Given the powerful new membership features available in Thrive Apprentice, we felt it was time to explore and share what it really takes to build a profitable membership site on WordPress.
We get it – you want guides, case studies, tips and tricks, and how-to videos on how to create a successful membership site!
All this will come soon as we explore the new and improved Thrive Apprentice.
But to kick off this membership mania today, let’s look at the basics of what a membership site is, how the business model works, and whether it’s a good fit for your online business.
Why You Need to Know About Building Membership Sites in WordPress
If there’s one online business model that sounds complicated and scary to set up, it’s probably a full-on membership site.
The idea that hundreds – maybe thousands! – of paying customers can regularly log in to their own profile on your website and access exclusive content and courses sounds like something only the biggest brands can afford to offer.
That’s what they want you to think!
Thanks to the power of WordPress, and some amazing membership plugins, you can create a fully featured membership site in just a weekend, with minimal startup costs.
But what do you need to know first? And how can you be sure it’s the right business model for your audience?
Let’s find out...
What is a Membership Site?
A membership site allows users to log in to access exclusive content.
Access can be given for free, or sold as a membership subscription. You can even combine the two to encourage people to first join as a ‘free member’ before upselling them to a premium subscription.
The word ‘access’ is important here... unlike an eBook or video course, you’re not selling a specific piece of content. A membership business model sells access to a member’s area, which can contain any number of helpful resources that help customers achieve a specific result.
Think of it like a gym. It contains running machines, weights, yoga mats, maybe even a sauna or massage service. But the product itself isn’t any of these features, it’s access to the gym and all it contains... even if that changes in future.
The analogy of a gym continues to work well with membership sites, as many gyms offer different packages. Maybe a basic subscription that only includes the weights room, an intermediate subscription that includes all the machines, and a VIP package that gives access to everything. Membership sites can do the same by offering membership tiers that protect different collections of content and courses.
How is a membership site different to an online course?
An online course is just one of many types of learning resources that can be included in a membership site to help people achieve a defined result or goal.
While an online course follows a linear structure, leading people from the first to the last lesson, a membership site can allow people to pick and choose which content is most relevant to them.
What about websites that only offer access to paid online courses? Are they membership sites?
Technically yes, realistically no.
If your customer only purchased access to a single course, then it’s a disingenuous stretch to think of your business as a membership site just because they need to log in to access it.
But what if you offer a collection of online courses?
Are they buying just those courses, or access to the potential of more courses?
We’d argue that to be seen as a membership site, you should consider offering other experiences beyond just courses... exclusive blog posts, guides, resources, exclusive videos, printables, maybe even access to a community.
Another clear difference is that membership sites usually charge a recurring subscription for access, while online courses usually charge a one-off payment.
If you want to learn more, you can check out our video post about membership sites vs. online courses, or just watch the video below.
Does a membership site need new content added regularly?
A successful membership site doesn’t need additional content added over time – but it's certainly expected by customers in many industries. It depends on the expectations of your audience, and the scale of problem you’re trying to help them with.
Let’s look at 2 examples...
A language learning membership package aimed at beginner-level French speakers might already provide everything that students need with a few courses, some reference PDFs, a few basic videos to study, and some quizzes to assess performance.
Adding more and more content is likely to overwhelm new French learners when their focus should be on completing the content already on offer.
A piano or guitar teaching membership site has endless scope to improve the volume and variety of learning materials that subscribers would find valuable.
New songs, lessons by guest teachers, downloadable sheet music, play-along tracks... all of which can be used to justify an increase in price later.
Regularly added content can also increase the perceived value of your product, where you want to encourage recurring revenue from ongoing subscription renewals.
The Benefits of Adding a Membership Site to Your Business
Start small and grow gradually
Unlike a defined digital product or online course, a membership site allows you to add and upgrade content at any time to increase the perceived (and actual!) value for customers.
In fact, many successful membership sites started off by offering a much smaller library of content than they do now.
The membership model allows you to increase the value of your membership content gradually over time, along with a higher price and more satisfied customers.
Encourage recurring revenue or higher one-time payments
The membership subscription payment model lets you charge either a recurring monthly fee, or a single larger payment for annual access to your protected content.
You can even offer both payment plans to fit everyone’s financial situation.
(Of course, you’re free to set other intervals, but monthly and annual are by far the most widely understood by typical customers.)
Recurring monthly revenue gives your business a more predictable cash flow. It also quickly highlights the sales peaks and valleys associated with seasonality and your marketing efforts.
Larger one-off payments are great too, because who doesn’t like more money?
Sell the same content to multiple people
Write some amazing content once, and sell it forever!
We’ve always advocated this approach with digital products like online courses and eBooks... and the exact same benefit applies to membership sites.
