I started Church Fuel in 2014 to provide practical resources and training to church leaders.
For the first year, we did on-site consulting, ran a few coaching groups and launched a couple of individual products. Te created and launched two online courses. But in the second year, we added a monthly membership program.
The subscription service was always the goal, and it’s become the core part of the business at Church Fuel. We still sell a few products and we have three really good online courses, but the monthly membership program is our bread and butter. It’s our focus.
Now that the subscription is a year old, I wanted to write an article capturing some of the lessons learned. I’m sure there will be more.
Lesson #1: Your niche should feel uncomfortably small.
Church Fuel One is for senior pastors of growing churches. That’s about 200,000 people in North America so it’s not a very large business market. Our product definitely isn’t for the average American. And it’s not even the best solution for the average pastor.
We have a small niche. But that’s a really good thing.
If you try to build something for everyone, my guess is you’ll reach no-one. That’s why I tell people who are starting things that if the size of their niche doesn’t make them feel a little bit too comfortable, then it’s probably not small enough.
Clarifying your target doesn’t mean you’ll ONLY reach those people, but it gives you the best opportunity to reach them. While there are a few church planters who are members, that’s not the target. While some executive pastors, youth pastors and volunteers participate, that’s not the goal.
We are laser focused on reaching a specific group of people with this particular product.
Lesson #2: Keep it simple.
When starting or running a membership site, the tendency is to overcomplicate things. There are so many things you could offer, so many ways you could package it and so many tools you can use.
So we decided to be simple from day one, and we’ve fought to stay that way. Our membership program has three simple benefits to the customer.
- Video Coaching – one thing a month. In fact, in 2017 we’re making it more simple by making it four things a year. People don’t need more content…they need more action. (more on that later)
- Resource Library – we put about 50 resources in a library and add 12 a month. We collect them during the quarter and push an update four times a year.
- One on One Access – we do a private Facebook group (10x better than a forum or another password to keep track of) and office hours where people can book a call.
We deliver a few other things throughout the year (like case studies, for example), but we don’t promise those on a monthly basis. This gives us the freedom to over-deliver. In fact, as the year has progressed, we’ve actually REMOVED things from the program in order to focus on what is most helpful to the customer.
If you’re running a membership program, you don’t have to load it up with 10 benefits and resources. The sixth or seventh thing on your list isn’t going to cause anyone to jump in. And the “and many more” thing tacked on to the long list of bullets isn’t convincing anyone.
In addition to simple benefits, we try to keep things simple with technology. There are numerous websites, plugins, and services you could use. Chris Lema has incredible resources here.
But don’t get bogged down in the technology or the latest cool thing. Most people don’t care about this at all. Lots of tools will work and none are the silver bullet.
Lesson #3: If you win people with price, you will be forced to keep them with price.
One of the toughest lessons I’ve learned in running a membership site (and running a company) is in the area of pricing. And this is a hard lesson, one I’m still learning.
If I get a customer by offering a “once-in-a-lifetime discount” or a “never before seen price,” I may get a customer but hurt my business in the process.
Here are some more thoughts on price:
- If you get them with price, you’ll probably have to keep them with price.
- The people who ask for discounts and considerations are usually our most troublesome clients.
- Constant offers can keep people from acting (“I’ll wait until this goes on sale”)
- Selling your product at radically discounted prices actually cheapens the product. Is it worth it or not?
- If someone’s first question is about price or available discounts, it’s probably not going to be a good fit.
We launched Church Fuel One at $35 a month. To be honest, we pulled that number out of thin air. It’s how much supporting a child through Compassion costs and it just felt right. I had zero market research.
There were people who said it was too expensive. And you know what, those same people would have complained about a $25 price point. I’m not going to let 2% of the people who complain about price set the price of an item.
After 10 months, we actually raised our prices. It’s $45 a month now or $399 for a year. That’s still super-affordable for any church that wants to grow.
Lesson #4: Usability is the best growth strategy.
If pricing has been one of the toughest issues we’ve worked through, usability has been one of the most important.
Because if people don’t use something, they will think they are paying too much no matter the price point. Usability is the key to retention.
