Marketing strategist Lynn Serafinn shares the pros and cons of setting up and running a membership website, and compares two plug-ins that could do the job.
This article is adapted from ideas presented in Chapter 13 of the book The Social Entrepreneur’s Guide to Successful Blogging by Lynn Serafinn (coming November 2015).
One of the most compelling applications for a WordPress blog is using it as a membership site. Many of my clients come to me curious about this, wondering how they can start one and integrate it into their business. But speaking from personal experience, membership sites are kind of like that puppy dog you got for Christmas as a kid – after the novelty wears off, you realise you have to take care of this little lifeform that has been placed in your lap. If you don’t, the results are devastating.
Back in 2009, membership sites were ‘all the rage’. Then, people started to see they weren’t the simple, flip-the-switch-and-they’ll-make-you-rich business solution they had imagined. Membership sites do NOT create instant streams of the ever-elusive ‘passive income’. Membership sites are hard work. They are hard to set up, hard to develop, hard to grow and hard to keep up!
My Spirit Authors site started out as a membership site, which I launched around the end of 2009. Fortunately, I had a good tech team who at least took that burden off my shoulders; but I very quickly realised I could not keep up with the workload of the content creation, let alone the customer care.
Then, a funny thing happened. People from the membership site started asking if they could be private clients. If I took them on, the income I would receive would be a lot more than I was making from membership fees. But it was not humanly possible to take on this bigger client load while simultaneously managing the membership site. I had to make a choice: where was I going to put my time, money and attention? So after spending a year-and-a-half on it, and investing many thousands in development, the membership site was abandoned.
A membership site is not a money-machine. The clue is in the name: membership site. It is a collection of people. You don’t just set it up, take people’s money, give them some content and walk away. They are there for an experience. They want something, and you have a duty of care to give it to them. Back when I first set up my Spirit Authors site, I attended a training session with the developers of WishList Member. The one thing they said repeatedly to our group was:
‘People COME to your site for the content, but they STAY for the community.’
If you’re not ready to put your whole self into building community through your membership site, don’t bother starting one in the first place. And if you do start one, don’t dream of trying to do it by yourself. You will need help – in tech, admin, customer/member support and marketing. You might also need help with content creation. If you have an affiliate programme, you’ll need someone to take care of that, too.
The bottom line is this: a membership site is not a product; it’s a business. As such, it doesn’t just need good content; it needs a business model, a marketing plan and a team of people who know what they need to do and how to do it. You might be the world’s greatest teacher or trainer in a particular area of expertise, but unless you have all your ducks lined up in a row to make your membership site work, it (and possibly you) will crash and burn.
That said, a membership site can be one of the most exciting ways to do business, and has tremendous potential to be a rewarding, long-term source of income that spreads your message and helps other people – and as a social entrepreneur, that’s why you went into business in the first place.
So don’t let my words of warning put you off completely. Take time to consider carefully whether a membership site could become the foundation of your business. Speak to others who have done it successfully. Spend time planning not just your content, but your long-term business plan.
While you’re envisioning all that, let’s look at two contrasting WordPress plug-ins that can be used to turn your blog into a membership site.
- Function: Enables you to set up a membership site on your WordPress blog
- How to get it: http://bit.ly/LynnWLM (my affiliate link)
- COST: One-time fee of $197 for single site; $297 for unlimited sites (as of this writing)
I used WishList Member to build my own membership site in 2009 – 2010, and used it constantly for about two years to deliver courses on writing and book marketing to authors. I got to know it very well during that time. However, I am sure it has evolved since the last time I used it, because the developers were very pro-active about making it better and better.
WishList Member (WLM) is what I would call a ‘rigorous’ piece of software, meaning it can do a lot. But like any high-performing software, there is always a learning curve. Back in in 2009, I did a training programme with them, intending to become a certified developer for the software. After several months, while I admittedly learned a lot, I decided I didn’t want to spend my time working
as a tech for my clients when I should be helping them on marketing strategies.
However, the training gave me not only a good handle on the capabilities of the programme, but also the many different approaches to designing online membership programmes and why you might choose one over another.
