Membership Site vs Online Course: Which is right for you?

Building a Membership Site vs an Online Course –
which is the right option for you (and your customers)?

I'm often asked by people if they should build a membership site, or if they should focus on building an online course. A lot of times we get into the technology you need to create the right solution. But before we get into all of that, let's dig into the question of what's right for you (and for your customers).

The Benefits of Building a Membership Site

All memberships are different. So I'm going to share some broad observations that may or may not apply perfectly. But here are some of the immediate and clear benefits.

  • Lower Threshold to Launch: When you build a membership site, the one thing I know for sure is that you don't have to have all the content created before you launch.
  • Broader Appeal: Most membership sites focus on a type of person (persona) and that's often an easier to find target market than finding an audience that wants to learn a specific skill (for a course).
  • Recurring Revenue: Unlike courses, membership sites charge weekly, monthly, quarterly or annually. That often generates more revenue than when you charge a single price for an online course.

As you can see, if you build a membership site you'll likely be able to launch quickly and build an audience, all while adding more and more revenue to your business. I've covered a couple of the benefits, the membership guys go deeper.

The Benefits of Building an Online Course

After a start like that, you might wonder why you'd ever choose to build an online course instead of a membership site. Well, let's not get ahead of ourselves. There are a lot of good reasons to build an online course.

  • Faster Validation: If you publish a video on YouTube that gets good traction, it's easy to validate an audience's desire to learn what you have to teach. This helps you know whether you should create a course.
  • Focused Content: Unlike a membership site, you have to master a more focused amount of material to present it in a course. Membership sites need constant new content. Once you create your online course content, you can shift to other stuff (marketing).
  • Lower Bar for Success: A course that teaches someone a specific skill will either succeed or fail. But a membership site normally has to keep adding value, over and over: the goal posts for success keep moving.

Not a bad set of pros for an online course. If you want to go deeper, Podia covers the topic well. At this point, maybe you're thinking, wasn't he going to help me figure out which one was right for me? This isn't helping at all.

I get it. But there's more.

Here's a different take: Is it really an either/or question?

Before I push on this different approach to the question, let's take a look at a couple of companies that I've written about before. If you read that post, you know I was talking about the tools to build a membership site.

But I want to highlight two of the companies I covered in that post:

  • MemberPress: One of the best membership plugins in the WordPress space. Do you know what they just released? The ability to deliver lightweight courses directly from within MemberPress. No extra plugins.
  • AccessAlly: I've often told you that AccessAlly is a plugin you shouldn't skip past. And you know what they've offered from way back? Courses along with their ability to support membership sites.

And two more options that need more extensive writing. But they're also part of the trend.

What does it say to you that these solutions are supporting both? What if the question isn't membership site vs online course?

The right question may be, “Is a combination of the two the best answer for my customers?

Let me tell you about a recent project that I helped a friend with. You'll see that we didn't choose to build a membership site. We didn't set out to build an online course. Instead, we built a platform that supported both. And I'll tell you why.

Looking at a Business Coaching Example

Right after I wrote about the tools you might use to build a membership site, I had a friend reach out. She wanted to get off the platform that she'd been using for a while. Her requirements didn't specify an “either/or” kind of problem. Here's what she needed:

  1. A way for people to pay regularly (monthly / yearly) and get access to content that others couldn't get. (membership)
  2. A way for people to get a discount for coaching calls if they were part of the membership. (membership discounted product)
  3. A way for people to be presented with group call information for coaching events. (membership protected content)
  4. A way for people to purchase a course without having to be a member. (online course)
  5. A way for members to automatically be enrolled and have access to courses. (link between membership / course)
  6. A way for non-members to get credit when joining membership after buying a course. (course-based coupon)

Let me break this down so that my point isn't lost in these details.

My friend wasn't thinking about the problem using a membership or online course lens. She was looking at this problem from the perspective of a sort-of online gym. You pay monthly, but that gets you access to special events and training (sometimes free and sometimes for an additional fee).

If your customers are thinking about the problem space while you're thinking about the solution space, you're going to feel the cognitive dissonance.

What I see over and over in the WordPress space, is that we know what plugins can do, and we then use that paradigm to push customers into choosing – membership site vs online course. But customers who aren't experts in the software don't really care about our paradigms.

They simply want what they want. And more and more I'm seeing people want the combination. Not one or the other.

This is where the market is headed.

The good news is that you don't really have to worry about the debate: membership site vs online course. The membership solutions I highlighted above are supporting both. And LMS plugins like LifterLMS in the WordPress space are also doing the same.

So if you find yourself in the situation where your customers are looking to build a solution that supports both a membership site (with protected content) and an online course (with training material), here are the top four options (in alpha order).

Now, get out there and build something. And whatever you build, make sure you host it somewhere that understands how to host membership sites and online courses. I work at Nexcess, a Liquid Web company, where we custom built the hosting platform for these kinds of sites. Happy to hook you up.

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Chris Lema
Chris Lema has been working with WordPress since 2005. Over the years he's been a blogger, a speaker at WordCamps, a coach for WordPress product companies, and the founder of the conference for WordPress business owners, called CaboPress. Today he's the VP of Products at Liquid Web, where he manages the world's first managed platform for WooCommerce stores.