Why Build a Membership Site?
Wondering if it's too late to build a membership site? The answer is no. It's never too late. And they're finally coming into their own – as more and more people have started building them in the last year (thanks COVID).
Of course there are many different platforms you could choose, but I prefer WordPress, and that means comparing WordPress membership plugins to see which is right for you.
Before we do that, let's look at why you should consider building a membership site today.
First, people have time to step into new communities more today than before. With so many people working from home, stuck inside for days and weeks at a time, this is the perfect time to step into a new community.
Second, people still want ways to learn things and if you have a way of making it easier than others, they're ready for it. There will never be a shortage of people who want to learn something, simply because they want to achieve something. And that goal drives them. So if you can help, be helpful.
Third, it's never been easier or more cost-effective to build one. As you'll see below, the tools that are available to you today are easier to use than ever before. That translates to membership sites being cheaper to build since you don't have to hire expensive developers to create what you want.
I've Reviewed a lot of Membership Plugins in the Past
Let's face it, I've been reviewing and comparing membership plugins for a long time. This is just the latest version, and you'll notice that the my criteria over the years have changed. That's why I want to go over my new feature criteria list below. Because reading some of these older posts won't hold the bar as high as it should be these days.
- The best membership plugin in 2014
- The best membership plugin in 2015 (30 plugins compared)
- The best membership plugin in 2016
- The best membership plugin for developers
- Don't forget to look at Wishlist Member
- Building a membership site in 2020
- When did you last look at Digital Access Pass?
What are the key features to consider when choosing a membership plugin?
- Protect posts / pages – If you’re going to sell access to content, then the first thing you have to make sure is that you can protect your content from non-paying customers. So folks building a membership site need to protect pages, posts, partial content (via a shortcode), and categories of content without having to touch each post individually.
- Collect payment – If you're choosing a membership plugin, you'll want to collect money, with support for at least PayPal and Stripe. But more important that payment gateways is how flexible you are with payment approaches, including one-time payments, subscription payments, and pro-rating when people change plans mid-month.
- Sell access to specific posts – One of the features I rarely see, and one everyone should look at in the world we now live in (with paid newsletters), is the ability to sell access to specific posts.
- Automate access (via dates, delays and accomplishments) – Automation is critical for folks building membership sites (and online learning). I'll be honest, the LMS folks have this down. But membership plugins don't always do this. Sure, they support drip via delays (3 days after sign-up). But customers need far more options – like opening up access at a certain fixed date, opening access after a milestone is reached, or simply after the last post is read.
- Integrate with marketing automation – The membership plugin you choose should support all the major players including MailChimp, ConvertKit, ActiveCampaign, SendInBlue, Ontraport, and all the others.
- Support teams and group-based access – Whether you call this umbrella accounts, child accounts, or team accounts, the point is the same. If you're building a membership site, your plugin should support teams. It creates more revenue streams for your site.
- Restrict historical content – This is one of the most requested features when I work with clients on their membership sites. They want customers to gain access to any content that is created after the sign-up date. Material created before that may be accessible, but often for an additional fee.
- Deliver content as both membership & courses – The challenge people experience when dealing with selling online content, is that developers force them into using a membership plugin or an LMS plugin. And each one presents content differently. The reality for folks selling content is that they don't think in this constrictive way. So your plugin should support both modalities.
- Create multiple payment plans for the same access – Internet marketers everywhere know that you can sell the same content (access) across three different plans – all up front, broken into x payments, or with recurring monthly payments. The fact that most membership plugins don't support this dynamic doesn't make a lot of sense. Again, it's a bit more work, but it's dramatically more powerful to close a customer when you can offer payment plans.
- Provide options for upsells / one-time offers – When you sign up for a coaching program online, for example, you'll often be offered an initial low-priced offering. Then, as you check out (or right after), you'll be given multiple offers to sign up for some extra program or get some extra resources. These are one-time offers (OTOs). And while you can do it with some other plugins (like Cartflows), it's better when your membership plugin supports it.
- Provide hooks for developers – Let's face it, even if you choose a membership plugin with all of these features, some customers will want to tweak how something works. And a developer will then go look for ways to customize your code.
Who are the Contenders?
