and if done properly could be rolled out to serve hundreds of trainers, each with their own site.

My Year Without Clothes Shopping: What can I say – it’s just so inventive. A site you have to pay to join to learn how to not spend money shopping. If you think of clothing shopping as an addiction (which for many it is), then this makes sense. It’s not about not shopping, it’s about hand-holding while you change behavior, which fits into the eDiets and personal fitness models as well. I’d like to see this site add believability to its marketing by showing photos and testimonials of real-life women who used their memberships to break free of the cycle.

Wonderful Web Women: This is a classic content model online that I’ve seen in many different niches, ranging from personal investments to the podcasting industry. The creator publishes a series of interviews with various experts in a certain niche. You subscribe to gain access to the interviews. The experts could be stock brokers, designers, dog trainers, fortune 500 execs, whatever…. but they have to center around a specific niche and the interviewer has to be good enough to (a) land the interviews and (b) ask the right questions to get chewy, fascinating content. Not always easy.

As for the other Wishie Award Winners of 2010, regrettably – to my mind anyway – all too many of them are in the “get rich on the Internet” niche which is already more than over-flooded with offerings, most of them look-alike and peddling fairly tired materials. If there’s never another membership site on this topic, it would be a glorious thing. Ha.