How to Build an Audience For Your Membership Site or Online Course with No List

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If you’re active in social media, you’re ready to start your own online course or membership site. In today’s LMScast Chris Badgett talks with Esther Marie of Esther Marie Creative about how to build an audience for your membership site or online course with no list and no funds. If you’re a beginner in online business, then this podcast is for you!

Esther is a military wife with a background in teaching, software products management, and software training. She’s using her experience with curriculum design and course launching to create online courses for clients. She started her business with a membership site based on her active contributions to a niche Facebook group.

Esther started her Virtual Assistant Internship membership site as a beginner with no email list or internet marketing experience. What she did have was expertise in her subject area, curriculum design ability, and a platform like LifterLMS to deliver her service. She knew her target niche market and where to find them, and had established herself there as a thought leader by interacting and sharing value. Her next logical step then was to start her own Facebook group.

After spending 6 months creating a skeleton beta test site, Esther did a couple of webinars that converted into her membership, and selected just 3 women as her first students. She advises starting small with a beta test to build a sustainable course. You make your mistakes here, your participants feel good about being involved in creating the course, and they become your first testimonials and referrals. She cautions against making your group about yourself, but to make it all about what your clients are looking for.

You’ll need to experiment with pricing. Esther set a founding member price with special incentives, then lowered membership fees once she was established. She also learned to limit enrollment windows to avoid cancellations and other drawbacks of rolling enrollments. Esther regularly updates content and resource materials to keep her offerings fresh and relevant. She stays responsive and experimental, and doesn’t hesitate to move forward at every opportunity.

This is not about pitching or selling. It’s about sharing value, building a community and acting as a thought leader for a niche you’re already part of. If you know what you want to do you, can learn how to build an audience for your membership site or online course with no list, just like Esther did. Start with a bare framework and let your first participants help you build from there. The sooner you start generating income, the sooner you can grow your business.

Esther is launching a free course all about outsourcing, and you can find out more on her Esther Marie Creative Facebook page.

Post comments and subscribe to our newsletter for updates, developments, and future episodes of LMScast. Thank you for joining us.

Episode Transcript

Chris: Hello, and welcome back to another episode of LMScast. My Name is Chris Badgett, and today I’m joined by Esther Marie. And we’re going to be talking about how to build an audience for your membership site or your online course with no list, so it’s for the beginner. Thanks for coming on the show, Esther.

Esther: Yeah, I’m really excited to be here. I love doing these kinds of things and taking knowledge and experience and passing it along, so happy to be here.

Chris: Awesome. We’re glad to have you. I came across Esther in a Facebook group, and we were just rapping about being online course creators, and I wanted to get her on the show because of all the experience she has with curriculum design, launching courses, building courses and she’s got a lot of nuggets of wisdom to share with you today. First Esther, tell us a little bit about yourself. Tell us your back story. Where’d you come from, and what’s your jam. What are you up to these days?

Esther: Yeah, sure. My primary business is Esther Marie Creative, and I create online e-courses for clients. I’ll create workshop materials for them for their workshops. A lot of repurposing of content, so if somebody has a lot of audio from something they did, I can turn it into a lead magnet or blog post. I’m really a content creator in the e-course and workshop curriculum space. How that came about was, I’m actually a credentialed teacher, so I went to school to be a teacher and all that good stuff. I taught for a couple of years and I did a lot of curriculum design. I worked at schools believe it or not who had no curriculum and I had to write it all myself. I had a lot of experience in that and I really loved it. Then I also worked in software products management and software training, so all of that just merged together and being in the right place at the right time. I started working for an online course and content creator agency and she went off to do some other stuff and I just continued on it because it really was a merge of all of my passions.

From that, I’ve created them for lots of clients and then I also did my own. I branched out and started doing my own as well because I know how to do it, so I wanted to do it for myself. That’s turned into some different kinds of membership sites and things that I’ve been able to put together and put out there. Still learning, still growing, but also trying to give back and give some of the information out there too.

