001: How to Build a Sustainable Membership Business
🗓 March 25, 2019
Ward and Christy Harrison chat about how she used her podcast to build an initial audience, the evolution of her pricing, and her thoughts on business sustainability.
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Ward: [00:00:29] Hi Christy. Thanks for joining us.
Christy: [00:00:31] Hi Ward. Thanks so much for having me.
Ward: [00:00:33] Yeah, no problem. So let's start from the beginning. If you could give a quick overview of ChristyHarrison.com and what you provide for folks that aren't familiar with you.
Christy: [00:00:42] Sure. Yeah, so Christy Harrison.com is my online home. It's the portal for everything that I do which includes my podcast food psych my writing. I'm a journalist. My original career was as a journalist, and now I'm also a dietitian and I help people make peace with food and learn the practice of intuitive eating so I have you know work with me pages and online courses that I offer through my website, so it's all there but I have kind of a diverse array of things that I do and offer so that's all housed on my website.
Ward: [00:01:17] Very cool. Well, how could you dive into how you actually began Christy Harrison.com and how you kind of built that initial audience?
Christy: [00:01:25] Sure. Yeah. So, like I said, my first career was as a journalist and most journalists have a website. That's just your name.com, you know where you put all your writing sort of a portfolio and ways people can get in touch with you. So that's really how my website started. It was just that, you know, portfolio a Blog just a way to have an online presence and I think I started it originally back in like 2000. Maybe six or seven and so, you know, I think I started it on like type form or one of those are not typeform. I forget what it even was called, but it was one of those really clunky old sort of website builders. And eventually started upgrading to you know, better and better platforms and around while in 2013. I launched my podcast foodpsych and I brought it onto my Christy Harrison.com website as well sort of gave it a home there and then I originally actually I think I had broken it out onto its own site food psych pod.com, but then I eventually reincorporated it into my website and so through the process of doing the podcast it was really bringing together my career as a dietitian and My Philosophy around helping people heal their relationships with food with my career as a journalist because I interview people on the podcast. It's a form of communication and so it was using those skills. And as I got further and further into the podcast I started using it as a platform to help bring people into my practice my private practice to work with me. So that was like the first way that I sort of I mean it was not even. Intentionally created as a form of content marketing or to leverage it to get clients, but I started it sort of as a labor of love and as a journalistic Pursuit and then realized oh, this is actually a great sort of marketing vehicle for my work and brought people into my business that way got a lot of clients worked with a lot of people one-on-one and I think like many people who do one-on-one service-based businesses eventually, I maxed out my available hours. I had a waiting list. I. You know wasn't able to give any more hours than what I had available. And so I started to think about how can I reach more people? How can I create a sort of packaged version of what I do in my one-on-one work for people to connect with me anytime all over the world without me actually having to be there. So that's how my first online course came about was just thinking through that puzzle and so in 2016 I believe. Yeah, it'll be three years this April since I created my first online course, it's called intuitive eating fundamentals, which I host on memberspace and it's basically sort of what I do with clients in my five month coaching program or in before that before I had the coaching program, I sort of work with people in an open-ended way, but I found that like people were generally taking the people who are really flourishing with intuitive eating. We're generally taking about five months give or take to sort of get it and so the course really walks people through the principles and the tools and the strategies and the practices that I use with clients in one-on-one work, but they're able to do it anytime anywhere whenever they you know, sort of on demand rather than having to wait to work with.
Ward: [00:04:48] Right. So if we could just take a step back again for for that initially you had your website and then you have the podcast. So is that how people initially found out about you was through your podcast?
