What’s The Difference Between an Online Membership and a Course?

January 22, 2024

What’s The Difference Between an Online Membership and a Course?

Are you seeking a way to monetize your content with online memberships or courses?

Both online memberships and courses offer a way for businesses to generate revenue by creating high-quality content for their target audiences. However, memberships and online courses work entirely differently. For this reason, choosing one that works best for your target audience can be pretty confusing.

In this article, we will cover the main differences between online memberships and courses so you have an easier time choosing between the two.

Membership vs Online Course: Overview

Membership vs Online Course: Overview

Before we jump into the comparison between memberships and online courses, it’s crucial to understand how both digital products work.

Memberships present a way to offer your target audience continuous value over their subscription period. For example, you can let your target audience access premium content for $25 per month. Similarly, you can set up a paywall on your blog post so your readers have to pay a recurring subscription fee to keep accessing new articles on your site.

Memberships are suitable for generating a passive income stream for your business. Customers must renew their monthly subscriptions to access your site’s premium content. For instance, if a user wants to stay in the “VIP Community” and interact with other members, they must keep their subscription active by renewing it.



Online courses also have premium content but are sold to your target audience as any other digital product. For example, customers can access premium lessons or learn a new skill by paying your business a one-time fee. It’s important to understand that online courses only allow your target audience access to limited premium content, even if they want to pay again. Let’s say you add 10 lessons and 5 assignments to your online course; once users are done with all of the content in your online course, there’s no way for them to pay to get new content.

In contrast to memberships, you only have to encourage users to purchase a limited amount of premium content once. Meanwhile, with memberships, the goal is to keep your students or subscribers engaged so they renew their membership plans.

Membership vs Online Course: Key Differences

Membership vs Online Course: Key Differences

Here, we’ll take a closer look at some key differences between online memberships and courses so you can decide on the best one for your business.

Content and topic ideas

One of the significant differences between memberships and online courses is the type of content you have to create. Memberships offer high-quality content with videos, blog posts, or infographics to keep subscribers engaged. With online courses, you must develop lessons, quizzes, or assignments and offer your customers an interactive learning experience. This means if you’re looking to create lessons and quizzes one time, online courses will be the better option for you as memberships require you to publish new high-quality content over the long run.

Due to how memberships work, you must choose longer content topic ideas requiring a more in-depth explanation. For example, you can create membership content on a topic like photography. This way, you can share your knowledge and expertise over time to ensure your subscribers improve their photography skills.

On the other hand, online courses are for topics that can be bundled into a single class or over several lessons. For example, you can teach your target audience a new skill and create an online course like “Time Management.”

Online courses work great with evergreen content ideas, while memberships require you to improve and update your content ideas each month or every week. This is because you must keep your subscribers engaged with your content throughout their subscription period versus selling high-quality content once.

However, with memberships, you usually have content planned, so there’s a lot of flexibility on what kind of content you want to create.

Income stream

Another significant difference between memberships and online courses is the income your business wants to generate. While online courses are priced higher than memberships, you can expect to have a profitable sales period when you first launch, but it may decrease over time.

Memberships allow businesses to generate a more steady and reliable stream of passive income as you continuously encourage your subscribers to keep paying for their monthly or yearly subscription plan.

For instance, you can make a huge profit the month you launch your online course but have a drier period for the rest of the year. Memberships can help over the year as your subscribers renew their monthly membership plan to access the premium content.

Pricing your online course can be tricky, especially if this is your first time. Ideally, you want to research competitors within your industry to better gauge the “market value” of your online course. This is important as you don’t want to offer a high one-time price that discourages your target audience from buying your online courses. Similarly, you also don’t want to price it too low so that it negatively affects its perceived value.

For pricing memberships, the process is much more straightforward, as you can price your membership plan according to the value you’re offering each month. You can charge more if you offer exclusive content access and premium member perks. If your membership only lets users access an online community, you can set a lower price for the subscription plan.


Online courses are much simpler to create than memberships due to the amount of content you need to make. For example, an online course will require you to create content once, and then you’re done or ready to start selling.

On the other hand, memberships only work with an effective content strategy that will keep your subscribers engaged each month. You not only need to create new quality content each month but also have to think of new content ideas and validate them.