Chris: That’s awesome. Yeah, we talk about it a lot on the LMScast Show and in the LifterLMS community that you really need a three legged stool. One of those legs is expertise or knowledge. The second leg is to be able to package that knowledge or the curriculum design, the instructional design that you do and then the third is to have some kind of system, online course or membership site or LMS system to actually deliver all of that. If you’re weak in any one of those three areas, you’re just missing out on the opportunity to go from pretty good to awesome. I think a lot of experts make the mistake that they don’t need help with curriculum design or they can do it themselves or they know how to do it properly. I’m sure some have already figured out that it’s great to get help from someone like yourself to do that, so that’s awesome.

Let’s talk a little bit about launching an online course and I know you had a membership site, I get this question all the time at LifterLMS, people are wondering, how do I launch, I’m a beginner, I have no email list, I’m not an experienced internet marketer. My stuff is awesome, but how do I launch with no list and we wanted to talk to you about what are some ideas and some strategies that have worked for you to make that happen?

Esther: Yeah, so that’s what I did basically. My membership site is called Virtual Assistant Internship and it’s closed for a moment until October when we’ll be relaunching. Not relaunching, but open of enrollment again and I teach my target market is military wives and moms who want to be able to work from home, but they don’t want to sell anything. I’m going to actually be telling you from my exact experience what I did and then I’m going to tell you what my results are. It’s so funny because I was just on a webinar yesterday by a lead membership building expert and he was saying to do exactly what I did and what I’m going to tell you. I was like, “wow, I was ahead of the curve a little bit. I know my stuff, okay.” You’re going to be getting some good little tidbits here.

Okay, so I had zero email lists, at all. I don’t really like marketing that much. I’m a creator. I like to create the course. I like to create the content, but the marketing part I’m like, “okay.” That’s part of why I didn’t really want to do any email list. The other part was, I really know my target market and I know that they’re just not in email as much as they’re in other areas. While I totally know email is not dead, it’s a great thing to do, I get all of that, but I had to be realistic about where my target were spending their time and where I was going to have the best reach and maximizing my time that I was putting into it. I could go down the email path all along, but if nobody is going to sign up or read it, what’s the point. I focused on Facebook. Facebook groups. That’s where my girls are at. I’m a military spouse myself, that’s why I created this, so then you have flexible, where I started at the VA years ago, I knew everything that there was to do.

I will say too, preface this with, I did a six month beta test and a six months of creating content as I went along with the beta test. I just want to put that out there. I didn’t just hodge podge this together and launch this. There was work that work that was into it. Because I think that that’s a misconception sometimes, like no, I did a beta test and you really want to make sure you do that.

I’m in the Facebook groups for my local base, my military base in the area and it was for moms, there’s two military bases here, so that’s my niche. Then I expanded to do military groups for military wives and also for moms all over the United States. I’m not a shadow lurker in there. I don’t just post my link to something and then peace out. I’m in there contributing, giving value, commenting, being in communication with different people all the time. I post value stuff that’s not selling things as well. That’s step one. Know your target market. Know where they’re at. Go to where they’re at. These are the basics, the foundational stuff.

Chris: For your example, was your target market military wives looking for new careers? Have they thought of the VA career yet or you’re coming in like, “hey-

Esther: They don’t even know what it is.

Chris: Okay, that’s awesome.

Esther: Yeah, they don’t even know what it is, yeah. One of the best groups I got feedback from was my local base is Camp Pendleton, which is a major Marine Corp base and it was who’s hiring on Camp Pendleton, so I just posted my stuff in there. Here’s what I did. I posted a couple of different things. One was, I started my own Facebook group and a failure that I see a lot of people doing, not a failure, but an issue is they make it all about them like, “Coach Bernadette here with my Facebook group, come join and learn all about me and the crap I’m going to post about myself.” No. I named my Facebook group how to work from home without selling anything because that’s what they’re going to type into the search box and that’s what they want. If I put virtual assistant, they’re not even going to know what that is, so I’m not going to put that in the title of my group, so that’s something to think about too. What are you people looking for?

