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Online course vs membership site: which strategy is right for your business?

October 27, 2022


Melissa Guller


Transparency Disclaimer: This post may contain affiliate links, which means that we may earn a commission if you make a purchase. This is at no additional cost to you, so it's a great way to support Wit & Wire. So thank you! Full disclosure here.

Online courses and membership sites are two of the most powerful offers we can create as online business owners.

Because unlike working with clients, both online courses and memberships allow you to scale your earning potential by packaging your expertise as a product that can reach the masses.

But maybe you’re wondering which one is right for you. Or what are the biggest differences between selling online courses and selling a digital membership site?

Both have the potential to multiply your revenue as a creator or entrepreneur. And since I don’t believe that business is one-size-fits-all, I’m excited to share the opportunities and challenges for membership sites vs. online courses to help you decide which one is right for you right now.

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What’s the difference between an online course vs membership site?

Courses and membership sites are two of the most profitable types of digital products. And before we dive into the specifics, let’s differentiate between the terms:

What’s an online course?

An online course is a series of lessons with a clear linear path that helps students reach a specific outcome.

Unlike memberships, a course is a one-time purchase, and most commonly includes lifetime* access to the curriculum. (*Lifetime refers to the lifetime of the course.)

It’s important to note that many higher-priced courses do include a payment plan option, but that’s different from a subscription. Payment plans have a set schedule and end date, but they’re a great option to make an expensive course more accessible for students who might not be able to pay in full.

Common elements of an online course

Most online courses include a series of video lessons that act as the core curriculum. It’s also common to include workbooks or resources – like PDFs or Google Docs – or quizzes to check for understanding.

But beyond the curriculum, many online courses today also include interactive elements, like student communities, group coaching calls, or homework reviews. These aren’t required but can change the student experience and your course price.

💡 Recommended Free Download: Course Creation Toolkit

What is an online membership site?

A membership site is a recurring subscription that helps members continuously work toward their goals.

Unlike courses, members don’t get lifetime access to their content. They only retain access if they continue paying. And depending on the premise and goals of the membership, it’s common to release new content regularly to give members a reason to continue paying.

Common elements of a membership site

The most well-known membership site model is an online community. And that’s certainly a great feature for many memberships, but it’s not a requirement.

You could choose to include any combination of a community forum, course vault, template vault, live workshops, or calls…the options are endless.

The best way to choose features for your membership site is to consider what would save your members time and help them reach their goals as effectively as possible.