Online courses have a more straightforward content creation process and are easier to manage. Once you create and organize your content into an online course, all you can do is promote it to boost sales. Memberships don’t work this way as you have to constantly work on creating new, more engaging content as well as promote your content to encourage more subscriptions.

Production costs and effort

As we mentioned earlier, memberships require you to constantly work on creating new content and implement a solid content marketing strategy to keep your subscribers engaged. This also means it will increase the overhead costs for your business to keep creating high-quality content each month. Comparing this to an online course, you only have to pay once or work on creating content once before you launch it and start generating revenue.

If you’re creating a membership, you must offer constant value to your subscribed members to keep the churn rate low. You don’t want to spend much time and effort acquiring new subscribers only to lose them the next month. This is why it’s essential to spend lots of time and effort creating an effective content marketing strategy that helps boost engagement on your membership site.

This isn’t a concern for businesses that want to create online courses, as you only have to make the sale once without worrying about keeping the churn rate low. In addition to this, you might also want to consider the labor costs involved with creating content for your monthly membership program versus creating content one time for an online course.

Membership vs Online Course: Which One Is Right for You?

Membership vs Online Course: Which One Is Right for You?

Online courses offer much more simplicity in creating content and monetizing it to your target audience. However, this also means you don’t make as much money as you would with a constant stream of passive income, similar to what memberships offer. This is why online courses are better suited for businesses looking to make one-time sales using high-quality content but are okay with profitability decreasing over time.

On the other hand, memberships are designed for businesses looking to generate passive income and create a sense of exclusivity around their target audience. The only downside is that you must spend much more on constantly creating content and developing new ideas to keep your target audience engaged.

Check out our article on Should You Create an Online Course or a Membership Site? for more information.

Frequently Asked Questions

Q: What is the difference between an online membership and a course?

A: An online course typically offers a structured curriculum with fixed start and end dates, while a membership site provides ongoing access to content, community, and resources for a recurring fee.

Q: What are the pros and cons of creating an online course?

A: The pros of creating an online course include the potential for passive income, the ability to reach a broad audience, and the opportunity to establish expertise. The cons can consist of the need for marketing and ongoing support for students.

Q: How does a membership site differ from an online course regarding business models?

A: A membership site business model relies on recurring revenue from a community of members, while an online course business model typically involves one-time sales of course content.

Q: What are some factors to consider when deciding between a membership site and an online course for an online business?

A: Consider factors such as your content format (evergreen or ongoing), your desired level of community interaction, the need for recurring revenue, and whether you prefer to offer lasting value or a one-time learning experience.

Q: How can I create an online course or a membership site?

A: You can create an online course by identifying your target audience and their needs and organizing your knowledge into a structured curriculum. For a membership site, focus on building a community and continuously adding value to keep members engaged.

Q: What are the main differences between online courses and membership sites regarding content delivery?

A: Online courses typically deliver structured, time-bound content, while membership sites focus on providing ongoing value, community interaction, and resources for members.

Q: How do online course platforms compare to membership site platforms?

A: Online course platforms are designed to deliver structured learning experiences, while membership site platforms are built to support ongoing content delivery and community interaction.

Q: What are the biggest challenges or cons of running a membership site compared to selling online courses?

A: Challenges of running a membership site can include sustaining member engagement, delivering ongoing value, and managing community dynamics, whereas selling online courses may require continuous marketing efforts and student support.

Q: Should I use a membership site or sell my courses as online courses?

A: It depends on your content format, audience engagement goals, revenue preferences, and the level of ongoing support and value you want to provide. Consider which model best fits your business goals and audience needs.

Q: What are the best ways to market my online course or membership site?

A: Effective marketing strategies for online courses and membership sites include leveraging social media, content marketing, email marketing, partnerships, and paid advertising to reach and engage your target audience.


Both digital products – memberships and online courses – are different regarding the work required, the overhead costs, and the type of content you want to create.

Choosing one comes down to your skills and significant goals. To recap:

  • Online courses are your option if you want to create high-quality content once and start selling quickly.
  • However, suppose you’re looking to constantly create content to increase brand authority, develop a sense of community around your brand, and create a source of passive income. In that case, memberships are the way to go.

Will online courses or membership subscription programs work the best for your business? Let us know in the comments box below.

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