That group has grown organically to almost 500 now in just a short time. I don’t advertise it, I just do what I’m telling you. I just advertise that group in other Facebook groups where I knew my target market was at and it just grew. It just grew and grew and grew. I offer value in there. I gave them Facebook lives and videos, some little e-books, some junk, whatever. Not junk, it was good stuff, but it wasn’t hard for me to do this, that’s my point. Then I just pitched my webinar to them and I had them sign up for the webinar that I was going to give to that Facebook group and to the other targeted Facebook groups and for my first webinar, I would have between 20 and 50 that would register via the events. I would have around 15 or so show up and I would have a 50% close rate. I did pretty well and I only did two or three webinars for my first launch and I had a very cheap membership site and I think I made two or three thousand dollars.

Chris: Let me pull out some nuggets there. On your last point there, 50% conversion rate on 20-30 people or whatever, it’s not about these giant numbers of hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, you don’t have to start with these huge numbers. If you do get good conversion on three, five, ten, twenty people, you’re onto something and that’s a really big validation point. The other point that I wanted to highlight on was you mentioned with these Facebook groups to use some terminology from a friend of mine Chris Lema, you didn’t make it about you, you made it about them and also people who are in their buying journey, they’re either problem aware or solution aware. There’s multiple steps on that journey and you very astutely realized they don’t even what VA, a virtual assistant is, so you start with a problem aware. The key words they would type in when they’re looking for solutions. Then the third point I wanted to bring up is you’re also launching into a community you understand as you’ve been through that journey or you lived the same lifestyle, so you know the lingo, the ins and outs. It’s easier for you to communicate. You’re not selling to niche or a market that you know nothing about, so that’s awesome stuff.

Esther: Yeah, it’s worked really, really well. Even when I’ve done webinars and I hardly even got people signing up for my current group, because it’s the same webinar over and over again, so after a while they’re not going to keep coming, so I’ve just marketed this webinar into other groups. I had 50 sign up just from that too, so there’s so much that you can do on where your target market are at that doesn’t have to be connected to an email list or a long list.

I was looking at somebody else’s numbers, they had an email list of 700 and the amount of people that they had sign up for their webinar and convert was the same as mine and I don’t even have an email list.

Chris: Right.

Esther: I was like, “all right, high five.”

Chris: Yeah, absolutely and like you said, the email auto responder, lead magnet thing maybe it wasn’t really the jam for this group of people, but it was Facebook groups. For somebody else, it might be Youtube videos or Snapchats or whatever. It’s very different depending upon what your target market is.

Esther: Exactly.

Chris: That webinar converted into a course of a membership? Is that what it was?

Esther: Yeah. It’s a membership site and I played around with pricing. I had them buy at a founding member price where they would have lifetime access and I think I charged $197 for it and I had a good amount of people join. Then I dropped the price down to- because it’s for military and so I wanted to make it affordable. I dropped it down to $30 per month. I tested it $50 per month, but what I didn’t do, this is a mistake, I didn’t limit enrollment. I just always have a rolling enrollment and you can cancel whenever. I had incentives if they signed up right then on the webinar. They got some calls with me, so you didn’t have to create anything else, just another tip. That worked great for them to sign up right away, but then when money got tight, they were cancelling. I’ve totally changed the way I’m doing it now and I’m just limiting enrollment to certain times and we’re going to go through it as a group, go through the content together, but I am changing it a little bit now. That’s one mistake that I made.

That’s how the site works. It’s a ton of content. I think I have 12 modules and worksheets and all that stuff. I do new content on a reoccurring basis. That’s how it works.

Chris: Awesome. Just to tie into something you said earlier on, I just want to make sure I understood you correctly when you said you had a beta period, that would be like a pilot where you let some people into your membership to make sure that or just workshop the material with them, got feedback and that sort of thing or did you mean a beta period on your marketing efforts?

Esther: No, not on the marketing.

Chris: Or on the product?

Esther: On the product, which is so important and I find even with my clients it’s the number one thing that’s overlooked. You’ll have a few people go through it, but you don’t realize how valuable that beta test period is. I did it with three girls. Every week we would have a meeting together and I would give them another bit of content just like on a thing like zoom here. It would be a power point deck or I’d do it-

Chris: Would you do that live?

