Last Updated on February 1, 2021 by James McAllister

By: James McAllister

8 Comments

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When it comes to selling digital products – especially courses, there are a few routes you can take.

On one-hand, you can release your course as a one-off payment. The customer purchases it, and they have access to it forever.

On the other hand, there has been a rise in membership sites / subscription services – entrepreneurs offering access to all of their courses, for a recurring monthly fee.

I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what option I wanted to pursue myself, and had the opportunity to really dive deep into the pros and cons for each strategy.

In this article, I want to help you make your decision, by covering the advantages of disadvantages to selling online courses in a flat, one-time fee, vs a recurring membership option. I don’t think there is a clear best choice for everybody, so I’m going to help you decide what the best option is for you.

The Advantages Of One-Time Purchases

This is the strategy I’ve currently been taking for all of my courses.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the best option. And for a while, I was seriously considering changing it.

There are a lot of advantages of selling things with a one-time payment though, and ultimately that’s why I chose to stick with this payment structure.

1. A Finished Product

First of all, let’s put profitability aside. Not all revenue sources are equal – especially if you’re trying to build a business that gives you true freedom in life.

When you create and publish a course, you for the most part, have a finished product. There is not a whole lot of ongoing, recurring work that has to go into it.

While I wouldn’t consider it to be passive income, it’s certainly much closer than a membership site is (more on that later, though.)

That being said, if you want to have the most success selling one-off courses, it’s important that you approach them with a ‘never complete’ mindset. The way I personally structure my courses, I never consider them to be complete. I will continue updating and adding to them as relevant topics enter my mind, and this only adds to the value of the courses over time.

However, since I’m not asking people to continue paying each month, there is a lot less pressure to come out with updates that have a deadline.

Membership sites don’t have this luxury.

2. Psychologically, One-Time Purchases Are Often Easier To Sell

This is true even if it ends up costing more money.

When you ask somebody to purchase lifetime access to a product, you are only asking them to make a commitment one time. When you wish to charge them a membership fee every month, you’re asking them to continue that commitment over, and over again.

I realized this when examining my own purchase behavior. I find it easier to spend $100 on permanent access to a product, than to spend $25 monthly to receive access to it – even if I know I’ll likely unsubscribe before I ever spend $100.

When you sell lifetime access to a product, buyers feel like they actually own it, rather than simply renting it.

That being said, pricing does play a key role here. Once your course price gets to a level where it requires significant thought – or even life changes to be able to afford it ($500-1000+, depending on your market) than pitching the large, one-time fee can become difficult again. In this instance, it may be worth offering a payment plan that allows customers to split the payment over multiple months, but ultimately own it in the end.

Analyze your pricing, your market, and yourself – what option would you feel more comfortable with?

When you ask somebody to purchase lifetime access to a product, you are only asking them to make a commitment one time. When you wish to charge them a membership fee every month, you're asking them to continue that commitment over, and over again. Click to Tweet

3. Less Customer Support

Because there is only…

  1. One payment being made
  2. One clear product, with a streamlined, obvious sequence to follow
  3. One place for the customer to go

…Customer support inquiries do not occur frequently, relative to the number of customers that you receive.

And when they do pop up, they’re almost always the same questions.

This makes it much cheaper and much easier for you to better serve each and every customer that does need help, which lowers your customer service costs (or make your business more passive, if you’re running everything yourself.)

4. Students Can Set Their Own Pace

Have you ever signed up for access to something, then went through it as quickly as you could to avoid being charged again?

I know I have.

While there are some cases where a sense of urgency can be a good thing, you want your students to engage more deeply with your courses, and actually retain the information that they acquire after purchasing your product.

People that feel incredibly happy with their purchase go on to tell their friends about it. They share their excitement with others, and grow your brand for you – for free!

Without the pressure that deadlines provide, students actually have the time to deeply engage with an even apply the knowledge they’re gaining as they’re going through your course.

That’s very powerful!

