Membership websites are often considered one of the best approaches for making money online. The recurring revenue generated by a successful membership website is an obvious reason that these sites are so desirable, but the truth is that running a membership website is not easy. Many customers are hesitant to sign up for on-going payments, so you’ll need to offer something that makes the recurring fee a worthwhile expense for your members. And in order to keep members you’ll need to work to add new, and valuable, content on a regular basis.
While getting and keeping members is certainly a challenges, it’s the technical aspects of setting up a membership site that present the biggest problems for most entrepreneurs who are looking to go this route.
A membership website needs to be able to do a few key things:
- Allow new members to sign up
- Process payments at the time of sign up and any recurring payments
- Integrate the member accounts with the appropriate payments
- Restrict access to protected content for anyone other than active logged in members
- Provide active logged in members with the appropriate access to protected content
There are obviously other functions as well, but these are the basics. So if you want to start a membership website, how do you go about getting this set up? Of course, you could use a custom solution, but that would be very costly and/or time consuming. For the vast majority of people setting up membership websites the best option is to use an existing script or plugin that provides all of the needed functionality.
Finding the right option to power your membership website can be a challenge, but the good news is that there are more quality options than there were just a few years ago. Here are some of the leading options:
aMember Pro – aMember is a powerful, feature-rich solution that can integrate with a wide variety of content management systems. It’s probably the most popular option, in large part because it can be used with WordPress, Drupal, Joomla, Magento, phpBB, vBulletin, and much more. The down side of aMember is that it can be a little complicated to set up and it can be much more than is needed for some projects. The current cost for aMember is $179.95 for lifetime access with 6 months of free updates.
Wishlist Member – Wishlist Member is a popular WordPress plugin that allows you to add membership functionality to a WordPress-powered website. Wishlist Member, like other WordPress membership plugins, makes it very quick and easy to get membership functionality added to your site. While Wishlist Member is probably the most popular WordPress membership plugin, it’s not my favorite. I’ve used it on client websites but I prefer a few of the other options that I’ll mention in just a minute. That being said, Wishlist Member can get the job done. The cost of Wishlist Member is $97 for a single site license with 1 year of updates and support.
Restrict Content Pro – Restrict Content Pro is another WordPress membership plugin, and it is one that I prefer for basic membership sites. I find it to be more user-friendly and to function a little better than Wishlist Member, from my experience. The cost of a single site license is $42.
Member Mouse – Member Mouse is a robust and feature-rich WordPress membership plugin. I have tested Member Mouse just to try it out, but haven’t used it on a live site. From the limited experience that I have with it I would recommend Member Mouse if the features and functionality are a good fit for your needs. It’s very user-friendly and includes some functionality that you won’t find in most other membership plugins. Member Mouse involves a monthly fee, starting at $19.95 for sites with up to 1,000 members.
Cart66 Cloud – Cart66 is a WordPress e-commerce plugin that has been around for several years, but Cart66 Cloud was just released earlier this year. Cart66 Cloud is a combination of a WordPress plugin and a hosted shopping cart. It includes both standard e-commerce and membership functionality, and the checkout is hosted by Cart66, so you won’t have to worry about SSL or other security issues. I’ve used Cart66 Cloud for several months now and I recommend it for sites where you want to sell individual products as well as offer membership. It’s not easy to find a good system that can support membership and an e-commerce site in one, so Cart66 Cloud stands out. It currently costs $25 per month.
Which Membership Platform is Right for You?
In the rest of this article we’ll take a look at things that you need to consider before choosing a membership platform, and we’ll also look at how the different options listed above will fit with these technical details of your site. There are obviously more options aside from just the 5 covered in this article, but these are some of the more popular options and to keep it simple we’ll stick with them.
Things to Consider Before Starting Your Membership Website
It’s important to think about how you want the site to function before jumping into it. With membership websites there are some details that you might not think about right away if you don’t have experience with these types of sites, and that is what I want to address in this article. Of course, some things can be changed later on, but with membership sites more so than other types of sites, making changes in the future can be very time consuming, costly, or impossible. It’s critical that you take the time to set it up properly from the start. Things like moving to another platform or changing the details of how the membership works can prove to be quite cumbersome later.
What Type of Content Will You Be Publishing, And What Will You Need to Protect?
There are a lot of different possibilities for membership websites. Will your site be a members-only forum? A blog with members-only posts? A site with products that can only be downloaded by members? The type of site and the content that is published may be a factor in deciding which platform to use. For example, aMember can integrate with lots of different CMSs and scripts, but the other options that I mentioned are WordPress plugins, so of course they will need to be used only with WordPress-powered websites. WordPress is capable of being used for forums, but specific forum scripts will usually be a better choice if that is the type of site that you will be building. So in this case, aMember would probably be a better solution.