Esther: Yeah.

Chris: Yeah, so it was live.

Esther: Just with the three girls and I recorded everything I did. This is the key. By the time it was time to go, I could’ve just put that stuff right into the membership site, but I re-recorded it because it wasn’t totally applicable, but I had my slide decks already done, so that was easy. Then those three girls were my first testimonials. That is huge, so now you have testimonials when you go into your marketing phase. They’re my biggest fans. They’re my affiliates, they refer people to me, so that’s why that beta testing period is so important.

Chris: Yeah, I 100% agree with that. It’s important to get that concept of like, “oh, I’m going to do a hundred seats or a thousand seats in my first launch.” Why not start with three or five and really make sure you have the best possible product and workshop or ideas. Make sure you can communicate what you’re trying to train effectively.

Esther: Yep.

Chris: How long did it take, after you got through the beta period, what was the timeline with working with the Facebook groups and everything into when you started launching and getting conversions into your webinar? How much time did you spend in these Facebook groups before you launched and pitched it-

Esther: I’m laughing because I’m a little crazy. I just go for it, so that’s the biggest lesson I hope that people can take away. I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes and I’m like, “I think this is going to work.” I just go for it. Imperfect steps. I just keep going and then when it doesn’t work out, “okay, I’ll just change direction.” When the price point, people weren’t really buying at this higher price point, “okay, let’s test a different price point and see how that goes.” That’s why I’m laughing.

These Facebook groups, because I’ve been a member of the community for song, I’m a military wife, I’ve been in these groups for a really long time. Have I been super active in them? Not a 100%, but I’m just a normal person that’s in there. If your target market is very similar to you and you’re already in those kinds of communities, those can be the first people that you start to pitch some of your free content to to lead into this more bigger site that you want to do eventually.

In terms of how long did it take me to start to send the webinar info out and then build up my group and get people on the webinar, maybe a month. Not that long (laughs).

Chris: Yeah, yeah, that sounds good. That sounds good and I like what you said earlier too about in social media you’re not just like, “hey, look at me, here’s my stuff.” You’d been a part of the community, been part of conversations of a non-sales nature or whatever.

Esther: I didn’t have anything to sell.

Chris: Right.

Esther: I was just being myself.

Chris: Yeah, I think that’s really important. Social media is designed to replicate real life or in person life and if somebody were to walk into your house and immediately just start sales pitching, it wouldn’t go over so well, but if you’d already known them for a while and you’re just sharing what it is that you do and offer it’s a totally different experience. That’s awesome.

Esther: Yeah, even giving free content in those groups that’s not some long post that you wrote with a picture of yourself attached to it. Nobody cares, it’s all about you. If you did a Facebook live, so I’ve done this, Facebook live what kinds of jobs you can do from home for free, no pitching, nothing. Just here’s a whole bunch of stuff you can do from home. Then if you want to join my Facebook group that’s all about how to work from home, I do job postings in there, blah, blah, blah, cool, come and join. It’s just giving value and building up that community and you’re a leader in that group, right? You’re a thought leader now. You’re starting to turn from just being a member into being a strong member and for groups that have even just 500 people in them, that’s pretty powerful. That’s a lot of people that you’re getting in front of.

Chris: Absolutely and they’re self selected in that, “I’m in a group, that means we have a lot in common.” At least some decent overlap.

Esther: Exactly.

Chris: Just in general, what percentage of your time, with this project, would you spend on the content and then versus the marketing or the networking and so on? Marketing versus content.

Esther: I have decided … when I launched I didn’t even have all of the content up on the site yet, which is another great way to do it.

Chris: Which is fine, yeah.

Esther: With the first one or two weeks and then I did it just to re-record things and got them up as I went, which was great and the members were all fine with that. In fact, the member, this is the thing, get over yourself, because the members felt honored to be a part of it. They were like, “wow, I didn’t know that you were still building it and you’re taking my feedback into account. That’s cool.” They thought it was rad, so don’t think that, “my things not done, I can’t launch it.” No, just go for it because you need the money so that you can reinvest it into your marketing, so there’s that.