Episode transcript

NOTE: This podcast was transcribed by one of my favorite podcast editing tools, Descript. Please forgive any typos or errors. [00:00:00] Melissa: Welcome to The Wit & Wire Podcast. I’m Melissa, a former teachable employee and marketing director turned full-time course creator, and I help entrepreneurs turn their skills and passions into profitable online businesses. I don’t believe that business is one size fits all. That’s why this season I’ve invited industry experts to compare today’s hottest sales and marketing strategies to empower you to use your strengths and create a personalized online business plan. Courses and memberships are two of the most powerful offers we can create as online business owners. Unlike working with clients, both online courses and memberships allow you to scale your earning potential by packaging, your expertise as a product that can reach the masses instead of exclusively working. One-on-one. Both have the potential to multiply your revenue as a creator or entrepreneur. So today I’m really excited to share the opportunities and challenges for memberships versus courses to help you decide which one is right for you right now. [00:01:02] Melissa: To help us out. I’m excited to introduce today’s [00:01:06] Manu: Hi, I’m Manu Muraro. I’m the founder of your social team and your template club. And I help ethical brands with a sense of humor, grow engagement in sales, on Instagram and not worry too much about every single piece of advice they’re getting. [00:01:19] Melissa: Manu never expected to become an entrepreneur. But after 15 years in corporate at cartoon network and creative, she was laid off and needed a new plan. [00:01:29] Manu: So while I was laid off, I had a one year old, and I wasn’t too impressed about the opportunities I was hearing about, so I started freelancing. This was 2017. And I was doing a lot of social media strategy for businesses, especially Instagram. I also was offering social media management, retainer, like monthly clients. [00:01:49] Melissa: But after a few years of one-on-one work, Manu realized that it was time to switch over to courses and leader to memberships. [00:01:58] Manu: this was, I was two years into the business and I was doing a lot of in person training And those are really fun. You know, we would get maybe like 15 people at a time but I was pregnant with my second daughter and I was already 41. So I was like, I don’t know how I’m gonna feel. And I’m six months pregnant, just standing for three hours. So that’s why I decided to start my first online course. [00:02:23] Melissa: After initially launching her first Instagram course, Manu realized that it was time to invest in a So I actually started working with someone that I met, which we both know, which is Melody DiCroce. we work together now for three years, which is incredible, you know, she does a lot more in my business for me, but, [00:02:42] Manu: I followed me’s lead on the lounge even though I had butterflies in my stomach, and we launched that course and we made over $10,000 in that one course launch back then, which I was very happy about. [00:02:55] Melissa: after a few more years focusing on online courses and launches. Manu felt called to try something different. [00:03:01] Manu: Instagram changes so fast that I would have to revise this course twice a year for it to even be. updated enough, you know, like even if the information is updated, the graphics are not going to be, you know, and I, I thought that for Instagram training, it was not the best to do courses. [00:03:19] Melissa: There was one other clue that led Manu to switch her business model from selling courses to memberships. [00:03:26] Manu: I counted and I had over 200 DMs on a weekend asking me questions about Instagram. And I was like, okay, this is a business. This is not, you know, I shouldn’t be doing this work for free because that’s hours of work and knowledge. That I’m sharing here and I’m not helping them enough because 1, 2 sentence answer is not gonna solve their challenges. You know? [00:03:47] Melissa: Those keen insights gave Manu, the confidence to shift her strategy from courses to the two memberships she runs The Smarter Social Club, an Instagram coaching membership for social media professionals and business owners. And Your Template Club. Canva templates for Instagram that help you stay ahead of the trends. And it didn’t happen overnight, but the pivot has paid off big time. [00:04:08] Manu: So my business has grown like 20 times in the past year alone in the past 13 months, I’m hitting seven figures this year that includes my salary. That includes taxes, everything. So that has changed completely. [00:04:24] Melissa: Meanwhile, while your social team found success, scaling their business through memberships, I’ve tested my own membership courses and all kinds of services. And I realized that courses are the right fit for weight and wire right now. So instead of asking the question, which one is better for business owners instead, I have three main goals for this episode. First, I’m going to define what is an online course and what are the pros and cons of selling online courses? Second we’ll do the same for memberships. What does a membership, how is it different from an online course and what are some out of the box strategies you can use to create and sell your own online membership? Even with a small audience? Third we’ll compare the two and offer our best recommendations for who should start a course versus who should start a membership. And as a bonus, if you stick around until the I couldn’t invite an Instagram expert on this podcast without asking Monica to share her top three Instagram tips that are working for business owners right now to build your business online. An online course is a series of lessons with a clear linear path that helps students reach a specific outcome. I’m like memberships, of course, as a one-time And it’s most commonly a lifetime access purchase to the curriculum. Most online courses, share a few common elements, like a series of video lessons that act as core curriculum. And it’s common to include things like workbooks or resources in the form of PDFs or Google docs. But beyond the curriculum. Many