Once you’ve completed a piece of valuable content – whether that’s a video, an audio interview, an ultimate guide, a training course, or a new downloadable resource – you can add it to your membership package and it will continue to always bring additional value to your customers and your revenue.
No stocking or shipping required
We all know that selling digital products are MUCH more profitable than physical products.
There’s no repeated manufacturing or wholesale buying, no warehouse stock, no packaging, no shipping, and no dead-on-arrivals. All of this means less costs and more profit.
Customers can instantly access exactly what they’ve paid for.
Deep insight into your audience
Most online business models completely lose track of customers once they’ve purchased the product. Even with online courses, the most onpage insight you can hope to glean is logins, lesson completion, and hopefully student feedback if your support model allows.
Membership sites are very different. They are a customer insight goldmine!
They focus on the entire customer experience:
- How often do members access your content?
- What content is your most popular?
- What content is almost never accessed?
- Do your members download your resources, worksheets, printables and other files?
- Do your members complete any courses included in their membership?
- How many months does the average member continue to subscribe?
- What feedback do you get when emailing your members?
Why are these insights beneficial to your business?
Deep audience insights can provide ideas for new products, higher priced membership tiers, premium live workshops, and sponsorship or affiliate opportunities.
Put it this way, retail businesses pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to access this level of customer insight... and you can do it all with WordPress, Thrive Apprentice, and Google Analytics.
Build your authority within your industry
Remember when every credible industry expert was expected to publish a book?
In the digital world, brands can instantly increase their perceived industry authority by offering online courses or membership content. They can even offer both.
So if your aim is to establish yourself as an industry expert or authority, you’ll find a lot of value in offering a membership subscription to your audience... providing, of course, that you can back it up with valuable content inside.
Promote other offers and opportunities to your members
Your members are more than just transient, one-time customers. They stick around in your membership ecosystem and, if you’ve done your job well by guiding them to achieve results, they have learned to trust your recommendations.
This gives you a fantastic opportunity to respectfully market new and complementary offers to your existing members.
You can do this with:
- Additional products and events that are not included in their current membership plan
- Premium services like consulting and coaching
- Affiliation products that reward you with a commission on successful sale referrals
- Sponsorships that give other brands the chance to speak directly to your audience
What Features Do You Need in a Membership Site Platform?
There are a lot of plugins that promise to transform your WordPress website into a functioning membership experience, but not all of them include everything that you need to build a sustainable and reliable online business.
Forget about the fancy bells and whistles for a moment. Here’s the absolutely essential features that you need from a membership solution...
Reliable content protection
At the very core of any membership business is the ability to set rock solid rules on who can access your premium content.
After all, if anyone can access your content, you don’t really have a sellable membership site.
Be careful however, as some pseudo “membership” plugins might simply visually hide protected content, leaving savvy visitors and search engines free to access it without paying if they know where to look.
Reliable membership content plugins tie in access to specific WordPress roles, so there’s no way to spoof access and devalue your product.
Control over what members and non-members see
Good membership sites treat members like royalty, and non-members like potential members... that means giving both groups an amazing experience at the same time.
But what do non-members see when they try to access protected content?
Seriously, how welcoming and inviting is the following stock message?
“You don’t have permission to access this content”
Not very! It immediately alienates non-members and does nothing to encourage them to subscribe. Talk about killing your conversion rate!
Great membership site plugins let you display the perfect message to the right people...
- Logged in users
- Logged out visitors
- Customers of one product or course trying to access another
Based on this, the very best membership sites can even show custom content, or redirect visitors to sales pages, login pages, or anywhere else that they would find valuable.
The freedom to protect any type of content
Great membership sites contain a range of different content types to help their members achieve a specific result.
That could be:
- Online courses
- Blog posts
- Ultimate guides
- Category archives and tagged content
- eBook chapters
- Image galleries
- Audio files like samples and interviews
The list is endless and only you know what your audience will find valuable, but the key is that your membership site plugin needs to be able to protect and deliver any content type or format.
We consider this an essential feature of any membership site in 2022.
Valuable and exclusive content
A membership site is really only a protective wrapper around valuable content... it’s the content itself that your customers are paying for.
Your membership content must provide value and meet the expectations that you set on your sales page, otherwise you can expect unhappy customers and refund requests.
Your content must also be exclusive. If your members can easily find the same content for free elsewhere, either on your website or on a competitor’s, they have no reason to pay you for access.
Payment gateway integrations
The last thing you want to do is manually set up new members in WordPress when they purchase a subscription. It’s a terrible customer experience and doesn’t scale when your membership site grows to multiple sales a day.