5. All Else Being Equal, You Get Paid Quicker

If you sell a course for $100, or you sell access to a membership site for $25 / monthly that retains customers for an average of 4 months, either way you end up with $100 / person.

The only difference is that in the 1st scenario, you get paid that full amount immediately. In the 2nd scenario, you have to wait 4 months to receive that extra money.

Meanwhile, you didn’t have access to those funds to reinvest into your business, improving your products and advertising to bring even more people into your marketing funnel.

There’s a reason most websites offer discounts for annual payments over monthly payments – having that money in advance is very powerful.

The Advantages Of A Membership Model

As mentioned at the start of the is article, there really are pros and cons to both options. Let’s look over the advantages that a membership offer has over one-time sales.

1. Recurring, Predictable Income

This is perhaps the most obvious benefit, and it’s what makes membership websites so appealing.

Once you sign somebody up, it’s very likely that they’ll continue their subscription for more than one month. This is especially true if you’re continuing to release new content throughout their subscription.

Churn is inevitable, and nobody stays signed up forever. However, as time goes on, you’ll have a rough idea on however long you can expect someone to remain signed up for – then takes steps to optimize it.

In an ideal scenario, new subscriptions vastly outpace the rate in which people end their membership, and your monthly recurring income grows steadily over time.

2. There’s Only One Product To Sell

Some may see this as a disadvantage, but I actually see it as a huge benefit. It was this point that caused me to ponder the idea of pursuing a membership model for my courses in the first place.

As your collection of products grows, it can be more difficult to manage the marketing to them. How do you know what product to promote in a given situation? What order should you present your products in? After somebody buys one product, what products do you promote next, and how do you set your marketing funnel up in a way to guide people towards the next sale?

It can be a huge headache.

Every time I release a new course, I not only have to go back and update old content to promote it, I also have to make drastic changes to all of my email marketing automations, create new ones, and change a bunch of other smaller things around.

Because I eventually believe I’ll be releasing 30+ courses (with the help of other experts), I can’t imagine what monstrosity of a system I’ll have to deal with as everything grows.

Membership sites don’t really have this problem. While you still have to change things around to adequately promote your new additions, you’re ultimately still selling access to one core product – your membership site, which contains all your courses inside of it.

3. Membership Sites Tend To Be More Engaging

If you’re trying to build a sense of community, or really engage your audience with your brand, there are advantages to running a membership site vs. selling one-off courses.

If people are going to pay for continued access to something, they’re going to justify that action by returning to your offering more frequently. New content is more likely to be consumed, and it’s easier to build a community of members because of that.

This may make it easier to up-sell additional services (like one-on-one coaching), but not necessarily – this would be something that you’d need to test.

4. You Don’t Need As Much Content To Start

Typically speaking, it’s good practice to raise the price of your membership site as its value rises  – at least to new customers.

This also means that you can begin selling access to your membership site straight away, so long as you’re actively adding content to it, and you start your price low.

Then, you can raise it over time as content is released.

Or, you can also set content to be ‘dripped out’ after a certain length of time. For example, you could offer one month’s worth of content when the user signs up, then have the next month’s content done in advance – but not make it available to the member until they’ve been signed up for the 2nd month.

This also makes it possible to create an entire year’s worth of content in advance, making the membership sites a tad bit more passive.

Conclusion

Becomes there are pros and cons to both strategies, it’s up to you to decide which is better for your business, and your life as a whole.

Personally, I chose to publish one-time, digital courses as I feel it provides a better value for students, and gives me more flexibility to run my other companies as well.

At the same time, I still feel like I’m likely to publish a membership site one day – just with different offerings. I truly love the membership business model, and I’m sure a membership site will be one of my offerings in the future.

I’d love to hear more about the products you plan to create going forward, and how either one (or both!) of these will fit in your strategy.

Finally, if you have any questions, please do not hesitate to reach out to me.