online courses today also include interactive elements like student communities, group coaching calls, or homework reviews. These definitely are not required, but they can change the student experience. And quite frankly, your price point. [00:06:09] Manu: I mean, I think courses are great because it is something that is working on your business without you putting every hour in exchange for every dollar, not in every hour, but minutes in exchange for dollars, like at all times. especially if it’s a longer course, I like short courses, my course have been short, but that’s my personality. I know some people like more handholding and more details. So, , I think , find the balance between that, and let people do it self based and do it their own way. Like, I think that’s a big advantage of course is [00:06:40] Melissa: as an example at weight and wire, I offer online courses that help people create and sell their own online courses, which I know is very meta. But the clear outcome of one course would be my student building and enrolling their first paid students into a new online Usually over a series of one to three months. [00:07:01] Manu: I often think that an online course is the best solution. If you’re helping your buyer reach a clear milestone or outcome, but on the other hand, Like Manu, you might realize that your audience needs help consistently over time. I think you have to consider does the industry changes a lot? Does their niche change a lot? You know, like maybe that’s not the best for a course then, and then the other one would be, is this something that people learn once and then they’re done? Or is it something they need to continuous learn? I feel like social, media’s something people need to learn continuously that they can’t just learn today and then be done. But I have one thing that is kind of a course template hybrid. And that’s my day campaign, which is like a campaign that helps you sell anything you want on Instagram, but it comes with all the caption templates all the canvas templates so for that, I thought that was better being a course , or a one time digital product purchase than being a membership because it’s something you get once and then you can reuse and the instructions don’t change. [00:08:04] Melissa: Uh, membership is a recurring subscription. That helps members continuously work toward their goals. So unlike courses, members don’t get lifetime access to their content. They only retain access if they continue paying either monthly or sometimes annually. It’s important to note that many higher priced courses do include a payment plan option. But that’s different from a subscription. So a payment plan has a set schedule and Like four payments of two 50 instead of paying $1,000 upfront. So payment plans are a great option to make expensive courses more accessible for students who might not be able to pay in full. When we talk about memberships, those are monthly recurring fees. So it would be the same cost recurring month over month until the person cancels. It’s common to release new content regularly to give members a reason to continue paying, but that content can look very different from membership to membership. In terms of common elements, I would say that the most well-known membership site model. Is an online community. And that is certainly a great feature for many memberships, but that doesn’t have to be the case. Your membership could include a vault of courses, a vault of templates, scripts, or new monthly content you could choose to include live group calls. There are so many features you could include in your membership. And to be clear, you don’t have to include all You don’t need a forum. You don’t need live calls. It’s truly up to you. In fact, one of the biggest challenges I often hear about running Is that it’s a lot of work over time while the course is a lot of work upfront, but once it’s built, it’s created. So you don’t have to consistently create content. I do think that’s true for a lot of memberships, but as Manu has proved it, doesn’t always have to be the case. [00:09:57] Manu: A lot of people said to me, oh, I can’t do memberships. Cuz it’s so much work. I’m like my template membership was literally two emails per month. So I was giving people two packs per month and that’s, what’s an email. I still don’t have a member’s group for that membership. So I think people have a pretty tunnel vision of a membership is, but I think there’s so many ways also your membership could literally just be a Facebook group. If you want to, if that’s how you want to start, you just answer questions, give people resources, maybe do a little loom of how to do something. That’s it. That’s your whole membership. And that’s a very easy one to implement. [00:10:32] Melissa: And even though those strategies might sound simple, that doesn’t mean they lack in In fact, it’s actually a huge misconception that your course or membership should include as much info or as many features as possible. What buyers really want is a shortcut to their outcome. And so whether you’re creating a course or a membership. The best thing you can do, especially in the beginning. Is to pair it down and only include the features that are crucial to help your buyers reach their [00:11:01] Manu: probably memberships is if you’re giving them too much content, they cancel because they feel overwhelmed. you don’t wanna add to the overwhelm. You actually wanna get work out of the way for them. So if you’re telling them they need to come live every week and then they need to read this whole ebook that you send once a month and then once a month, they also have this and that simplify your membership to the core, start with one of two things and then if you feel that from their feedback, they need more or a different type of support you consider either adding something else or. Replacing one of the two things you’re offering with something else, my training membership, I teach one class a month. Sometimes it’s me. Sometimes it’s a guest and that’s it, it’s one thing per month. And I really tell them that I need two hours of their time a month. If I ask them for five, 10 hours, they’re not gonna do it. You know? And that’s when the conversation between