I hate marketing. It’s my least favorite part. Like I said, I’m the creator. I can hop on a webinar and kick ass, I’ll do great. Filling over the webinar and writing the emails and making the landing page and making a marketing plan, I would rather die.

Chris: Yeah.

Esther: It’s just not my thing. Some people I think are more one or the other. I say that now, I’m trying to be more focused. I would like to say 50/50 percentage wise. I’m trying to be more focused and say, “okay, this is my creation time and this is my marketing time.”

Chris: It’s two different brains.

Esther: Yes, and they’ve been so interwoven and I was like, “I got to create more content and I go to market.” I just didn’t like that. I’m trying to get out of that and say, “no, the content is in a good spot right now. Let me take a break for three months from that and now this quarter is going to be focused on marketing and filling it up and then we’ll go back and add for content.” That’s a different way that I’m trying to get into it now.

Chris: Yeah, just to pull out what you said about having your founding members. It’s important to, because you can easily go down the mindset of like, “oh, I’m an impostor, it’s not even done,” or you can get all of these negative self taught going to like, “it’s not finished, therefore, I can’t sell it or people are going to think it’s weird that I’m still making it while I’m in there,” but that’s all negative stuff when the reality is, you can put a positive spin on that. You can be a founding member or a pioneer or the early bird people or whatever and like you said, that reason that you do that is not to sell something that doesn’t exist, it’s to sell something that you’re passionate about that you have some progress on, but then to get real time feedback and just make it better and better as you go instead of making all of the assumptions, build this giant course and launch it and find out you needed to make serious corrections earlier in the program.

Esther: Right, and I would say too remember I had done that beta period with three people, so I had testimonials, I had great success stories, so it’s not like I was forcing them to buy into something that I was like, “I don’t really know. I don’t have any credibility being me.” No, they saw that, they even talked to some of the girls, so yeah that’s the difference is yeah, what you said.

Chris: What are some common mistakes that happen to you or that you see other people doing in terms of launching an online course as a beginner with no significant email list or resources.

Esther: I would say that the couple of things. One was what I said before of getting stuck and not moving ahead because it’s not perfect. It’s not how that guy is doing it. I don’t have all the stuff done. I don’t have any money. I don’t have all of that stuff. In stead of just continuing to take steps forward, so it’s almost just like constant problem solving. I don’t have any money for marketing. That was me. What can I do? I can go into some Facebook groups. I can provide … That’s why that came about. Just taking some kind of steps and seeing where you can move forward and just not letting anything stop you.

The other thing that I see a lot of is that your lead magnet, what’s attracting people to want to be on your list or in your Facebook group is crap. Nobody wants a check list anymore. Nobody wants blah. You have to give away something that’s actually valuable. Something that really is going to be helpful to people and not constantly trying to sell them stuff. Even if once they join your email list, please don’t just start pitching them five things per email after that. Just continue to give them good value, build that report with them and the more, I find this, the more good stuff that you’re putting out, the more you’re going to get back in general. Whenever I’m starting to feel like, “I don’t have clients” or “what’s going on, my members are leaving?” I say, “calm down. You need to get some good content out there.” I need to start giving them some stuff because then they’re going to feel like they want to reciprocate or that’s just how the world works.

That’s one thing too and then not wanting to invest any money at all. My problem was that when I finally made that money from initial founding members, I did reinvest some of it, but some of it I needed to use to pay the rent.

Chris: Right.

Esther: Which happens sometimes, so things have grown slower because of that, but that’s okay. That’s just how it’s going to go. Also, just realizing that in order to build that list and build that Facebook group, sometimes I would have to do some $5 ads here and there, so you are going to have to invest a little bit of money in order to build that, but you don’t need $2,000 to get people to sign up for your webinar. No, please don’t do that.