Instead, most membership sites use an integration with a 3rd party payment gateway or checkout service to automatically configure new users after receiving payment.
Native integrations are always best (where your membership plugin talks directly to your payment gateway), but it’s possible to use a service like Zapier to link up less common payment services too.
Want to offer a standard monthly subscription AND a premium all-access subscription with added bonuses?
How about adding a valuable video course to your membership package for customers who can pay more?
You need membership tiers.
Membership tiers allow you to offer variations on price and content to fit all budgets and goals... without needlessly duplicating your content.
Here's a great example of a pricing table for different membership tiers offered by Process Masterclass.
We consider membership tiers an essential feature for any membership site solution, as it allows you to test different pricing and bundles to grow your business and better serve your audience.
How to Build Your Membership Site in WordPress
Creating a profitable membership site used to be so far out of reach for solopreneurs and small teams. It required expensive enterprise or custom technology just to get started.
Thankfully, over the last few years, WordPress has turned this on its head.
Now anyone can build a membership site and sell access to protected content with nothing more than a few tools:
- A membership plugin
- A payment gateway
- Some valuable content that your visitors will pay for
There’s nothing stopping you from getting started building your membership site on WordPress today.
Decide on your membership model
Assuming you’ve already created your WordPress website and added some valuable free content, it’s time to decide on which membership model might work for your topic, audience and business.
If you’re a Yoga instructor, it might make sense to offer a simple monthly subscription to your live video classes.
If you’re a public speaking expert, it might make sense to offer access to live group workshops, vocal training, and a consultation or coaching session.
Every business is different, but you have to start somewhere, so don’t get too wrapped up in creating the perfect membership experience on your first attempt. A great membership site will change and evolve based on user feedback.
If you’re not sure, just go with a simple recurring monthly or annual subscription.
Create members-only content
It’s time to start writing or recording exclusive content to sell to your members.
But where should you begin?
The answer is to create content that is fast to produce and meets the needs of your audience. If you’re a skilled writer, this might be guides, premium blog posts and other written content. If you’re comfortable on camera, it might be a better idea to shoot a basic video course using your smartphone and a good microphone.
Remember that big list of content types? Let’s see that again...
- Online courses
- Blog posts
- Ultimate guides
- Category archives and tagged content
- eBook chapters
- Image galleries
- Audio files like samples and interviews
Ask yourself: “What type and format of content can I create quickly to get my membership site up and running?”
Don’t try to build too much at first... Remember you can always add more content later to create a truly impressive membership experience for your customers.
Choose a membership plugin
Now it’s time to protect your great content with a fully featured membership plugin, so you can sell and control access.
Don’t think too hard about this – there are only a few credible options if you want to build a reliable, scalable and successful membership site on WordPress.
- WishList Member
- Thrive Apprentice (supporting both online course and membership site building!)
Sure, there are other WordPress membership plugins, but these are the big ones that offer the features and support your business needs.
Of course, we’re a little biased towards our own Thrive Apprentice plugin. It’s an amazing tool that we use to grow our own successful business and website.
Choose your payment gateway
If you want to make money selling access to your membership site, you’ll need a way to accept card payments and pass new customer information along to your website.
To do this, you’ll need a payment gateway or checkout service.
Again, there’s only a few worth considering, depending on the membership plugin you chose...
All of these services allow customers to pay with their card, so you don’t have to deal with the messy world of financial compliance, fraud protection, or security.
Thrive Apprentice natively integrates with ThriveCart and SendOwl, but it also integrates with another popular option: WooCommerce. Now technically WooCommerce isn’t a payment gateway, but it does allow you to accept card payments through Stripe or PayPal, without having to pay additional fees or subscriptions to a 3rd party service.
Our advice if you’re just starting out with your first membership site?
Sign up for ThriveCart and let them handle all the heavy lifting.
Make your first sales
And you’re all set!
All that remains now is to encourage your audience to become paying subscribers.
Here’s some ideas...
- Create a compelling sales page to communicate the benefits of membership
- Provide a tour of your members-only content in your blog posts and videos
- Spread the word on your social media channels and encourage your followers to share
- Offer an introductory discount or bonus to get your first subscribers in return for their honest feedback on how you can improve
Remember that the key to building a successful membership site, like most digital products, is to start small and constantly improve using real customer feedback. Your first subscribers will have valuable advice to share on what works, what doesn’t, and how you can grow your business in the future.
It’s Time to Start YOUR Membership Site
You should now have a clearer idea of what a membership site is, how it works, and whether it’s a good fit for your online business and audience.
Over the coming weeks, we’ll be adding tons of new content, videos and guides to help you build your membership site into a profitable business with Thrive Apprentice.
We’re excited to see how your business develops this year with these new features!