But it’s also the key to actually helping the customer.
People don’t get help from buying our membership; they get help by using our membership.
Because this is so important, we’ve made two small pivots in our first year.
First, we moved away from monthly content, where we change the subject every month. People were letting all this amazing stuff build up in their library and they weren’t getting to it.
So starting this year, we’re delivering content in four chunks. Instead of 12 master classes delivered monthly, we’re giving people four courses delivered quarterly. It’s the same amount of content, but it’s themed together and delivered with action guides. It’s less to keep up with but it’s actually more help.
Here’s an example of one of our courses. People can buy them individually, but members get them automatically.
The second thing we’ve changed is our new customer on board sequence. The first version was heavy on introductions and helping people understand all they get with the program. But our latest edition is focused on helping people take just one action. All of the early emails are about one “quick-start” resource. I remind them to do it. I ask them to send a picture. I ask them about what part is tripping them up.
The goal of the onboard sequence shifted from education to implementation. We want to help people use one part of the program, not understand all the parts equally.
If you’re interested in such things, you can get all of our email sequences, as well as lots of other documents we use to run our business, right here.
Lesson #5: People come for content but stay for the community.
I really believe our membership program for pastors provides the most practical training and resources available in the market. It’s high quality and ready to use.
But one of the biggest benefits to the membership model (and why we chose this model instead of offering a bunch of online courses) is the ability to foster community.
People cancel content all of the time, but they rarely cancel community.
There are three things we do to facilitate and emphasize the community aspect of our membership.
- We hired someone to lead this. Bobby is our community manager. That’s his role on our team. We hired him before we hired a marketer.
- We offer monthly call-in hours where people can talk to someone from our team about whatever issue they are facing.
- We have a private Facebook group where people share encouraging things. We intentionally post to this group and add value to members there. It’s not an afterthought.
What’s interesting is the way people perceive the community features of the membership program.
People perceive the value of the one on one calls to be very high, but a small percentage of our members take advantage of this. That’s okay because they know we’re here for them.
And people perceive the value of the Facebook group to be small (it’s just another group), but they really use this and interact there. Some of our most raving fans engage here. Low perceived value but high actual value.
Lesson #6 – It’s a great business model but it’s hard work.
There are SO MANY resources and courses out there to show you how to make a quick buck from digital resources and subscription programs.
Everybody loves the idea of recurring revenue. It’s the holy grail of an online business.
But it’s a lot of work. Don’t believe anyone that tells you otherwise.
You can start something pretty quick, but getting good at it is another story. You can launch something with a fury, but surviving the early days and growing is another story.
For a membership business to work, I think it has to be core. And for it to be core, it takes a lot of time, patience, focus, and hard work.
One of the biggest reasons I see membership programs fail is because they are tacked on and not core to the business. I don’t think many tacked on products or services work across most businesses. But for a membership community to truly be valuable, it has to be a core focus.
Lesson #7 – Growth can come in many ways.
To close this down, I wanted to share some of the things that have helped us grow the membership base over the last year. And what we’re doing in 2017 to reach more people through this program.
First, we do at least one webinar a month. We make this free training really valuable and usually do a “pitch” at the end. In addition to inviting our own email list (about 42,000 pastors as I’m writing today), we promote these through social channels. I’ll have to do another post on webinars because we’ve figured out a few things through trial and error here.
But the biggest way we’ve grown (and I think how we will continue to grow) is through partnerships.
One of the partnerships we did in 2016 was with T.D. Jakes and The Potter’s House. Envision Church Solutions is a subscription product powered and supported by Church Fuel One. We do strategy and content development on the front in, and fulfillment and customer service on the back end, but it’s their people on camera and it’s done in a style that fits who they are.
In 2017, we’re looking to expand even more with some new partnerships and white labels. Some of these will be branded with Church Fuel and some will look totally independent. It’s a way to get insanely practical content to those who need, and my personal goal is to help 2,000 leaders through these programs by the end of 2017.
I love the building a membership community and the opportunity to serve through a subscription service. It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a lot of fun. Once you get through some things, it’s a rewarding business model.