The plugins I considered and reviewed this time were less than I did a few years ago when I looked at 30. This time it was 13 plugins, listed in alphabetical order. You'll notice two LMS plugins – LifterLMS and WP Courseware – who have both recently introduced support for memberships, much like MemberPress has added in support for courses.
- Digital Access Pass
- Paid Memberships Pro
- Paid Member Subscriptions
- Restrict Content Pro
- Ultimate Member
- Wishlist Member
- WooCommerce + Memberships & Subscriptions
- WP Courseware
- WP Members
The Top Five Membership Plugins
I have personally purchased and/or used each of the 13 solutions listed above. For each, I evaluated them on the criteria above. And for each, I had to decide whether the feature was complete enough, in its vision and incarnation, to consider it “complete.” If the feature was there, I marked it as so. If it wasn't, I left it blank on my chart. And if it kind of hit the mark, I marked it differently.
Again, I want to highlight that this is my criteria, my evaluation, and my judgement. You may come to a different conclusion and can detail it on your own blog (I've killed comments this time around as I write daily).
Let's get into the analysis.
Five membership plugins made the top of the list, along with one LMS plugin (which shouldn't surprise you). I'm going to cover them in alphabetical order and then I'll reveal the winner below.
AccessAlly – There is no question that AccessAlly is different than the rest. It talks about itself differently. It offers more and different features than most of the other solutions – including specific features on offers and payment plans. If you permit, I will quote myself from another article, “I can't speak highly enough about their product. It's more expensive that the rest, but if you're serious, it's a serious contender.”
Digital Access Pass (DAP) – I recently reviewed this membership plugin on my blog, so it shouldn't surprise you that it made the top cut. It's always my pleasure to place a spotlight on a solution that others may have missed. DAP has been around a long time, and in that time, they've never stopped delivering more and more features, in lots of different ways – so that I don't think there's anything you could ever want or ask about, that they can't accommodate.
MemberPress – Likely the most widely used membership plugin from this entire list. And for good reason. While they don't offer every single feature, the team behind it is focused on supporting you and your needs. And the plugin is easy to use. They have clearly seen the future and know it's a combination of membership and courseware.
Paid Memberships Pro – It always cracks me up that this free plugin has “paid” in the name. Without question this is the cheapest solution in the market with the most value attached. You can't find a stronger support for a membership plugin in the ecosystem – as they have tons of snippets available, extension, and more. And if they don't, and you ask, they're just as likely to write you up some code to solve your problem.
Restrict Content Pro – One of the first membership plugins to offer historical protection or teams support (by way of extensions). Like some of the other top five, it doesn't do everything under the sun, but it's a solid player with some extras that make it awesome and a great choice. Also, the code is sitting there waiting for developers to tweak, with its available hooks.
And then there was the LMS plugin.
Lifter LMS – Speaking of hooks for developers to use to customize their implementation, LifterLMS has more than any other courseware plugin, and more than most membership plugins. The fact that they slid sideways into supporting memberships is good news for customers everywhere. You'll see they scored really well below.
Comparing Membership Plugins – The Winner
Right away you're going to notice a few things. If you start in the middle of the list, and your requirements don't match mine, you can use just about any plugin and be happy. My bar is high on purpose, so you can make a decision if you need what I think you'll ultimately need.
Also, you will notice that Digital Access Pass, which I wrote about the other day does really well. They're feature rich and like I told you when I wrote about them, they offer white-glove setup and you should definitely choose that if you go with them.
You'll also notice that LifterLMS is pretty highly ranked. That shouldn't surprise you. They've been working hard to help anyone selling content (course, membership) succeed. It's not surprising to me that they did this well.
Also, you'll notice that a member directory wasn't on my list. That shows you that if that's what you need, and a key part of what you're after, even the lowest performer on this list, Ultimate Member, would be great for you. It's always about what you need.
And lastly, AccessAlly cleans up and wins the entire thing. But it's also priced higher than the rest (and it should be). If you're running a real online business, you shouldn't worry one bit about their price. They're fantastic!
Green dots mean the plugin does it. Grey means kind of. But to be clear, if you see green, it may be that it does it as part of an add-on or extension.
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