Some of the key features that made WLM so rigorous included:
- Great flexibility to create multiple membership levels
- Ability to ‘drip-feed’ content over a specified period of time
- Ability to ‘graduate’ members automatically from one level to another
- Customisable navigation widgets for each membership level
- Integration with PayPal and many other shopping carts
- Integration with pretty much all auto-responders
- Integration with some affiliate systems, e.g. ClickBank, 1ShoppingCart and iDev Affiliate (although, back then, I had some difficulty making iDev affiliate work properly with it)
- Integration with Simple:Press forum software (but I have to confess, while it worked well once it was set up, it was a nightmare to configure)
To give you an example of how this worked for me, on my Spirit Authors site my intention was to have five different training modules, each with ten lessons (in actuality, I only completed two of the originally planned five, as they were the ones that generated the most interest). To make the training effective, it was important to be able space out (‘drip-feed’) the lessons one week at a time, rather than give members access to all of the content at once. This allowed participants time to complete the ‘homework’ on the training, and it kept them more motivated than if they had been given a huge amount of work to do in one go. I also wanted to coordinate this progression with their access to different levels of the forum, i.e. if they were on week 1 of the course, they could access the week 1 forum; if they were on week 2 of the course, they could access the forums for both weeks 1 and 2, and so on.
‘Drip-feeding’ lessons in this way also enabled me to build a trial period into the courses, to encourage people to give them a test drive before fully committing to them. I wanted to offer the first lesson to people for a fee of $1. After seven days, if they wanted to continue with additional lessons, they would be billed for the full amount of the course. This would be good for my customers, but it would also be good for my business: it would encourage more people to try it out, and it prevented people from joining the site, downloading all the content, and then disappearing.
This meant, just to deliver two modules of lessons, my software needed to be able to create at least twenty membership levels, which could automatically progress at set intervals. It also meant I needed to be able to hide and reveal content as members progressed through these levels, and to lock/unlock access to different areas of the forum automatically (done with ‘member roles’, which is not the same thing as membership levels). Lastly, it meant I needed a way to manage automated payment after the trial period was over, and to restrict access to the content if payment wasn’t made.
If it sounds complex…it was! In the end, I actually asked someone else on the developer’s programme to help me (she later went on to join our team, creating all the web pages for our book launch clients). However, it got done and, for the most part, it all worked. There were a few hiccups with affiliate integration and restricting access if payment wasn’t made at the end of trial period, but it was nothing we couldn’t work around with the modest number of members we had.
While it took a while to figure out how to get WLM to do all the things I wanted it to do, once it was configured (and the few hiccups aside), it was rock-solid. I also thought their training materials were excellent and their support team were extremely responsive.
I wish to stress that I have not used WLM for the past few years. I am sure they have evolved and improved, and that their integration capabilities have changed. If you check them out at the link above, you’ll be able to read more and you can also see some demo videos they have showing different features. They have a 30-day refund policy, should you want to try it out. However, I strongly recommend that you have a good idea of what you want to do with it before buying, and that you hire someone who has worked with it to help you get it configured.
- Function: Enables you to set up a membership site on your WordPress blog
- How to get it: Purchase at http://bit.ly/LynnWPeMember (my affiliate link)
- COST: One-time fee of $59.95 (as of this writing) for multi-site license and unlimited free updates.
- DISCOUNT: There is a 20% discount if you buy their eStore and eMember plug-in together (scroll down their page to see how to do this.
I have never used eMember, so I cannot speak about it from experience. However, I mention it here because I have used and been very satisfied with other products created by the same developers, Tips and Tricks HQ (such WordPress eStore and WordPress Affiliate Platform).
On the surface, eMember seems very similar in functionality to WishList Member, at a significantly lower price. Both have unlimited membership levels and enable you to set up an ‘auto upgrade’ to move from one level to another. Both can integrate with bbPress or other WordPress forum plug-ins that utilise ‘roles’ to manage access.
The primary difference in function appears to be with shopping carts, auto-responders and affiliate programmes. At present, the only auto-responders eMember works with are AWeber, MailChimp and GetResponse, and the only compatible payment systems are PayPal and ClickBank (although you can expand this if you integrate it with their eStore plug-in). The only affiliate programme it works with is their own Affiliate Platform plug-in.
On that note, one of the primary advantages of eMember IS the fact that it can integrate with their other software packages, such as WordPress eStore and WordPress Affiliate Platform. In my experience, when software packages are designed by the same programmers, they tend to work more smoothly with each other than those created by different companies.
If you already have an e-commerce set-up or affiliate programme of your own, or if you use a different auto-responder system, you’ll probably need WishList Member to create a membership site. But if you’re looking to create all of these things on your site, are happy with PayPal or ClickBank, and you use one of the auto-responders eMember supports, you might look into buying all three of their products as a bundle. The lower price and the fact that they automatically give you a multi-site license are both good incentives. As I said, I cannot speak from experience about this product, but I’d be willing to give it a shot, given my satisfaction with their other products.
Exploring Other Membership Alternatives
The two plug-ins I have mentioned are by no means the be-all and end-all of membership plug-ins. There are many others you might wish to consider.
You might be interested to look at a FREE membership plug-in called Paid Memberships Pro, but according to reviews I’ve read, it does not allow you to ‘drip-feed’ your content (which I think is essential).
Apart from WishList Member and eMember, the other three most frequently mentioned premium options I have read about are Exchange from iThemes, MemberPress and Restrict Content Pro (I have not personally tested any of these). Remember that while some of the more advanced features of these plug-ins may be ‘the’ selling point for some WordPress users, it doesn’t necessarily mean you need them all. I should also advise you to read the fine print before buying, as some of these plug-ins are available only by annual subscription, not for a one-off fee.
Setting up a membership site is going to be a big investment of your time (if not money), and you really only want to have to do it ONCE. I strongly suggest shopping around before purchasing. Read reviews and sales pages with some degree of caution, as they might not always be 100% objective. Carefully check out the screenshots, demo videos and FAQ section on their sites. Asking other people who have used these plug-ins can also be very useful, as they’re more likely to tell you what went wrong as well as what went right.
Hopefully this brief tour of the kinds of features you might be looking for will aid you in making an informed decision, and your plug-in will help you design exactly the kind of membership site you want to create. And please don’t be discouraged by what might seem like the overwhelming responsibility of it all. Like that puppy you got at Christmas, your membership site will give back to you, too.
All you need to do is care for it…and for your members.
If you’re thinking about building your blog – or you’re just interested in exploring ways to grow and market your ethical business online – I’d love to hear from you to see if and how our services can help you. Drop us a line via the contact form on this website, with a little information about your business and what kind of help you require, and I’ll be in touch with you as soon as I can.
17 July 2015
This article was adapted from ideas presented in Chapter 13 of the book The Social Entrepreneur’s Guide to Successful Blogging by Lynn Serafinn (coming November 2015). To download a free blogging template based on ideas in the book, and receive a reminder when the book comes out, go to http://the7gracesofmarketing.com/blogging-book.
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Find out more about how changing the paradigm can help make the world a better place:
The 7 Graces of Marketing: how to heal humanity and the planet by changing the way we sell, by Lynn Serafinn, where you can learn how the 7 Deadly Sins and the 7 Graces impact the world through media and marketing. Brit Writers Awards Finalist eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian & Ecological Social Issues
Tweep-e-licious: 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market Their Business Ethically by Lynn Serafinn, which can help you learn how to create meaningful collaborations through Twitter and other social media. eLit Book Awards Bronze Medal in Business and Sales.
Get instant access to a free 90-minute Twitter marketing class at http://tweepelicious.com
The Social Entrepreneur’s Guide to Successful Blogging: An Effective, Creative & Ethical Way of Marketing for Visionaries & New Paradigm Business Leaders. To receive an update when that book is available, just click here. As a thank-you gift for showing your interest, you’ll get instant access to an exclusive, free 5-page PDF revealing the exact same blogging template we use with our clients and we teach to participants on the ethical marketing training courses at the 7 Graces Project.
LYNN SERAFINN, MAED, CPCC is a certified, award-winning coach, teacher, marketing strategist, social media expert, speaker and author of the number one bestseller The 7 Graces of Marketing — How to Heal Humanity and the Planet by Changing the Way We Sell and Tweep-e-licious! 158 Twitter Tips & Strategies for Writers, Social Entrepreneurs & Changemakers Who Want to Market their Business Ethically. She is listed in the Top 20 of the Top Marketing Authors on Twitter by Social Media Magazine and was a finalist for the prestigious Brit Writers Awards. She also received the eLit Book Awards Silver Medal in Humanitarian and Ecological Social Affairs, as well as the Bronze Medal in Business and Sales. Lynn’s eclectic approach to marketing incorporates her vast professional experience in the music industry and the educational sector along with more than two decades of study and practice of the spirituality of India. Her innovative marketing campaigns have produced a long list of bestselling non-fiction authors through her company Spirit Authors.
Lynn is also the Founder of the 7 Graces Project, created to train, support, mentor and inspire independent business owners to market their business ethically, serve society and planet, and restore all that is best about humanity.