course and a membership changes because maybe if you’re doing a course, it’s okay. That for that limited amount of time, you’re asking for more hours from people, but you definitely don’t wanna do that in a membership. [00:12:03] Melissa: On the same theme of time commitments. I think an advantage of online courses is the fact that you create the course upfront. And then you can continue to profit from that asset over time. On the other hand with a membership. You are consistently creating either content or building an experience. But I don’t think one is necessarily better or worse with a membership. You potentially have the advantage of less content required to And as Manu shared, you can keep things simple, create just a small amount and then build that membership over time. But even with an online course, you can apply the same strategy. And when I work with new course creators, we use an MVP or minimum viable product mentality. To create a simple version of the first course and only the first part of the experience before you start selling. So I do think in either case you can create just a small piece in order to enroll your first students or members. And then over time, the difference is that the course at a certain point will be complete. Well, the membership is likely something that you will continue to build over time. Another major difference is the way that you earn revenue. With an online course, because there is a clear, tangible outcome. The price point tends to Because it’s often easier for a buyer to evaluate the perceived value of that transformation. On the other hand, memberships tend to have a lower price point, which can make them more accessible to join and get started. [00:13:31] Manu: A lot of people that may not be able to afford. A thousand dollars course, or even a $500 course all at once. But they’re able to afford that membership that maybe cost like 55 or whatever for a long time, you know, because it’s slow and ongoing. So you’re giving access to people. Like you said that maybe you wouldn’t be able to have that access and that support otherwise [00:13:51] Melissa: There are also fundamental differences between how you sell and how you consistently scale your revenue for a course versus a membership. [00:14:00] Manu: So with a membership you sell once and that sale just repeats itself miraculously every month until people cancel. for me, I open it quarterly. But the thing is when it’s closed, this sales are still coming in and I have time and an energy to making sure I’m delivering excellent product and excellent service, as opposed to be constantly trying to sell and not have the time and energy to put into the people who already bought So you’re basically serving your audience for the long haul and they’re paying less and you’re making more. So it’s basically like everybody wins. [00:14:36] Melissa: it’s a great option. And the membership pricing model can really suit business owners and buyers alike. On the other hand, I would say the same is true for courses. A lot of buyers, like the finite sense of price that comes with a one-time purchase. And as a business owner, you’ll earn money upfront, but you might still earn consistently over time. If you have a payment plan. Again, it’s not the same as a recurring subscription, but I know for my own business, I earn tens of thousands of dollars every month, in course revenue, because a lot of my students have chosen the payment plan option. So I still have consistent revenue coming into my business every single month as a course creator. Now for courses, some might argue that a con is the fact that you do consistently need to enroll new students in order to increase your revenue. But with a membership, although you technically sell only once upfront the same way as you would with a course, you then consistently need to share value because those buyers are going to decide monthly or annually. That it is still worth their money to continue paying you. So the buyer mindset is very different. And it’s worth asking yourself, do I want my buyer to make one decision or several smaller decisions over time? Another consideration in your comparison is your starting number of buyers. You can start a course or a membership with a much smaller audience than you might think. And you really only need a few buyers to get started. But I would say with a membership in particular, it’s worth thinking about how that enrollment count will affect the experience. And if you know, you’ll only be able to enroll a small number of founding members. It could be worth choosing features that suit, that smaller [00:16:23] Manu: the con might be maybe as soon as you launch, you still don’t have enough people. And maybe that group is a little like slow going because if your membership has live sections, whether they are coaching calls or classes, usually it’s like 10% of your members join. You know, if you have under thousand people membership, so maybe 10% of your members, if you have 20 people are gonna be two. And that might be a little awkward, but I think the beginning could be a little challenging and maybe you’re still doing a little bit too much work for how much you’re being paid, but that’s a temporary issue.. [00:16:55] Melissa: This might bring up the question, how large does your first cohort need to be? And the truth is that you don’t need that many students remembers in order to get started. Because every individual buyer and your audience is looking for a solution to their problem. Or resources to help them reach their goals. This brings up another really important point about why people will need your course or your membership, because I’m often asked, well, why would somebody buy my course? If they could just get the information on Google or YouTube? And the answer is that people don’t just need knowledge. They’re also looking for the certainty that they can reach their goal as effectively and painlessly as possible. [00:17:39] Manu: even if it’s something they can learn for free, a lot of times, your course helps them because you are already spend the time curating that information to them. the other thing, and even if I say I’ll find it on Google, a lot of times people need time. Maybe they can