If you are wanting to create an online course or coaching program, you need a membership site. Yes, you can use something free like Facebook groups, but it just lacks professionalism.
It’s like using AOL for your business email address.
A popular paid option is using a learning platform like Teachable.
For someone just starting out, Teachable is probably the better way to go. It’s easy to get started and allows you to focus on what’s important — creating good content for your subscribers.
But as you soon learn, all of these online membership services lack functionality. They are a jack of all trades, but master of none.
For example, with Teachable it lacks the ability to send login info to third-party services. So you cannot email inactive subscribers. Inactive subscribers usually mean they are more likely to unsubscribe to your course. Which can lead to failed students who leave bad reviews. You want to head that off at the path and contact these individuals before they get to this point. Unfortunately, Teachable has no way to do this.
You are stuck within their ecosystem and limited to what you can do. If Teachable lacks functionality, you cannot do it.
This is where using WordPress for a membership site instead. WordPress out-of-the-box is an excellent content management system. It works great for creating blogs, but you can extend it to do much much more.
WordPress can be used as a full-blown membership system, but you need to add a few things first in order to do this.
Why Use WordPress for a Membership Site?
First, let’s talk about the why before the how. Why should you use WordPress for a membership site?
In my opinion, one of the key ways to differentiate your membership area is how you interact with your customers. Using WordPress allows so much more functionality that’s not available using any membership platform.
You want to use WordPress as a membership site for these reasons:
- Flexibility — You can use the thousands of existing WordPress plugins and themes to create pretty much any functionality you want.
- Control — You have better control over your customers and can better monitor their usage.
- Integration — You can link up your email list, affiliate system, and forum. All with one login.
- Better User Experience — Instead of redirecting to a site that doesn’t look like your main blog, using WordPress you can have your membership area look exactly like your public site.
Setting up WordPress as a membership site can be complex and be time-consuming. The rewards from this can be well worth the cost, time and effort. Though for those who need assistance, I offer WordPress consulting.
I’ve tested all of the popular plugins and services. In my literal weeks of testing and integration, I went through many steps to derive what works best together. In fact, this very setup listed here runs my membership area.
If you vary from my list of recommended plugins, do so at your own risk.
What’s Needed for a Membership Site?
Membership sites have some key functionality that is needed:
- Shopping Cart — Take orders and process credit cards.
- Membership Area — Password protect membership area from public access.
- Learning Management System — Create courses and break out into individual lessons.
- Affiliate Program — Support for an affiliate program (in my eyes a key point to growing your membership quickly)
- Customer Management — Add and remove customers with ease. Allow for changing user
- Email Notifications — Make sure emails sent out from WordPress get delivered.
- Auditing — Only allow paying members to access to private content and not prevent sharing of accounts.
- Video Hosting — Allow for hosting of video that doesn’t allow non-members access to watch videos without paying.
- Third-Party Integration — Extend membership area by using other services not built into a membership plugin.
Let’s discuss each functionality and what I recommend.
Shopping Cart – ThriveCart
ThriveCart can do so much and is the perfect tool for accepting online payments. Yes, MemberMouse and LearnDash both have shopping carts builtin, but their functionality is a toy when compared to what ThriveCart can do.
I get it, when I first started with my eBook at Investor Junkie I didn’t think I needed a shopping cart system. In fact, I rolled my own using Gravity Forms, but it broke… often. You want a system that reliability takes orders 24/7. Lost sales equal lost revenues.
So when creating my new personal brand, I knew I needed a good shopping cart system. The two main competitors were SamCart and ThriveCart. Both services are great for selling digital products. But in reviewing both services, I found ThriveCart just had much more functionality and overall worked better. ThriveCart is available at only a one-time fee to boot!
ThriveCart isn’t a WordPress plugin but a service. So the nice thing about ThriveCart is no credit card information is stored in your membership area, unlike say using MemberMouse for your credit card processing. When a new order comes in, it processes the other (either via Stripe or PayPal) and tells your membership system to create a new login. It effectively creates a firewall between your membership system and your customer order information. Which in my eyes is important.
I recommend you get ThriveCart Pro since has all of the features needed to create a professional shopping cart:
- A powerful affiliate center
- JV contract & revenue sharing
- Business projections
- Multi-user & client use permission
- Built-in sale tax calculation & reporting
- Built-in dunning & subscription saver functionality
- Custom domain name
Membership Area – MemberMouse
There are many WordPress membership plugins. Some are better than others.
