Running a successful membership site in real life, with Jonathan Williamson

This interview is with Jonathan Williamson, co-founder of CGCookie. He’s going to talk to us about running a real world membership website on WordPress. Jonathan is Pippin Williamson’s twin brother, and he has years of experience running membership websites. There is much that we can learn from him.

Jonathan Williamson is the co-founder and COO of CGCookie, a membership website that provides as an educational resource for computer graphics and modeling. CGCookie has been around since 2008, and today is a network of five websites, has thousands of paying members, a team of six full time employees plus a number of contractors.

CGCookie is built completely on WordPress and has a built in membership component. Some astute readers may recognize both the site and Jonathan’s name; Jonathan is Pippin Williamson’s identical twin brother, and Pippin has worked with Jonathan on CGCookie many times. So, in this interview, you’re not listening to me talk to Pippin — though it sounds like it — but I’m talking to Jonathan Williamson.

Jonathan is as passionate about CG, modeling, 3D printing, and the software that surrounds these disciplines as Pippin is about WordPress and programming. It was a pleasure to talk to Jonathan about what it’s like to run a membership site that runs on WordPress. I think this interview will be beneficial for those that want to run a membership site, and also those that work with clients who make their living off of their website.


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How CGCookie evolved

CGCookie started as a blog with news, tutorials, and resources for CG enthusiasts. The first form of its monetization was by selling the source files for the various tutorials. Within about two years, Jonathan and co-founder Wes Burke decided to add a membership component that ended up working far better than they anticipated.

Jonathan has been working full-time on CGCookie since around the summer of 2009. They originally launched on aMember, before eventually migrating to Pippin’s Restrict Content Pro plugin, along with Easy Digital Downloads.

Today, CGCookie has more than 120,000 free users, and they have around 4,800 paid members.

Since 2008, CGCookie have managed to not have a full time web developer until February of 2014, when they hired Nick Haskins. You may recognize Nick as the founder of Aesop Stories as well. Nick manages front-end development for the site, and they still don’t have a backend developer — though a backend developer and designer are on their roadmap.

How CGCookie’s eCommerce setup runs

Considering Jonathan is using his brother’s own plugins in the real world, it makes for a great avenue for feedback and insight for Pippin to improve those products.

CGCookie is using Restrict Content Pro for memberships themselves, and EDD plus the Front-End Submissions add-on for their marketplace. We talked about whether EDD could be used for both, or if there is room for improvement in the marriage between the two systems, and he believes there is and that it’s a goal for the two plugins. For instance, currently, reporting and user management and a number of other features are independent between each plugin even though often times the users that utilize the system may overlap.

I asked Jonathan about scaling WordPress and eCommerce for their large user base. He says that scaling for eCommerce has not been difficult, but with over a hundred thousand users, some default WordPress functionality has not scaled well; for instance, some admin areas create dropdowns for all users, which does not work well. Fortunately, there are some trac tickets in place currently to help solve some of these problems.

Prioritizing goals for a membership site

When discussing challenges running a membership site, Jonathan highlights the internal battles: balancing new features versus iterative improvements. Based on my short experience managing this membership site, I completely agree.

For an example, Jonathan told me about a potential question and answer system to help his members get answers for specific technical topics that may be beyond the scope of a specific course. They believe a Stack Exchange style setup that allows them to refer their courses to specific questions would allow them to better serve their customers with the same content they already have.

How do you get people to find your content that answers their question, but you don’t have a way of just explicitly saying that these are the questions this course answers?

They’re considering a method of post to post relationships that direct courses as question answers and vice versa. For this feature and others, they try to do things with a short return on investment, but they also don’t want to be a slave to it. They sometimes do things “that are important to the quality of CGCookie, that never make a dime.” They removed ads last year under that very premise, to make CGCookie a better learning experience.

Not the only place to learn

Jonathan knows CGCookie isn’t the only place to learn, so they focus on creating an excellent community and learning experience for their customers.

Realizing that our sites aren’t the only way to get certain information is an important thing to know to be able to better focus what we create for our users and why we create it.