To your success,

– James McAllister

About the author 

James McAllister

James is the owner of JamesMcAllisterOnline.com. He started his first blog at the age of 11, and has since gone on to start several successful businesses. In total, these businesses have sold hundreds of thousands of units and have touched millions of lives. Here on JamesMcAllisterOnline.com, he shares his knowledge that brought him to where he is today. If you want to connect with James, follow him on your favorite social networks!

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  1. Great breakdown between the two James. I’m in the middle of creating a “course” too, but still figuring out the best way to release given that I am starting from scratch. There’s demand and I’ve validated that already. So really the next steps are what comes next. I’ve been reading about plugins and how to handle this (WordPress plugins vs other platforms like teachable, skillshare, etc). Any thoughts on that?

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    1. That’s a great question. If you’re looking to avoid selling on a marketplace, there are a lot of people that use platforms like Thinkific and simply send people there for payment processing and going through the material.

      Personally, I prefer to keep everything on my own site. I looked into a lot of different learning management systems but ultimately decided on Learndash. It’s a little clunky to set up but has just about everything you’d want in a plugin. From a student’s perspective, it looks very professional.

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  2. I have been through many of your thoughts also trying to figure whether to go for a one-time fee or a membership site. And I think I might be able to add on or two thoughts to the mix.
    We ended up choosing the one-time payment, although we sometimes offer payment plans – but no membership. I know that a membership site makes the income more predictable but – and for be that is a big but – for us, it kind of felt, we were hoping to be ripping people off. Because let us be honest: The best membership customers are the ones that sign up once and then totally forget about it or each month when they see their credit card statement think “oh I wanted to quit that” and then again forget about it – just like the gym membership where you signed up once and then went about twice in the first month and then keep paying it for years…
    I also think that a membership requires more recurring work to go in. To make a membership make sense, I would think I have to at least offer monthly workshops or something that is added to the product on a regular basis.
    There is one more point I want to add: you mention that you would consider one membership to get access to ALL your courses. We made the experience that that is much harder to sell. People are not looking for answers to ALL their questions. They usually have ONE problem they want to solve. And that makes them more willing to pay good money for one outstanding solution to their one problem. They do not want to spend the same amount of money on a bunch of maybe good or not so good answers to a couple of problems they do not have. Even if these may include the solution to their problem as a small part of the bundle.
    Thanks for this post!
    Susanna

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    1. Hey Susanna, thanks so much for stopping by and leaving this incredible valuable comment! You make a lot of great points.

      The goal is to keep people signed up as long as we possibly can, and well, having people forget about it and overlook the payment is certainly one of the easiest ways to do that. Online it is a little bit easier as most of us won’t really experience much rise in costs as our member base grows, regardless of whether or not they actually come to use the product. That’s one of the nice things about the internet I suppose! Of course, you make the important point that this obviously doesn’t provide the best value for users – and if they are actually logging in regularly, it is much more convenient for them once they do decide they no longer wish to remain signed up.

      In regards to offering access to all products, I think this depends a lot on the market that you’re working in. Some markets are more prone to hard, specific problems that the customer feels like they need to solve immediately (and they only care about that one core topic.) Hobby markets where the end result is more of a ‘want’ and there are a lot of equally important sub-topics seem to fit this business model better, in my experience working with clients. I worked with someone in the past that sold courses on playing guitar for example – separate courses on beginner, intermediate, advanced etc, music theory, techniques for different music styles. He offered the courses a la carte or access to all as as membership and did better with the membership. But in other markets, this model wouldn’t make sense at all.

      You bring up an important point though – ultimately we have to think of things through the customer’s perspective and tailor things to them. As much as we wish that everybody was interested in everything we offer, that is almost never the case.

      Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts with me Susanna, it’s comments like these that really help me to think about things differently. I truly appreciate it!

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  3. Hi James, I have been pondering over offering courses also just that have been totally overwhelmed by the amount of effort and time that it entails. As you have correctly pointed out the one-off course is easier to sell so that is the path that I will be taking. Thanks about the post though as it has got me thinking about the subscription model as well for the future.

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