Will your membership site protect video content? Most websites will host videos at YouTube or Vimeo and embed them into the site or blog, but if you’re looking to protect your videos so that only members can access them, that adds complexity. In this case you’ll probably want to self-host the videos so that you have maximum control over who sees them and who doesn’t.
Will you protect full pages or categories? If you’re protecting certain content so that only members can see the protected content, you’ll have a few options. You can protect the entire page, post, or in some cases category so that only active members can access it. Or, you can make the page itself unprotected with only a certain part of the content protected. For example, you could leave the page unprotected so anyone can access it and read the intro to an article, but the main body of the article can be protected for members only.
Will you protect download links? In some cases your membership site may need to include links for members to download certain products or resources. If this is the case you’ll, of course, need to protect those links.
aMember integrates with a lot of different CMSs and scripts. WordPress users can protect any complete page, post, or category from the aMember protection panel. Alternately, any specific content in a page (including download links and videos) can be protected by the use of a shortcode.
Wishlist Member, Restrict Content Pro, Member Mouse and Cart66 Cloud all allow you to protect any complete page or post. And you can use shortcodes within the page or post to protect anything like video, downloads, or specific sections of content.
What Content Will Be Unprotected?
Most membership websites protect specific content, but not the entire site. For example, at Vandelay Premier we protect download links for members only, but everything else is visible to anyone. Some other sites may offer an excerpt and then protect the full article.
Before setting up your membership site you’ll need to think about what you want to protect and what you want to be available to all visitors. Keep in mind that having certain content that is unprotected can help for attracting search engine traffic, and it will also impact visitors decisions about whether or not to sign up. For example, at Vandelay Premier we leave all of the content except download links unprotected for a reason. Visitors are able to see preview images of the products/resources, which is critical to getting new members to sign up. If people couldn’t see those preview images to know what products and resources they would get by signing up, they probably wouldn’t sign up.
The good news is that all of the options that are being covered in this post will give you a great deal of flexibility here. Because you can protect entire pages/posts or just use shortcodes to protect specific content, you can leave whatever you want as unprotected. If you want to leave images and/or excerpts to be visible by anyone, just leave the page unprotected and use a shortcode to protect the members-only content.
Will You Need Different Levels of Membership?
Some membership websites will have only one level of membership, but others may have multiple levels. The different levels can be used as an upsell to offer something additional to those who sign up for the higher-priced membership levels.
For example, a site may offer Silver, Gold, and Platinum membership levels. Silver members may get access to written content, Gold members may get access to written content and videos, and Platinum members may get access to written content, videos, and exclusive forums.
With most membership platforms you will be able to add new membership levels later if you decide to, but it’s helpful to think about this ahead of time for planning the types of content that you want to offer, and also how the site will be set up. You won’t want to remove access later, so think about it in advance. For example, if you set up the site with one membership level that includes access to written content and videos and you decide later that you want to add a second level at a higher price, you won’t want to remove the video access for your current members. So make sure that you think this through before setting up.
aMember, Wishlist Member, Restrict Content Pro, Member Mouse, and Cart66 Cloud all allow you to set up an unlimited number of membership levels.
Will Members Have Lifetime Access, or for a Limited Period of Time?
Membership websites generally involve recurring payments, but not always. Sometimes the member may make a payment when they sign up that gives them lifetime access. Obviously, before you start you’ll want to think about how you want to set up your site. Lifetime access is attractive to customers, but recurring payments are what can really make membership websites profitable for the site owner.
Part of this decision will probably come down to the type of content that you’re offering to members, and if you will be adding new content. For example, at Vandelay Premier we add new resources for members just about every day. If you’re adding new content it’s logical that members will need to make recurring payments in order to keep their membership active. If your membership site is selling access to a series of videos but it’s unlikely that you’ll add new videos or other content in the future, members may not be interested in paying recurring fees to keep that access, so lifetime access might make sense here.
Another option is to use different membership levels to offer a few options to members when they sign up. You could offer a lifetime membership at a higher price than the regular membership. For example, Elegant Themes offers Personal and Developer membership levels that involve annual recurring fees in order to maintain an active membership. They also offer a Lifetime membership that will always be active for a one-time fee that is equal to about 2.75 times the cost of an annual Developers membership.
aMember, Wishlist Member, Restrict Content Pro, Member Mouse, and Cart66 Cloud all allow you to create membership levels with lifetime access or to re-bill at specific intervals.
Will You Drip Content?
Membership sites sometimes “drip” content to members rather than allowing all of the protected content to be accessible as soon as a member signs up. For example, if you are selling access to an online course you could set it up so that different sections of the course, whether it be text or video content, only become accessible to members a certain number of days after they signed up. So at the time of signup they could get access to the first lesson, a day later they are able to access the second lesson, and so on.