Christy: [00:05:00] I think so. Yeah, I mean having a background as a journalist. I did have a bit of a not a huge email list by any means but like, you know had some contacts and I had a Twitter following of about like 500 people. I think when I started it's not huge, you know, but just I had a little bit of a head start I guess with that. And so that was you know, social media and email were sort of some of the early ways. I got people to find out about the podcast but pretty quickly it started to grow Beyond just the people I knew or the people who followed me on Twitter and became, you know, people all over the world discovering the podcast the podcast really. And it started to grow to like a few thousand people in the first season and then it really took off in the second and third Seasons kind of exponential growth. And so that was I think in a third season is when I launched the online course, so I already had a pretty big audience from the podcast and then yeah, that's what brought them into to work with me.
Ward: [00:05:55] Interesting. I've done a lot of research on this and not a lot. Let's say a bit and some I hear I hear mixed reviews. It's but that way as far as building an audience with a podcast. I've heard it's a good tool to enhance an existing audience and to kind of connect with the people more and have more of a relationship with your audience. But as far as building an audience initially I have heard it's not necessarily the best way to do that. Obviously. There's your a good counter example. So you had a bit of a Twitter following a bit of an email list. Was it really that simple? Obviously, you must have create a good content and people were simply sharing the podcast with other people and that's how people discovered it.
Christy: [00:06:36] I think so. Yeah. I mean, you know, obviously nothing is that simple right? But like I do think I mean I had been working for 10 years as a journalist when I started the podcast so I certainly had a lot of skills that I had developed in communication and marketing through that like just you know being a journalist. I was working on the web like my sort of last full-time job in Media. That's a web editor for a magazine. And so like I knew kind of how to do social media marketing a little bit from that I knew about. Blogging and email lists and newsletters and stuff like that. So I had a bit of a head start on those things. But also like it'll be six years in March that I had since I started the podcast and I started recording so, you know, it's been a long build actually like its it has it didn't just take off overnight even though you know, I did end up I would say probably growth in the first season the first couple seasons was exponential I think just because there was word of mouth. I think people were sharing it with with their friends and. I do think it's a subject that was not explored enough at the time that I started it and it's still really is a very untapped field that people can I think there's a lot to be said about people's relationships with food and bodies and like my Approach is very Anti Diet and I think a lot of people have had bad experiences with diets and diet culture. You know when they hear the messages in the podcasts are like, oh my God. This is what I've been struggling with and you know haven't been able to really articulate or haven't been able to put my finger on why this is such a problem. But this podcast is sort of putting words to what I've been going through. So I think there was that piece of it too. Is it just like it's a very needed like I stumbled into a niche that wasn't really served and I think I did in the. Probably second or third season start getting a lot of fellow professionals fellow dietitians therapists and other professionals working in the eating disorder field sharing it with their clients. So I have people talking, you know telling me that like they work at a treatment center and they have 25 people and their eating disorder group that they assign the podcast to as homework and they come in and discuss it, you know, and that's happening at treatment centers around the around the country, maybe around the world. So. Yeah, I think that was part of it too. Is that like it, you know my fellow health and wellness professionals who work in this space found it to be a good resource and started sharing it and so that was exponential too.
Ward: [00:09:03] Interesting. So as far as your first sales is there was the podcast but that obviously would was free or you were making money initially though was with individual one-on-one Consulting right and during in the podcast if you have some kind of a self add of some sort like oh if you're interested this topic more contact me for one-on-one consulting or something like that.
Christy: [00:09:27] Totally. Yeah, we do those self ads, you know every couple weeks or whatever interspersed with like in the first season. I did a lot of kind of affiliate marketing for like, you know, sign up for our Amazon link, you know through our Amazon link or whatever it was and then the self ads were really sort of the first that really made any real money honestly.
Ward: [00:09:48] Right so then where you just kind of trying things with the Amazon ad and whatever else
Christy: [00:09:52] Totally. Yeah. Yeah, and I was I mean the first season I didn't really understand how podcast advertising worked and since then like now I work with an ad agency that does podcast advertising and they bring in, you know a good like it's not paying all the bills by any means but it's like helping sustain the podcast and I usually have you know, an ad or two every week from a sponsor like great now we have Poshmark or you know, we have it's like different brands that advertise on the podcast.
