Three Keys to Creating an Online Experience Worth Paying For

image of figures in community

Membership has its privileges.

When American Express unleashed this tag line on the world, they weren’t blowing smoke.

How do you sell a credit card with high annual fees when other cards are competing based on “free”? An expensive credit card that you have to pay off in full every month?

How did AmEx succeed in winning over hundreds of thousands of people to a product with such significant drawbacks?

The answer is in the privileges of membership.

American Express isn’t your average Joe’s credit card. The AmEx card had dozens of benefits other cards simply didn’t have, like extraordinary customer service and special buyer protection.

It’s an elite product, like a luxury car or a pair of designer jeans. Sure, there are cheaper reliable cars and cheaper flattering jeans. But the enjoyment in owning an elite product isn’t wholly — or for many buyers, even mostly — from purchasing a better product.

It’s from being the kind of person who owns a Mercedes-Benz or a pair of 7-For-All-Mankinds.

American Express made the emotional sense of privilege of membership so appealing that it overwhelmed the practical costs.

How did they do that? More importantly, how can you do the same with your own business? How can you create an experience of membership that’s so compelling that your customers crave the privilege of becoming a member?

You can find the answers, interestingly enough, from famous psychologist Abraham Maslow.

Membership and need fulfillment

Maslow created a well-known hierarchy of human needs, represented by a layered pyramid (like the food pyramid, except it’s more about your brain than your belly).

Some of those powerful needs include security, belonging, and esteem. We all know we want these things — Maslow argues that we actually need them.

And the experience of membership satisfies many of these most critical emotional needs.

Membership comes in many forms. One of the most obvious is a membership forum like Third Tribe. Owning certain products (like a pair of Five Fingers, or an iPad) is another kind. Lots of activities, like running, are forms of membership. Reading the same blogs or hanging out with a pack on twitter creates membership.

Creating a membership experience within your business makes you more appealing to your customers — and it can create a fantastic experience for you as the business owner as well.

Whatever form of membership you want to create, here are a few Maslow-inspired essentials.

1. Safe entry point

First and foremost, people need to feel that it is safe to join your membership.

On a blog, this might be something as simple as a few posts in the sidebar that say “Read these first.” In a forum setting, this might be an introductory section called “Getting Started,” as well as a cultural commitment to being nice to the newbies.

For almost any product or service, it might be blog combined with a great email newsletter — free content sources where people can see what you’re about before they decide they’re ready to take the leap to becoming a customer.

My first step toward becoming a member of the Third Tribe was to lurk on Copyblogger and read posts like this one. Then I started to investigate the private membership site, learning about it and listening to what other people had to say. When I finally decided to join, the 30-day money-back guarantee gave me assurance that I could back out if it turned out it wasn’t for me.

The entry point was an open door with friendly people behind it. Make becoming a member feel safe and more people will be willing to take the leap.

2. Friendly environment

After they’ve passed the entry point, your new members need to feel they’re in a friendly environment if they’re going to stick around as long-term members.

Back in the hunter-gatherer days, we had pretty basic needs: food, water, shelter. We can now add to those needs Internet access, Wikipedia, and the latest iPhone app. But we also have always needed community … and we always will.

A community element to your business (like a well-moderated user’s forum) creates an amazing environment for customers.

A friendly environment makes your customers feel comfortable and secure. They’ll sing Kumbaya and roast marshmallows. And they won’t want to give that experience up.

3. Strong relationships

Friendly environments are great, but they don’t mean much unless your members have a chance to move past the superficial and begin to form real relationships. This is more likely when your members have significant values and interests in common.

Make sure your members can create valuable relationships with one another. It’s not just forums that can create these relationships. If you ever get the chance to see two Prius drivers meet, they have an instant rapport even if they’ve never met before, because they are members of the same club. They have shared experiences and ideals.

They have a relationship — before they’ve ever met — created by their identity as Prius owners.

If you can create a membership that clearly appeals to a particular set of values or ideals, your members will feel your product or service supports them at the deepest level. That means you have to understand, on a very fundamental level, exactly who you serve (and who you don’t).

Now … create your own

Take a hard look at your business and ask yourself what your customers have in common.

How are they alike? What kinship do they share? What are their values? What kind of community might they seek?

Then ask yourself how you can create a way for them to be excited about those shared values. For the Third Tribe, it was participating in a vibrant group that embraced innovative and ethical online marketing. For American Express, it was being viewed as a member of an exclusive elite. For Prius, it was the sense of an individual being able to take a concrete step to save the planet.