Chris: That’s awesome. Good stuff there. Go ahead and get out of the negative self talk and don’t use the money excuse. That’s a big one. I see it a lot, so I just want to give a few strategies on that and I want to tie it back just again to the importance of doing a beta or a pilot, whatever you want to call it. It doesn’t take a lot of money to send somebody a PayPal invoice or even a check in the mail, cash in hand and then manage the whole training through Skype and email, free services to get your validation and figure out what you’re going to build and then to launch without having the full major course created. It’s not something that you necessarily have to go upside down on and go into debt to start and really you shouldn’t. You should validate it small and then reinvest like you said as you go, but take care of yourself too. If you got to pay the bills or go celebrate or whatever, you should absolutely do that.

Esther: Yeah. I think that’s an important one. I didn’t go into debt with this. I didn’t go upside down ever and I made a point of doing that because it’s validation too. If I’m not progressing and if this isn’t making money, then I’m going to have to find some free options to keep it going if I really believe in it, but yeah I didn’t ever have that kind of an issue with it. If I made some money, okay so I’d reinvest some of it and some of it I’d use to pay the bills.

Chris: That’s awesome. Well, I’d like to do a bonus round with you, Esther, because we’re talking about launching with no lists, but I want to see if we can get some nuggets of wisdom out of you about curriculum design or instructional design. If somebody is an expert at a topic, whatever that may be, what are some of the mistakes that you see people making when the expert transitions over to creating content for an online training? Then what do you recommend as some frame works or some tools that people can use as a beginner to start increasing their instructional design shops and creating valuable training content that makes sense?

Esther: Sure. Okay, so probably the biggest issue that I see and this is with some of my high end speakers that I work with. They’re almost the worst because they’re amazing at speaking, they’re brilliant, but it’s all in here and they’re used to just speaking like as a keynote or really more of selling from stage type things, not interacting, so when you transition that into a course, a workshop, any kind of instructional design, it’s not going to work. I can’t talk at you for two hours and you take notes and this is going to be a really valuable thing. Your learners are not going to retain it. They can’t retain that. Our attentions spans as human beings are not that long and also we have all different kinds of learning styles and so me sitting here listening to you is not going to work. You have to get out of that way of doing it. It works for when you’re a keynote maybe because you’re only up there for an hour and a half, right, and you can’t interact with thousands of people. You could. I do, but when I speak I’m very interactive, but not everybody, you can’t always do that if you have a lot of information to get across.

When you transition into this world of an in person workshop or an online course or whatever it may be, you want to make sure that your learners, even if they’re watching it, are having actually things that they’re able to do and that you’re also getting the information across in a variety of different ways.

One thing I’ve been learning that I really want to enhance and I’m trying to find some more resources on this is how to make my presentations even more visual. Even more compelling, so that it’s not just words on a power point. That’s one thing you can do to enhance. Your worksheets and your workbook, please do not make fill in the blank worksheets. This is my nemesis. You don’t want people to just be listening for words to put in. This is not worksheet. The worksheets and materials are supposed to help the learners take it deeper. How can they apply it to themselves, so yeah there’s going to be some spots where the main points where you want them to note down, but the rest of this content should be, how are they applying it to themselves. Take a minute and stop and say, “hey I want you to fill out number two. I want you to think about x,y and z, then talk about it with the people at your table. Then lets come back and keep going.” That’s how you have to change how you’re used to writing or speaking or whatever and make it more interactive. Make people able to really apply it to themselves and take it to the next step. Those are probably my biggest tips.

Chris: That’s awesome. Yeah, I totally get what you’re saying. You could be in the rhythm of just delivery content and then this person is just being passive, “okay, I’m receiving this information,” but then you can make it personal and then you can also make it active, so they have to do something and then apply it to their exact situation. That’s really good. Well, I appreciate that. Well, Esther where can people find out more about you and all the goodness you have going on?

Esther: Sure. I would love it if people would come to my page,, I always have goodies on there and I’m actually launching a free course all about outsourcing, so how you can outsource your e-course and get it done. All of the tips and tricks that are from me. There’s all kinds of good stuff on there, but that’s the thing that I would love to offer you guys. You can sign up for that on my page, esthermariecreative, easy.

Chris: That’s awesome. Well, thank you for coming on the show Esther and we’ll catch you in the next one.

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