Ward: [00:10:21] Cool. Alright so sounds like yet a six-year overnight success and the podcast helped helped build an audience. It sounds like there was a lot of I guess you could call it Network effects from the people that were listening to it the some of them assigning it to their own patients that. It's your kind of getting people quickly just aren't listening. Obviously the content must have been good because that's what people kept listening and I assume also as you got different guests they have audiences right? So then they're sharing the pot your podcast With Their audience and there's a lot of cross cross. Cross mingling going on there.
Christy: [00:10:56] Totally. Yeah, that is one aspect that I forgot to mention too. Is that every guest who comes on share, you know, pretty much shares It With Their audience is not a requirement but like people often do that and I've definitely had you know, as the years have gone on especially more and more sort of public figures big, you know, well recognize people in this space who share with their fairly large audiences, so it's helped grow the podcast that way too.
Ward: [00:11:21] Right. Okay. So let's let's dive back into some of the business stuff because I know that's what the main reason people are listening to this podcast is for the tactics and strategy side of this. So as far as for your individual business for the online course side of it, I know your current model you have a one-time payment of $429. And then you also have a payment plan of three payments of $157. Is that right?
Christy: [00:11:47] Yeah.
Ward: [00:11:48] And where where did you how did you come to that those numbers? It was that that as it evolved over time? Is that something you think is going to stick for a while?
Christy: [00:11:57] Yeah, honestly, it was really trial and error. I was kind of like I mean cuz everything I had read and learned about pricing, you know, I did a lot of research about online marketing and online course sales before I started my course or when I was planning to launch it and really it seems like everybody's sort of the consensus was just like throw a price at the wall and see if it sticks, you know, and so that's basically what I did I had, you know had no experience making an online course before and so I felt like you know, this is sort of a pilot project like this is I'm testing this to see if it even works, you know, because I was used to working with clients one-on-one and knew that that worked but I was kind of like, I don't know if I can translate these skills or these practices into this online program. I'm going to do my best and see what happens. So the first price that I threw out was just kind of like an introductory price to like because I knew that the people who are going to come in first we're going to probably be my super fans the people who were really excited to work with me had been listening to me for a long time and maybe hadn't had the opportunity to be in New York City where I am to work with me one-on-one. So I was like, you know, I'm gonna I'm gonna try to like make this a good deal for them. So I think my first price was $189 for. A 13 week course that also has ongoing QA podcast. I do a special exclusive podcast for my members every month where they could get to ask me any question they want and I will answer them and sometimes these these Q&A is balloon to like 2 hours long because so many people are asking questions. So I knew that there was like a lot of that I was giving them. And so I kind of settled on 189 is just like well, you know, that's maybe like what somebody would pay me for one session at the time or something. So I was like, okay that you know for the price of one session you get all of this stuff like that seems like a pretty good selling point. And so I tried that it worked really well people. I mean, you know, my audience is obviously grown by Leaps and Bounds since then so it's kind of hard to compare apples to oranges, but I think I think it was much bigger people, you know, but many more people jumped on it than I had expected to and including like within five minutes of putting up the sales page and sending out an email saying like hey, this is available I had my first sale so I was like, oh, okay. I guess people really want this and people have been sort of waiting to buy something from me maybe because they've been listening to the podcast for years and getting a lot out of it. So. That was the first price that I tried and then I sort of you know in that pilot testing phase with a course I was like tell me what like give me your feedback. I was collecting feedback actively from participants and a lot of people were asking for some kind of community to connect with each other like a private Facebook group or something. And so, you know having done that sort of thing with my podcast I had a well actually I didn't even have it yet at the time but sort of participating in other Facebook groups around this field. I knew what a Minefield it could be because people really need a lot of support and compassion and like Breaking Free from dieting and disordered eating is really hard and psychologically difficult. And there's a lot of sort of safety that I would have had to create in that space. So I was like, I'm going to have to be super. In this Facebook group. I'm going to have to have a staff member probably present in this Facebook group. So what's like a fair price for that presence that we're going to have in this Facebook group per person, you know and sort of tried to the best of my ability like divide that out as like how much time am I going to be spending in there per person and and you know, so I think the next price that I raised it to was like 289, so it was an extra hundred bucks to have this Facebook group. And then over time I just kept adding because it's like, you know every month. I do one of these qas that's dozens of quest, you know, two dozen questions or something like that that I answer so the content of the course kept growing and growing and the value kept growing and you know, I've heard people say in business like if your if your clients are telling you your customers are telling you that you're charging too little for something that's when you know, you probably should have up your price like ages ago, you know, because nobody's going to tell you until it's like really egregious yeah, so, you know, I started having people tell me like, oh my God, this is a steal your undercharging for this is amazing. So it's like okay. It's probably time to raise the price because now there's all this content. Right. So so that's kind of how I ended up getting. You know first. I think it was like 329 and now it's 429 just because as the years have gone by there's just so much more content there and the Facebook group is also such a huge resource now because people can search and find threads from like years ago that might answer the question.