find it online bits and pieces, like they rather pay you to just hand deliver to them because they don’t have time to do decoration. And my, template membership has that too, because some people are like, oh, but there’s some good templates in Canva. Why do I need yours? Let’s even say that the quality is the same. , how much time do people really spend. In canvas searching and maybe seeing someone give a tip of like good templates to use and they save that they have to go back and find it And I think that’s important to mention because it’s all how you communicate the value of your offer. Right? for using my templates, as an example, again, a lot of people would be like, I don’t need all these templates. I have enough templates, but if people say that to me, what I’m failing and communicating is that for you to have, have engagement on Instagram, you need to. Inserting different types of content ongoing. You can be like, oh, I have these amazing five types of templates today. I’m gonna use them throughout the end of the year. By the end of the year, your engagement is down so much, you know? So I think communicating the real value is something that people should work better on. I’ve seen people communicating the value of membership of a course, just like learn this, but they’re not understanding the importance of it, the transformation, what they’re gaining and the time they’re saving. [00:19:08] Melissa: Not only is the transformation crucial for your marketing efforts. It’s also the heart of how you might decide, which is right for you. If the transformation your audience is aiming for has a clear finite end milestone. Then of course could be the right solution. But if your audience is working on something on an ongoing basis or developing a practice, it could make more sense to create and sell a membership. There’s no one right or wrong answer. And most topics can probably work well with both formats. But whichever option you choose. Here’s what really matters when it comes to selling digital products. [00:19:47] Manu: The main conversation is create . Something simple and sell it clearly. And with confidence, you know, don’t be afraid of being salesy. Don’t think that you need to over deliver because after seeing all this content, they still need to go and execute. [00:20:00] Melissa: But selling is easier, said than And I know for a lot of my own way and wire students, that the act of putting yourself out there and knowing what to say and how to say it without feeling pushy can be a huge point of stress for a lot of business owners. So, if that sounds familiar, here’s Manu story. Where she shares the powerful reframe that helped her start seeing selling as not only good for her business, but truly of service to her audience. [00:20:25] Manu: After they get into the courses, you see them messaging you and say, I was so stressed out about this, but now like, you know, I have this strategies, like it’s being so helpful. I grew this much more my account, or I’ve been doing this collaborations. And then I’m like, you know, if I’m not telling people about this, I’m doing a disservice to the people that my mission is to help. So if there’s people in that audience that don’t want this, because they’re not interested, why should I try to please the people that are not the right fit And then in detriment to the people that are the right fit that won’t even hear about this, or hear enough about this in time to make a decision. So I just came to terms with it. Honestly, was very clear because once I start seeing all these comments come in of how people are super happy, excited about this it just kind of clicked. And anyone that looks at a business and follows a business, but expect not to be. Promoted to or sold to like they don’t like they know what a business is. They follow you knowing you’re a business. So I think I do a lot of like mindset work with my audience around being salesy. And just to turn that word around and make it a good word and something to be proud of, you know, because we work so hard in our businesses, in our offers, in our content. And then we’re just gonna hide this from people. It’s literally a disservice to your audience. Like if you and I, right now think of people who were pivotal for our success in our businesses, imagine they were afraid of being salesy and we never heard about what they have so I’m really glad that people I able to buy from were not afraid of being salesy. [00:21:53] Melissa: The way I see it selling is my best way to share solutions with my audience. And if I withhold that information, I’m not helping people to the best of my abilities. Now on the other hand, perhaps a personal pet peeve of mine in the online business world is the fact that some people are great at selling, but don’t deliver a high quality product. So thinking about your student or member experience is something crucial that Manu and I both agree on. [00:22:20] Manu: I’ve always put a lot of thought into the experience and having that be a little more fun, even though, like I’m dealing with a lot of people that are stressed out because they’re business owners and they’re very tired so to me matters a lot, like to deliver a little bit of fun and a little bit of light in that experience. Even from the design of my emails and all that, I try to bring that into the table too. So I think we shouldn’t, forget the experience part of, as people go through the course, how we communicate with them, , even your visuals and things like that. But I do think that one, thing that I would challenge people listening to us is that if they’re trying to create a membership or a course. Don’t think about what memberships and courses usually look like created your way, you know, create something new and fresh because I think people are getting a little tired of the same formats, all the time. I think it’s interesting to try to find the balance into what people would expect and what people would understand, because you don’t want a concept that is so crazy that you can even explain. So people buy it, not knowing what they’re getting. So I would encourage people to try to think. Creatively, how to deliver that to people And test things out. Maybe you’re not ready for starting a