Pricing for CGCookie

CGCookie has pricing for monthly, quarterly, or yearly pricing; all plans renew automatically unless explicitly cancelled. This is a feature they actively A/B test to see what’s working and what’s not.

Behavior of customers varies between the three levels. Jonathan says that the users are more invested in their purchases (and getting more out of it) when they sign up for longer. Quarterly members have 10% longer lifetime memberships and spend three times longer on the site.

However, they do have “a fair bit” of what I called “download and dash” members that sign up for a month, download a bunch of assets and cancel. Monthly memberships are also the most popular plan. They’ve considered locking down downloads for monthly signups but it’s not something they want to do unless it becomes a bigger problem; however they do lose money on those customers that download gigabytes of files and videos but only stay subscribed for one month.

Testing

During A/B tests, they have found that people will be just as likely to sign up for quarterly as monthly if monthly isn’t available, and quarterly members are more engaged. One thing they noted is that once people stick around for a few months, the average tenure of a user skyrockets; they have some users that have been a paying member as long as the site has been running.

One of my big takeaways talking to Jonathan was about how significant testing can be. Their tests help them decide on the optimal pricing and payment plans to maximize a lifetime value.

For testing, insights, and statistics they use Optimizely, Mixpanel, and Google Analytics.

Mixpanel allows you to create custom events in your software, and does require some code knowledge, but it can deliver valuable insights if you use it correctly. Jonathan notes, “It’s basically as comprehensive as you make it.”

They can also mesh tools. They can track which A/B test from Optimizely a customer signed up with, and then use Mixpanel to track what they did and how they did it. They can get login metrics, renewal numbers, and more for each plan and signup flow.

Mixpanel requires PHP and JavaScript knowledge to utilize, but Optimizely has an extensive visual interface that doesn’t require code knowledge to utilize.

What encourages membership signups

“It varies day to day, week to week, month to month,” in regard to how their signups work. A bad month in the economy can make their signups go down. Sometimes quarterly users will spike while monthly users are steady.

Their biggest thing that affects signup rates is customer support. Some presale, but also support for new members to help answer questions and get people engaged. When we can help someone answer the question, “Where do I go next?”, we are able to keep them for a long time.

They have one or two courses that drive a ton of traffic to their site, and it is therefore their largest onboarding channel for new members. However, they don’t have a silver bullet for what it takes to get new users. They are always trying new things.

On competing and the industry

Jonathan doesn’t see themselves as a part of a singular industry. While many think of CG as a part of the film industry, it’s one of dozens of potential applications, and they don’t want to narrow themselves to a particular one.

They also poll users to get a feel for who they are and what industry actual users come from. Based on around a thousand responses, they had no real pattern at all. The results were all over the board.

So they don’t want to compete with a film tutorials site or any other industry site. They want to focus on the tool itself. They want to teach people how to use Blender and show them how it can be applied to various industries their users are a part of.

Advice for those running membership sites

“Build your community would be the main one. It’s one thing to offer a really good product. It’s one thing to build a really good website. But if you don’t have the community behind you that’s going to be willing to trust in you with their wallet … it’s not going to go anywhere long term, sustainably.”

Jonathan says it’s about building the community as well as the sense of trust within that community. He believes that customers will want to know that not only the content will be worth it, but that it will continue to be worth it — and that the communication and support from the team behind the site will be consistent as well.

He believes that subscriptions and products are very different. With a subscription, the interaction is just as or far more important than specific content itself.

When he refers to community, he doesn’t mean it has to be strictly through something like a forum. He considers it a broad term, and for them it evolved out of their Blender community user base. At the time we recorded this, they didn’t have forums, a dedicated chat system, or an actual community integration part — though they have opened a forum since we chatted. But the community exists and thrives within comments and their gallery functionality.

Wrapping up

Jonathan is full of great advice and I could listen to him talk about membership sites for a long time. I have no experience with CG but at the end of this interview he had me wanted to go build something with Blender.

You can (and should) keep up with Jonathan on Twitter, or perhaps you’ll see him at a conference near you — but you’ll probably think it’s Pippin at first. Also be sure to checkout CGCookie’s website; it’s really great.