Ward: [00:16:47] Right I think there's a lot of go through there. So, Just a backup when you initially raised the 289. It sounds like the main motivating reason was well, I need this to be sustainable. Right if you're going to have staff members helping other people assisting and you spending your time on this you can't spend yourself. If you spread yourself too thin you're not helping anyone. So it that's one part about pricing that we try to Echo two people in and sort of explain and breakdown is that you need to charge an amount of money that allows you to be a sustainable business. Skull if you're spread too thin if your stress if you're not able to pay your own bills and then your business falls apart, that's the worst thing you could do as far as helping your customers and serving them with what you're providing. And so you got to really think about that and do the math sounds like you did that obviously.
Christy: [00:17:35] I did and that's like a total mindset thing to you know, like thinking that your business is worth it that your time is worth it like that definitely took me a little bit of you know, getting my head around that before I even decided to raise the price. So yeah, it was that was definitely the thinking though was like it needs to be sustainable and I'm not going to help anyone if I burn out and can't do this anymore.
Ward: [00:17:56] Right the other nugget in there that I know these high heard was charged more and that is listened to the feedback. You're getting from from customers. Something I always tell people this happen to us too is when people tell you, you know, our this is a really good deal like you were saying right when you keep hearing that phrase over and over again, that's also also known as I would have paid more totally and and for a lot of people if you hear that over and over again, that's a very clear sign to charge more and another another thing you want to look out and part of the problem is okay great. So now I know I need to charge more but how much more? Will the rough the rough thing we found is okay, when you start getting some people complaining about it costing too much. Not not if you like one every month that doesn't really mean anything, but if you're getting, you know a handful every month, that starts indicate okay, we've kind of hit we're in the right range. We have some people saying it's too expensive and we still have some people saying this is a good deal. And so that's and that's usually a roughly how wheelies figure it out.
Christy: [00:18:58] Yeah. That's a great. That's great tip. I think that is kind of the Wheelhouse I'm in right now with it to where it's like, you know, definitely getting some people being like I can't afford it this is too much, but then still also some people being like this is a total steal and in between people are just happy with it.
Ward: [00:19:14] You never it's never gonna be perfect pricing is one of those things that it really depends on the context of someone situation. She try to do your best. The other thing you mentioned was when you first launch the online course that within five minutes you had your first sale, which is awesome. I want people to keep in mind though that that is because you had an audience built up that's not cuz you launched a course into the into the world and then magically you got lucky and somebody signed up this one. Something you built up over time and that's something else you try to emphasize to people is that it's very difficult to sell things. If you don't have any audience in that you should really focus on building an audience before you sell anything. And so it sounds like you did that initially through some journalism and then also through the podcast which both you know, both those things don't cost the your member or your audience any money and lets them connect with you get value from you, which is a good place to start get trust and then you can provide optional things in they could buy and that's kind of a good road map that we try to lay off for folks.