Whatever your business, your customers are potentially members of a club. You just need to figure out the right way to turn that potential into reality. For them to engage, interact with each other, and become proud of their membership. If you appeal to their basic needs of being accepted in a safe environment with like-minded people, you’ll succeed.

How about you? What are the elements in your business that could form the seeds of a remarkable membership experience? Let us know in the comments.

About the Author: Mark Dykeman is the founder and main brain of Thoughtwrestling, a blog devoted to developing ideas and bringing them to life. He is the author of the award-winning blog Broadcasting Brain. His work has appeared in numerous blogs, including, Dumb Little Man, Pick the Brain, Lateral Action, and Copyblogger.

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Reader Comments (31)

  1. says

    In Is your blog like Easter Island? I outlined how to get your name out there and find your audience (instead of waiting for them to come to you).

    Creating a community requires that you understand what OTHER COMMUNITIES these people already participate in. Ask yourself, can you bring something new to the table that connects them all? Can you build the relationships Copyblogger is talking about through friendly environments and useful membership privledges?

    I’ve found from creating products online that the ones with the easiest features and simplest communication methods do the best because they allow people to interact right away and see the benefits of their membership. Just look at twitter, easy entry point, easy to interact and you feel like it was totally worth it. Now twitter is free, but consider if they charged $2 per month for using it. You would still use it right?

    • says

      Terrific points, Mark, people have always needed to belong and community will never go out of style. And I like what you say here, Chris, about the online products with the easiest features and simplest communication methods doing the best. It seems that the faster and more complex life and business gets, the more simplicity we crave.

      • says

        I find the hardest part on this to be the creation of relationships between your community’s members…Not only that you have to creat it, but you even have to make them interact….

        Like a teacher in a classroom

        • says

          I’ve found that you don’t so much have to create it, but you have to create an environment that makes it workable. And that mostly amounts to a bit of keeping the peace — removing trolls and enforcing an environment of respect & civility.

          Given a non-hostile environment and some shared values, they’ll do the relationship-creating part quite enthusiastically. :)

      • says

        I agree that communities are a key element that I’m craving online.
        And making relevant information accessible to our members when they need it is my challenge.

    • says

      “Creating a community requires that you understand what OTHER COMMUNITIES these people already participate in.”

      So true. It’s empathy – because you need to have the ability to step into your customer’s world, think what they think, feel what they feel, and value what they value. That’s the key to all good tribe-building and leadership.

  2. says


    I have a copy of an American Express sales letter, that was a classical letter selling it’s membership benefits. I believe it is in both material created by AWAI and Ben Hart’s marketing membership site. It was selling privilege and for years, it beat all challengers to its control. I’ve also seen copy decks by Clayton Makepeace, selling financial membership packages, based upon privilege. It takes a bit of skill to convince people in copy.

    I’m a big fan of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. But it’s not without it’s criticism. If you Google “Maslow’s hierarchy of needs,” there’s a good Wiki article. It has a section entitled “criticisms”.

    Having said all that, you do a good job of supplying 3 principles we can all follow – as bloggers, marketers, copywriters, etc. Thanks for ending with a couple good questions. I look forward to what other business bloggers, owners, etc., have to share.


    • says


      After reading your comment, I am now going to research Maslow’s hierarchy or needs.

      That said, I believe bloggers and online businesses have a lot to learn from traditional businesses, especially those that have been consistent in business for decades. I love the way Mark broke this down into implementable steps.

  3. says

    Wow. I really enjoyed reading this. I like the way you have analyzed the AMEX product/promotion and turned it into something I can definitely use on my sites. Thanks Mark.

  4. says

    I wonder what members of a Prius club do for fun when they meet. Most car clubs go cruising, or racing, or something car related. When you buy a car for the purpose of single-handedly saving the planet, it would seem counterproductive to go for a jaunt on the back roads. I digress.

    The idea of creating a membership group has been in my mind lately. I just need to figure out how I’ll implement it. Thanks for the post, as there were some great points that are really making me think now.

  5. says

    A nice simple way to think about why we make the choice to belong to groups/membership clubs.
    This has broad implicatons. I am considering tiered service levels. On level, of couurse, will be a warm/welcoming mebership group.

    Looking forward to hearing other thoughts on this issue

  6. says

    Mark – Your article poses a few intriguing questions, especially for a business like ours where people who buy our products (often spouses looking for signs of infidelity, parents wanting to monitor their children, etc.) do not necessarily want to “belong” to a group. They do however sometimes get comfort in the fact that there are other people who deal with the same issues they do, but don’t necessarily want others to know they are in the same “group”.