membership, or course yet you still want to like ask your audience some questions or try some different type of services and get some feedback, get some, testimonials and then just kind of go from there and start shaping what’s best for your audience and for you [00:23:39] Melissa: so to recap courses and memberships can both be great solutions for online business owners. Of course is a one-time sale. And often a larger upfront price point, which can be paid out over a payment plan. There’s a clear outcome that provides a solution for your audience. And the way that you can scale your revenue over time is by continuing to enroll new students. On the other hand, a membership is often If your buyers need support over time, or if they’re working on something consistently, like developing a habit or a practice. Because memberships use a subscription model where your members pay on a recurring, ongoing basis until they cancel. There are two ways you can earn revenue. You can either add new members. Or retain current members and because retention is so crucial, the expectations around how you might create or continue to release new content. Are going to be different for a membership versus a course. If you’re torn between the two, ask yourself, what does my audience need? And what suits me better as a business owner. Both are so important and there’s no right or wrong answer. And in fact, your business may end up having a mix of courses and memberships over So today your decision isn’t about which one is right for . You indefinitely. Instead, you might ask the question, which makes sense for me this quarter or which makes sense for me to focus on right Now, before we go, since Manu is an Instagram expert, I had to ask her to share some of her best tips with us to help you build your business and sell online. We’ll start off with tip number one. Which answers the question. What type of content should I create to best sell my course or my membership on Instagram? [00:25:25] Manu: the big nugget here is too promoted with the type of content your audience liked the most. Like we have Instagram insights for a reason. So go to your insights, see what people . Saved the most. Because they like that content and they wanna keep it. That’s the type of thing you use to promote your membership, Like if you look through my Instagram, and just scroll through my squares, you’re not gonna be able to tell where, and I’m having a campaign because it’s the same type of content that I usually have. But if you go and read the graphics and you go and read the captions, then you know, I’m talking about my campaign. [00:25:55] Melissa: Her second tip might be a little controversial. [00:25:58] Manu: When it comes to selling on Instagram, quantity is more important than quality. and that’s a unpopular opinion I have, but Trust me, it’s based on lots of experience. This is research backed from the eighties, that’s still true today that people don’t just like, oh, heard about me today. Just go and buy this right. They need like many touches. Like maybe if they’re listening to the podcast and they wanna become a member of my templates or whatever they’re gonna go and they’re gonna see my content. Like, there’s a process there, which is good. People are informed, you know, that’s the people you want to get in. But then we expect people to join our membership or buy our course with three Instagram posts and that’s never going to .Happen. For two reasons, first of all, not all your audience is seeing all your posts and all your content. And also people see Instagram differently. Some people may go straight to stories when others are just watching reels. When other people are more old school, looking at your actual feed and grid and going through your posts. [00:26:53] Manu: And then my last one I’ll give is not to hide your pitch to the end of this big life lesson type. Because no one is gonna read the end. Like if it starts, when you were growing up and you went to the beach for the first time and blah, blah, blah, then you go, you know, in the fourth paragraph, you’re like, that’s why I created this course. You lost so many of the few people that are already seeing that post. So be very clear. That’s why I say also like that quantity is more important than quality, because not to say that you shouldn’t have quality. You should do both, but you can make the most perfect reel of 17,000 transitions and that one Rio is not gonna sell a bunch of your membership. But if you have good content, three times, our bad contents, 10 times, you’re gonna sell more of bad content. 10 times. so I think, just be aware that your message needs to be clear, but it also needs to happen often. [00:27:46] Melissa: And if you want more help with instagram or to learn more about Manu and your social team here’s where you can stay in touch [00:27:52] Manu: If you guys wanna learn more about the eight day campaign and get my help to sell with confidence on Instagram, whether it’s your course or membership, or even in your other offer, please find me on Instagram at your social team. And DME, tell me you heard me in the Wit & Wire Podcast and I’ll give you a special. [00:28:10] Melissa: thank you so much for tuning in to this episode of the Wit & Wire Podcast. You’ll find resources to everything mentioned in today’s episode at witandwire.com/45 or you’ll find links in the show notes. If you’re interested in creating and selling your own online course. You can download a free guide to all of my favorite tools and equipment@wnyr.com slash course toolkit. You can also keep in touch with Wit & Wire on TikTok, Instagram, or YouTube @witandwire. I’m Melissa Guller and a huge thank you again for tuning in. I’ll see you soon!

Today’s guest expert

Today’s guest is Manu Muraro (Your Social Team). Manu helps ethical brands with a sense of humor grow engagement in sales on Instagram and not worry too much about every single piece of advice they’re getting. She’s sold both courses and memberships and currently runs a seven-figure membership, so she’s here to help weigh the pros and cons of each strategy.

Your Social Team | @yoursocialteam | Melody DiCroce’s business: The Launch Library

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