Christy: [00:20:16] Totally. Yeah, exactly. I don't want to make it sound like I just I built it and they came, you know, it was yeah, I had to build the audience for a long time first.
Ward: [00:20:25] So let's move on to another topic of cancellations and refunds which is never fun for anybody. What are you doing right now strategically to help keep, you know, if I guess in your case and people are paying one-time charges are not really cancelling so much but for people who are doing multiple one-time payments, what happens when someone's in between we have the they made one payment, but they were you two more and they say you know what, I don't want this anymore. I don't want to pay any more. How do you how are you handling that right now?
Christy: [00:20:54] Yeah, it's been tricky, you know, because since we started the payment plan, which I started because we were getting those folks saying like, oh, it's just a bit too much to invest this some all at once and so I broke it up into three payments so that it could maybe help people more people access the material and it's been it's been doing really well, the payment plan, but definitely we've had quite a you know, not quite a few but like, you know, maybe one percent or something of people who will sign up and like halfway through or one payment in just be like, I don't want this anymore or they'll their credit card will change and they just won't like they won't update it in the system. And so that's been a challenge, you know, we definitely have like I have my Administrative Assistant reach out to them usually and there's also those automatic reminders that go out from Memberspace like hey, you know your card failed, can you update it which just had some success at bringing like retaining people but I think often in addition to that like a personal connection like a personal touch of my assistant being like hey, is there anything I can help you with or you know reminding them or whatever also brings some people back, but honestly, there were there were just you know, a number of people who were like, I can't afford it anymore or I'm not using it. You know, I think there's a phenomenon with a lot of online courses and I know I've done this myself to or you buy a course and then you just don't actually use it. You know, you're like you think you're going to have time to do it then you really don't. So that was happening and we actually just recently change the language on the payment plan page to say this is you know this payment plan because I think people were treating it like a membership people were treating it like, oh it's like a hundred fifty Seven dollars a month and you can cancel anytime because they didn't realize that it was a payment plan and not a membership and sort of what the distinction between those things was so we change the language on the payment plan page where we said you know, this is, like we've broken up the cost of this course into three payments for your convenience by signing up you agree to make all three payments and so far so good with that. Like we haven't had anyone default on their payments yet since then and that was a couple months ago.
Ward: [00:23:09] Awesome. Have you ever considered adding either another Branch or maybe changing part of your course to do ongoing recurring payments?
Christy: [00:23:18] I have thought about that definitely like because there's especially with the monthly QA. It's. Like it would lend itself well to that where if people pay like a monthly fee and they just get to listen to that or maybe you know, they get that plus the Facebook group or something. So I'm definitely toying around with that idea and I may do something like that in the course update that I'm working on now so in like the spring of 2019, I'm planning a big update where I'm going to actually like expand all the modules of the course. There's 13 modules and right now it's kind of like you listen to like a you know, 20-minute lecture and then there's like optional further listening you can do and further reading and there's a workbook with Journal exercises and my plan is to like make the modules where it's like a longer lecture where it incorporates all the sort of further listening and further reading material into the actual lecture and even incorporates the journal exercises into the lecture. So all people have to really do is listen to the lecture and they get time to do the journal exercises there or they could just do them in their head and you know use that as something if they're really pressed for time or whatever. So that's like a big overhaul and I'm having to have my designer redo the workbooks that we made and so for that we're definitely going to raise the price of the course a little bit to account for all that extra content and time that's going into it. Potentially like break it off at that point to to do some kind of like lower-cost options. There's another thought that I have to where people could maybe get just the modules and do it as like a self-study program and then you know the because really the ongoing cost for us is the qas which take up a lot of my time and the Facebook group which takes up my time and my staff's time. So, you know having that like having just the course itself be an option and then people can upgrade. Having the further support if they want to.
Ward: [00:25:11] Right makes sense. So I guess the last question I have is when you're what you're doing. You've obviously been successful. Are you trying to sort of maintain what you've done so far or are you still trying to grow as far as size and revenue in the business?