Dripping content can be helpful with some types of membership sites, but it’s not necessary for all. It’s possible to use content drips to help retain members and encourage them to keep their membership, and it’s also helpful for preventing information overload if your site offers large amounts of content to members. However, members will often prefer to be able to get access to everything right away, so it’s something to consider on a case-by case basis.
aMember, Wishlist Member, Member Mouse, and Cart66 Cloud all offer the option to drip content, although they each do it their own way. aMember handles it basically as described above, but they refer to it as Incremental Content Delivery in their documentation. Wishlist Member allows for what they call Sequential Upgrades. To use this you will set up multiple membership levels and members will be automatically and sequentially upgraded from one membership level to another according to how you set it up. You control the details of the membership levels and the intervals, and then you’ll protect the content according to membership level so that the content is dripped. Member Mouse allows you to set up a “drip content schedule” that controls members’ access to content. Cart66 Cloud allows you to deny access for a specific number of days after the subscription starts. You’ll just enter the number of days in the protection settings or in the shortcode.
Restrict Content Pro does not offer content drip functionality.
Will You Offer a Free Trial or Limited Free Memberships?
Some membership sites use free trials of limited free memberships in order to get people to try it out and ultimately to increase paid signups. With a free trial you’ll be offering full membership access (or access limited to a specific level) for a specified period of time before a payment needs to be made. For example, you could offer a 7-day trial that gives users access to your basic membership level for free, and then there membership will be de-activated unless they pay to keep it active.
The other alternative is to set up a free membership level that will remain free for life, or for an extended period of time, but this membership level will not include all of the benefits or access of the level paying members would get. Either way, you can use the free access as a way to encourage people to try your site.
Of course, you don’t want to give away too much that the user will no longer have a need for a paid membership. Be careful with free trials that provide full access. These trials can be very effective with some types of websites but counterproductive with others. For example, if your membership site offers hundreds or thousands of hours of video content, there is no way that people would be able to watch the majority of it with just a one-day unlimited free trial. They would be able to get a taste for what the site has to offer, but they wouldn’t be able to watch enough of the content that they would have no need for the paid membership. On the other hand if your site offers unlimited downloads to members, offering even a one-day free trial with full access could allow people to use the free trial to go through the site and download everything. Then they would have no need for a paid membership. A better option here would be to use a free membership level that doesn’t expire, but it only gives access to download certain things.
Free membership levels can be created with aMember, Wishlist Member, Restrict Content Pro, Member Mouse, and Cart66 Cloud. Free trials are supported by aMember, Wishlist Member, Restrict Content Pro, and Member Mouse. Cart66 Cloud does not support free trials.
Will You Be Selling One-Off Products?
Some membership sites offer products for sale individually in addition to offering membership. Our Vandelay Premier is an example. At Vandelay Premier you can buy products individually or you can get a membership that provides unlimited access to all products. It’s not uncommon for sites to offer a combination of regular e-commerce purchases and membership, but finding a system to suit your needs can be a real challenge. With Vandelay Premier we use aMember to manage memberships and E-Junkie to process individual purchases. Using two different systems is not ideal, but at the time the site was launched there weren’t any good options that could do everything we needed.
With aMember you set up “products” that you may or may not use as actual memberships. For example, several WordPress theme shops, like ThemeFuse, use aMember to sell themes individually and to sell club membership that provides access to all themes. So it is possible to use aMember for things aside from traditional memberships, but it has been created specifically with memberships in mind. aMember would not be an ideal solution for a site that needs to sell hundreds or thousands of different products in addition to membership.
Member Mouse allows you to create products as well as memberships, and they also include some interesting features like 1-click upsells and save-the-sale downsells. However, like aMember, Member Mouse is primarily a membership platform. While it can be used to sell products in addition to membership it is not an ideal solution for a site that will have hundreds or thousands of products.
Cart66 Cloud is, in my opinion, easily the best option for most sites that want to sell products and memberships. It can be used for typical e-commerce sites and also also handles memberships and subscriptions. As far as the membership aspect is concerned, it doesn’t have every single feature that you might get with some of the options, but it does do all of the essential things like managing member accounts, recurring payments, and restricting access to content.
Wishlist Member and Restrict Content Pro strictly manage memberships and do not support the sale of other products.
What Payment Gateway Will You Use?
There are a lot of different options when it comes to payment gateways. Popular choices include PayPal, Stripe, Authorize.net, and 2Checkout. Each membership platform will integrate with different gateways, so be sure to consider this when deciding on a platform.
aMember integrates with a huge number of payment gateways, but not all of them support recurring billing.
Wishlist Member currently integrates with PayPal, 1ShoppingCart, Clickbank, Infusionsoft, Premium Web Cart, QuickPayPro, and Red Oak Cart.
Restrict Content Pro uses PayPal for all payments. You can purchase add-on plugins to use PayPal Pro/Express and Stripe.