For my setup I use MemberMouse only for creating users, and password protecting the membership area.
In some ways I prefer MemberPress instead but the key factor was because I picked ThriveCart as my shopping cart. MemberMouse integrates much better with ThriveCart than MemberPress.
MemberMouse sends your new customer a welcome email with a login username and password. MemberPress, on the other hand, will require sending out two emails: one for the account created and the second for a password reset. With MemberMouse, it’s a much more confusing process for your members.
Affiliate Program – ThriveCart
I’ve tested many other affiliate systems. Some that are WordPress Plugins and some that are services. I found that ThriveCart Pro has some features none of the other affiliate systems offer. It does offer conversion tracking for your affiliates which in my opinion is a plus, if you want them to be successful.
The other is automatic payments via PayPal makes paying your affiliates easy. You can enable and disable which affiliates get access. I found ThriveCart’s affiliate program much more robust then SamCart’s.
Lastly, ThriveCart allow your affiliates to offer bonuses. Which is a key part of selling digital products.
LMS – LearnDash
LearnDash takes your membership system with MemberMouse and makes it into a full-blown learning management system (LMS for short). Out of the box, MemberMouse is set up to protect your content, but doesn’t have the built functionality to really help with online training and courses.
This is where LearnDash shines. LearnDash has this functionality:
- Quizzes — Test your customer’s knowledge.
- Gradebook — Give out grades.
- Certificates and Badges — Give your members a source of pride and accomplishment but awarding certificates and badges.
- Course Points — Award points for completing courses and unlock new ones.
- Lesson Complete — Members can mark lessons completed
- Drip Content — You can either display all content or drip out on a weekly schedule.
Yes, LearnDash can also do the shopping cart like ThriveCart and protect the content like MemberMouse, but those WordPress plugins do it much better.
In my research, I found LearnDash was the best and easiest to use LMS.
Email Notifications – WP Mail SMTP
WP Mail SMTP is for one thing and one thing only — to make sure emails get delivered.
It solved the issues I was having with my membership emails. After signing up, MemberMouse would send the welcome email, which included their username and password. Unfortunately, it was going into the spam folder. This required technical support and frustrated the new customers.
WP Mail SMTP links up to your existing email provider (in my case I’m using Google’s G Suite) but works with these email services:
- Amazon SES
- Google Gmail and G Suite
- Office 365 and Outlook
- Any external SMTP service
From my testing, if you using the built-in Email option within WordPress, your emails will go into the spam folder. So this is a must-have plugin.
Auditing – WP Security Audit Log
Security is a critical issue with any membership site. You want to not only lock down your content but make sure only paid customers are accessing your information.
This is where WP Security Audit Log comes to the rescue. It is a WordPress plugin that allows you to track every aspect of your WordPress install. It allows you to audit everything — adding new plugins, changing of WordPress settings, updates, etc. Though in our case we are only using it to audit logins to our membership area.
For a membership site it has these features you’ll care about:
- Notifications to external sources like SMS, email and Slack channel.
- Prevent multiple logins for the same account.
- See who is logged into your membership area in realtime.
- Manually kick-off suspicious users.
- Automatic logoff after a specific inactive period.
Unlike a service like Teachable, you have no idea who’s accessing your products. You don’t know if one account is being used by multiple people. WP Security Audit Log allows you to audit your membership usage.
Video Hosting – Vimeo
Vimeo, in my opinion, is the best service to host your membership videos.
I’ve seen a few membership sites use YouTube. While a great way to build an audience publically, it is a horrible tool to use with your membership area. YouTube can make your videos private but does not protect the videos from being shared. Anyone who knows the URL for your video can share it with anyone.
You need a video service that protects your videos from being shared and so they can only be watched in your membership area.
Lastly but certainly not least, you need to integrate your WordPress membership site with the other services you use. Zapier is the leading service to integrate between two distinct services. No programming needed and allows you to pretty much integrate everything.. except WordPress. Until now.
Uncanny Automator allows you to do complex, if-then scenarios for your private area. You can do things such as:
- Send an email via ActiveCampaign when a member fails a quiz.
- Send an email when they complete the course.
- User logs in to site send out an email.
There’s much more I could go into detail about creating a membership area. This is a great summary of at least the plugins and services I recommend to get started.
Here’s a summary of the WordPress plugins to create a membership site: