A membership website is one that has a set of specific users/members who have access to some or all of the website’s content when they are logged in. A membership site may be free for all or approved users/members; however, the more typical, commercial membership website requires payment to become and/or maintain membership.
WordPress out-of-the-box is not set up to be this type of membership system. Luckily, there are a number of free and premium membership plugins available for WordPress. Membership websites can be complex, so it is worth considering what functionality you really need when evaluating the features of these plugins.
I recently launched a complex membership website, The Total Wellness Challenge. This is a multi-site installation and also has custom integration with BuddyPress. I worked with WordPress developer Tom Ransom, of One Big Idea, to create a game that members play and log points every day and share reflections. MemberPress allowed us to create a custom plugin that connects Membership Levels with BuddyPress Groups. We looked at many membership plugins, and while others may have worked as well, this one seemed to offer the ability to extend and customize the functionality we needed. This is an example of how far a membership site can go, and how awesome WordPress is to present the ability to create anything you can imagine.
You can turn just about any website into a membership system. The question is how will you build it?
TL;DR Paid Membership Pro, iThemes Exchange + Memberships Add On and MemberPress have similar functionality, but MemberPress is the least user-friendly for a beginner WordPress user.
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“The real problem with most membership plugins for WordPress is that …
- they don’t integrate with any other solutions
- they have really poor support
- they only plan to ever do the thing they wanted to when they wrote it”
– Chris Lema
Basic Set Up
For any membership website, there are some basic first steps in the process that may help identify if a specific plugin is going to work for you. Here is an outline of questions to ask before beginning your membership website, and a flowchart to help you think through the process.
General Set Up
- How are pages assigned to membership content? (ie. Join, Login, Account)
- Are they automatically created for you? Are they easy to access/edit?
- What payment options are available and how are they configured?
- Is recurring membership/payment included?
- Is it easy to configure redirects (ie Where are users sent after they register/join? After they log in)?
Membership Level Set Up
- Can each membership level have its own Thank you page/message?
- How are non-logged in members able to log in?
- How are non-members able to join or what message do they get if membership is closed?
- Is it easy to add or remove members manually in the back end?
- How is content protected from non-members?
- What is the message presented when a non-logged in member tries to access protected content?
- What options are presented (Log In/Join/Register)?
- Is it easy to identify membership content in the navigation/menu?
- Is it easy to add or remove members, or change their membership level?
Choosing the “Right” Membership Plugin
Thanks to the wonderful Open Source nature of WordPress, there are a lot of options for building a membership plugin. Chris Lema recently reviewed 30 Membership plugins. I won’t tackle 30… but here are three plugins I have tried, and what they each have to offer.
This is an easy-to-use plugin that is fhttp://www.paidmembershipspro.com/ target=ree for the basic level and includes recurring membership, coupons and many Add Ons for advanced functionality. You can set up memberships in any way you wish and can include trial periods, too. There is a PMPro Membership available that provides a year’s worth of developer support and access to member forums for $97.
General Set Up
PmPro gives you the option to have the plugin automatically create associated pages for you. This is recommended and makes the process easy. Once the pages are created, you can edit the content on these pages or go with what comes as the default.*
Membership Level Set Up
Recurring memberships are easily set up in Paid Memberships Pro, as well as turning off registration or setting an expiration period on registration/sign ups.
*I like that PmPro by default puts a Login AND a Register button on a protected page that is accessed by non-logged in members. If the membership is closed, the Register button does not appear. Drip content is available with an Add On.
Menu items are easy to add since the pages are created in the basic set up. You can just add the pages within Appearance>Menu.
PmPro also gives you easy access to you member list and adding or removing members manually is intuitive.
Here’s what Chris Lema had to say about Paid Memberships Pro.
iThemes offers a number of popular WordPress plugins and tools, including BackUp Buddy and iThemes Security. iThemes Exchange is their e-commerce offering. While the basic plugin is free, the Membership Add On is $97 per year. A better value is to purchase the Pro Pack ($197/year), which includes many other useful, and in many cases, necessary, Add Ons – the list is quite extensive.
General Set Up
- Exchange offers a Set Up Wizard which walks you through the first steps of choosing what type of product you are selling, payment options and admin settings.
- Joining/purchasing a membership is a two step process for new users. First they have to register by creating a username and password, they can access the option to purchase a membership. This can be overridden if the “Guest Checkout” Add On is enabled.
Membership Level Set Up
Setting up Membership in Exchange is actually setting up a Product, since this is an e-commerce platform. This allows you to add an image and a detailed description if this applies, or you can remove the default image and text inserted by Exchange. Exchange also allows Drip content, so you can set some content to be made available to members at a timeframe you establish within the Product/Membership Level.
It is easy to protect content with Exchange. You can either set this within the Product/Membership or on the Page/Post itself.
Menu items are easy to add since the membership levels are treated as Products. You can just add the pages within Appearance>Menu.
Viewing a list of members is easy once you realize this is found under Users>Members. Adding and removing members manually is a bit tedious compared to Paid Memberships Pro; you need to access the user’s purchase history to edit their membership transaction.
Other Cool Stuff
OH, and out-of-the-box, the notification email from Exchange is kind of fun (Yabba Dabba Doo!):
Here’s what Chris Lema had to say about iThemes Exchange Membership.
(Chris Lema’s #1 rated membership plugin) is a very powerful software and plugin combo for WordPress. What MemberPress claims to offer is simplicity. According to the plugin’s description, there isn’t any page flow setup involved and you won’t have to copy and paste a ton of information here and there. While the extendability and power of MemberPress is useful for some advanced situations, (like The Total Wellness Challenge), compared to the other two membership plugins I reviewed, I found MemberPress required more thought in terms of set up, and a few more manual steps that someone without html and WordPress website experience might find challenging. With that said, their support is excellent and the most prompt and helpful of any plugin I have used.
The basic “Business” plan is $99/year and includes use on one site. The “Developer” plan is $199/year for unlimited sites. Both plans include access to all Add Ons, but there are not a lot of these as the plugin comes with a ton of functionality built in.
General Set Up
MemberPress gives some control over what a user can do, and allows you to create custom redirects after log in and log out, as well l as the welcome message. I like that hiding the WP admin bar is an easy option built in to this plugin. The others require an additional/separate plugin to perform this task.
Pages in MemberPress can be auto-created like the other two plugins. However, there are only 3 pages in MemberPress, compared to several more account-related pages in the other two plugins.
The Account page contains links to other account-related content, such as subscriptions. A member can cancel their subscription using this link.
Managing members in MemberPress is not difficult. Not intuitively, there is no admin link called “Members.” To view a list of members, you need to find “Transactions” in the MemberPress admin area. This list includes the member name and can be filtered by membership level. There is also a column in the WordPress “Users” panel which shows the active membership level(s) for each user. To add or remove a user, you must edit or create a transaction.
Membership Level Set Up
Importantly, there is no auto option in MemberPress to add a Register/Join link automatically to the Global Login Page for unauthorized access of protected content on a per-membership level basis. So if a non-member tries to access your protected content, MP’s default page only includes a Log In link. It seems important, if registration is open, to have an option to add a link to join/purchase membership.
MemberPress manages protected content with RULES. This can be tedious and time consuming if you have a lot of pages/content to protect; however there is an option to protect child pages by protecting the parent, and to protect post categories. You can also edit the rule on each page or post once a rule has been set for it, so ultimately, I found this interface to be productive.
As mentioned above, a “join/register” link is not included by default in the unauthorized message. The only way to add this on a per-membership level is to go EACH protected page (this could be very time consuming – there is no global unauthorized message for each membership level) , find the link for Unauthorized Access, click the dropdown to change from Default to Custom, and manually add a link to the Membership page (which has to be found by first going to that page and copying the link). While this is not a difficult process for someone who knows how WordPress works, it would be a challenge for in inexperienced user.
Menu items are easy to set up in navigation once the pages are set. To link to the membership level/join page, you need to copy the url for this page, as it does not show up as a regular WordPress page.
There are many other popular WordPress membership plugins. While these 3 are the plugins I have chosen to review, I would like to try WooCommerce Memberships next for comparison. As a Woo Commerce user, I expect it will be easy to use.
Learn from other sites
One of the best ways to approach building a membership site is to pay attention to membership sites you belong to.
How was the process of joining and being welcomed? Was it easy to access the content you needed? Was the content what you expected?
What’s working well for you in that site? What makes it worth the monthly fee, if there is one — and how could you replicate this?
What doesn’t work for you?
It is important to set your goals and think through your process and needs before beginning to build a membership website. Test the site from all different angles to be sure any use will not have a frustrating experience, from registration to login and log out. It may take trial and error to learn what works best for your needs, but consider it an evolutionary process and keep digging!