Cart66 Cloud currently supports 48 different payment gateways. See the list here. Cart66 Cloud allows recurring payments with any of these supported gateways.
Will You Have an Affiliate Program?
One of the best ways to market your membership website and to increase signups and revenue is to offer an affiliate program. With an affiliate program other website owners and bloggers can promote your membership website for you, and they’ll be paid a commission for each sale that they refer.
aMember includes a built-in affiliate program that you can configure.
Wishlist Member can be integrated with iDevAffiliate to run an affiliate program. Alternatively, if you’re using Clickbank or 1ShoppingCart as the payment gateway for Wishlist Member they have built-in affiliate programs.
Member Mouse includes built-in affiliate tracking and also integrates with iDevAffiliate.
Cart66 Cloud easily integrates with iDevAffiliate.
Are You Looking for a Platform with One-Time Cost or a Monthly Cost?
One last thing to consider is the way that you want to pay for the membership platform. None of the options covered in this article are free, and each one has it’s own pricing details.
aMember costs $179.95 for lifetime access with 6 months of upgrades included. The lifetime access sounds nice, but in reality you will need to upgrade your installation of aMember for security purposes. You will need to purchase renewal licenses beyond that initial 6 month period when you need the upgrade.
Wishlist Member costs $97 for a single site license that comes with 1 year of support and upgrades. If you need upgrades after the initial year (which you will in order to keep your WordPress site up-to-date) you’ll pay $47 per year for those upgrades.
Restrict Content Pro costs $42 for a single-site license with 1 year of upgrades. You’ll need to purchase another license when you need an upgrade beyond that 1 year.
Member Mouse comes with a monthly fee rather than a one-time license fee. The starting price is $19.95 per month to support up to 1,000 members at your site (they offer a 14-day free trial).
Cart66 Cloud also charges a monthly fee, and it uses a hosted shopping cart, and the monthly fee is pretty typical for a hosted solution. The current price is $25 per month, and that is a flat price with no increased pricing if you have a high number of members or products.
Although pricing and licensing details are a factor that you’ll want to consider, the truth is that if you’re managing an active membership site you will have some ongoing costs for the membership platform with any of these options, especially if you are using WordPress. If you’re using Member Mouse or Cart66 Cloud you’ll obviously have the monthly fee, but even if you use aMember, Wishlist Member, of Restrict Content Pro you will eventually need to upgrade to a new version of the plugin and you’ll need to buy the license in order to do that. Since WordPress releases several new upgrades each year, the plugins will also have to release upgrades in order to maintain compatibility and possibly to support new features of WordPress. And of course, the plugins will also need to release upgrades for security patches and bug fixes. So don’t plan to buy a license and never pay again for the membership platform because you will need to pay to keep it up-to-date.
Paying a license fee will usually be preferred over a monthly fee, but there are benefits to using Member Mouse and Cart66 Cloud that make the monthly fee a justifiable expense. From the limited experience I had with Member Mouse I found the support to be very good and very fast. It also has some features that you won’t find with any of the other options, so although it is not right for everyone, it can be a good option even with the monthly fee.
Likewise, I’ve found the Cart66 Cloud support to be good, and with the other features and functionality that it offers I have no problem with a monthly fee. However, you’ll need to consider your own situation and your specific site.
Conclusion and Recommendations
Hopefully this article has helped you to think about some important details before starting your membership site. We’ve covered the details of 5 good options for managing your site, and here are a few conclusions. Keep in mind, this is just the opinion of one person who has used or tried these 5 options, your situation may be different.
Best Options for…
A non-WordPress website: aMember
If your membership website will be a forum of will use some CMS aside from WordPress, take a look at aMember. It integrates with a ton of different systems which makes it pretty versatile.
A site that is a combination of e-commerce and membership: Cart66 Cloud
No other option offers the same combination of features for a traditional e-commerce site and for membership. I currently use it on a site and I strongly prefer it to using separate systems for membership and individual purchases.
A membership site that doesn’t need a ton of features: Restrict Content Pro
This is a great option that works well and is user-friendly. It doesn’t offer all the features of some of the other plugins, but if you’re not going to use those features they can just cause bloat.
A large membership site that needs some advanced features: Member Mouse
The monthly price will turn off some people who don’t need all the features, but Member Mouse includes some functionality that can help to make a membership site highly profitable. Things like 1-click upsells, save-the-sale downsells, dripped content, and engagement statistics make it a great option for those who will put these features to good use.
These aren’t the only options for membership websites. Some other popular options include:
- Digital Access Pass (WordPress Plugin)
- MemberWing (WordPress Plugin)
- WP eMember (WordPress Plugin)
- MagicMembers (WordPress Plugin)
- s2Member (WordPress Plugin)
What’s your experience? Do you have any recommendations?
Please note: All of the information in this post is intended to be accurate, but things like features, functions, and prices can change any time, so please verify any information on your own before making a purchase.