    Thanks for the great read, will definitely make for some interesting discussions at the office.

  7. says

    Hello everyone. I just thought I’d better mention something in the interest of disclosure. At the time that this article was written, I was a member of the Inside The Third Tribe membership site. A few weeks ago I decided to opt out of that membership site, as well as two other membership sites. That doesn’t diminish what’s said in this article; it’s still accurate. However, some people will obviously notice that I’m not active on Third Tribe these days, so I thought I’d mention this.

    Third Tribe in particular represents a safe starting point; a friendly environment; and plenty of opportunity for establishing strong relationships. However, humans being the funny organisms that they are, they and they circumstances change over time and it’s a huge challenge for any membership site to adapt to the detailed needs or situations of any specific member. In my case, I had some different, conflicting goals that made me decide to drop out of the membership sites that I belonged to. That could easily change again at any time!

    Also, thanks to Sonia and Taylor for the spiffy editing job!

  8. says

    Great example with the Prius owners – I’ve seen that happen (though I’m not a Prius owner myself). Similar with Mac owners.

    There are so many memberships sites or ‘groups’ to join in virtual space, but nearly all of them lack any appreciable depth. You hit on a key point – to form true relationships, the foundation must be set in values and ideals. If the reasons for membership are superficial or fleeting, it is unlikely to lead to lasting community or relationships.

    Just look at all the Ning sites that were springing up when it was free – they were like dandelions, popping up quickly, attracting people, then blowing away in the wind.

    Base it on core values and ideals … or it won’t work. Done correctly, pride of membership among like-minded people is powerful stuff.

    Thanks for the great post.

    • says

      Re Mac owners — Jobs is a genius, maybe best-ever, at creating products that create a sense of membership. And Mac was always that way — from the very beginning and the original Mac Users Group in Berkeley.

  9. says

    I own an American Express Card for many of those reasons. This is good information, and I’m going to see how I can incorporate this into my site!

  10. says

    Great article.

    I have found that the sense of belonging is strong with humans, but belonging to something exclusive is even stronger.

    I remember as a kid my dad made a lot of money, drove a Lexus and used an American Express card. When he hit a rough patch he refused to give those things up, even though it almost bankrupted him. He was obsessed with those clubs.

    Thankfully I grew up being able to see straight through them.

  11. says

    I enjoyed reading this post and learned how important it is for people to feel comfortable belonging to a group that is friendly and supportive. It make the world of difference.

  12. says

    I was told by one of my mentors that a website is an advertising tool to get people to do what you ask them to. Creating a membership based site with priviledges is a winning strategy.

  13. says

    The third insight in your post is so key. Well put.

    People seek affiliation that’s relevant to their own identity. That “sense of belonging” from the hierarchy of needs is a powerful thing. To know that we are not alone in a sea of humanity. When you talk about what you stand for and provide a gathering space for kindred spirits, magic can happen.

    While I’m a copywriter by trade, one of the goals I strive for professionally is to speak to audiences in ways that create that sense of affiliation, of affinity. Whether it’s the status of a coveted credit card brand or a sense of shared political or social purpose, writing to audiences in a way that captures them emotionally should be part of everything you write.

    “You’re like me. I’m not alone. I fit here.”

    What’s more compelling and worthy than that?

    Good post.

  14. says

    I read your article and all the responses above. We are having conversations here. You offered something of value, and we responded. I think the same is true with membership sites too.

  15. says

    Great article! We have successfully created a unique membership site of Israeli exporters. We discovered that so many exporters want to expand and reach new markets but they don’t want to pay the price! On our site they pay a simple monthly fee and then we do whats called ‘group marketing’. For example we take lets say 10 companies that are very similar and market them as a group. Today we have well over 400 members.

  16. says

    I run a couple of membership programs and I agree with everything that has been outlined in this article. The challenge for me to-date was getting my members to participate at the level you describe here. I have offered opportunity after opportunity to have my members join forces and become a community. But the effort always seems to fall short. The members are involved in many other projects and businesses.

    I guess the real challenge is to create a membership experience that is so powerful, that the members drive it themselves and doesn’t require constant pushing from the “leader”, or in my case, the owner of the site.

    The real question I have to figure out is, what do my programs need to be doing differently to get the community aspect of my sites really rocking?

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