Christy: [00:25:28] Yeah. I mean I definitely would always love to grow in terms of size. And revenue I am you know, it definitely seems like there's kind of slow and steady growth. Year over year with a course as more people come into my audience because I have a sales funnel in my email list, you know, when people join the email list, they get a series of emails talking about the general concepts that I cover in my work and sort of introducing them to my world and then offering the course as a way to continue and deepen their understanding of the stuff and also on the podcast I do like self ads now for the course, you know, pretty consistently. So those are ways that were you know still growing and hoping to continue to grow. I also have a book that's coming out in late 2019 and I'm hoping that that's you know, of course. I'm hoping that's like an international bestseller, but what you know, whatever whatever level we sort of achieve. I think it's going to bring in a bigger audience for my work and hopefully bring more people into the course than as well because the book is really sort of about the mindset stuff. It's about diet culture and like what that is why we are. Are so caught up in it the problems with dieting like why it why diets don't work why intuitive eating is actually better for your health and well-being and. You know not to mention like saving you time and money and energy that you would have been pouring into these feudal diets. So, you know, that's all the book is kind of just like the laying the groundwork and helping people get through some of the mental hurdles to Breaking Free from diet culture. But then the online course is like an extension of that is, you know, how to put that into practice in your life how to actually like how to actually stop dieting.
Ward: [00:27:09] Right and as far as growth goes because it is I think a lot of people who've achieved success say yeah, I want to keep growing obviously, but sometimes I have a little pushback on that because it is the is the is the goal growth indefinitely because obviously there has to be a stopping point somewhere. So have you have you considered where that point might be?
Christy: [00:27:33] Yeah, that's a good question. Because yeah, like part of what makes the course good or at least the Facebook Community as part of the course good is that like there's a manageable number of people there so people can actually interact with each other and I can sort of stay on top of what people are posting and my staff can stay on top of it. But you know, if there were like suddenly 10,000 people in that group. I don't know if that would be. As helpful for anyone really so, you know, I think I think that as we grow will certainly have to change and shift like the course might take on a new iteration as it grows where maybe we do cohorts instead of having it be an evergreen open all the time thing. Maybe I like, you know close the cart for it and run it a couple times a year as a live course and so it you know keeps a manageable number of people in it and we have like special Facebook groups or communities or whatever for that particular cohort that's one optionI've thought about. Another option I've thought about is just like going back to not having a Facebook group and just having it be you know, the self-study staff in the QA and that's it. So yeah, there's you know, I think definitely as we grow its going to have to change and grow with where I go in my business and I'm very much sort of, I think my approach to business is much more of a company of one. You know, Paul Jarvis sort of style. Then it is like a multimillion-dollar like giant staff, you know company kind of style right like I certainly. A team that I work with but I you know my own and my own employer like I my only employee of my Corporation and you know, I'm a writer I'm a journalist, It's my first career, that's my first love and honestly, I'd love to just like preserve as much time as I can for that and for the podcast and do the online course as like a way to connect with people and serve people but you know if it becomes this thing where it's taking over, Time that I could be spending on these creative Pursuits that really like I know that the podcast and my writing are some of the most valuable things I have to offer like just the feedback that I get for the podcast every single day. People are like you're changing my life. You're saving my life like this is amazing, you know, and so like I sort of can tell that that's like the direction I need to be going in or stay going in. So I just want to make sure that like the courses support that and further that and extend on that without taking away from that.
Ward: [00:30:02] All right. Sounds like you're following an intuitive business philosophy.
Christy: [00:30:06] Definitely. Yeah.
Ward: [00:30:07] Well, alright. Well, I think we'll end there Christy. I really appreciate you taking the time out to hang out here and give everybody useful advice.
Christy: [00:30:14] Thanks so much Ward it's been a pleasure.
Ward: [00:30:16] All right, bye
Christy: [00:30:17] Bye.